Skip to main content
Updated date:




Though Europe was in turmoil during the crusades, it was a time of intellectual revival which was dormant during the long night of the Dark Age. The two major power centers during this period was the papacy on the one hand and the aristocracy at the other.  In most parts of Europe the monasteries and the various orders were playing a very important role. They were hostelry  for the weary traveler, dispensers of medicine for the sick, centers of education and even a  bank of deposit for a few. Monks scrupulously followed the dictum ‘Laborare est orare’ (Work is worship) and engaged in agricultural activity, charity and painstakingly chronicling the times.  The seeds of intellectual activity and teaching were sown during these times, which later resulted in the flowering of universities.  While the Barons and Knights were deeply immersed in fighting and hunting, the only hope of the middle class and lower middle class was either joining the monastic orders or preparing to become a doctor or lawyer.  So, many went about in search of knowledge.


 By the 12th century as  travelling in Europe became much safer,  groups of people  comprising of teen agers, youth and  much older men went from one centre of learning to another. They soon formed a guild called  ‘Universitas’  and from which is derived the modern word University.  There were infact two kinds of guilds. Guilds formed by learners like that of the University of Bologna (Established in 1088) and guilds formed by instructors as in the case of the University of Paris.  If we think that faculty evaluation is a modern introduction, we would be shocked to know that it is infact a medieval  idea and was so stringent as to be humiliating.The Univerisity Bologna which was renowed as a centre of excellence in Law was governed by a guild of students  who hired instructors. To describe their terms of employent as  demeaning would be an under statement which Radshall in his book ‘Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages’   describes eloquently. He notes “The Professor was fined if he was a minute late for the lectures, if he went beyond the time of closing, if he skipped a difficult passage or failed to get through in a given time the portions of the law texts provided by the University. A committe of students  -- the denunciatores doctorum – watched over his  conduct and kept the rectors of his irregularities. If the doctor wanted to be married  a single day of absence was graciously allowed but no honeymoon.”.

 The University of Paris on the other hand was differently governed which  later became a model for other universities to  emulate. If Bologna was renowned for law, then Paris was for theology. In fact people like Peter Abelard made it famous. Unlike the guild of students in Bologna, management was in the hand of a guild of teachers and being associated with the church they were also paid by it. From a small centre of learning situated in an island on the Sienne,  Paris soon became a premier eductional institution in Europe.


In 1167 owing to some quarrell, a group of English teachers in Paris,  came to Oxford , then an obscure little village on the Thames and established the Unversity of Oxford. They of course had the patrongae of King Henry II. Like University of Paris, Oxford was under the control of the Bihsop ‘s chancellor focussed on scholastic philosphy  and had residential  colleges soon.  In 1209 a similar secession from Oxford was instrumental in the setting up of the University of Cambridge. Surprisingly the same malaise afflicted other universities too.  In 1222, there was a split in the University of Bologna and this resulted in the formation of the Unversity of Padua.


In medieval Europe the pre-eminent Unversities were that of Paris and Oxford. But there were others too like Orleans, Montpellier and Poitiers in France, Salerno and Padua in Italy, Rostock in Germany, Valladolid in Spain and Cracow in Poland,

Most of these universities were renowned for some branch of study. Paris and Oxford for theological studies, Bologna  and Orleans for law and Salerno and Montpellier for medicine. This is not surprising when we take into consideration the spirit of those times. Other than the aristocracy, the common man’s hope for peronal advancement in life was either to join the church for which theological knowledge was essential or take up secular vocations like law or medicine.Naturally the focus of studies in universities was bound to be around these subjects.


It was in Salerno that the first medical school named Scuola Medica Salernitana established. Much of the medical knowledge was from Arabic medical texts some of which were original and others translations of Greek physicans like Hippocrats, Galen, and Dioscorides. From very modest beginnings as a small dispensary attached to a monastry, in the 9th century, it became so famous later that it was called Hippocratica Urbs that is Town of Hippocrates.  It was in fact a confluence of cultures, because it not only kept the Greek and Latin medical traditions alive, but also actively borrowed from Arab and Jewish medical sources.  Learning was however not confined to just medicine, but included, theology, philosophy and even law.  The school had in its library the translations  and adaptations of Al-malaki of Ali ibn Abbas  ophthalmology of Hunayn bin Ishaq  and the Viaticus of Ibn al Jazzar . By the thirteenth century , Scuola Medica Salernitana had a rival the medical school of  Montpellier.


The medical school was the brainchild of William VII of Montpellier who established a faculty of medicinein 1180, but with the patronage of Pople Nicholas IV it soon became a university in 1220.


University of Orleans was set up in 1230 and like Bologna was renowned center of learning for Law.In fact when Pope Boniface VIII promulgated the sixth book of decretals  some of the scholars of Orleans were included to study and comment upon it. Some of the well known personalites who studied here were St.Yves, John Calvin and Pierre de Fermat the famous amateur mathematician.


Unlike other parts of Europe, the teaching of law in England was not done in universities, but in Inns of Court which was established during the rein of the Edwards. Syllabus included both the Civil and Canon Law and was the first professional school to impart such learning. Earlier there were  many inns of court but now there are just four active inns and they are Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn,  the Inner Temple and Middle temple. There are official records of Lincoln’s inn which date back to 1422. However as per convention, no inns claims to be the oldest of the four.


The duration of the  basic Bachelor of Arts degree in a medieval university was six years and the subjects studied were logic, arithmatic, geometry,  astronomy, grammar, rhetoric and theories of music. The entry age of the students were usually 15 and classes would commence around 6 AM. Being a student had many advantages.They had the same legal status as the clerics,and therefore got legal protection, which in some cases were misused. Incidentally women were not admitted to these hallowd portals of learning. Once a student completes his basic degree he could go for higher studies, or pursue a vocation of his choice. In case he opted for doing masters or doctorate degree, he would have to put in another twelve years of intense study.  Unlike today studies were  be based on the book or work of an acknowledged authority  like for  example Aristotle.  In fact one of the striking aspect of medieval scholarship was the great revival in interest  of Aristotle. Theology was however the most sort after degree and very difficult to pass too. The church’s patronage increased when after the Gregorian reforms and the need for a trained clergy in canon law made them set up cathedralschools. This  is not surprising if we compare that with our modern times. With the onset of industrial revolution, industrialization and the emergence of big corporations, in the 20th century, management studies became important. Similary during the  feudal  age when the church a big institution, it needed experts in both religious and secular matters. This explains the domination of theology, law and medicine in ancient times. Rhetoric  and logic was included in order to equip  the clergy with the art of debating and disputations. The medieval universities howeer produced great minds like Peter Abelard, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri and  many others.


University of Bologna    1088

Unverstity of Paris  mid-11th Century

University of Oxford 1096

Unviersity of Modena 1175

University of Palencia  1208

University of Cambridge 1209

University of Salamanca 1218

University of Montpellier 1220

Unversity of Padua 1222

Unversity of Toulose1229

University of Orleans 1235


  1. Rashdall  H:Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages   (3 vols)
  2. Fisher H.A.L.: A History of Europe
  3. Hendrik Willem Van Loon:Story of Mankind
  4. Anthony H.D: Science and its Background
Scuola Medica Salernitana

Scuola Medica Salernitana

Great Hall University of Orleans

Great Hall University of Orleans

Classes in a medieval university

Classes in a medieval university

peter abelard and heloise

peter abelard and heloise

St.Thomas Aquinas

St.Thomas Aquinas


ram_m (author) from India on November 25, 2011:

Thank you Cressinia. The information given by you is interesting and valuable.They were really quite ahead of their times.

cressinia on November 13, 2011:

Can especially recommend the University of Padua. Two things are of special interest, one the world's first anatomical theatre, in a compact room with no windows, to keep out the disapproving eyes of the church, and secondly the plaques left by many students, detailing their name, degreee and which country they came from (suprisingly students came from all over Europe).

Related Articles