The Creation Of The University
The Western European Middle Ages created the university, its most significant and enduring achievement after the Roman Catholic Church. No clear idea or plan lay behind the beginning of the university. Rather, the two original universities of Bologna and Paris arose spontaneously as practical responses to circumstances, desires, and needs. In the late eleventh century, law students began to gather in Bologna at the feet of senior jurists who looked to ancient Roman law as the guide for creating legal principles to sort out the conflicting claims and rights of empire, church, kingdoms, princedoms, towns, and individuals. In similar fashion students came to Paris to study arts, philosophy, and especially theology. In both cities enough teaching and organization regulating the teaching and the rights and obligations of teachers and students was in place by about 1150 that it could be said that universities were born.
Recognition that universities were new and unique institutions came after the fact. In the twelfth century universitas meant a group of people legally recognized as a collectivity. The corporation of masters and students at Paris first called itself a universitas in 1221. Hence, universities came into existence when society recognized that teachers and students as a collectivity had certain legal rights. Another term was studium generale (universal school), meaning an institution of higher learning that attracted students from a wide area and had the right to grant degrees authorizing the holder to teach anywhere in the world. A key event occurred in Bologna in the 1220s when the city government began to pay the salaries of teachers. This meant that professors would stay in one place and guaranteed the stability and continuity of the university. While pope and emperor played no role in their creation, civil governments, teachers, and students accepted that it was useful and orderly that popes and emperors should issue charters authorizing universities to award degrees recognized throughout Christendom.
These and other measures gave the university the basic shape that continues in the twenty-first century. The medieval university consisted of a corps of professors teaching arts (including logic, Latin literature, and mathematics), philosophy, medicine, surgery, science, canon law, civil law, and theology at an advanced level. Students of varying ages, from the early teens through men in their mid-twenties, heard lectures, studied texts required by university statutes, and participated in academic exercises for several years, sometimes for more than a decade. They submitted themselves to examinations for bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. Upon obtaining degrees, they practiced or taught the disciplines that they had mastered. While sharing a basic structure, universities in northern and southern Europe differed. Many northern universities, including Paris and Oxford, taught mostly arts and theology to students studying for bachelors' degrees. Bologna and other Italian universities concentrated on law and medicine and awarded doctoral degrees.
European monarchs, princes, and towns founded and staffed at considerable expense a very large number of universities in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Historians frequently state that monarchs and cities founded universities in order to train civil servants to fill the expanding ranks of government offices, and certainly many law graduates did so. But contemporary documents do not mention this rationale for founding universities. Instead, university foundation charters offered as reasons the universal thirst for knowledge and the benefits to society of men learned in different subjects and full of mature counsel. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of these lofty concepts. And reference to mature advice meant that university training would give those who later served ruler or town the scholarly perspective with which to approach complex issues.
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