Flow of Ideas

What Is A University?

Explaining the Rise of Universities in Medieval Europe

Amy Leach, a first year Education Studies student, University of Northampton

10th December 2009

In the modern world, university is something we take for granted. We all think we know what it is, or what it should be; especially those who have been or are at university. Personally, as an undergraduate, I see the university as the place of study, and the place in which I live. This is a common belief in society today, focussing on where the university is, and for some, even choosing to study at a university depending on its location.

When asked what a university is, the answer would come from its ancient title ‘studium generale’; meaning ‘school of universal learning’ (Newman, 1854, online). This does not refer to the location of the university; it focuses on the breadth and depth of learning within the university, for under- and postgraduates, as well as learning at a research level [1].

The word ‘university’ originates from the Latin term ‘universitas magistrorum et scholarium’, first used in the early thirteenth century; meaning a ‘community of teachers and scholars’. The word ‘universitas’ was originally only used in relation to the corporation of students and masters within the studium (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1985). Again, this definition of the origin focuses solely on the people within the university, not the place. This suggests the common belief of what a university is may not necessarily be accurate.

Universities are seen as educational institutions; however, the term ‘institution’ relates to “a body of people with a definite purpose” according to philosophers Hirst and Peters (1970, p.106). They believe institutions have “generalized aims which provide a unity of purpose” for the individuals; in a university context, the unity of purpose is to gain a degree and better ones education (Hirst & Peters, 1970, p.107). This supports the idea of universities as communities of teachers and scholars, and not as “some kind of building … in which a specific type of activity [teaching and learning] goes on” (Hirst & Peters, 1970, p.106).

History confirms the notion that the location of a university is irrelevant. In 1209, scholars migrated to Cambridge for protection from hostile townsmen in Oxford. They settled there, and by 1226, the group of scholars had expanded enough to set up an educational organisation, “arranging regular courses of study, taught by their own members”. This is a perfect historical example that strengthens the importance of the people, irrespective of the place or building (University of Cambridge, 2009, online).

The Open University is another example of a university producing academic excellence without a physical building as a base. The Open University offers “distance learning courses” using communication technology. The initial idea was to produce a “wireless university”, but society was very sceptical of the idea, questioning if the OU is a ‘real’ university. This is a question that would only arise from a society that has a common belief that a university has to be a specific place or building. MP Iain Macleod described the Open University to be “blithering nonsense”, but more than three decades on, the OU continues to produce excellent results, demonstrating universities do not need a central base or building to be successful (The Open University, 2009, online).

Universities and institutions do not necessarily need a physical base to run efficiently, but authority and rules are crucial to success. The authoritative members of an institution are the academics. Hirst and Peters believe that “those who teach undergraduates in general courses should also be doing something themselves towards advancing their own subject” (Hirst & Peters, 1970, p.108). This suggests that learning occurs on all levels within universities, with the central concern being the “advancement and transmission of various forms of skill and knowledge” (Hirst & Peters, 1970, p.108) for under- and post graduates, as well as for the academics and authoritative members of the institution. Christopherson (1973) agrees, stating that a university without research is a very “dull and uninspiring place” and is “bound to fail” (Christopherson, 1973, p.38).

Today, the academics enforce rules within the universities and institutions, however “behind the idea of a rule stands the idea of there being a right and a wrong way of doing things” (Hirst & Peters, 1970, p.113). Although universities allow students to have some choice and freedom within the rules and authority, students do not have full control. In Medieval European universities, especially Bologna and Paris, participatory democracy occurred. There was no definite central organization, but the students eventually seized control in order to run the university their way. Professors and doctors had to “swear absolute obedience to the student-elected student rector” who could pass or change any rule within the university (Rempel, 2005, online).

There are a lot of differences between Medieval European universities and universities of today, the authority of academics being one example, as well as the purpose of the education and the format of subjects and lessons.

Europe’s earliest universities were initiated due to the need to harness the expanding intellectual forces of the eleventh and twelfth centuries (Cobban, 1988). In most instances however, the Church held tight to controls on education. The sole aim in the cathedral schools was to train and produce priests for the Church, but a higher level of education was needed. Some cathedral schools could not accommodate the large numbers of students, and so students and masters expanded the cathedral schools and instigated universities (Gutek, 1972).

This was not the only reason for producing the first medieval universities in the twelfth century; related factors such as the crusades, the revival of commerce and Arabic scholarship stimulated higher education (Gutek, 1972).

The Crusades were “a series of military campaigns during the time of Medieval England against the Muslims of the Middle East” (History Learning Site, 2009, online). The crusades weakened the feudal structure in the early Middle Ages, whilst coming in to contact with new people, places and ideas. Arabic learning was introduced into Western Europe by the crusades, alongside the revival of commercial and city life. This revival aided the economic rise in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, allowing professional studies to be accessible and affordable now that the middle classes had the finance needed (Gutek, 1972).

The Arab world held many classical Greek writings that were originally perceived as being lost; this finding broadened intellectual experience which was declining, and so contributed to the revival of educational learning in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Arab scholars of medicine and mathematics impressed Western Europe with the discovery of works by Aristotle, Euclid and Ptolemy. This rush of new knowledge was not handled well in cathedral schools, initiating the medieval universities (Gutek, 1972).

Arabic learning and the commercial revival led to the development of acclaimed academics such as Abelard, Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas. They attracted thousands of students to their lectures, and due to being so admired and highly praised, their popularity led to the ever rising medieval universities (Gutek, 1972).

In conclusion, universities have risen in popularity and importance due to the overwhelming need to educate oneself further, whether at an undergraduate, postgraduate or research level. Universities are linked to the building or place in which they exist, but it is the people inside the university that are of most importance; the institution, and what they accomplish within it. The essential product of a university is “not a book but a man” (Christopherson, 1973, p.33).

[1] Research is essential in order to become a successful teacher at university level; new knowledge is always beneficial to all (Christopherson, 1973).


Cobban, A. B. (1988) The Medieval Universities: Oxford and Cambridge to c. 1500, Aldershot: Scholar Press.

Christopherson, D. (1973) The University at Work, London: SCM Press Ltd.

Encyclopaedia Britannica (1985) The History of Education, (15th Edition, Volume 18, p.32), Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Macropaedia.

Gutek, G. L. (1972) A History of the Western Educational Experience, Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press Inc.

Hirst, P. H. & Peters, R.S. (1970) The Logic of Education, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

History Learning Site (2009) [online] The Crusades, available from: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/cru1.htm [Accessed 17th November 2009].

Newman, J. H. (1854) [online] The Idea of a University, available from: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/newman/newman-university.html [Accessed 17th November 2009].

Rempel, G. [online] (2005) Medieval Universities, 5 pages available from: http://mars.acnet.wnec.edu/~grempel/corses/wc1/lectures/25meduni.html [Accessed by Glenn Rikowski, Education Studies Tutor, November 2006, but no longer available].

Starkey, M. (2009) [online] What is a University? Explaining the Rise of Universities in Medieval Europe, available from The Flow of Ideas: http://www.open.ac.uk/about/w/p3.shtml [Accessed 17th November 2009].

University of Cambridge (2009) [online] Early Records, available from: http://www.cam.ac.uk/univ/history/records.html [Accessed 17th November 2009].

© Amy Leach 23rd July 2010

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