First Universities in the High Middle Ages

From the lecture series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William and Mary

Can you think of schools with a single faculty member, or in other words, each faculty member simply creating a school? What were the shortcomings of such schools, and how did they result in the birth of a new educational institution called ‘university’? Let’s understand the evolution of the first universities in the High Middle Ages.

Photograph of University of Paris.
College of Sorbonne, founded in 1257, was one of the first universities. It was later renamed as University of Paris. (Image: Wjarek/Shutterstock)

Some of the advances that happened in the High Middle Ages, such as the scholastic method of education and monastic schools, are no longer in use, but there are others, such as the university, that still exist. The medieval universities were established so that the material needs of students and teachers could be better provided for, and the spread of the university in the 13th century attests to the institution’s effectiveness.

Early Monastic and Cathedral Schools

A sketch of Peter Abelard receiving the monastery of the Paraclete Héloïse.
Peter Abelard, a medieval French philosopher and theologian, receiving the
monastery of the Paraclete Héloïse (1129).
(Image: H. Clerget/Public domain)

Prior to 12th century, education at all levels, from the lowest to the highest, was highly unorganized. The monastic schools along with cathedral schools were important centers of learning during this period. Both internal and external monastic schools were found in the countryside. The objective of the internal schools was to impart education to youth who intended to lead the lives of monks. While internal schools operated within the confines of the monastery, external ones operated for students in the neighborhood of the monastery. However, the absence of external schools in some of the monasteries, coupled with their inaccessibility, made them an unattractive option to the common people. Moreover, the curriculum of the external schools was in line with that of monastic vocation and was of limited use to the youth who chose a different path in life. 

The towns in medieval Europe offered various levels of education. The lowest level was that of primary schools, meant to teach the basics of reading and writing to young children, mostly boys and sometimes girls. The next level was grammar schools which provided advanced training in language skills. But it was at the highest level that there was a baffling assortment of offerings; there were a number of different kinds of schools. Majority of these schools would not even be considered schools in today’s world as they were run by a single teacher. In addition to these, bishops in each town operated a school for the benefit of those who lived within the town; these schools were known as cathedral schools.

Learn more about the origins of scholasticism.

Fragmented Higher Education

The various unique styles in which these monastic schools operated only added to the chaos and were not beneficial to any of the stakeholders, including students, teachers, and ecclesiastical authorities. The fragmentation of students among different schools positioned them in a vulnerable spot vis-à-vis the towns in which they lived.

Image of a teacher teaching students during Medieval Age.
Latin was the medium of instruction, though it was of little use in everyday activities.
(Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Another problem centered around the medium of instruction, namely Latin. The language featured heavily in lectures and debates in the classroom as the curriculum insisted on teaching in Latin. So, students who traveled from foreign countries, especially northern France and Italy, had to endure a language solely for academic purposes and also possess the ability to converse in the local language. This was because when it came to handling everyday activities, from finding a meal to buying textbooks, knowledge of the local language was a must and Latin was of little use. Inability to speak the local language often led to merciless extortion by the locals.

Teachers who came from foreign countries, such as Germany, Spain, Italy, and France, were also required to teach in Latin. Hence, they faced the same disadvantages as the foreign students in their inability to speak the local language. In addition, these teachers faced fierce competition amongst themselves as each of them owned their own school.

Ecclesiastical authorities were also not very comfortable with the supervision of the monastic schools. These small schools located within the towns of high medieval Europe were not exactly to the liking of bishops and popes as their sheer number made supervision extremely difficult. It was also very tough for the authorities to keep watch on someone teaching heretical doctrines within his classroom.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Progression to Universities

The advent of medieval universities seemed to be the solution to the problems faced by the monastic and cathedral schools. The first European universities appeared around the 12th century; one in Paris and another in the Italian city of Bologna. By the thirteenth century, around twenty universities appeared across Europe, including in Spain, France, England, and especially, Italy.

The medieval university was an abstract concept as there was no campus, physical space, or buildings. The university was simply a corporation of individuals during the High Middle Ages who had united to teach. Unlike modern universities, the medieval universities held classes wherever they could rent out rooms, be it churches, apartment buildings, or even brothels. However, brothels didn’t work well as classrooms and that option had to be soon abandoned.

One main trigger for the creation of universities was that both the teachers and students yearned for greater bargaining power. After the creation of these universities, teachers and students would often threaten to go on strike if they were unhappy with some aspect of their life in the town. For instance, if they felt that the food was expensive or rents were high, they would threaten to go on strike and would actually go on one if their demands were not met. In addition, the teachers encountered limited competition as all potential students of the town would simply enroll in the local university. It made the teachers happy that irrespective of their efficiency levels, they would all work under one roof for a single institution. The authorities of the church too loved the idea of universities as it was much easier to supervise teachers who were under one institution. It also helped them keep track of who was teaching what in their town.

Learn more about monks in the High Middle Ages.

Common Questions about the First Universities in the High Middle Ages

Q: What was prominent in the curriculum of the external schools of monastery?

The monastic schools run by monks and nuns provided training on religion and general education. Chanting figured prominently in the curriculum, but unless someone wanted to be a monk or clergy, chanting was of little use.

Q: Did the Church have an influence on education in the High Middle Ages?

Yes, education was the responsibility of the Church, and it heavily influenced education in the monastic schools. Monks, nuns, and bishops used orthodox ancient writings to teach their students.

Q: What were the subjects taught in the cathedral schools of the Middle Ages?

The common subjects taught at cathedral schools of the High Middle Ages included arithmetic, geometry, grammar, astronomy, rhetoric, logic, and music.

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