It must be frustrating to be a historian of medieval Europe. No matter how many books you write, lectures you deliver, or students you influence, everyone still thinks the Middle Ages were a period of darkness and stagnation. The substantial output of medieval scholarship that was produced in the twentieth century should have put this inane caricature to rest once and for all, but here we have another case of specialized knowledge that hasn’t managed to trickle down to the general public.
It was, after all, in the High Middle Ages that the university came into existence. The university, which developed and matured at the height of Catholic Europe, was a new phenomenon in European history. Nothing like it had existed in ancient Greece or Rome. The institution that we recognize today, with its faculties, courses of study, examinations, and degrees, as well as the familiar distinction between undergraduate and graduate study, comes to us directly from the medieval world. And it is no surprise that the Church should have done so much to foster the nascent university system since, according to historian Lowrie Daly, it was "the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge."
The precise origins of the very first universities are lost in obscurity, though the picture becomes ever clearer as we move into the thirteenth century. We cannot give exact dates for the appearance of universities at Paris and Bologna, Oxford and Cambridge, since they evolved over a period of time — the former beginning as cathedral schools, and the latter as informal gatherings of masters and students. But we may safely say that the process occurred during the latter half of the twelfth century.
In order to identify a particular medieval school as a university, we look for certain characteristic features. For one thing, a university possessed a core of required texts, on which professors would lecture and to which they would add their own insights. A university was also characterized by well-defined academic programs lasting a more or less fixed number of years, as well as by the granting of degrees. The granting of a degree, since it entitled the recipient to be called master, amounted to admitting new people to the teaching guild. Although the universities often struggled with outside authorities for self-government, they generally attained it. They also desired and received legal recognition as a corporation.
The papacy played a central if not exclusive role in the establishment and encouragement of the universities. Naturally, the granting of a charter to a university was one indication of this papal role. Some 81 universities had been established by the time of the Reformation. Of these 33 possessed a papal charter, 15 a royal or imperial one, 20 possessed both, and 13 had none. In addition, it was the accepted view that a university could not award degrees without the approbation of pope, king, or emperor. Pope Innocent IV officially granted this privilege to Oxford University, for example, in 1254. The pope (in fact) and the emperor (in theory) possessed authority over all of Christendom, and for this reason it was to them that a university typically had to turn for the right to issue degrees. Equipped with the approval of one or the other of these universal figures, the university’s degrees would be respected throughout all of Christendom. Degrees awarded only by the approval of national monarchs, on the other hand, were considered valid only in the kingdom in which they were issued.
In certain cases, including in particular the universities at Bologna, Oxford, and Paris, the master’s degree entitled the bearer to teach anywhere in the world (ius ubique docendi). It was in Pope Gregory IX’s document pertaining to the University of Toulouse in 1233 where we first see the formula, and this document became a model for the future. The idea was that such scholars could freely join other faculties in western Europe, though in practice each institution preferred to examine the candidate itself before admitting him. Still, this privilege, conferred by the popes, doubtless played a significant role in encouraging the dissemination of knowledge and fostering the idea of an international scholarly community.
The papal role was not confined to these matters, but extended to a great many others as well. A glance at the history of the medieval university reveals that conflicts between the university and the people or government of the area were not uncommon. Local townsmen were frequently ambivalent in their posture toward university students: on the one hand, the existence of the university was a boon for local merchants and for economic activity in general since the students brought money to spend, but on the other, university students then as now could be irresponsible and unruly. As a modern commentator puts it, inhabitants of medieval university towns loved the money but hated the students. As a result, students and their professors were often heard to complain about the treatment they received.
In this atmosphere, the Church provided special protection to university students by offering them what was known as benefit of clergy. Clergymen in medieval Europe enjoyed a special legal status in that, first, it was an extraordinarily serious crime to lay a hand on them, and second, they had the right to have their cases heard in an ecclesiastical rather than a secular court. University students, as actual or potential clerical candidates, would also enjoy these privileges. Secular rulers often extended similar protections — as when, in 1200, Philip Augustus of France granted and confirmed such privileges to students of the University of Paris, permitting them to have their cases heard in what would certainly be a more sympathetic court than that of the local town.
The popes intervened on behalf of the university on numerous occasions, as when Pope Honorius III (1216—27) sided with the scholars at Bologna in 1220 against infringements on their liberties. When the chancellor of Paris insisted on an oath of loyalty to himself personally, Pope Innocent III (1198—1216) intervened. Later, when the Bishop of Paris and the chancellor of the university continued to encroach upon the institutional autonomy of the institution, it was the Pope, Gregory IX, who in 1231 issued the bull Parens Scientiarum on behalf of the masters of Paris. In this document the Pope effectively granted the University of Paris the right to self-government, whereby it could make its own rules pertaining to courses and studies. The Pope also granted the university a separate papal jurisdiction, thus emancipating the institution from the interference of what had been an overbearing diocesan authority. "With this document," writes one scholar, "the university comes of age and appears in legal history as a fully formed intellectual corporation for the advancement and training of scholars." The papacy, writes another, "has to be considered a major force in shaping the autonomy of the Paris guild [i.e., the organized body of scholars at Paris]."
In that same document, the Pope also granted a privilege known as cessatio — the right of the university to suspend its lectures and to go on a general strike. Just cause included such grounds as "refusal of the right to fix ceiling prices for lodgings, an injury or mutilation of a student for which suitable satisfaction had not been given within fifteen days, [or] the unlawful imprisonment of a student." By supporting the universities in their right to suspend lectures and stating reasons that would constitute adequate justification for so doing, the Pope made an important contribution to the cultivation of the kind of peaceful and settled environment that conduces to scholarship and learning.
It became common for universities to bring their grievances to the Pope in Rome. On several occasions, the pope even intervened to force university authorities to pay professors their salaries; Popes Boniface VIII, Clement V, Clement VI, and Gregory IX all had to take such measures. Little wonder, then, that one historian has declared that the universities’ "most consistent and greatest protector was the Pope of Rome. He it was who granted, increased, and protected their privileged status in a world of often conflicting jurisdictions."
At these great institutions students studied not only many of the standard liberal arts disciplines but also civil and canon law, natural philosophy, medicine, and theology. As the universities took shape in the twelfth century they were the happy beneficiaries of the fruits of what some scholars have called the renaissance of the twelfth century. Massive translation work brought forth many of the great works of the ancient world that had been lost to Western scholarship for too many centuries, including the geometry of Euclid, the logic, metaphysics, natural philosophy, and ethics of Aristotle, and the medical work of Galen. Legal studies began to flourish as well, particularly at Bologna, when the Digest, the key component of the sixth-century Emperor Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis (a compendium of Roman law, much admired from its origins to the present day), was rediscovered.
The distinction between undergraduate and graduate education was made in the early universities more or less as it is today. And as today, some places were especially known for academic distinction in particular subject areas — Bologna thus became renowned for the graduate study of law, as did Paris in theology and the arts.
The undergraduate, or artist (that is, a student of the liberal arts), attended lectures, took part in occasional disputations in class, and attended the formal disputations of others. His professors — or masters, as they were known — typically lectured on an important text, often drawn from classical antiquity. There was heavy emphasis on Aristotle. Alongside their commentaries on these ancient texts, professors gradually began to include a series of questions to be resolved through logical argument. Over time, the questions essentially displaced the commentaries. Here was the origin of the question method of scholastic argument, of the kind found in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae.
Such questions were also posed in what was known as the ordinary disputation. The master would assign students to argue one or the other side of a question. When their interaction had ceased, it was then up to the master to "determine," or resolve, the question. To obtain the Bachelor of Arts degree, a student was expected to determine a question by himself to the satisfaction of the faculty. (Before being permitted to do so, however, he had to prove that he possessed adequate preparation and was fit to be evaluated.) This kind of emphasis on careful argument, on marshaling a persuasive case for each side of a question, and on resolving a dispute by means of rational tools sounds something like the opposite of the intellectual life that most people associate with medieval man. But that was how the degree-granting process operated. (I myself have taken mischievous delight at imagining poor Messrs. Knight and Lomas trying to defend their anti-Catholic nonsense before an audience of true scholars.)
Once the student had determined, therefore, he was awarded the Bachelor of Arts degree. The process would typically take four to five years. At that point, the student could simply declare his education completed, as most bachelors of arts do today, and look for remunerative work (even as a teacher, perhaps in some of the lesser schools of Europe) or decide to continue his studies and pursue a graduate degree. The so-called master’s degree, to which satisfactory completion of his graduate study entitled him, would render him qualified to teach within the university system.
In order to begin further studies on the road to becoming a qualified teacher, or simply to pursuing desirable posts in civil or ecclesiastical service, the prospective master had to demonstrate competence within the canon of important works of Western civilization. This was before he petitioned for his license to teach, or licentiate, which was awarded between the bachelor’s and master’s degrees. We get some idea of the advanced student’s background from a modern historian’s overview of texts with which that student was expected to be familiar:
After his bachelorship, and before he petitioned for his license to teach, the student must have "heard at Paris or in another university" the following Aristotelian works: Physics, On Generation and Corruption, On the Heavens, and the Parva Naturalia; namely, the treatises of Aristotle On Sense and Sensation, On Waking and Sleeping, On Memory and Remembering, On the Length and Shortness of Life. He must also have heard (or have plans to hear) On the Metaphysics, and have attended lectures on the mathematical books. [Historian Hastings] Rashdall, when speaking of the Oxford curriculum, gives the following list of works, to be read by the bachelor between the period of his determination and his inception (mastership): books on the liberal arts: in grammar, Priscian; in rhetoric, Aristotle’s Rhetoric (three terms), or the Topics of Boethius (bk. iv.), or Cicero’s Nova Rhetorica or Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Poetria Virgilii; in logic, Aristotle’s De Interpretatione (three terms) or Boethius’ Topics (bks. 1—3) or the Prior Analytics or Topics (Aristotle); in arithmetic and in music, Boethius; in geometry, Euclid, Alhacen, or Vitellio, Perspectiva; in astronomy, Theorica Planetarum (two terms), or Ptolemy, Almagesta. In natural philosophy the additional works are: the Physics or On the Heavens (three terms) or On the Properties of the Elements or the Meteorics or On Vegetables and Plants or On the Soul or On Animals or any of the Parva naturalia; in moral philosophy, the Ethics or Economics or Politics of Aristotle for three terms, and in metaphysics, the Metaphysics for two terms or for three terms if the candidate had not determined.
The process for acquiring the licentiate generally consisted of another demonstration of knowledge and a commitment to certain principles of university life. Once this process was complete, the license was officially awarded. At Ste. Geneviève, the person to be licensed knelt in front of the vice-chancellor, who said:
I, by the authority vested in me by the apostles Peter and Paul, give you the license for lecturing, reading, disputing, and determining and for exercising other scholastic and magisterial acts both in the faculty of arts at Paris and elsewhere, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.
The precise length of time that typically passed between reception of the licentiate and reception of the master’s degree (which apparently required knowledge of a wider array of books) is difficult to determine, but one reasonable estimate is that it ranged between six months and three years. One candidate, who had perhaps already read all the required books, is recorded as having received both distinctions on the same day.
The university and the intellectual life it fostered played an indispensable role in Western civilization. Christopher Dawson observed that from the days of the earliest universities "the higher studies were dominated by the technique of logical discussion — the quaestio and the public disputation which so largely determined the form of medieval philosophy even in its greatest representatives. u2018Nothing,’ says Robert of Sorbonne, u2018is known perfectly which has not been masticated by the teeth of disputation,’ and the tendency to submit every question, from the most obvious to the most abstruse, to this process of mastication not only encouraged readiness of wit and exactness of thought but above all developed that spirit of criticism and methodic doubt to which Western culture and science have owed so much."
According to historian of science Edward Grant, the creation of the university, the commitment to reason and rational argument, and the overall spirit of inquiry that characterized medieval intellectual life amounted to "a gift from the Latin Middle Ages to the modern world…though it is a gift that may never be acknowledged. Perhaps it will always retain the status it has had for the past four centuries as the best-kept secret of Western civilization."
Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [send him mail] holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard and his Ph.D. from Columbia. His books include the New York Times (and LRC) bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy, and the just-released How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.