Medieval education and the University

Scholar in the Middle Ages

The foundation of Education and the University during the Middle Ages

Anti Catholic History

It is the main point of this section to point out some of the contributions which the Catholic Church made specifically in regards to education and the University in the Middle Ages. Before I start this section I think it would be good to point out two simple facts regarding this time period. The first one is simply the fact that much of the history regarding this time period (at least until recent scholarship) was vehemently anti-Catholic which Hilaire Belloc points out in his book Europe and the Faith. This is specifically true regarding much of the Protestant Whig view of history, as well as the German school of history which was popular at this time.

Hilaire Belloc basically states that The North Germans thought that their ideas were better than everyone else and similarly the English aristocracy (which was predominately Protestant) found it necessary to have a close philosophical and spiritual alliance with the Germans at this moment of history. Similarly the Germans were the last to join with the Catholic Church and so the faith had no sticking power with them and they were the first to abandon it.

The second point to bring forth before continuing with this section is that the middle Ages should be distinguished from the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages was a period from about (500- 1000 A.D) which was a time when the Roman Empire was slowly deteriorating because of constant warfare and it was a time in which the Church and the State had to constantly help restore many parts of the empire by various means. This includes using means such as preserving manuscripts and constant re-education of the people around this time. The Middle Ages (1000- 1499 A.D) in contrast was a period of great improvements in various areas including education, science, philosophy, religious thought and in society in general.

Education and the University System

The Carolingian Renaissance

A good place to start off with in regards to the contributions of both the Church and the State to education is in regards to the Carolingian Renaissance. This is one of the first events that helped transit the Dark Ages into the Middle Ages. The Carolingian Renaissance started under the direction and command of King Charlemagne who “strongly encouraged education and the arts, calling upon the bishops to organize schools around their cathedrals.” 1

Charlemagne specifically chose his tutor Alcuin of York to help lead the Carolingian renaissance. It is through this Carolingian Renaissance that various educational innovations and improvements were made. Through this Carolingian Renaissance the society of this time was greatly educated. First and foremost, Alcuin helped teach Latin to various individuals (which was not an easy task to do). This knowledge of Latin “made possible the study of the Latin Church fathers and the classical world of ancient Rome. In fact, the oldest surviving copies of most ancient Roman literature date back to the ninth century, when Carolingian scholars rescued them from oblivion. “2

Similarly it was specifically through the Carolingian Renaissance that we derived a new improvement in writing known as Carolingian miniscule. Carolingian Miniscule helped create the concept of upper and lower case lettering, as well as the concept of spaces between words. Before the Carolingian Miniscule reading a manuscript was very difficult, for the fact that there was only one-case lettering, and there was also no spaces between words.

The University System

Moving from the Carolingian Renaissance, one of the major early contributions of the Church and State in the The University of Bologna is the oldest University in history, founded in 1088.beginning of the Middle Ages, we go on to the origins and start of the University System as we know it in the modern sense. We need to realize that the university system as we know it to be, originated during the medieval ages. That is not to say that prior to that, there weren’t any schools, nor any means of higher education. If you study the times of ancient Greece for example you will realize that there were in fact schools. Plato and Aristotle themselves started their own “academies” for example. Academies for most part were places for studying and developing philosophical and political thought. However it was not until the Medieval Ages around the eleventh century that the university system as we know it to be was founded. The first universities were founded around the countries of Italy, France, Spain, and England.

It was specifically the Church and the State themselves who helped encourage the building and establishing of universities. It was specifically the papacy for example that granted a charter to a university. It is stated that “Eighty-one universities had been established by the time of the Reformation.”3

Not only did the papacy have a big role in helping expand and encourage the university system, but furthermore it was also through the pope that universities were able to function in the first place. For example Pope Gregory IX issued a papal bull called Parens Scientiarum. This document granted the University of Paris the right to self-government which allowed it to make its own rules regarding to courses and studies. “The Church granted charters, protected the university’s rights, sided with scholars against obnoxious interference by overbearing authorities, built an international academic community, and permitted and fostered the kind of robust and largely unfettered scholarly debate and discussion that we associate with the university.” 4

One historian thus states that it was the Church and furthermore the papacy which encouraged the establishment of the university. On one hand Lowrie J. Daly states that in regards to the university the most “consistent and greatest protector was the Pope of Rome. He it was who granted, increased and protected their privileged status in a world of often conflicting jurisdictions”5 similarly this same scholar states regarding the Catholic Church that “it was the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge”6

The medieval education one would get in a medieval university was quite extensive and profound. In many ways the medieval university was also very similar to the modern university (after all the university has its origins in the medieval ages). “In regards to the medieval university, a university possessed a core of required texts, on which professors would lecture while adding their own insights. A university was also characterized by well-defined academic programs lasting a more or less fixed number of years, as well as by the granting of degrees”7

Some other similarities to be considered in the University of the Middle Ages includes the fact that there was a distinction between an undergraduate and graduate. “The undergraduate, or artist (that is a student of the liberal arts), attended lectures, took part in occasional disputations in class, and attended the formal disputation of others. His professors or masters, as they were known- typically lectured on an important text, often drawn from classical antiquity.”8

So what specifically was studied at these universities? There were a host of things that people would learn in university in the middle Ages. In the first place the seven liberal arts including the quadrivium of astronomy, music, arithmetic, and geometry, as well as the trivium of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. There are a lot more things that were studied “ At these great institutions students studied not only many of the standard liberal arts disciplines but also civil and canon law, natural philosophy (science), medicine, and theology.9

The following is a good overview of what a graduate would be required to read:

After his bachelorship, and before he petitioned for his license to teach, the student must have “heard at Paris or in another university” the following Aristotelian works: Physics, On Generation and Corruption, On the Heavens, and the Parva Naturalia; namely, the treatises of Aristotle On Sense and Sensation, On Waking and Sleeping, On Memory and Remembering, On the Length and Shortness of Life. He must also have heard (or have plans to hear) On the Metaphysics, and have attended lectures on the mathematical books. [Historian Hastings] Rashdall, when speaking of the Oxford curriculum, gives the following list of works, to be read by the bachelor between the period of his determination and his inception (mastership): books on the liberal arts: in grammar, Priscian; in rhetoric, Aristotle’s Rhetoric (three terms), or the Topics of Boethius (bk. iv.), or Cicero’s Nova Rhetorica or Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Poetria Virgilii; in logic, Aristotle’s De Interpretatione (three terms) or Boethius’ Topics (bks. 1—3) or the Prior Analytics or Topics (Aristotle); in arithmetic and in music, Boethius; in geometry, Euclid, Alhacen, or Vitellio, Perspectiva; in astronomy, Theorica Planetarum (two terms), or Ptolemy, Almagesta. In natural philosophy the additional works are: the Physics or On the Heavens (three terms) or On the Properties of the Elements or the Meteorics or On Vegetables and Plants or On the Soul or On Animals or any of the Parva naturalia; in moral philosophy, the Ethics or Economics or Politics of Aristotle for three terms, and in metaphysics, the Metaphysics for two terms or for three terms if the candidate had not determined.10

The Contributions of Monks

Just as it was through the Middle Ages which the university as we know it was founded, thanks to the help of A French scholar works on a manuscript in a monastery, in a painting from about 1480. During the Middle Ages, monasteries and cathedrals were the guardians of classical learning, and many had large libraries. Scribes copied ancient manuscripts in a room called a scriptorium.various popes, and churchmen, Catholic monks themselves help contribute to society in various ways. If it would not have been for the monks for example then chances are that many manuscripts of antiquity would have been lost. It should be first noted that people such as Alcuin of York were able to quote from various classical authors which included Aristotle, Cicero, Lucan Pliny, Statius, Trogus, Pomeius, and Virgil. “It was the monastic library and the scriptorium, the room set aside for the copying of texts, to which much of ancient Latin literature owes its transmission to us today”11

At one swoop a number of texts were recovered which might otherwise have been lost forever; to this one monastery in this one period we owe the preservation of the later Annals and Histories of Tacitus (Plate XIV), the Golden Ass of Apuleius, the Dialogues of Seneca, Varro’s De lingua latina, Frontinus’ De aquis, and thirty-odd lines of Juvenal’s sixth satire that are not to be found in any other manuscript.12

Similarly the monks themselves helped educate society. This is true not only regarding their own, but to various individuals in society. “St. John Chrysostom tells us that already in his day it was customary for people in Antioch to send their sons to be educated by the monks. St Benedict himself personally instructed the sons of Roman nobles. St Boniface established a school in every monastery he founded in Germany, and in his monks set up schools wherever they went.”13


  1. Thomas E Woods “How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” (Regnery Publishing 2005) pg. 16
  2. Woods “How the Catholic Church built Western Civilization” pg. 18
  3. Woods “How the Catholic Church built Western Civilization” pg.48
  4. Woods “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” pg.51
  5. Lowrie J. Daly “The Medieval University 1200-1400) (New York: Sheed and Ward 1961) pgs. 213-214
  6. Lowerie J. Daly “The Medieval University” pg.202
  7. Woods “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” op.cit pg.48
  8. Thomas E Woods “A Gift From the Middle Ages”
  9. Ibid
  10. Ibid
  11. L.D Reynolds and N.G Wilson “Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature 3rd Ed” (Oxford: Clarenton Press, 1991) pgs. 109-110
  12. Thomas E Woods (What We Owe the Monks)
  13. Woods “What We Owe the Monks” op. cit

Categories: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply