Universe Fuel

Tutorial Essay Hilary (Spring) 2012

General History II: 1000-1300 (Medieval Christendom and its neighbours)

What fuelled the growth of the universities?

Throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries, schools, run by Cathedrals or by independent masters began to grow, and by the start of the thirteenth century Studium generale were common. Hastings Rashdall has said that the universities arose as part of ‘of the re-awakening of the European mind…of the triumph of order and civilisation over disorder and barbarism.’ This suggests an onwards march from illiteracy to literacy, and to some extent implies inevitability. Rashdall claims that the start of the eleventh century was a turning point, suggesting that millenarianism accelerated this process, resulting in the formation of universities. However, his ideas have since been elaborated upon, especially by Ferruolo who argues that the university was not inevitable and was ‘established more as the embodiment of an educational ideal than as a workable means to organise learning and teaching.’ The development of universities is thus tied into the reform movement and the separation of secular life from ecclesiastical. In addition, urbanisation played a major role, as well as incidental factors such as geography and individual masters which influenced the location of schools by making certain places more famous and thus more popular than others.  However, the factors which made learning appealing to the laity were markedly different from those that attracted the Church. The opportunities that literacy offered in terms of climbing the social ladder meant that careerists were drawn to the universities. However, this was only after the schools had become somewhat established, and therefore only served to increase popularity after the movement had started. The initial impetus which drove the growth of universities was a search for theological knowledge.


According to Southern, theology, law, and the liberal arts were ‘the three props on which European order and civilisation were built.’ Morris argues that the reformers of the eleventh century were driven by a ‘search for new attitudes, ideals, and elegances’ to escape their immediate past, which they saw as sinful. Southern suggests the search to fill ‘gaps and contradictions’ in theology encouraged both the Church and students and masters to try to discover more. He argues that they were aiming to organise a ‘complete and systematic body of knowledge…to stabilise, make accessible and defend an orthodox Christian view of the world.’ Morris agrees with this idea, arguing that the ‘more complex world’ which people were living in created a need to learn. The Benedictine Guibert of Nogent to some extent supports this; in around 1115 he wrote that his need to learn was purely to gain knowledge for its own sake, saying ‘I could not bear to be idle.’ However, it must be remembered that Guibert was something of an anomaly, and was brought up in what was even at the time an unusually strict, religious household, so his views cannot be taken to be too representative. Even so, as Morris says, it is clear that the eleventh century saw the start of a ‘new ferment in theology.’ Clanchy says that Peter Abelard’s generation invented the term ‘modern’ in the early twelfth century, giving a renaissance feel to the period. The idea of dwarves standing on giants backs was used to communicate that, although past scholars were much wiser and greater, these new scholars were able to see further. This intellectual intensification (I hesitate to call it a renaissance) therefore created an atmosphere favourable to the development of universities.


Reformism created opportunities for study; in the twelfth century the doctrine of sacraments and transubstantiation was established officially. In this respect the papacy was a champion of change.  Murray has said that this reform sent ‘distinct impulses into the field of education’ It caused debate about canonical appointment to ecclesiastical office, which needed to be defined by scholars, and created expectations that priests should be literate. Morris says that Christianity places stress on the individual and ‘the virtue of self-knowledge’ which made learning a new priority. Clanchy says that ecclesiastical authorities ‘wanted Christians to know as much as they could about their religion’ without being heretical, showing that the Church encouraged learning. By providing authority and order tin teaching, the Church aimed to limit uninstructed preaching. As Murray says, ‘the political dimension of the Hildebrandine church made secular knowledge a political necessity.’ The Church’s pushing of reform created a need for lawyers to elaborate on papal sovereignty. Murray argues that, ‘flinging school doors wide was in the church’s interest.’ In 1179 at the Third Lateran Council cathedral schools were required to give benefices to teach poor students. It is therefore clear that the reform of the Church placed emphasis on education, enabling schools to grow.


However, if this is so, why did universities develop separate from the Church? Rashdall has claimed that at the start of the period education was only maintained amongst churchmen. If this is the case, then it would appear natural for the Church to be in control of teaching. This was the case for a time; Orderic Vitalis became an oblate at St-Evroul-en-Ouche in the late eleventh century. Guibert of Nogent gives religious reason for his own start in life as a student, saying that his traumatic birth had caused his father to promise him to the church. This suggests that education in the mid eleventh century was seen as bound up with the religious life. Guibert was home tutored until the age of thirteen, when he went to be taught at a monastery. His first tutor, he says, was ‘unskilled in the art of grammar’ and he complains that this was because there was a ‘scarcity of teachers.’ It appears, therefore, that learning was initially synonymous with the religious life, although Guibert did have an unusually strict upbringing from his heavily moralistic widowed mother, so he should be seen as an extreme example. Nevertheless, attitudes to learning were not at this point enough to construct the universities, which did not begin to form until Church monopoly over the written word decreased. As Ferruolo argues, the monasteries began to close their doors to the laity, no longer serving the needs of society and making it necessary for students to form their own guilds instead of being under direct Church control. This definition of Church responsibilities therefore caused a division between Church and secular life and created a need for schools and then universities to be set up. Once small schools had been set up their structures began to grow.


The first schools were set up by individual teachers or small groups, and success or failure depended on the teacher’s popularity, skill, and fame. Radice has called this time period the age of the ‘wandering scholars.’ One such scholar was Peter Abelard, famed for his scholastic prowess and ill-fated love affair. He set up several schools, and in his Historia Calamitatum writes of his ‘prestige and authority,’ saying, ‘people flocked to join my school.’ This implies that individuals were important to attract the custom of students. Rashdall goes as far as to claim that Abelard ‘inaugurated the intellectual movement.’ However, Clanchy argues that Abelard was an egoist and so other factors may have been overlooked. Without the environment he lived in and his historical context, it is unlikely that Abelard’s scholarship would have famous in the same way, and it was his relationship with Heloise that gained him much more notoriety compared to his scholastic prowess. Individuals were important in attracting notice, but they cannot explain the process by which universities came about by themselves. There have always been wise men, scholars, or tutors, but the creation of institutions to bring scholars and masters together in one place can only be explained by historical context, not the presence of specific people.


Urbanisation played a major role in making the university possible. To have a university, a big enough city, able to attract and sustain students, was necessary. Size was important, as the biggest cities not only were more well-known, but were able to provide housing and food for students. Morris argues that the growth of commerce created an ‘extensive network of commercial exchange’ which made it more likely for schools to develop as it meant people could afford to be schooled. He argues that Paris, which was the largest city north of the Alps, became a centre for learning (1150s to 1210) because of its size, its location as a place of communication, and its fame as a place of residence for the French Kings. Pilgrim traffic was also important; relics at Notre Dame and Saint Denis drew crowds and provided the finance for schools to be set up. The process of urbanisation also caused social tensions, such as the breakdown of community within cities as vast numbers of people moved into them, and so students were more likely to form guilds as a means of establishing some security. Paris became famous, as a centre of theological learning. Rashdall has suggested that this was because in France, education had been associated with church through Charlemagne’s ecclesiastical legislation. He also claims that the geographical location of the schools was advantageous because the distance from the Pope gave some intellectual freedom, although the Popes were largely sympathetic in any case as they viewed the theologians as their natural allies. In the case of Paris, therefore, we can see how location, urbanisation and fame all contributed to the development of the city as an educational centre, and the eventual recognition of the university in 1215.


As Murray says, the intellectual revival ‘came in the wake of political and economic changes which it in turn accelerated.’ However, Morris insists that the cities should not be worked too hard as an explanation for change. They certainly enabled the universities to develop so rapidly and provided the environment to sustain them, but they cannot explain the sudden popularity of education amongst the laity by themselves. Greater insight can be gained by looking at the benefits students got once they had been educated. Murray argues that the Church was used as a ladder for social change. The best example of this is Pope Urban IV, who was the son of a Troyes shoemaker and became Pope in 1261. Other churchmen also were tempted by careerism; in 1140 Bernard of Clairvaux gave a sermon against avarice and ambition, which he saw as the most dangerous vices amongst clerks. Therefore we can see that ‘love of office was a motive for study.’ Churchmen boasted about their prowess in learning in the same way that warriors boasted about their physical strength. The profession of teaching also provided a new form of employment and teachers became ‘retailer[s] to a greedy market.’ This opportunity for social advancement was enhanced by the conditions of reformism, but once it became an established way of gaining status it became increasingly popular.


As literacy increased in the Church, it became a greater necessity for the state and was increasingly used in parishes and administration. Southern says that Latin became a ‘necessary tool for precise thought and for European government’ and so the demand for learned men intensified. He even suggests that scholastic arguments ‘performed many of the functions of arguments in political assemblies today’ and were almost a form of parliament. As governments became increasingly bureaucratised, problems within the system created the need for further solutions and so reliance on the written word grew. Education thus became more important, especially the trivium as grammar was used for letter writing, rhetoric for polemic and the dialectic for disputation, all skills which became necessary to governmental administration. Peter Abelard in his Historia Calamitatum gives a practical reason for his own start in intellectual life. His father, a soldier, ‘intended all his sons to have instruction in letters before they were trained to arms.’ As first born son Abelard had the ‘greatest care taken over [his] education.’ This shows that it was seen as necessary for a layman in the minor nobility to have grounding in letters. However, Clanchy points out that Abelard writes of being brought up to be literate ‘as if this were something unusual or special,’ implying that it was relatively uncommon. Abelard’s enthusiasm for learning caused him to give his inheritance to his younger siblings and become an academic, but this was a rarity. Even so, by the time Abelard was teaching it was increasingly common for young nobles to receive some schooling. Education was not always continued to the ‘higher’ faculties of theology, law, and medicine, up to 50% of all students during the period were arts students aged 14 to 16 who only attended university for two years and sat no examination. This suggests that a high proportion of students attended university to get the basics of education which would help them in later life, and were not in search of higher knowledge.


Law and medicine were the ‘career-makers and money-spinners’ of the intellectual world. By the start of the thirteenth century jurists had become de facto noblemen and were founding their own legal dynasties. Since law was such a lucrative profession it was attractive, for example the notorial profession was popular amongst rural immigrants in thirteenth century France seeking a niche by which they could establish status. Law in particular was also useful to both the papacy and state governments and so was encouraged from the top as well as assisting social climbing. As kings began to employ learned officials, they became ‘another magnet’ to the schools. Not only did state government provide employment for scholars, it also encouraged them. In 1007 Emperor Henry II gave books to the school at Bamberg to form a library. This suggests that learning was seen as something to be invested in for the culture and splendour of the nation. By 1155 Frederick Barbarossa was giving law students imperial protection, showing that there was a state need for lawyers. This development over time demonstrates the rapid growth of the educational system.


Bologna in Italy was the most famous place to study law. Partly this was due to fame, the teacher Irnerius built up a reputation that once made, attracted more students. Rashdall claims that Bologna had the same spiritual impetus for study as Paris, but that different conditions favoured law over theology. After the fall of the Roman Empire, lay education had not been as completely extinguished in Italy as it had elsewhere in Europe. The Lombard nobility were sending their sons to be educated at a time when French and German nobility saw it as unmanly. This meant that Roman law had not been totally forgotten, and so the revival of Roman law started in Italy. This is particularly noticeable after the 1140s when Gratian’s Decretum was published, making debate over canon law more accessible. The struggle between the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy meant that there was a spiritual need for the law as questioning ‘assumed the form of constitutional questions.’ This shows how Church need encouraged the development of universities. However, it was the students themselves who formed a guild in the late twelfth century in order to protect their own interests such as rent, proving that the pressures of urbanisation also played a role.


So far, a mixture of causes for the growth of universities has been seen. Looking at the case study of Oxford University suggests that all, or at least several, of these need to be present. Firstly, religion played a role. The increase in parish churches meant a literate clergy was needed to sing mass. Between 1086 and 1135, three regular religious communities and one secular joined Oxford, increasing the clerical population. The changing status of Oxford as a town also influenced the formation of the university. During the civil war of King Stephen’s reign, Oxford was emphasised as centre of communications. Its use as a centre for government meant that there was demand for a ‘growing army of educated officials.’ Its geographical position was therefore important, because it was seen as a military storehouse, housing a royal mint and being the centre for exchequer meetings, as well as being where Queen Eleanor gave birth to the future kings Richard I and John. This all added to its prestige. However, other factors held the town back at first. From 1066 to 1190, most English students studied abroad, suggesting that the quality of teaching was not as good. However, from the 1190s to 1204 England was at almost continuous war with France and so scholars found it hard to go abroad. Law was initially a popular subject at Oxford because ‘the frequent meeting of the courts drew learned lawyers to oxford’ and ‘law is a subject which is best taught where it is practiced.’ This suggests that careerism also had an influence, although once the university had been established theology also became popular. In 1209, controversy over a student’s apparent murder of a woman caused schools to stop teaching, and when they set up again they did so as a group, marking the start of the university. Therefore chance plays a role as well, although it is likely that a guild would have formed at some point anyway. This case shows that several factors were necessary to cause a university to develop, and that no one reason can account for it alone.

To conclude, the growth of universities was fuelled by a confluence of factors which were interdependent, and education would have developed very differently had any of the factors not been present. As Southern says, population increase, trade, wealth, and the new urban life ‘provoked new definitions in all relationships, including that of mankind with God.’ It was this changing attitude to learning, fuelled by reformism, which was in turn fuelled by the changing world, which created the schools. However, the most important reasons for the development of universities as opposed to monastic schools, is urbanisation and the withdrawal of the monastic world from secular life. This is not to say that the universities were in any way inevitable, as chance and the role of individuals also had some impact on the growth of specific universities. However, as an institution, I believe the city is the most important and necessary factor, as it provides the population to participate, and the atmosphere conducive to social competition and careerism. As Southern says, the setting up of guilds is a ‘common medieval story’ in towns. This shows how urbanisation and geography, along with careerism, played as decisive a role in the creation of universities as any higher intellectual movement in search of greater knowledge did.


Benton, Self and Society in Medieval France, (London, 1984)

Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, (Harlow, 1995)

Clanchy, Abelard: A Medieval Life, (Oxford, 1997)

Ferruolo, The origins of the University: The Schools of Paris and their critics 1100-1215, (Stanford, 1985)

Kempshall, 07/02/12 lecture: ‘Schools and Scholasticism’, Oxford Exam Schools

Luscombe, ‘Thought and Learning’, in Luscombe and Riley Smith New Cambridge History c.1024-c.1198, (Cambridge, 2004)

Morris, The Discovery of the Individual 1000-1200, (London, 1972)

Murray, Reason and Society in the Middle Ages, (Oxford, 1978)

Radice, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, (Middlesex, 1984)

Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, Vol.1, (Oxford, 1895)

Southern ‘From Schools to University’, ed. J.I. Catto, The History of the University of Oxford, Vol. 1, The Early Oxford Schools, (Oxford, 1984)

Southern, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe, (Oxford, 1995)


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