Sources of illumination

Characterised by creativity and attuned to the needs of their age, the first European universities have important lessons for higher education today, says Miri Rubin

September 29, 2011

As a historian of the Middle Ages, I am frequently asked about the links between universities then and now. Given the momentous changes that are affecting modern-day institutions of higher education and that touch the lives of so many people - students, parents, teachers, employers - such questions have become more frequent and more urgent, too.

All historians (especially those of us who focus on more ancient times) delight in pointing out parallels between "our" period and the present. An assessment of the role of medieval universities reveals some telling affinities between higher education then and now - and may hold lessons for today's turbulent times.

When universities emerged between 1150 and 1200 in Italy, France and then England, they answered the needs of the two main institutions of governance - the Church on the one hand and dynastic kingdoms on the other. These institutions required bureaucrats: people trained in the procedures of government and in its lingua franca, Latin.

The standards of written Latin still depended on the conventions that had developed in the Greco-Roman world, encoded in the liberal arts of rhetoric, logic and grammar. The jobs for university graduates - bachelors of the arts - included the drafting of letters and diplomatic documents and the recording of important transactions, personal and public, ranging from marriage contracts to manorial accounts.

Church and secular rulers also managed systems of justice - Church (canon) law, common law and, in some areas, Roman law - and so required expert personnel, men trained beyond the basic liberal arts with doctorates in the law and in medicine. Postgraduate training also developed in theology and music, subjects central to the functions of the Church.

In order to support this all-important training, rulers and magnates were willing to allow a novel form of organisation to develop, with groups of students and teachers coming together in Bologna, Paris, Oxford and later Cambridge. Rulers exempted universities from legal and fiscal exactions, allowing them to be self-governing. The papacy, in turn, licensed universities so that their degrees were recognised throughout Europe. The BA became the gold standard for a certain type of literacy and administrative capacity throughout the Christian world.

But those rulers who stood to benefit most from the services of well-trained personnel did not provide comprehensive funding for students. While they exempted universities from some dues, just as much of today's educational sector enjoys charitable status, each prospective student had to seek support. For some this was easy: clever monks and friars were supported by their religious houses or orders; bishops sponsored men on the condition that they worked for them post-graduation; lords of manors supported talented local boys who were expected to return as household chaplains, secretaries or priests in parishes on their patrons' estates.

Such arrangements were fairly stable, but most students had to cobble together packages of funding that included patronage, family support and paid work. So it should be noted that dropout rates in medieval universities were very high because many students had to find their own funding. And since students in many instances relied on the whims of powerful benefactors, any breakdown in these relationships could force them to drop out. The lists of matriculated students were always much longer than of those who graduated with the BA.

Here, then, is an important point that is utterly relevant to today's discussions: the more precarious the support for university study, the less likely students are to complete their courses. If students are required to beg and borrow support for years of study, they may well fall out of the system, wasting the time and the funds already invested in them.

Yet another interesting point arises from the high dropout rate at medieval universities: those who left without graduating were nonetheless able to use the skills they had acquired to secure jobs. Those skills were so transferable, considered so useful and in such short supply that even people who had studied for only a year or two had an advantage and could find a place among the thousands of teachers, tutors, scribes and recorders that medieval government - with all its many levels and niches - required. Skills could be easily assessed and engaged even when those who possessed them lacked a BA.

The issue of finance was closely linked to that of recruitment. In the Middle Ages, outside certain areas of present-day Germany and Italy, landed and titled people educated their offspring at home. Their heirs did not need to follow a profession taught and accredited by universities. Only in the mid-19th century did a university education become an expected part of the training of all ambitious men. Universities, then as now, were places where members of the traditional elite came together with aspiring types keen to acquire professional qualifications.

Nor were universities the sole recruiters and trainers of bright, ambitious men. Medieval societies maintained several parallel streams of higher education and training. Whole areas of activity - highly skilled and remunerated - were not taught in universities. There were guild apprenticeships for physicians, merchants and notaries; the Inns of Court for aspiring lawyers; Chancery training for civil servants; workshops for artists; and military training in courts and within fighting units. Such arrangements have survived in the training of barristers and architects, but in all too many spheres apprenticeships have disappeared, even within living memory.

Finally, creativity. The futility of some aspects of medieval university teaching and learning, especially the system known as scholasticism, has long been the subject of Pythonesque satire, just as it was lampooned in the Middle Ages. Scholasticism, a method of training in reasoning through dialectical probing, was applied to questions ranging from the medical to the theological.

Dialectical questioning for and against a proposition was familiar to all educated people, and it enabled some sharp and radical thinking. The philosopher Peter Abelard (1079-1142) used it in Paris to question the existence of God; the theologian John Wycliffe (c.1330-1384) in Oxford to question the nature of the Sacraments and relationships between Church and state; and the biblical scholar and theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546) in Wittenberg to assail a 1,000-year-old system of Christian belief and practice, changing it for ever.

Far from being stale and predictable, medieval university culture produced not only civil servants and ecclesiastical bureaucrats, but also radical thinkers whose work had real impact and who - despite their critiques of the tenets of the most powerful institution - died in their beds, not in prison cells.

How might we, with hundreds of thousands of students in most European states and more in the Americas, India and China, hope to provide broad educational possibilities and monitor the quality and productivity of our universities while fostering such creativity and boldness?

In the medieval universities - big and small - young men were set apart for a period of intensive intellectual and social interaction, away from home, among peers and in the presence of inspiring teachers. They acquired skills that were highly transferable because they were generic: the ability to analyse texts, to argue a case, to examine problems from all points of view, to interrogate questions in order to reach solutions.

The liberal-arts curriculum they followed, then already hundreds of years old, combined instruction in verbal dexterity and training in numbers and proportions. At university, men - some of whom expected to stay in their own countries, to serve and manage, while others aspired to travel in Europe and beyond on missions or for further study - explored all that was essential for the critical understanding of systems, for managing complex entities, for observing the world - natural as well as manufactured - and for the forging of solutions to ever-emergent challenges.

Furthermore, such educated men expected to interact throughout their careers with people accomplished in other skills and trained otherwise: surgeons, notaries, architects, painters, merchants, soldiers, map-makers. Guilds, courts large and small, Inns of Court and family workshops all trained people to high levels of expertise that could lead to financial reward and renown. A combination of university learning and guild training was necessary to produce such marvels as the 13th-century remaking of Westminster Abbey or the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer a century later.

What then might we learn to our benefit from thinking about medieval universities?

First, we ought not to burden students with the uncertainties of having to finance their study during this crucial period of training. Their skills are a common good. Such burdens lead to less than optimal performance and the wasteful abandonment of precious university places.

A second lesson is that the university fosters excellence, but it should not be alone in doing so. While the transferable skills of high-level critical thinking and communication are fundamental, there are other forms of reasoning and practice that deserve support and remuneration.

Third, transferability of skills should be central to higher education. As students are challenged by diverse types of knowledge - literature, languages, arts, social theories, sciences, philosophies, the rich heritage of human understanding - they develop out of those specialised intricacies the ability to analyse and build, correct and complement. What is worth studying should not be decreed by crude utilitarianism. For training the mind, we need Latin and pure mathematics, too.

Medieval employers were quick to appreciate the rare skills imparted by even a year or two of higher education. Universities also taught students to work with others through a shared language, to travel in search of work and to expect to have to pool skills with men trained in other ways.

At a time of flux in modern higher education, policymakers, vice-chancellors and academics should not overlook the past when mapping out the future.

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