Author Insights Podcasts

12

How did medieval universities come into being - and how similar are they to our own universities?

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How did medieval universities come into being - and how similar are they to our own universities?

The founder of the medieval university is often considered to be Peter Abelard, who was a very charismatic and influential teacher in Paris in the early part of the 12th century. Peter Abelard attracted to himself a group of students who were very loyal to him and who followed him. Paris itself had already been known as a center of learning by the time that Peter Abelard set up shop there, so really the first universities are not so much founded by someone like Abelard but come about as a process of accretion. Teachers are attracted to places like Paris or Oxford or Cambridge, they come together, more students are attracted to the fact that there is more than one teacher, that there is a variety of fascinating intellectual perspectives on offer, and so they come to these particular towns where there are many intellectuals gathered together.

Eventually, two models of the university emerge in Europe. The word, university, means "corporation" and these corporations can be formed either by the teachers or by the students. And this is very fascinating because in Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge, the universities of northern Europe, the corporation is one of teachers. It is the teachers who set the curriculum, who decide what should be offered in the classroom, and who really make the rules, decide what the tuition will be, etc. In the southern European universities like Bologna and Montpellier, in southern France, Italy, and Spain, it's the students who are the Universitas, who are the corporation. It's the students who decide what they want to learn, it's the students who hire the teachers, and it's the students who fire the teachers if they think the teachers aren't doing a very good job, so here you have these two very different models. And it's still the case that, in modern Italy today, the universities still run along that southern model more than along the northern one.

In many other respects, these universities were very similar and the degrees they granted (Bachelor of Arts) are still the degrees that we get in medieval universities today. Moreover, if we try to think about if there is any continuity or similarity between these medieval universities and modern universities, there absolutely is, particularly when we think about the student life. Obviously, there were no women, or very few women, in most medieval universities but we're still talking about adolescents getting together and living in the same place with not a lot of money and getting into a lot of trouble. And we have a lot of university regulations that tell us a lot of things that are features of university life now were features of university life then: excessive drinking, skipping lectures, rebelling against the authority of one's teachers. So even though many medieval universities came about in a way that is different from our own, which tend to be founded by a different kind of authority, there is still a lot of continuity there.