Education and the Liberal Arts

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Education and the Liberal Arts


Subjects for Academic Education . During the Middle Ages the word education could have several different meanings. Professionals such as artists were most frequently educated through apprenticeship, a system whereby a boy was contracted to work for a craft master for a specified number of years. In return, the master craftsman provided the boy with food, shelter, and sometimes even a small salary and trained the boy in his craft. Women were rarely apprenticed, and a young woman who received this sort of training generally did so because a near male relative took it on himself to train her. Writing, reading, and other basic academic skills were generally taught at home by a member of the household or a private tutor or in a village by a local


Later a cardinal and patriarch of Jerusalem, Jacques de Vitry (circa 1160–1240) was a student at Paris in the late twelfth century and left an engaging account of student life at that time:

Almost all the students at Paris, foreigners and natives, did absolutely nothing except learn or hear—something new. Some studied merely to acquire knowledge, which is curiosity; others to acquire fame, which is vanity; others still for the sake of gain, which is cupidity and the vice of simony. Very few studied for their own edification, or that of others. They wrangled and disputed not merely about the various sects or about some discussions; but the differences between the countries also caused dissensions, hatreds and virulent animosities among them and they impudently uttered all kinds of affronts and insults against one another.

They affirmed that the English were drunkards and had tails; the sons of France proud, effeminate and carefully adorned like women. They said that the Germans were furious and obscene at their feasts; the Normans, vain and boastful; the Poitevins, traitors and always adventurers. The Burgundians they considered vulgar and stupid. The Bretons were reputed to be fickle and changeable, and were often reproached for the death of Arthur. The Lombards were called avaricious, vicious and cowardly; the Romans, seditious, turbulent and slanderous; the Sicilians, tyrannical and cruel; the inhabitants of Brabant, men of blood, incendiaries, brigands and ravishers; the Flemish, fickle, prodigal, gluttonous, yielding as butter, and slothful. After such insults from words they often came to blows….

Source: Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History (Philadelphia: Published for the Department of History of the University of Pennsylvania by the University of Pennsylvania Press, 1894–1907), series 2, volume 3, p. 19.

clergyman. More-advanced academic education focused on subjects deemed important to medieval administration, philosophy, and theology. This teaching increasingly took place at special schools established at courts or monasteries and in major towns. In his Policratus (1159), a study of bureaucratic structures and official culture, John of Salisbury summarized the educational assumptions of the High Middle Ages: “All those who are ignorant of the Latin poets, historians, orators, and mathematicians should be called Miterait [illiterate or unlettered] even if they know letters.” The lower level of academic education focused on the trivium: Latin grammar, logic, and rhetoric, three linguistic skills that were deemed essential to further study. More advanced education could then be obtained in the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Finally, a scholar might specialize in one of the higher disciplines: Roman law, canon law, or theology. The primary language was Latin, and before 1200 the key sources were classical and early Christian. Students were immersed in the writings of authorities on these earlier texts, and only at the highest levels of their training did they read the actual texts.

Continuation of Charlemagne’s Schools. The medieval system of higher education built on precedents established during the Carolingian Renaissance at Charlemagne’s palace school and at other schools modeled on it. Charlemagne’s successors, such as Louis I (the Pious) and Charles II (the Bald), looked to leading scholars of their time, Benedict of Aniane and John Scottus Eriugena, for educational advice. Great efforts were made to collect ancient books, especially those that would establish correct versions of scripture, the Christian liturgy, and the calendar. Their educational reform was guided by the belief that religion was central to the revival of the arts; bad grammar, corrupt texts, and mistaken calculations were “sins,” impediments to spiritual renewal. They were also convinced that learning and leadership were essential to the moral reformation of society. For them, the ideal Christian ruler supported secular and religious learning that provided good examples for his subjects. In pursuit of this goal Carolingian courts became havens for scholars from all over Europe, who sparked a Platonic revival in philosophy. Carolingian educational reformers established a basic canon of disciplines and authors based on classical precedents. Their use of Roman grammarians, Roman poets, and commentaries on them reveals a zealous desire to instill classical Latin in students of language. Finally, Carolingian educational reform had an impact on the physical tools of learning as well as on its contents. In many respects, Carolingian education was more about texts and books than about pure intellectualiza-tion. From the start of his reforms Charlemagne seems to have regarded the production and collecting of books as an integral part of cultural revival, and his successors built on this model, establishing a court library including works that became central to medieval thought: Augustine’s City of God, Pliny’s Natural History, Dionysio-Hadriana (a collection of canon law), the canons of the Council of Nicea, the Rule of St. Benedict, and classical works by authors such as Horace, Cicero, Cato, and Lucan. These texts were put at the disposal of court scholars and monastic scribes alike. Not until Louis IX (reigned 1226–1270) did such a consultative state/kingly library exist again.

Cathedral and Monastic Schools. Faced with the Viking invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries—and the attendant social and economic dislocations—few academic innovations were made; in fact, it was a struggle to keep much formal education alive at all. When schools were reestablished in much of Europe during the later tenth and eleventh centuries, churches led the way. Cathedrals and monasteries founded or expanded schools to train the civil servants necessary for both secular and ecclesiastical government and to foster the study of God’s word and his text, nature. Well-known monastic schools, such as that at Bee in Normandy, developed during the eleventh century, and preeminent among these early institutions was the cathedral school of Chartres, under Bernard of Chartres who had become its chancellor (or master) by 1115. The curriculum at Chartres was based on the study of “authoritative” Latin books, which Bernard expected the students to memorize. A student who failed to do so received physical punishment. Bernard also attracted advanced students, who engaged in the lectio philosophorum, that is, in the close reading of difficult philosophical texts. Bernard’s important students included Gilbert of Poitiers, William of Conches, John of Salisbury, and, perhaps, Adelard of Bath. Bernard had a profound respect for ancient knowledge and skill. As John of Salisbury once remarked, “Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted aloft on their gigantic stature.” Through his students, Bernard’s methods were spread to many of the important schools of western and central Europe.

Translation and Learning. Beginning about 1120 and continuing until about 1280, “new” arts and learning from southern Islamic lands vastly broadened the relatively limited world of earlier medieval Latin culture and education. The first stirrings of this transformation were found when the Henry I of England appointed the converted Jew Pertus Anfusus (Peter Alfonso) to direct education in England. Anfusus’s “Letter to the Peripatetics (philosophers) of France” was an exhortation to Western Latin scholars to travel to Spain and to Islamic lands to seek learning especially in the mathematical arts. Significant centers for translating newly discovered texts arose in Toledo, Sicily, Antioch, and Tripoli. Spain experienced a large influx of European scholars, including Robert of Chester, Daniel of Morley, Adelard of Bath, Gerard of Cremona, and Herman of Carinthia. Initially, much of the translation was of mathematical, astrological, and geographical texts. The arrival in northern Spain of Abbot Peter the Venerable from Cluny led to the first translation into Latin of the holy book of Islam, the Koran. In Sicily

especially, there were translations of Greek texts into Latin, including Ptolemy’s Almagest. The reception of these writings in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Europe necessitated a new reorganization of schools and study.

The Rise of the University. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a new educational institution arose throughout Europe: the university. Motivated by a need for trained secular and ecclesiastical officials, lords promoted the development of academic communities in their capitals. Reacting to increased demands for their service in various fields of activity and to an influx of new, authoritative texts, the leaders of these establishments fundamentally reorganized the European higher education system. Perhaps, one of the most important aspects of this new institution was its guaranteed juridical status. Because both Church and secular rulers guaranteed academic autonomy, scholarly rights, and free movement of scholars and students, education in the Latin West experienced a qualitative change. Although all universities offered a basic arts curriculum, individual universities gradually specialized in specific subjects, offering advanced degrees in law, medicine, and theology. Students who wanted the best medical education went to Salerno in Italy and Montpelier in France. Those who wanted to concentrate on Roman and canon law aspired to attend Bologna in northern Italy. The University of Paris was a training center for those seeking secular and ecclesiastical offices, because of its strong emphasis on logic and the arts. By the thirteenth century almost all civil servants, Church leaders, theologians, and philosophers had a higher university education, and many were university lecturers. Leading educational centers such as Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Cologne, and Naples were called studia generale (general schools). As such, they could confer the ius ubique docendi (literally, the right to teach everywhere), a license to teach at any university. For this reason, some of the greatest medieval theologians and philosophers taught all over Europe. For example, Albertus Magnus taught at Cologne and Paris; Thomas Aquinas taught at Paris, Rome, and Naples; and John Duns Scotus taught at Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, and Cologne.

Educational Goals. Although many of the debates held at medieval universities might seem esoteric to modern eyes, university educators and the lords who patronized universities generally saw themselves as providing practical, almost utilitarian, education as opposed to the less-worldly education of the monastic and cathedral schools. One of the most striking examples of this transformation took place in twelfth-century Paris, where a major struggle between academic disciplines occurred. There the traditional humanistic pursuit of studying classical texts was challenged by a new interest in logic, science, and mathematical studies inspired by a knowledge of Arabic sources. Degrees in medicine and concentrations on rhetoric were often shortcuts to positions in noble households or further university appointments. The study of Roman and canon law became attractive since it often led to better jobs and greater social mobility. The pragmatic side of education became so apparent by the late twelfth century that John of Salisbury, a successful careerist, lamented, “If you are a real scholar you are thrust out in the cold. Unless you are a money-maker, I say, you will be considered a fool, a pauper. The lucrative arts, such as law and medicine, are now in vogue, and only those things are pursued which have a cash value.” Medieval thinkers, however, could include theology among the utilitarian subjects they studied because of its role in guiding individuals toward the ultimate eternal goal: salvation. In this way, conservative scholars who attacked the corruptive influences of classical texts furthered the utilitarian bent in medieval university education. Preachers and theologians such as Peter Camestor (circa 1164), Alexander of Villedieu (circa 1200), and Jacques de Vitry (died 1240) fulminated against the study of classical authors as a danger to the morals of the young students. In popular sermons, students were exhorted to pass over from the arts to theology and religion. The meteoric rise of grammatical and logical studies in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries led to the view that logic provided the means by which order and system could be found in the study of nature, humanity, and even divinity. Every subject from grammar to medicine, law, and theology fell under the influence of new semantic and logical methods.

Life at a Medieval University. Life for students at medieval universities varied according to factors such as the location of the university, a student’s social class, and his ultimate goals. One of the striking aspects of the medieval university, however, was the similarity in student life at all universities and the ability of scholars who had achieved the ius ubique docendi to teach at any European university. Scholars were organized into small “colleges” when they first arrived. These colleges served as residences for groups of up to twenty or thirty and as places where students received basic instruction. Members of the theology faculty lectured in Latin on topics that fell within the general framework of Old Testament or New Testament, while the arts faculty, which also lectured in Latin, could also include pagan authors. Within these categories professors had a great deal of freedom about what subject they covered. Students chose which lectures they attended and paid the professors according to their perception of the value of a professor’s instruction. Given this arrangement, it is perhaps not surprising that many professors relied on other sources of income. Student life was relatively informal. There were no set standards governing what academic levels a student was required to pass each year. Examinations in the form of public debates occurred when a student wanted to obtain some university certification or degree. Theoretically, a student could stay at the university all his life, although most students went there hoping to earn degrees and recognition that would get them good jobs. At the well-known universities students came from all over Europe, and there were frequently clashes between different groups, as well as between students and the community at large. Because medieval students were considered clergy (clerics or clerks), they were subject to different laws than the surrounding community, which often resented the fact these laws were less likely to require corporal punishment. Battles between “town and gown”—a distinction based on the academic robes, similar to modern graduation robes, that all students and professors were required to wear—sometimes became so fierce that towns tried to impose curfews, limited the size of knives students could carry, and obliged rich students to support poorer ones so that the poor would not be driven to theft or beggary. Such regulations involved a large number of people; thirteenth-century Paris had a population of twenty-five thousand to fifty thousand, of which university students and professors made up approximately 10 percent.

The Art of Memory. Because medieval books and writing materials were expensive and difficult to come by, students and scholars had to rely on their memories for references that modern academics find in books or on the internet. The result was amazing feats of memory and mental organization. To achieve these ends medieval scholars trained themselves in the ars memorativa (the art of memory). Building on the work of classical scholars such as the poet Simonides, any person aspiring to medieval higher education trained his memory to function like a filing system from which to pull information at a moment’s notice. A common starting point was a building of some sort. A student would form a somewhat bizarre, and therefore memorable, mental image of the contents of a room and assign a verbal mnemonic device to these contents. For example, a modern medical student could put a Canadian Mountie in a room with a manacled prisoner. That image would then trigger the device, “Some Criminals Have Underestimated Royal Canadian Mounted Police.” The first letters of each word— S, C, H, U, R, C, M, and P— identify the shoulder, arm, and hand bones: scapula, clavicle, humerus, ulna, radius, carpus, metacarpus, and phlanges. This medical student could then build a connecting room for other body parts, working his or her way through the body until all of the bones were treated. Each subject could have its own house, and complicated philosophical or theological topics led to the construction of entire mental villages populated by unusual people and animals. These structures greatly eased the ability of medieval scholars to retrieve items from the storage system of memory and to organize these materials and thoughts into speeches and texts. Thomas Aquinas is one of the best-known examples of a scholar who used this memory system. Aquinas attested to the importance of memory when he wrote, “For things are written down in material books to help the memory.” Memory was not an aid to writing, rather writing was an aid to the more important skill, memory. Legends attribute to Aquinas prodigious feats of memory and organization. While it is known that he mentally composed and dictated his multivolume Summa Theo-logiae to scribes, by the thirteenth century it was believed that he “used to dictate in his cell to three secretaries, and even occasionally to four, on different subjects at the same time.”


T. H. Aston, gen. ed., The History of the University of Oxford, volume 1, The Early Oxford Schools, edited by J. I. Catto (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

Mary J. Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

A. B. Cobban, The Medieval Universities: Their Development and Organization (London: Methuen, 1975).

LowrieJ. Daly, The Medieval University, 1200–1400 (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1961).

Jacques Le Goff, Intellectuals in the Middle Ages, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan (Cambridge, Mass. & Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1993).

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Education and the Liberal Arts

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Education and the Liberal Arts