European Universities Emerge

The emergence of European universities provided a systematic organization for teaching and made possible the exponential growth and transmission of knowledge across Western civilization.

Summary of Event

The rise of the universities from the abbey and cathedral schools is one of the great achievements of the Middle Ages, making possible the steady increase in education of large numbers of people and the explosion of knowledge on which the modern world is based. [kw]European Universities Emerge (1100-1300)
[kw]Universities Emerge, European (1100-1300)
Europe (general);1100-1300: European Universities Emerge[1770]
Cultural and intellectual history;1100-1300: European Universities Emerge[1770]
Education;1100-1300: European Universities Emerge[1770]
Organizations and institutions;1100-1300: European Universities Emerge[1770]
Religion;1100-1300: European Universities Emerge[1770]
Abelard, Peter
Thomas Aquinas

The history of their rise is a complex subject covering the whole of Europe. Some of that history is unreliable, as the early universities attempted to establish a tradition for themselves by claiming to have been founded by famous individuals, such as King Arthur, Charlemagne, or the survivors of Troy. In actuality, the universities arose slowly over time, seldom established by but rather recognized by the pope or a ruler after having reached an established level of growth.

In the Middle Ages, the word universitas, or university, had no specific connection with the world of learning. It did not refer to the universe or universality of learning, but rather meant simply an association or group. The term could refer to a guild or group of barbers, carpenters, or students, denoting only that its members were engaged in a common enterprise.

In the early Middle Ages, education was concerned chiefly with the preservation of minimal standards of clerical literacy. Education took place in schools organized in the parishes, abbeys, and cathedrals, and its subjects were the seven liberal arts. These seven were traditionally divided into two categories: the trivium, consisting of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the quadrivium, consisting of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. In the literature of the Greco-Roman world, sometimes two other liberal arts are mentioned—medicine and architecture—but these two appear already to have started becoming professionalized. In the early Middle Ages, the trivium was emphasized, especially grammar, because the ability to read sacred texts and commentaries was the chief need. The only quadrivium subject to receive much attention was arithmetic, since it was needed in calculating the date of Easter. The Greek ideal, seconded by Cicero, of the importance of rhetoric and of the other quadrivium subjects to educate a person to become a capable citizen, able to engage fully in public life, received scant attention in a society that lacked the same public outlets for participation. Thus, education until about 1100 was primarily concerned with ecclesiastical and administrative needs and chiefly centered on the transmission of the accumulated knowledge of the past.

The change that became known as the Twelfth Century Renaissance was led by logic, of all subjects, and its most famous early embodiment was Peter Abelard, Abelard, Peter known as “the first academic.” A part of Aristotle’s writings on logic, preserved by Boethius, had long been known, but Abelard put this “old logic” to work in a new way, testing Scripture and commentaries of the Church Fathers by reason rather than faith. Abelard is remembered for his bitter dispute with Saint Bernard of Clairvaux Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint over this point, and perhaps even more so for his amorous misadventure with Heloïse, but he was a brilliant teacher, flamboyant and arrogant, who attracted many students to the cathedral school at Paris.

During the twelfth century, the cathedral school at Notre Dame Notre Dame, cathedral school at had gathered a number of teaching masters, a large urban student population, and the support of the French monarchy. The school had a continent-wide reputation in the study of logic applied to theology and had developed the institutional framework of the cathedral school. These factors led to its establishment as a permanent center for learning. The development of the school at Notre Dame is an example of one pattern by which the university developed. The Paris model is one of organization by the scholars, or masters, who eventually received a charter from King Philip II (r. 1179-1223) in 1200 and obtained recognition from Pope Innocent III Innocent III (1198-1216) in 1208 that gave the corporate body or university of masters certain rights of independence against the municipal authorities.

Another pattern of organization is exemplified by the school of law at Bologna, perhaps the earliest “university,” which received formal recognition from Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa Frederick I Barbarossa in 1158. At Bologna, it was students who received the charter after they had organized into an association or university for economic protection against the town and eventually for power in choosing their instructors. As at Paris, however, it was a great teacher, Irnerius Irnerius (also known as Guarnerius), known as “the father of scientific jurisprudence,” who gave the school its initial reputation and impetus. Farther south at Salerno was an even older center of learning whose reputation in the study of medicine was equal to the reputations of Paris in theology and Bologna in law. Despite this reputation, the proto-university at Salerno remained only a center for medicine and never developed the institutional framework to capitalize on its expertise and reputation.

Salerno’s early advantage was its location, which placed it in close contact with the Greek East. The great influx of new knowledge from the East served as the primary impetus for the rise of the new learning and of the university organizations that took advantage of this learning. Although much of this knowledge came to Europe from the Greek East by way of Italy, the most important works came chiefly from libraries in the Muslim world through the Arab scholars of Spain. Europe was awash in newly discovered works, chiefly those of Aristotle, with commentaries by Greek, Roman, Arabic, and Jewish scholars. Also included were works of Euclid, Ptolemy, Galen, and Hippocrates, with the new arithmetic expressed in al-Khwārizmī’ Khwārizmī, al- book on algebra, Kitāb al-jabr wa al-muqābalah
Kitāb al-jabr wa al-muqābalah (al-Khwārizmī)[Kitab al jabr wa al muqabalah (al Khwarizmi)] (c. 820), which used Arab numerals (including the concept of zero) rather than clumsy Roman numerals. In addition, the Corpus juris civilis (early sixth century; body of civil law) Corpus juris civilis of Byzantine emperor Justinian I Justinian I (r. 527-565) helped lead the study of law.

During the thirteenth century, the university system expanded rapidly. In England, masters associations were formed at Oxford in 1214 and at Cambridge in the 1230’. At Montpellier in the south of France, a faculty of medicine assembled in 1220. Universities arose in France at Orléans and Toulouse that rivaled Paris in the study of law and the study of theology, respectively. For the universities that arose after 1300, the archetypal universities of Paris and Bologna served as the organizing models. In general, the pattern of the student university (Bologna) was followed in southern Europe, and the masters university (Paris) prevailed in northern Europe, with the German universities strongly affected by both models.

Allegorical depiction of the degrees of university instruction, from entry-level ABC’s to theology, with Peter Lombard at the top of the tower of learning. From a wood engraving in the 1508 edition of Margartia Philosophica.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Perhaps the greatest scholar of the period was Thomas Aquinas Thomas Aquinas ; his career reveals much about the new universities. Born near Naples in about 1224, he became a member of the Dominican order in 1244 and was sent to Paris, where he studied under Albertus Magnus. Aquinas studied biblical exegesis and Peter Lombard’ Lombard, Peter
Sententiarum libri IV (1148-1151; The Books of Opinions of Peter Lombard, 1970; better known as Sentences). Sentences (Lombard) , and was given a teaching post in theology in 1257. He taught in Paris and Rome and began to write extensively, eventually producing Summa theologiae (c. 1265-1273; Summa Theologica
Summa Theologica (Thomas Aquinas) , 1911-1921) as well as commentaries on all of Aristotle’s works. In Aquinas’s lifetime, the universities were transnational and attracted students by the fame of their teachers. Most were still connected with religious life and religious orders and emphasized a long program of study—usually four to eight years. Such programs led to a teaching apprenticeship, thus supplying much of the teaching labor force of a university, before one was licensed to enter the guild of masters. On entering this guild, a new master became entitled to the full privileges of his degree, which for practical purposes in theology—the highest of pursuits—meant the freedom to teach and write. Even in these early days, one of the disappointments expressed by faculty members was the preference of students for more lucrative and worldly degrees, such as law and medicine.


This facsimile of a wood engraving from an edition of Cicero’s De Officiis (Paris National Library), shows a university receiving a new doctor (professor).

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The apparatus that made the universities different from the cathedral schools and from earlier Greek and Roman education are familiar to the modern university—the power to grant degrees, a regulated curriculum, an organized faculty with a rector, the lecture, examinations, and commencements. It is this organizational achievement that constitutes the heart of the medieval invention of the university.

Further Reading

  • Cobban, A. B. The Medieval Universities: Their Development and Organization. London: Methuen, 1975. Scholarly, readable account, with emphasis on developments at Salerno, Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge.
  • Haskins, Charles Homer. The Rise of Universities. 2d ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2002. A short introduction for the general reader, covering the earliest universities, the medieval professor, and the medieval student.
  • Mundy, John H. Europe in the High Middle Ages, 1150-1309. London: Longman, 1973. A general history of the years in which the universities arose, placing that movement in larger political, economic, and social contexts.
  • Pedersen, Olaf. The First Universities: Studium Generale and the Origins of University Education in Europe. Translated by Richard North. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A survey of the history of European higher learning from its beginnings in antiquity through the end of the Middle Ages. Attributes the transformation of early medieval schools into universities in large part to the European discovery of Islamic scholarship.
  • Piltz, Anders. The World of Medieval Learning. London: Basil Blackwell, 1981. A survey for the general reader, with special attention to the life and academic career of Thomas Aquinas.
  • Rashdall, H. The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages. New ed. Edited by F. M. Powicke, and A. B. Emden. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. First published in 1895, this monumental three-volume work provides an excellent foundation for further study of the medieval university.
  • Van Deusen, Nancy, ed. The Intellectual Climate of the Early University: Essays in Honor of Otto Gründler. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University, 1997. An anthology examining the scholarly activity within the first universities. Includes essays on mathematics, physics, music, philosophy, and religion.