Medieval Education and the Role of the Church

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Medieval Education and the Role of the Church

The Rise of Education.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the many social and economic changes which came about in European society helped create an increased interest in education. Burgeoning bureaucratization within both civil and church administration created the need for educated men with abilities in the area of law (both canon and civil). The universities also began to teach medicine. In cities like Bologna, the study of rhetoric and Roman law was useful for both canonists and those who drafted legal documents in secular society. Such a school or studium during the twelfth century drew such people as the great medieval canon lawyer Gratian, Thomas Becket, and Pope Innocent III. It was at this time, also, that the universities slowly began to separate themselves from the firm control of the church. However, as late as 1200, the majority of students were still ecclesiastics. For example, at Bologna, no one could be made a medical doctor without permission of the archdeacon.

Monastic and Cathedral Schools.

Prior to the age of the studium or of university scholars (through the mid-eleventh century), monastic schools had been the most stable force in education. Although the boys who were sent there were children of the nobility who may or may not have had an interest in clerical life, much of the schools' curriculum focused on teaching them to read and write Latin, and preparing them to join the ranks of the church. Monastic lives of prayer, silence, labor, and meditation were not, of course, always conducive to the free exchange of thought. However, these monasteries did become great repositories of knowledge, in that many of the books of the day (particularly religious texts) were copied by hand in monastic scriptoria and stored in their libraries, as shown in an illustration of monks using a monastic library from a French manuscript of the fourteenth century. On the secular side, some women, as well as young men of privilege, were instructed at court, learning to read and write Latin; but their education was rarely broad or extensive. Between 1050 and 1200 the cathedral schools (or bishop's schools) assumed the leading role in education. Bishops had traditionally been entrusted with providing for the education of the secular clergy. Cathedral schools were often staffed by clerics who lived as canons, residing on the grounds of the bishop's estate or in the town nearby. These schools were rather flexible in their structure and invited learned men or "masters" to come and lecture to their students. The effectiveness of the system, however, was somewhat variable since the school's reputation depended on a single master and often, when he was gone, did not survive him. Thus, both masters and students traveled from cathedral town to cathedral town looking for the best environments in which to teach and learn. Eventually the cathedral schools insisted that the masters possess formal licenses to teach, which were issued by the chancellors (licentia docendi). These are actually the pre-cursors of modern academic degrees. Anyone attending a cathedral school at this time took minor church orders and held status as a cleric. This status gave them immunity from civil courts—that is, they were under the jurisdiction of canon (church) law and ecclesiastical courts, which usually gave milder sentences for serious crimes. This distinction in legal status applied also to the new universities and was at times a source of conflict between "town and gown."

The Birth of Universities.

As the number of traveling students increased, some schools tried a new plan of keeping students in one place by engaging multiple masters, who then separated from the cathedral schools and took up residence in other parts of major cities. These new teachers were paid directly by the students, so, in effect, the least popular instructors often found themselves out of work. This competitive climate of intellectual revival brought about the appearance of the great universities in the 1200s and 1300s. To protect their interests, the students and scholars began to form guilds, from which the university structure eventually grew (universitas was a Latin word for corporation). The universities literally became independent legal entities. Masters in Paris received a royal charter around 1200 for their university. Some of the finest churchmen and independent clerical scholars came to Paris to teach. Originally they rented out halls for their classes on the left bank of the Seine River, which soon became known as the Latin Quarter because Latin was the language of learning. The guild received approval from Rome in 1231 and soon became a model for other European universities, although some cities, such as Oxford and Cambridge in England as well as Salerno and Reggio in Italy, had begun university-style systems of education even earlier, during the twelfth century. While these universities were growing in secular influence, they also became the place where religious orders like the friars sent their most talented brethren to teach and study. The curriculum was comprised of the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and Quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music). There was master's level work offered at these universities in law, medicine, and theology, which took five to seven years to complete. Theology students had to be thirty years of age before they could undertake the degree. However, education which was once geared exclusively toward the clergy (although this is not completely true of the Italian schools) had now become much more liberal and was certainly not just for clerics. Most students were from the upper and lower nobility, some sons of knights, although offspring of the merchant class soon began to break into their ranks. The founding of hundreds of European universities continued through the thirteenth, fourteenth, and early fifteenth centuries. Over time, fewer than half of the students in these institutions were seeking education related to the service of the church. The advent of humanism saw a greater variety of other disciplines added to the curriculum.

Scholastic Inquiry in the Medieval University.

While, strictly speaking, scholasticism was the intellectual tradition of logical inquiry practiced in medieval schools, it has come to be understood as the attempt to use techniques of Aristotelian logical inquiry to link Christian revelation, church doctrine, and the mysteries of the natural universe in a deeper and more reasonable understanding of the Christian life. While the theoretical basis for scholasticism was introduced in the late Roman period by early philosopher-theologians like St. Augustine and Boethius, in the medieval period it appears in the ninth century in the work of John Scotus Eriugena who made the important distinction between reason and the revelation of sacred scripture. The scholastics drew upon the logical analysis of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, establishing a common method of inquiry by posing a question, following lines of thought presented by earlier authoritative scholars, and attempting to reason their way to a logical conclusion. Early scholastic problems dealt with attempts to explain the notion of Christ's presence in the Eucharist. A debate between the theologian Berengar of Tours (998–1088) and the Benedictine Lanfranc of Bec (1010–1089) during the mid-eleventh century resulted in the development of the doctrine of transubstantiation (conversion of the substance of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, with appearances of bread and wine remaining). Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), a pupil of Lanfranc, employed a dialectical method (a form of debate marked by the dynamic of inner tension, conflict, and interconnectedness), and began to examine necessary truths of the Divine mysteries, attempting to postulate them in a logical argument. Anselm's famous proofs for the existence of God, while subsequently refuted, formed the departure point for problems of scholastic theological inquiry that preoccupied scholars for the rest of the Middle Ages.

The Height of Scholasticism.

Around the middle of the thirteenth century, the scholastic tradition reached its peak with the work of Albertus Magnus (1200–1280), St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), and St. Bonaventure (1215–1274). The establishment of the universities with their faculties of theology contributed greatly to the development of this scholarship, as did the promulgation of Aristotle's concept that all human thought originates with the senses. Western interest in Aristotle and other classical texts was revived in part due to contact with Eastern Christian and Muslim ideas during the time of the Crusades. European scholars eagerly began to translate Greek and Arabic works into Latin. Patristics (works of the early church fathers), classical philosophy (some of which included commentary by Muslim philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroës), and Jewish thought (such as that represented by Moses Maimonides) became sources of new learning in Western Europe. Most scholastic argumentation was driven by the Aristotelian questions (sometimes described as the Four Causes) regarding the nature of things in the universe: What are these things made of? What shape do they take? How do they come to be? What were their purposes? The use of categories and the notion of causality led to attempts to place the existence of God and the mysteries of creation philosophically within the limits of human understanding.


A. B. Cobban, Medieval Universities (London: Methuen, 1975).

Hilde de Ridder-Symoens, ed., A History of the University in Europe. Vol. I (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Armand Maurer, Medieval Philosophy (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1982).

R. W. Southern, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).

see also Philosophy: The Universities, Textbooks, and the Flowering of Scholasticism