Medieval Beginnings

History  3570x/Spring 2014
2nd Meeting
January 27, 2014

2. 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?)
And not some much in northern Europe – Italy and France; Spain and Portugal, before Northern Europe (Germany/Scandinavia/Russia)
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… social networking
Places where teachers can pursue research and study distinct from their teaching
Places where society/the state look for expertise, advice and intellectual support/apologists
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 – fending off heretics
Legal/administrative skills for managing a far-flung church
Early identification of  talent [“smarty pants”] 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/land to rent)

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 to 1530s àProtestant Reformation under Henry VIII
Henry “Defender of the Faith” earlier when Martin Luther mounted a challenge to Rome

Henry’s dispute with Rome – securing a male heir

Assumes head of English church;
Shuffles church leaders to secure loyalist (Thomas More,    Fisher  out;
Dissolution of the monasteries, 1539; advantageous sales
Anglican/CofE/ Protestant after that, with momentary lapse under Mary in 1550s

Oxford and Cambridge Protestantized – More royal oversight
Catholic colleges closed or converted; (“recusants”); new Protestant ones founded
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, we spilled more than you now 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
The Dominican priest in Florence — Savonarola – University of Ferrera (1391)
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]

The Puritan critique of the standing order:
Had not sufficiently broken with Roman Catholicism in ceremony and authoritarian structure;
Gave too much authority to church leaders (and now crown); too little to individuals who had their own consciences and their own take on Biblical readingsà Antinomianism
Gave too little sovereignty to God – or agency to the Holy Spirit – as active interveners in individual lives
Man not able to lead a life that merited salvation – could not earn your way to
heaven by prayer, sacraments, “gospel of good works” — Arminianism
Man saved by God’s arbitrary selection à “Gospel of Grace”

If Catholicism too priest-centered, conformist  and institutionally protective
Protestantism too questioning of authority and radically individualistic

Certain Cambridge colleges took the lead in producing/harboring regime critics:

Emmanuel (John Cotton/Thomas Shepard/John Wilson/Thomas Hooker/John Harvard)
Trinity (John Winthrop/Nathaniel Eaton/
Pembroke (Roger Williams)
Sidney Sussex (John Wheelwright)
Magdalene (Henry Dunster)
Bishop of London/Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud – Charles I’s designated harasser of Cambridge-bred Puritan troublemakers à  deprive them of  livings as churchmen, as academics, as public officials

What to do?
Go to ground in England?    What “recusant” Catholics had done
Emigrate to Protestant Europe (Holland, Geneva)? Marian Exiles in 1550s
Go to America and await developments à Massachusetts

Not the first Englishmen to do so:

1. Virginians – Roanoke/Jamestown in 1607 – commercial/piratical undertaking by religious conformists and soldier-types (John Smith)

2. Pilgrims to Plymouth in 1619 – Permanently disaffected (“Separatists”) from English
scene (a decade in Holland); few university men in this movement; did not see themselves as “a city upon a hill” – that a conceit of University men who came ashore 20 miles to the north….

Last updated: January 11, 2014

1 Response to Medieval Beginnings

  1. Saige Frank says:

    When multiple universities first began to open up in the same country (I.e. Oxford and Cambridge) did students graduate with differing statuses based on what school they attended? For example, were oxford graduates in highest demand? Or was that level of education all considered worthy of the same high status because of the small percentage of people who were that educated?

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