College and University History

Medieval Universities And the Origin of the College

Medieval Universities

History of Colleges and Universities, Europe in the Middle Ages

Below are two chapters / articles (from different sources) providing background review information on the history in the middle ages of colleges and universities, origin of schools, and a timeline of the evolution of the medieval college and university system.

Excerpt from "Academical Dress in New Zealand", 2000, Chap 1: Mediæval Universities,
by Noel Cox, LLM(Hons) MA PhD GradDipTertTchg FRHistS FBS, Barrister of the High Court of New Zealand, Professor of Law, and Discipline Chairman of Law, Faculty of Business, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand

The earliest universities to develop were in Italy. These were at Salerno (1) in the course of the ninth century, and Bologna (2) in the eleventh century. Universities as we know them today started as scholastic guilds, and developed on an analogy with the tradesmen's guilds and the later guilds of aliens in foreign cities which sprang up in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in most of the great European cities.

Centres of learning had grown up in a number of the leading cities of the West after the intellectual nadir of the Dark Ages, in many cases from the monastic and cathedral schools. Towards the end of the twelfth century a few of the greatest schools claimed, from the excellence of their teaching, to be of more than merely local importance. These great schools began to be called studia generalia, or places to which scholars resorted from all parts of Europe (3).

In a Bull of 1225, Emperor Frederick II purported to confer upon his new school at Naples the prestige which earlier studia had acquired by reputation and general consent, and this example was followed by Pope Gregory IX at Toulouse in 1229. Other studia generalia were subsequently founded by papal or imperial bulls, and in 1292 even the long-established universities of Paris and Bologna found it desirable to obtain similar bulls from Nicholas IV. It came to be accepted that without a licence from the Pope, Emperor or King, no studium generale possess the right of conferring degrees, licences to teach. A few schools such as Oxford however were too well established to be seriously questioned, and these were regarded as studia generalia ex consuetudine (4). In all, some twenty-three universities were founded in Europe prior to 1300 (5).

The term universitas itself originally could mean any community or corporation, unless qualified by the use of such expressions as universitas magistrorum et scharium or similar. The more ancient and customary term was studium and subsequently studium generale,the specific term universitas being confined to the scholastic guild within the studium. The universitas often meant simply the student body, usually called the nation, organised for the communal protection of the foreign student body, men who otherwise, being aliens, were at the mercy of local inn-keepers and tradesmen. The fusion of the universitates into a single universitas was a gradual process (6), but by the close of the mediæval period however these distinctions had been lost sight of, and the term universitas was used alone.

What is now the University of Oxford apparently came into existence around 1115, with 60 to 100 students assembled round the Augustinian canons of the Priory of St Frideswide. The first reference to Oxford as a studium generale did not however occur until 1163. The notion that Oxford owed its origins to the arrival of scholars and teachers from the recently established schools at Paris, attracted by the proximity of the palace of the scholarly King Henry I, need not now be accepted (7).

The University of Cambridge was created c.1209, although at first its growth was relatively slow and it was only recognised as a studium generale by Bull of Pope John XXII in 1318. The structures of both universities were heavily influenced by the example of Merton College, Oxford, which was established in 1264 as a residence for secular clergy- those who lived a communal life but, unlike the regular clergy, were not monastic (8). The collegiate structure which was a significant feature of many early universities remained strong in the English universities (9), and both were only formally incorporated as distinct legal bodies separate from their colleges in 1571 (10).

Both English universities, and those of northern France and Germany, were dominated by their teaching fraternities, after the model of Paris. Those in Italy, Spain, and southern France, following the lead of Bologna, were controlled to a much greater degree by their students, who tended to be older men than those commonly found in the northern universities (11). The combination of various features from each model was by no means uncommon however, and this was shown most clearly in the universities of France in the fifteenth century (12).

Universities established after the mediæval period combined features of the earlier establishments. In England, however, it was not until the nineteenth century that a new university was founded (13), though the Inns of Court and Chancery had some right to their claims to be "universities of the law" (14). Nineteenth century universities were often the product of provincial civic pride, and owed their existence to a growing desire for education, rather than the production of gentlemen. The Scottish tradition of universities was more influenced by the Continental model, and a greater emphasis on popular education than that found in England before the later nineteenth century.

Despite the great influence of Oxford and Cambridge on intellectual life, the traditions of universities in New Zealand owes at least as much to the Scottish and provincial civic university model. Indeed the oldest university in this country was that of Otago, created by the Province of Otago, rather than the central Government. However, in 1870 Parliament passed legislation to create the University of New Zealand (15). This was to be an examining body with affiliated teaching colleges (16). This institution acted as the federal parent body for New Zealand university colleges, including that of Otago, until they finally became independent universities in 1962 (17).

Since the nineteenth century the structural changes that the universities have faced have been more a consequence of economic necessity and Government imposition, than scholarly reflection. Neither however have greatly affected academic dress, the nature of which still reflects its origins in early mediæval England. For with the first degrees came the first academical dress, modelled on that of Cambridge.

(1) Although it was never anything than a medical school, so could not be said to be a universitas litterarum, though its wide standing made it a studia generalia even if only in the field of medicine. A modern university was established at Salerno in 1970.

(2) It began as a law school but widened its scope to become a true universitas litterarum, something that Salerno never did. The University of Bologna remains, probably the oldest still extant.

(3) There has always been some difficulty in producing a seniority list for the earliest universities. It is impossible to do so with any degree of precision, largely because the first universities- those having their origins in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries- were the outcome of spontaneous social developments. As the earliest universities grew out of associations of students, many of them came into existence as result of the migration of students from one centre to another. Thus Padua was created by scholars from Bologna. Paris, the earliest of the northern type of university, was unusual in that it was created by its masters.

(4) Though Oxford's right to confer advanced degrees was confirmed by Innocent IV in 1254.

(5) There were 11 in Italy, 5 in France, 2 in England, and 5 on the Iberian Peninsula. See Hay, Denys, Europe in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (first published 1966, 2nd ed Longman, New York, 1989) 361. Some were emheral, others (such as Oxford) have enjoyed continuous existence since their establishment.

(6) Lucas, Christopher, Our Western Educational Heritage (Macmillan Publishing Co Inc, New York, 1972) 235.

(7) Franklyn, Charles, "Academical Dress- a brief sketch from the twelfth to the twentieth century, with especial reference to doctors" in (1946-7) 9(2) Oxford 78. Reprinted from The Medical World vol lvi no 24, pp 465-8. Doctor Franklyn, sometime Bedell of Convocation of the University of London, made a lifetime study of the subject of academical dress.

(8) Regular clergy included the Augustinian canons. Secular clergy included those clergy who served the cathedrals.

(9) This colliate structure at both Oxford and Cambridge was both a sign of the relative weakness of the central authorities of the universities, and, perhaps, of the strength of the collegial influence of the religious orders. Both remained under the supervision of their respective ordinaries- the bishop of Lincoln and of Ely, until after the Reformation.

(10) The university at Bologna, student dominated as it was by its student body, obtained complete immunity from civil jurisdiction in 1317. The "town-robe" conflict, so much a feature of mediæval university life, was found whether the masters or the students controlled the internal organisation of the university.

(11) Herr, Friedrich, The Mediæval World (Mentor, New York, 1963) 242-3.

(12) Hay, Denys, Europe in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (first published 1966, 2nd ed Longman, New York, 1989) 362.

(13) Though these had been attempted at various times.

(14) Thorne, SE, "The Early History of the Inns of Court with Special Reference to Gray's Inn" (1959) 50 Graya 86.

(15) University of New Zealand Act 1870.

(16) Degrees were to include the BA, MA, MB, MD, LLB, LLD, BMus, and DMus; s 13.

(17) See the University of Auckland Act 1961, Victoria University of Wellington Act 1961, University of Canterbury Act 1961, and the University of Otago Amendment Act 1961. They were effectively separate after 1926, and styled as independent universities from 1958.

The above excerpt was reprinted with permission of copyright owner

Medieval StudentsBelow is the second article / chapter, from a different author, offering a short background review of the history of Colleges and Universities, Academic Regalia, Dress, and Origins of the various schools and timelines of such, all excerpted from:

The History of Academical Dress in Europe
Until the End of the Eighteenth Century
By Hargreaves-Mawdsley, W. N.
Oxford University Press 1963
Reprinted Greenwood Press, Inc.
Westport, Connecticut 1978

Origin of Universities

By the twelfth century there had emerged two outstanding seats of learning in Europe, Bologna and Paris. At the first the jurist Irnerius between 1116 and 1140 introduced the Corpus juris civilis to Europe, [1] and at the second a group of masters with the blessing of the Church occupied themselves with the liberal arts and theology. At Paris, by 1150, the theologians occupied the cathedral area and the masters and students of the liberal arts the left bank of the Seine.

The teachers in these two cities attracted audiences from all over Europe, and both teachers and students, in different ways in the two centres, formed voluntary associations for the purpose of organization and protection. These recognized groups in these two cities were known as studia, that is, schools of general repute, but elsewhere, in fact wherever a cathedral chapter had a school whose fame extended beyond its own locality, studia existed.[2]

Only the studia of Bologna and Paris, and a little later Oxford, reached the next stage in their development. As they grew in size and scope faculties were organized and officers appointed. The seal of their success was set upon them when they were recognized by the Holy See, for they were then accepted everywhere. They were, as studia generalia, free of the threat of royal or civic interference, or from the undue influence of the chancellor of the neighboring cathedral. Paris gained this distinction before Bologna, which the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa had in 1158 taken under his wing in opposition to the pope’s Paris. In this case the poiwer of the emperor was almost equal to the prestige of the pope, and under his patronage Bologna flourished as it never did again.[3] In the course of the thirteenth century the term universitas, a word used in Roman law for any kind of corporation,[4] supplanted that of stadium generale and acquired its modern sense of universitas litterarum.

The universities of Paris, famed for theology and the liberal arts and patronized by the papacy, and Bologna, notable for law and with a development under imperial auspices, were the models for the systems which were adopted by the other universities of Europe when they came into being. Paris, whose government was carried out by the masters, the masters constituting the university, was the prototype of the majority of the universities of northern Europe. Bologna, on the other hand, was rather a guild of students, who as a body possessed the supreme active power, while the professors formed themselves into a college of masters isolated from the students, and so outside the great university corporation which the students formed. This system was followed in general by the universities of southern Europe. The third great university of the Middle Ages was Oxford, which followed Paris. These three universities were the only ones founded ex consuetudine, that is they were already in existences as studia generalia in all but name when recognized by the pope. All the rest that followed were either founded by potentates and recognized in time by the papacy, or were founded by the papacy for the furtherance of its own influenced, and as their origin was ex privilegio they never enjoyed the same glory.

[1] In this section and in Section 5 on the occasions when no other reference is given I have relied on H. Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, ed. F.M. Powicke and A.B. Emden, 3 vols, 1933-5.
[2] There is a general account of the development of the schools of cathedral chapters in A.F. Leach, The schools of Medieval England, chap. Viii.
[3] C.H. Haskins, The Rise of Universities, as for instance on p. 13, deals with the rise of the studia generalia.
[4] F.K. von Savigny, Histoire du droit romain au moyen âge, iii. 295, § 154.

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