The Universities, Textbooks, and the Flowering of Scholasticism

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The Universities, Textbooks, and the Flowering of Scholasticism

The Golden Age of Scholasticism.

Scholasticism is a term that was borrowed from the Greek word schole, which means "leisure," and came to mean the activity of a person of leisure or a scholastikos, a scholar. By the twelfth century the term "scholastic" had come to signify the system whereby knowledge was imparted in an organized fashion and with a specific methodology. At first, the term was only applied to those schools which taught a certain curriculum of the seven liberal arts, headed by a scholasticus, or master scholar. Yet as more specific forms of study began to appear, there was need to expand the term scholasticism to signify any type of formal learning that occurred between a teacher of great knowledge and a student. Hence, as universities came into existence during the course of the twelfth century, many historians have called the rise in the level of education the "Golden Age of Scholasticism" in reference to the great importance placed on organized knowledge during this period.

The Rise of the University.

The emergence of the university, a medieval invention, is a complex phenomenon, and it happened slightly differently in different parts of Europe during the course of the twelfth century. There is still considerable debate concerning which was first—Paris, Oxford, Salamanca, and Bologna are all in the running—and the resolution hinges on various criteria. What is essential for a school to be a university? If a written charter is key, for example, then the first university was Paris.

The University of Paris.

In the case of Paris, what started as a cathedral school on an island in the Seine simply outgrew its locale and its structure, owing to the thousands of students from all over Europe, drawn to Paris by charismatic teachers like Peter Abelard. New organizational structures were needed, and out of this need a new institution began to take shape. Nothing quite like it existed before, and in all of its essentials the medieval university was identical with its modern counterpart. These essentials include a group of learned scholars, in different disciplines, all gathered at one place; a fixed course of study, called a curriculum, whose original meaning in the Latin of the day was "a path" or "period of time;" and, at the end of the course of study, a degree, which, proclaimed that its bearer was learned. With this degree in hand (the earliest was descriptively called a licentia ubique docendi, "a license to teach everywhere"), the graduate could present himself at universities such as Oxford, Bologna, or Salamanca, and if there was a position available, he got the job.

A Legal Corporation.

This new kind of institution's standing before the law was crucial to its existence: universities were legal corporations, associations of teachers and students with collective legal rights, often guaranteed by charter, originally from a pope, emperor, or king, and later issued by the town or the local prince or the resident prelate. One important aspect of the university's legal standing was its exemption from the civil law. Membership in a university entailed exemption from military service, from taxation, and from trial in a court of civil law. An advantage of the last was that canon law—under whose jurisdiction fell all clerics—dealt out sentences that were more lenient, and never the death penalty. This system of two laws—one for clerics, including university folk, the other for townsfolk—led inevitably to what were called "town-gown" conflicts. Brawling students causing damage to a local tavern, for example, could not be tried by the local civic authorities; resentments were inevitable, as they are to this day.

A Student-Centered Model.

The other model of corporate organization was in force at Bologna in Italy. The university at Bologna was founded for the study of law, itself spurred by the West's recovery in the late eleventh century of the Roman Law issued by Justinian in the sixth century, later called the Codex Iuris Civilis. At Bologna the corporation or guild (universitas, in medieval Latin) was composed not of faculty, but of students, who ran a tight ship. Faculty members wishing to leave town for any reason were obliged to seek permission of the students; likewise if they wished to marry. Missing classes subjected the truant teacher to a fine. It was also at Bologna that the first women were licensed as teachers, although initially one of them, at least, was obliged to lecture from behind a screen, lest her beauty prove a distraction to her students.

The Focus on Textbooks.

Courses for either model of university were organized not around a subject, but a text. Since books were expensive and in short supply, masters, scribes, and perhaps even wealthier students rented sections or "pieces" of the books (peciae) from "stationers" (so-called from their locations along university streets) to take home and copy, then return to exchange for another. This new book-centered context of learning inevitably left its mark on the way theology and philosophy (and all other disciplines, for that matter) were presented. For the first time in the history of philosophy, philosophers found themselves writing not dialogues or treatises or meditations, but textbooks. A textbook, to be successful, has several requirements: it must be well organized, comprehensive (covering all the essential parts of the discipline), and economically expressed. There was no room or time for fat. The downside was that these works were not especially fun to read.

The Rebirth of Aristotle.

In one of those rare coincidences of history, universities were taking shape at the same time that the philosophy of Aristotle was reaching the West. The two occurrences are closely related. At the time when curricula were being established and authorities were looking about for textbooks, a freshly translated treatise from the pen of the pagan Aristotle appeared at hand as if bidden by the fates. Universal genius that he was, Aristotle had written on nearly every discipline known in antiquity. It was no surprise that Aristotle was quickly incorporated into the curriculum, making it impossible for a student at one of these universities, notwithstanding his philosophical prejudices, to ignore Aristotle.


Marcia L. Colish, Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition 400–1400 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997): 265–273.

Stephen Ferruolo, The Origins of the University: The Schools of Paris and Their Critics 1100–1215 (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1985).

David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought (London: Longmans, 1962): 153–184.

Timothy B. Noone, "Scholasticism," in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Eds. Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone (London: Blackwell, 2003): 55–64.

Hilde de Ridder-Symoens, ed., A History of the University in Europe. Vol. 1: Universities in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, England, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

see also Fashion: Academic, Clerical, and Religious Dress ; Religion: Medieval Education and the Role of the Church

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The Universities, Textbooks, and the Flowering of Scholasticism

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The Universities, Textbooks, and the Flowering of Scholasticism