Before the Middle Ages, education was the responsibility of the Church. As the need for education spread to those who were not clergy, monasteries could no longer meet the needs of education. This lesson explores the decline of monastic education and the rise of the university.
Monasticism and the High Middle Ages
Crusaders returned home with the works of classical scholars
Monks are Christians who adhere to rules that separate them in some way from society. The earliest monks may have been found in ancient Egypt. Early monks were hermits who rarely interacted with any other people. They spent their days focusing on spirituality and maintaining solidarity. However, these early monks didn't always sustain their solitude. Eventually, monks began to form connections with each other for mutual support. Monasteries developed when monks found they could successfully sustain a spiritual life by living, working, and worshipping together under the same roof.
Many monastic orders developed over the years. In medieval Western Europe, monks spent their days praying and working. Their work would entail either writing or performing physical labor to maintain their home and grounds. Those who were literate would copy important texts to preserve them.
Until the High Middle Ages, monasteries were dominant centers for education. The High Middle Ages spanned from around the 11th century to the 13th century. Leading up to this time, the Catholic Church had become the dominant religion in Western Europe. Most national churches were Catholic, meaning they all answered to the same guy: the Pope. Catholicism's popularity led to a vast accumulation of wealth and increasing power for the Pope. As his influence grew, the Pope attempted to extend his reach to secular and political matters, pushing nobles and royals to support whatever papal agenda was prominent at the time.
The Crusades' Impact
Medieval craftsmen and artisans created guilds
In the 11th century, the Pope called Christians to travel to the Near East to fight for control of the Holy Land. This is called a crusade. Crusaders began to flock to the East in support of the Pope's war. They discovered ancient manuscripts were being preserved. These manuscripts had been written in classical times by ancient Mediterranean cultures, like the ancient Greeks, for example. The texts were written by classical scholars like Plato and Aristotle and pondered over subjects like philosophy, science, mathematics, and astronomy. Crusaders returned with these texts.
The Growth of Education
During this time, Western Europe was experiencing a population increase. Increased trade and commercialism led to a higher demand for clerics who could read and keep records. As we've learned, until now monasteries were in control of education. However, education was generally limited to those who needed to be literate - mainly clergy. Now other citizens needed to be able to read and write. Church schools could no longer handle the educational needs of the people and town schools began to open. This meant people other than clergy could now receive a classical education. Classical texts had become more accessible and schools became more numerous.
Teachers took the ideas of their classical predecessors and taught students to reason and interpret rather than lecturing. Debating became one of the dominant forms of education. Debating could be useful for administrators and lawyers, who were needed both in the Church and within the royal community.
The University is Born
As educational centers were developing in Western Europe, many medieval people were forming guilds. Medieval guilds were formed by artisans and craftsmen to help regulate quality and ensure fair prices for goods. Likewise, students and teachers at educational centers organized themselves into associations and petitioned for legal rights. This is where the term 'university' comes from. The word universitas in Latin means 'a group of people organized into one guild'.
The University of Paris is one of the first universities
One example of this legal right is the idea of academic freedom. At one of the earliest universities, the University of Bologna, a charter was adopted that allowed a traveling scholar to be unimpeded as he pursued his scholarly ventures. A charter was a document that formalized the rights of a university.
Another of the earliest universities is the University of Paris. After a quarrel between a student, school officials, and locals in Paris, masters and students in Paris formed themselves into a universitas and approached the French king asking for protection and privileges. The representatives who spoke to the king threatened to leave Paris to teach elsewhere, and the king realized he would lose many people and their tax money if everyone involved in the Parisian educational center left. The king agreed to protect the members, and eventually educational requirements and standards were recognized.
Before the University of Paris received its formal recognition, several English scholars were forced to leave France. Many of them returned to England and settled in the area of Oxford. Teaching had likely already begun in this area, but the arrival of more scholars helped the school develop into a university. Several religious orders, like mendicant groups (including the Dominicans and the Franciscans), also settled in Oxford and created housing for the students. The University of Oxford sustained a high standard of education and exists as one of the most highly regarded universities today.
Universities became popular and could be found all over Europe. Leaders saw the potential for having well-educated thinkers surrounding them. The reasoning and scholasticism inspired by classical texts in learning allowed people to develop skills in argumentation and problem-solving that, before, would not have existed. Education became more readily available as it was encouraged by both leading influences in Western Europe: the Pope and the royals.
Before the Middle Ages, education was mainly a function of, and necessary only for, clergy in the Catholic Church. Catholicism was the dominant religion all over Western Europe, giving a heavy influence to the Pope. Clergy were encouraged to be educated so they could read scripture, but the Church saw little need for anyone outside of their ranks to possess this skill. Monastic centers developed as groups of monks found comfort and encouragement in each other's company. As many monks were literate and could copy texts, they became centers for educating clergy.
However, due to a combination of newly available classical texts and a high demand for secular clerics and record-keepers, the monks could no longer meet the educational needs of their town. Town schools developed and taught students with classical knowledge and classical methods. Students learned to reason and debate. While education spread, there were a growing number of scholars who became teachers. As guilds began to form among artisans and craftsmen to ensure quality and standardize pay, teachers and students also formed associations to protect themselves and create their own standards. These associations were known as universitas, and as formalized charters were obtained to grant members privileges and protection, universities were born.
This video lesson will help you describe the impetus and eventual growth of universities in Europe during the Middle Ages.