Education History: Universities in Medieval Europe

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Page count 4
Word count 1289
Read time 5 min
Subject Education
Type Essay
Language 🇺🇸 US


University is the word used to present the corporation of students and teachers and when it comes to talk about universities in the medieval Europe i.e., from 5th to 13th centuries, history reveals that university was considered to educate students in a way that captivates a student’s relationship between the church and methodology of scholastic education. Since religious philosophy was considered as a significant source of ideas and that was what the mission of the university was about, educational philosophy was considered to be the philosophy of higher education.

Main body

Middle ages education was based upon strict hierarchy i.e., the period that ranged between 500-1000 A.D with teaching from Jesus Christ, going through popes and congregation members and ended up in a stable society. With a feudal system after 1066 A.D, education standard turned out to be more ‘religious’ as church was declared as the main key of education. With such a religious pattern, since it was impossible to educate females for the reason they could not become priests or leaders, bi-level education developed. One referred to those who deemed to have a basic understanding of Christianity, while the other level entailed priests and monks.

The first universities emerged in the reign of Charlemagne Charles (742-814) when he declared church as a source of providing free education to those who prove themselves really deserving. Since the inception of universities, education was involved in conflict since it was spreading from clergy to courtly and there was a rift for being given a national or supranational authority over institutions, therefore they were natural allies for both the papacy and the monarchies in their struggles against local bishops, who were at that time more or less independent, and often quite formidable forces (Porter 2001, p. 128).

When Alfred the Great in 871 started ruling, he encouraged the future monks to be highly educated as well as liberal. This liberalism was appreciated and only licensed teachers were allowed to teach after getting approval from community bishops. Although medieval universities were new institutes based on serving religious thought and philosophy, they operated within a specific field of study, primarily theological (Academic Freedom, 2007).

It would not be wrong to say that arising within the boundaries of medieval European universities was the dominant philosophy of Scholasticism under which human reasoning was explored and evaluated in line with the biblical truth. It was this human reasoning that laid the grounds to which we call today as modern empirical science. In medieval Europe with the rise of universities, arise ‘humanism’ while escorting humanists to research their true value and morals (Scott 2006, p. 6).

The West is considered as the innovator in maintaining self-governance in universities. Universities whether current or of earlier era, have always been based on some institutional expression of the ‘republican’ principle of the autonomy of knowledge in modernity and which goes back to the medieval origins of the university as a corporate organisation modeled on the medieval guilds (Delanty 2002).

Elementary and grammar education was exceptionally expansive throughout much of Europe by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, perhaps first in Italy by the early fourteenth century, then in France, Germany and Spain. England, after a slow development in education witnessed a dramatic growth that occurred in the fifty years prior to the Reformation (1480–1530). Particularly in the context of Italian and English education, scholars have gradually built up a more detailed picture of the institutional numbers and framework of these schools, of the curricular content, and of classroom practice (Courtenay & Miethke, 2000, p. 182).

Universities are the creation of medieval Europe which in early Middle Ages was limited only to the ruling class and clergy. At that time i.e., prior to the 5th-6th century education was considered to be the reading, understanding and translating of sacred texts, this included coding and organising several materials from the classical era as well. Education sessions were limited to be conducted in cathedral and monastery schools, and were obtained by wealthy. The credit of introducing universities particularly goes to Charlemagne, under which education revival took place in the form of monastery school of tours (Medieval Universities, 2008a).

The Greeks and the Romans, initially were deprived of universities in the sense in which the word has been used for the past seven or eight centuries. Despite higher education, the term ‘university’ was not used in the sense for which it is used today. Teachers and masters delivered their instructions mostly for law, rhetoric, and philosophy but still it was not organised into the form of permanent institutions of learning. Historians have witnessed medieval universities strong connections to the church, in fact modern university has the roots of medieval universities (Adamo 2006).

According to Haskins & Holt (1923) a university took the form of an organised body in the twelfth century and by 1231 it had developed into a formal corporation, which offered services of a university of masters. Initially it had four faculties, each operated under a dean: arts, canon law, medicine, and theology. Master of Arts was grouped into four ‘nations’, the French, including the Latin peoples; the Norman; the Picard, including also the Low Countries; and the English, comprising England, Germany, and the North and East of Europe (Haskins & Holt 1923, p. 24).

European education in the Middle Ages is governed and remembered as one of the three events which took place in the form of a movement during medieval education. Each event escorted university to produce changes in western thought, culture, and institutions.

Carolingian educational reforms: The first educational reforms which shaped seven liberal arts and introduced them as a school curriculum and as the basic framework of education. These reforms helped and made rudimentary grammatical, rhetorical and scriptural learning available on a broader scale and created a literate culture in Europe where such education had never been available before, particularly to the underprivileged. As mentioned above the institutional shift that made the spread of learning possible on a large scale was the revitalising of monastic and cathedral schools.

Ottonian educational innovations: The second educational innovations flowed into the intellectual trend as referred to by historians as medieval humanism. This trend as was set according to an ‘institute’ laid its foundation as the cathedral school and as conveyor of ‘civil manners’ and educator of future administrators in worldly and ecclesiastical courts. It considerably broadened the scope of education in court and civil arenas while contributing minimum to rational thought, in fact retarding, since it was based on personal authority and discouraged skeptical, critical thinking. No doubt its cultural contribution was more than the social values of the European aristocracy, at least that side of their social values that set gentleness and modesty against harshness and arrogance, the codes of behavior we know as civility and courtesy.

Critical innovations: This change which occurred in the course of the twelfth century represented a shift to rational inquiry and systematic critical thought. However it was based on the ground of some independent schools which emerged in Paris in the course of the twelfth century as a result of the end of the bishop’s monopoly on instruction. According to Jaeger (1994) “While having intellectual contribution in scholasticism, its cultural contribution was minimal the individual schools evolved into the institution of the university, and its bequest is that institution with its traditions of systematic, critical thought” (Jaeger, 1994, p. 325).


The medieval universities transformed into modernism when many scholars started believing that education when reconcile with human reason and Christian faith promotes a profound modern development. Today even many authors perceive the medieval university far more socially responsible than previous universities because of those ethical values that were emphasised by humanist professors’ of that era.


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  2. Adamo C. Phillip, 2006 ‘Medieval Connections: Active Learning and the Teaching of the Middle Ages’: Teaching History: A Journal of Methods: vol. 31: 2.
  3. Courtenay J. William & Miethke Jurgen, 2000. University and Schooling in Medieval Society: Brill: Boston.
  4. Delanty Gerard, 2002. ‘The Governance of Universities: What Is the Role of the University in the Knowledge Society?’ :Canadian Journal of Sociology: vol. 27: 2.
  5. Haskins Homer & Holt Henry, 1923. The Rise of Universities: New York.
  6. Jaeger C. Stephen, 1994. The Envy of Angels: Cathedral Schools and Social Ideals in
  7. Medieval Europe, 950-1200: University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia.
  8. Medieval Universities, 2008a
  9. Porter Jean,  2001. pp. 12 ‘Misplaced Nostalgia: Ex Corde & the Medieval University’: Commonweal: vol.128: 8.
  10. Scott C. John, 2006. ‘The Mission of the University: Medieval to Postmodern Transformations’ :Journal of Higher Education: vol. 77: 1.

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EduRaven. (2021, October 19). Education History: Universities in Medieval Europe. Retrieved from


EduRaven. (2021, October 19). Education History: Universities in Medieval Europe.

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"Education History: Universities in Medieval Europe." EduRaven, 19 Oct. 2021,


EduRaven. (2021) 'Education History: Universities in Medieval Europe'. 19 October.


EduRaven. 2021. "Education History: Universities in Medieval Europe." October 19, 2021.

1. EduRaven. "Education History: Universities in Medieval Europe." October 19, 2021.


EduRaven. "Education History: Universities in Medieval Europe." October 19, 2021.