Last Monday I talked about children in the middle ages, what their lives were like and what they could expect as they got older. The vast majority of children began training for the profession they would enter, labor, craft, or nobility, at about 7 or 8 years old. Most were finished with this education by the time they were 14 or 15. But for a tiny minority, their education had only just begun.
In the 21st century we think of going to college almost as a necessity. But we don’t often stop to think that this essential institution of the modern world, this coming of age for a generation, is a medieval concept. In fact, the idea of the university was developed in the 11th and 12th centuries and reached its height in the Late Middle Ages.
Education did happen before that, however. The great thinkers of the Ancient World, Aristotle, Plato, and even St. Augustine, may have been lost to the masses after the fall of the Roman Empire, but their work and philosophy was preserved in two places: monasteries and in the Islamic world. If you lived in the Early Middle Ages and you wanted to be a scholar, you would have entered the religious life.
Granted, at that time most of your effort would have gone into frantic preservation of knowledge rather than groundbreaking new thought. All that changed, however, with the Carolingian Renaissance. The scholarship of Charlemagne, well, of his English teacher Alcuin of York, really, started the ball rolling that would end up in the explosion of universities throughout Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries.
The rediscovery of the work particularly of Aristotle sped this process along. In the West scholarship had largely evolved based on the works of Plato and St. Augustine, as preserved and digested by the Church. But after the Reconquest of Spain in the 12th century and the opening of trade throughout the Mediterranean due to the Crusades, the translated and retranslated works of Aristototle were reintroduced to Western thought.
Another trend was brewing at about that same time. In the early days, the Church held the monopoly on learning. But as Europe grew up, as its people became more prosperous and less dependent on doing what they needed to do to survive, a broader interest in learning on a secular level appeared. Teachers hired themselves out to train rich and poor pupils alike. Churches started schools to train scholars who weren’t interested in joining the religious life. People were curious, about the world, about themselves, and about the philosophies and theologies of many different traditions.
This insatiable appetite for learning eventually became too much for Church-run cathedral schools or independent, traveling teachers to handle on their own. By the late 11th century the demand had grown so fierce that students began to flock to the places where famous teachers lived, and more teachers rushed to follow the students eager to learn … and pay them. The end result was that handfuls of individuals became unorganized groups of teachers and students, those unorganized groups formed guilds like any other craft, and before too long those guilds were granted official status by the Church, who extended its power and protection to them.
So basically, universities did not pop up overnight as the complex, hierarchical entities that they are today. They evolved from talented individuals who wanted to learn and share that learning.
In the very early days there were three kinds of universities. The University of Bologna (the first university, founded in 1088) is a prime example of the first kind. It was run by the students. They would hire and continue to pay for the teachers. This meant that teachers were under the gun and had to live up to the expectations of their employers, the ones who were paying them (or their parents at least). The second kind of university is exemplified by the University of Paris (which opened its doors in the mid-11th century and was recognized in 1150). Here the Church paid the teachers, so they had far more control over the students. It’s little surprise that the finest teachers of the time flocked to the University of Paris to teach. Oxford and Cambridge made up the third kind of university. Here teachers were paid for by the crown and the state. This became vital at the end of the middle ages when Henry VIII pulled his shtick and had the monasteries dissolved. If the universities had been governed by the Church they would have gone bye-bye as well and we wouldn’t have the centuries-old rivalry that we know and love today.
The fact that the universities of Europe were governed and supported by the Church is no minor detail. Most significantly, this meant that as long as they were attending university, scholars were considered clerics. As such, they were protected under canon law. And since we all know just how responsible and grounded most men between the ages of 15 and 25 are, this legal carte blanche meant that students were considered the most arrogant, obnoxious, blatant criminals that many cities had. Their status as students protected them from being prosecuted for theft, rape, and murder, among other things. That’s why in Hamlet, Rrosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s two old school friends from Paris, were called into cheer him up … and why everyone rolled their eyes at them.
This doesn’t mean, however, that students were a bunch of raving maniacs. They had a rigorous course of study that would make modern college students wince. The school day started at 5 or 6 am. All classes were mandatory. Most medieval universities followed the Scholastic method. This meant that there were two types of classes, the lectio and the disputatio.
A lectio, as you can probably guess, was a lecture. The teacher would basically read a masterwork by a great scholar, like Aristotle or a book of the Bible, and comment on it as he went along. Students were not permitted to speak during these classes. A disputatio was a prolonged question and answer session, a lot like modern debate team. Some of these classes involved questions that were announced beforehand for which people would study and argue their point. Others involved open questions fired at the teachers by the students. And classes went on all day.
The degree Bachelor of Arts was awarded to scholars who completed the basic six year course consisting of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic, and rhetoric. After that a scholar could go on to study a specific discipline, law, medicine, or theology, for up to twelve more years. And you thought our 4 year colleges were tough! A university education was important though, especially if you wanted to secure a position in the Church or in government. And anyone with any sort of power and prestige in the middle ages was in the Church or government.
So there you have it: education medieval-style. It was a commitment of epic proportions, but one that defined a man as a leader of other men once he made it out the other side. But not women, I might add. Girls were allowed to attend local grammar schools but they were not permitted at universities. Why? Because the status of students as clerics meant that due to basic Church law about women in the ministry women need not apply. Although there were a few who snuck around the rules. But that’s a post for a different day.