Medieval Universities

Historian Peter Jones on the first European universities, different models of the education regulation and the proliferation of universities at the end of the Middle Ages

videos | May 10, 2021

So let’s talk about the first two universities that we consider proper universities in European history: Bologna in the north of Italy and Paris.

Bologna is a fascinating case study. When does it emerge? I think, the first thing I should say is that we’re not clear on the precise dates that any of these institutions emerge. That’s in many ways what’s so interesting about them: they are organic, they develop very slowly, and there’s no kind of set date when they’re founded. Bologna, we think, what we consider the university begins sometime in the late 11th century, the late 1000s, particularly, in the 1070s. There’s a good reason for that.

At this moment in European history we’ve got enormous eruption of conflict between church and state about jurisdiction.

For example, if someone commits a crime and they are a priest, who has the right to try that person, the potential criminal: is it the church who tries them or is it the state? When a bishop is invested, who chooses the bishop? Is it the king or is it the Pope? Who invests them with their ring and their staff, is it the king or the pope? These are big legal issues that start to really erupt, and consequently more lawyers are needed to answer and solve a lot of these conflicts.

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So in around about the 1070s we get the emergence of what we call the Studium generale in Bologna. It’s a series of small schools where they’re dedicated to legal study. They don’t really federate yet, it comes a little bit later. What eventually happens is because young people (or not always young people, sometimes in their 30s if that’s still young, I don’t know) come to Bologna to get the legal education: across Europe the word goes around that this is the place you go if you want to study law to a high level. And these young people arrive in the town of Bologna and they have no rights, they’re not citizens, so they were kind of excluded from a lot of the privileges, taxes system etc from the town. So a lot of these students actually band together and they make a kind of corporation. The word for corporation in Latin is universitas. So we get these universitates, these corporations of students that band together and protect one another and build a sort of bill, a sort of constitution if you like of what the students should be able to expect, how they should be protected.

What’s so interesting about this in Bologna is that this gives a lot of power to the students. The students elect their own rector: usually it needs to be over the age of 25, that’s quite young. So it’s a rector from among the student body who will lead them and represent them.

There are two big corporations, universitates in Bologna: one is Citramontanarum, ‘Before the Alps’, and Ultramontanarum, ‘Beyond the Alps’, so in other words, the Italians and the non-Italians. Within that group, the non-Italians, eventually they subfederate into different nations, so you might have the French universitas and the English and so on. And so these corporations all elect their own rectors, and then we have the grand rector over all of the universitas of Bologna. They produce constitutions which are fascinating.

For example, a professor may not leave town without the student corporation’s permission, they have to leave a kind of deposit. Are you going to leave Bologna? Well, then we need a sum of money to make sure that you come back. Professors cannot miss classes, otherwise they’ll be fined by the students. So the students really have the power. The students also have the power to hire and fire the professors.

I’m not sure if I like this idea, but there it is, it’s right there, at the beginning of the university as a corporation, as an idea. So this is the Bologna model. It becomes kind of a common model for a lot of Italian institutions later on.

In Paris we see a totally different model emerge. In Paris it’s focused around the master themselves, individual scholars who go to Paris and compete with one another for students. So the Paris model is, we have a series of schools, some of them are cathedral schools, some of them are just one person who sets himself up on, for example, the mount Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, they set themselves up as the master. And so what happens is you as a student come to Paris and you pay the individual master a small sum of money. But what this leads to is enormous competition, so I want to compete therefore with another scholar who’s offering similar lessons maybe at the same time of day, so I have to be more and more impressive, I have to be more and more focused, I have to be a better scholar. And it’s in this environment really that the Parisian model grows up, a series of small schools that eventually federate together. They get their constitution, the statute of Paris in 1215, and this comes when there’s a huge conflict among the scholars, and the Pope intervenes and says: right, we need to solve these conflicts, so here is the statute.

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And this then regulates the universitas, the guilds, the corporation in Paris, and so this includes all kinds of interesting information like you can’t lecture on theology unless you’re over the age of 35, you can’t lecture on the liberal arts unless you’re over the age of 21, you have to have attended this number of lectures before you become a lecturer, we will teach these texts but not those texts. So that is very top-down, it’s very top-down set of regulations. Bologna is very bottom-up.

So what happens after this? By the end of the 12th century it’s well established in Europe that if you want an education in law, you’ll go to Bologna, if you want an education in theology, you’ll go to Paris. Not everyone can make it to these cities: I mean, they’re well-situated cities, Bologna is fairly accessible for most Italians and people coming just over the Alps, Paris is a wonderful place for a university – conference of river, a lot of trade links, there’s a lot of facilities for students as well which makes it a great base.

After this we do get universities elsewhere: Oxford is the next big theology school to emerge: again, we’re not really sure, by around about the year 1200 there are studies going on in Oxford, what will become the university is there. Cambridge is formed because there’s a fight and Oxford is closed down, and so a series of scholars leave Oxford and move to another town which seems to be like Oxford, Cambridge. It’s also the same distance from London in the other direction, and they go there and make their own university kind of in reaction to that closure which is a lesson for us all.

Beyond that what we have is a series of medical schools which become universities, like Salerno, Montpelier in the south of France. We start to get institutions which are separated from individual kinds of tracks of study, which are more secular even. For example, Naples is founded in the 1220s by Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor: it’s going to be kind of a secular kind of university. We have the university in Toulouse which is founded by Gregory IX, Frederick’s great rival just in the next decade. And beyond that we then have a proliferation of universities throughout Europe: there’s a huge boom in 14th and 15th century like Prague, for example, Charles University emerges then, the Scottish universities. So by the end of the Middle Ages there are universities everywhere throughout Europe in a lot of the major cities. It’s a real explosion, if you like, of learning.

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PhD in History, University of Tyumen
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