the rise of universities in Europe -- 11/3/21

Today's selection -- from The Light Ages by Seb Falk. Europe’s first university was established in Bologna in 1088:

"In an attempt to drive up the standards of monastic learning, in 1336 the Pope called on monas­teries to send one in twenty of their monks for a higher education. St Albans was among the most enthusiastic: as many as 15-20 per cent of the brothers went. Many of them left the university before taking a degree. But while they were there, they played their part in one of the most important institutions in the history of Western science.

"The universities did not appear out of nowhere but evolved after centuries of gradual development in monastic and cathedral schools, catalysed by the flood of translations of Arabic and Greek philo­sophical and scientific works in the twelfth century. We have already stepped into the monastic schools through the work of Bede, Her­mann and others. The monks in those schools studied the seven liberal arts.

"Based on ancient Greek ideas of broad foundational training, the seven arts were laid out as a curriculum in the later Roman empire. They were 'liberal' because they were suitable for a free or noble person; and the word 'art' did not denote the narrow range of aes­thetic activities it does today, but was any skill worth studying. Early in the fifth century, a writer in the Roman outpost of Carthage named Martianus Capella wrote a vivid allegory that personified the arts as seven bridesmaids to Learning. They were strikingly dressed and symbolically equipped, with knives to prune children's wayward pronunciation, or surveying tools to measure the globe. Boethius took up the idea in the 520s, and the seven were soon divided into two groups. There was the trivium of verbal sciences: grammar, rhetoric and logic; and the quadrivium of mathematical sciences: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. They were further pop­ularised in the following century by Isidore, the long-serving bishop of Seville. Isidore gave a summary of the by-then-standard liberal arts at the opening of his encyclopaedia, The Etymologies. An ambi­tious attempt to summarise all human knowledge, The Etymologies was probably the most popular and influential book after the Bible throughout the Middle Ages.

Philosophia et septem artes liberales (Philosophy and the Seven Liberal Arts), as illustrated in the Hortus Deliciarum.

"These seven standardised arts became the basis of studies at the schools which grew up around cathedrals like Chartres and abbeys like St Victor in Paris. Herrad, abbess of Hohenburg, whom we saw in the previous chapter devising computistical tools for her nuns, included a guide to the arts in her compendious Garden of Delights. There she drew the seven maids in a circle, as if under the arches of a cloister. At the centre was Lady Philoso­phy, with the wise teachers Socrates and Plato seated just below her. Outside the circle were the 'poets or wizards', whose work, Herrad warned, was impure and valueless.

"Like all the best educational schemes, the liberal arts were suf­ficiently clearly defined to be useful but sufficiently flexible to be accommodated to students' changing needs. Scholars enthusiastically redefined, prioritised and subdivided them. The Spanish converso Pedro Alfonso, for example, in his book of moral fables, A Scholar's Guide, was sure of only six: logic, arithmetic, geometry, physics, music and astronomy. One possible candidate for the seventh spot, he suggested, was 'the science of natural things' -- but he admitted its claim faced two contrasting rivals: necromancy and grammar. Later, in a letter sent to the philosophers of Paris around 1120, he highlighted the importance of astronomy above all -- 'more useful, more enjoyable and more important than the other arts'. He urged them to abandon outdated texts and to learn through practice exper­imentum) -- ideally with himself as teacher.

"We do not know whether Pedro's sales pitch won him any new customers. But the schoolmasters of Paris were by no means resist­ant to the expansion of education he was suggesting. They were well aware that many questions about the created world could not be answered by the Bible. So they were willing to learn not only from other texts but also by looking around themselves. As one of the twelfth-century monk-teachers at St Victor's wrote: 'This whole visible world is like a book written by the finger of God ... to make manifest the wisdom of God's mysterious workings.' According to this influential ancient metaphor, the book of nature sat alongside the book of Scripture. It was not only legitimate to study both of these two 'books'; it was an integral part of praising God.

"At the end of the twelfth century these 'books' were read in entirely new settings: the universities. As towns and cities expanded, their newly wealthy citizens demanded educational opportunities. The cathedral and monastic schools could not meet such demand, but a number of independent masters were well placed to fill the gaps. The most gifted masters attracted crowds of students. They were keen not just to study the latest philosophy but also to take advantage of opportunities for skilled administrators, lawyers and theologians, both in the Church and in government. Following the example of trade guilds, which were multiplying in the prosperous European cities, groups of masters and students began to unionise. In this way, they won recognition and protection from civic authorities. The Latin word universitas simply describes these unions of students and masters, regardless of any buildings or formal courses. As they came together, they gradually formed Europe's first universities.

"In Bologna, whose law schools had developed an international reputation, it was the students who asserted their rights, winning a charter from the Holy Roman Emperor in 1158. If they were unhappy with their treatment by local authorities, they could vote with their feet -- and some did, setting up a rival university in Padua in 1222. In Paris, on the other hand, it was the masters who formed a guild to resist regulation by the bishop and the chancellor of Notre-Dame (which ran the largest cathedral school). The establishment of a uni­versity at Oxford towards the end of the twelfth century is more mysterious -- as late as the 1180s nearby Northampton was a greater centre of study -- but masters may have been attracted to this mid­dling market town by its role as a local legal centre. They probably also appreciated that the bishop who might claim authority over edu­cation was more than a hundred miles away, in Lincoln. Oxford university was well enough established by 1209 to survive a four­-year abandonment: both masters and students walked out when the townspeople executed two students whose housemate had committed murder. Some of them settled at the equally insignificant marshland town of Cambridge instead.

"With growing support from Church and state authorities, univer­sities sprang up all over Europe. By 1500, they had educated as many as a million students. Yet from their beginnings, the universities had distinct identities reflecting their organic origins. That included their subject specialisms, which might be inclined towards one of the three disciplines of higher learning. Bologna, we have just seen, was a centre for law, while Padua and Montpellier rapidly acquired a reputation for medical training, especially as the pioneering school of Salerno declined in importance. Paris, true to its outgrowth from the cathedral schools, specialised in the third and greatest of the higher subjects: theology. Oxford, too, focused on theology, but there the lower faculty of liberal arts was more influential than in other universities. That helped it to attract leading masters of the trivium and, especially, the mathematical quadrivium."



The Light Ages


Seb Falk


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2020 by Seb Falk


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