2. Medieval Origins of the University

The Medieval and Reformational Origins of  American Academe


 Some basic features of institutions of higher learning,  present in the antecedents of American colleges and universities.

In the Xian West – Europe — Not Byzantine/Islamic/Chinese/Indian universities
– little direct influence on American – or European (Spain and impact of Islam?)
Primary Function
Universities – Places where teachers and students gather so that knowledge at an advanced level possessed by teachers can be transmitted to students, who are later expected to put such knowledge to productive use in positions of responsibility, including becoming their generation’s teachers.

Secondary/Consequent/Optional Functions
Places where young people come of age; sow wild oats… network
Places where teachers can pursue research and study distinct from their teaching
Places where society/the state look for expertise, advice and intellectual support/apologits
Places where society/the state can look for disinterested and impartial views

Teachers/Students/Political-Religious Authorities the key constituencies


Universities do not initiate education/generational transfer
parentsàchildren; apprenticeships; tutors; religious instruction; military service…

Recognized need for a steady flow of young people trained to assume increasingly complex positions within increasingly complex organizations – the Church and the State

Charlemagne – organizer of the Holy Roman Empire
Pope Gregory VIII – 1079 —  extended papacy

Monasteries/Cathedral schools – training a literate, logically adept church bureaucracy
Language skills for retrieving/critiquing ancient learning
legal/administrative skills for managing a far-flung church
Early identification of  talent broadly drawn from society

Medieval parish priests – barely literate
Bishops/cardinals/nuncios/popes – Not necessarily more pious/devote; but pretty
assuredly more educated/learned/sophisticated
Some of the first European universities:

Bologna        1088
Paris              1119/1150
Oxford           1167
Cambridge    1209
Salamanca     1218
Coimbra        1290
Florence        1321
Heidelberg    1385

Erfurt            1379

St. Andrews  1413
Wittenberg    1502


Initiative varied:
Students – Bologna  [student-run at start; hiring tutors/Kaplan kiosk in student union]
Teachers – Paris
Local municipality/ later exempt from town jurisdiction à town/gown clashes
Church blessing/Royal charter – licenses/degrees issuers; potential employers

Private benefactions/personal agendas


Two levels of training:
Baccalaureate/Seven Liberal Arts [6 years; 15 to 21]:
MA/Doctorate [9 to 12 years]:  theology/law/medicine


Student life:
Seminarian/cleric status – beholding to local bishop?
Most continental universities did not provide residential accommodations
à student quarters in Paris, Heidelberg…still don’t (Florence)
House maintained by religious orders – Dominicans/Franciscans/Benedictines

English variation:
”Colleges” – residential accommodations for university students; also took on some responsibilities for preparing/tutoring students for university exams

Oxford  University (1167) – now some 40 colleges

Balliol (1249) – private benefactions
Merton (1260)
Several set up by/for religious orders –  Gloucester (1283-1539)/Benedictines
Cambridge University (1209) – 31 colleges
Pembroke (1347)
Corpus Christi (1352)
King’s College (1441)

Queen’s College (1448)


Colleges self-governing and self-financed (own endowments)

John Maynard Keynes handling the endowment of King’s College, Cambridge, where

he was a fellow

C. P. Snow, The Masters (1951) – a contested election of a Cambridge College’s master



English Universities – Catholic until the 1530s; dissolution of the monasteries, 1539;
Anglican/CofE/ Protestant after that, with momentary lapse under Mary in 1550s
Admission to Oxford limited to Anglicans/subscribers to 39 Articles

Degrees from Cambridge limited to Anglicans


Excluded acknowledged Catholics, Jews, later, dissenting Protestants (Quakers, Methodists, Baptists )

Admission largely through attendance at “public schools” – Winchester (1382); Eton
Occasional admission of scholarship student
royalty/nobility kids not directed to University until 19th C



Faculty posts limited to men/to professed Anglicans/some limited to single men in holy orders

University posts subject to politics – standing in Parliament/or among the bishops an important condition for appointment
College positions/fellows/tutors  – patronage/log rolling, as well as demonstrated

brilliance as a student

Capacity to drink port… “In my day, spilled more than you drink…”

Gibbons on Oxford on the 1760s in his Autobiography


Rise of the “Red Bricks”

University College London (1826)
Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds


Reforms of mid-19th century


The Reformation and Oxbridge


Europe’s universities very much involved in the internal debates of the Roman Catholic Church and the church/state tensions of the late 15th and 16th centuries that led to the Protestant Reformation

John Wyclif – Balliol College in 1350s — vernacular Bible
Martin Luther – a product of German universities of  Erfurt and Wittenberg

Ulrich Zwingli – Vienna, Bern, Basel
John Calvin, Paris, Orleans

But, so, also, Thomas More – opposed Henry VIII; hanged 1635; an Oxford man


Dons at Oxford and even more, Cambridge colleges, pressing for more thorough break with Rome than Elizabeth (1558-1603) and her Stuart successors (James I (1603-1625, Charles I (1625-1649); self-described as Puritans;  particularly distressed with the backsliding of Bishop William Laud, Bishop of London (1628-33) Archbishop of Canterbury (1633-45) [St. John’s College, Oxford University [College Master 1611-16]

Colleges producing/harboring regime critics: Many being pursued by Laud à deposed of their livings; threatened with jailing; forcing them into exile à America
– not to Virginia/not to Plymouth/Not to NY or Penn à Massachusetts

Massachusetts leadership exiled Puritans/but also Cantabrigians
John Winthrop – Trinity College, Cambridge à Inns of the Court – Mass. governor
John Cotton – Trinity College à Emmanuel College – swing man in Antinomian crisis
Thomas Shepard – Emmanuel College, Cambridge – organizer of college in Cambridge
John Wilson
Richard Mather, Brasenose College, Oxford
Nathanial Eaton, Trinity College, Cambridge – first headmaster at Harvard
Roger Williams , Pembroke College, Cambridge (1627) – forced from mass; founder of RI
John Wheelwright, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge – Antinomian ally of Anne Hutchinson
Thomas Hooker, Queens College à Emmanuel College
Henry Dunster, Magdalene College, Cambridge – first president of harvard
John Harvard, Emmanuel College, Cambridge (MA 1635) – to Charlestown, Mass., 1637; died, 1638; half his estate (800 pounds) and library to  new college in Cambridge



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