why is it called a "bachelor's" degree? -- 4/5/16

Today's selection -- from Medieval Christianity by Kevin Madigan. Universities were one of the key contributions of the Middle Ages to the advancement of Western civilization. The university as we know it today evolved from guilds or unions. Men studying at universities who reached a middling level of competence were known as "bachelors", since, though they had some ability, it was not enough to support a family:

"Universities, which evolved from the cathedral schools (particularly those concentrated on the left bank and on the Île-de-France of the Seine in Paris, like that at Notre Dame cathedral), originated in the late eleventh century. By the dawn of the early modern period, three hundred years later, perhaps seventy or eighty universities existed. This remarkable institution had multiplied and spread across Europe. A combination of adventitious factors, such as geographical locus and the specialization of a master or group of masters, resulted in certain cities achieving distinction in certain of the professions. Thus (as noted), for theology, Paris and Oxford were preeminent, as was Bologna for law and Montpellier and Salerno for medicine. These institutions were originally called 'totalities of schol­ars' or 'universities of masters.' Why?

A university class

"In order to comprehend the academic and economic structure of the medieval university and of the professoriate, we must appreciate some of the features of medieval guilds, to the characteristics of which the new universities and their aca­demic leadership would closely correspond. Medieval guilds were first and fore­most organized, much like unions today, for the common profit of their members. Our term 'university' actually derives from the Latin term for guild (universitas). In the Middle Ages, a 'university' simply meant the totality of something -- in this case, of men organized to protect common economic interests and to treat with political authorities. Thus there were 'universities' of, say, smiths or shoemakers and other makers of goods and those possessing particular skills. Such universities or guilds were also preoccupied with the admission of members, re­quirements for demonstrating competence, and the upward movement in skill from novice to master.

"We might imagine this structure as what we today would term a career ladder. At the bottom of the ladder, so to speak, stood apprentices. These were young men just beginning to learn their trade under the supervision and instruction of a man at the other end of the career ladder and trade skill, the master. Next up the ladder were journeymen (men who worked for the day -- think of the French journée, 'the whole day'). These journeymen could also be called bachelors, so­-called as they could not support a family because unable, possessing only inter­mediate competence, to set up their own businesses. Naturally, the journeyman aspired to move up the ladder to the next and final rung. At the top of the ladder were masters, who alone had achieved, partly by producing some sort of final project demonstrating expert command of their trade (in time this would evolve, in academic circles, into a final thesis or dissertation), full membership in the guild. Masters also had, and indeed were required to have, some sort of economic independence to achieve and maintain full membership in the guild.

"The resemblance of this structure to that of the academic universitas is strik­ing. An apprentice represented a novice in his trade. Beginning students were like apprentices. Unlike modern American first-year college students, students at the medieval universities in the north were quite young -- 'early teens,' as we should say today. Most, indeed, were no older than students enrolled in modern secondary schools. The rough equivalent of a journeyman in the academic guild was called a 'bachelor.' A student with considerable experience, he would lec­ture and otherwise aid apprentice students and serve masters, somewhat in the fashion of teaching assistants in modern research universities. ... A bachelor would then have to pass through two stages on his way to becoming a master."


Kevin Madigan


Medieval Christianity: A New History


Yale University Press


Copyright 2015 by Yale University


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