The Medieval Universitas

This article has been contributed by Marci Freedman, a medieval historian who has recently completed her PhD at the University of Manchester. Her research profile is available on:

The University as an institution is often associated with the built environment. Its infrastructure reflects a certain gravitas and they seem to breathe an air of erudition. Universities are incredibly proud of their buildings which highlight their beginnings and their heritage; no campus tour is complete without these points of interest. Whilst this may provide the history of a specific university, it is not the physical environment which can inform us about the early rise of the university as a socio-cultural development of the twelfth century. In fact, the infrastructures of universities across Europe often do not accord with their earliest years as the majority of buildings are late medieval or early modern foundations. To truly understand the rise of the university in the Middle Ages, one must turn to the people and cities who provide the backdrop. It is the purpose of this post to explore who comprised the earliest universities, their position within respective university cities and what this reveals about the university as a place of learning in medieval European society.

Medieval uni

The true beginnings of Europe’s oldest universities are obscure. What is certain is that the university is a development of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Within these uncertain beginnings are wandering scholars – men who travelled to seek out masters of a specific subject, or who followed these masters from city to city. Masters attracted scholars through their reputation which led to students hiring them for instruction, thereby establishing a learning group known as a universitas (learning community). Other universities were established by the Church who paid the masters, and others still were established by the nobility and state. The earliest university structure was predominantly transient and comprised of lectures organised in ad hoc locations, often private halls and Churches. Certain cities did emerge as the leaders in specific fields – Bologna for law, Paris for theology (to name just two), with students travelling from across Europe to attend them. This tied universities to the urban expansion that was occurring across medieval Europe.

With the influx of students into cities the demand for goods, services and accommodation rose, as did the prices of these necessities. A student would typically require a range of supplies and services, including (but not limited to) stationary, books, clothes, food, ale/wine and money changers. In the natural course of supply and demand, prices could be extortionate. In response, students and masters began to organise themselves into guilds against the exploitations of townsmen. One means was to threaten to leave the city and take their learning elsewhere (as students in Paris did in 1229). A second option was to negotiate a charter with the town which would grant privileges to masters and students – such as price fixing and student exemptions from civil jurisdiction (although they remained subject to the ecclesiastical courts). To further mitigate the inflated prices of room and board, purpose-built colleges were erected in some towns, particularly in Oxford. The beginnings of the University as an institution – one which was self-governing and insular – caused tensions between “town and gown” (the city and the university) and, at times, erupted into violence (such as Oxford’s famous St Scholastica Day of 1355). Nonetheless, teaching continued and physical structures were gradually built which further tied universities to specific cities and entrenched them within the urban landscape.

The student body was entirely comprised of literate men, anywhere from their mid-teens to thirties, who arrived at the university with a range of motivations and incomes. All were proficient in Latin, the lingua franca of medieval learning and allowed for men of different nations to converse. It is difficult to trace the daily lives of students, and little evidence survives which shed light on this section of urban society. Some of the documentation which has been left to us include: university and college statutes, student manuals, court and law records, sermons, as well as letters from students themselves. Much of this data provides a one-sided portrayal of lazy, reckless and haughty students who were a nuisance to the general populace. Townspeople might typically complain about ‘brawling, whoring, dicing, swanking around in inappropriate clothing, singing, dancing, carrying weapons and insulting not only the respectable citizens but also the forces of law and order’.[1] The extant evidence does little to differentiate between the different classes of students – the idle and aimless versus the diligent and academically gifted students – and can offer quite a negative image. Amongst the paucity of evidence is a body of letters which does shed some light on the daily lives of students. Reinforcing this image is a letter from a father to a son who sternly writes:

I have recently discovered that you live dissolutely and slothfully, preferring license to restraint and play to work and strumming a guitar while the others are at their studies, whence it happens that you have read but one volume of law while your most industrious companions have read several. Wherefore I have decided to exhort you herewith to repent utterly of your dissolute and careless ways, that you may no longer be called a waster and your shame may be turned to good repute.[2]

Those who did attend university for academic pursuits were by far the larger group; though they remain less conspicuous in the documents. Of those that have survived, we are often presented with an image of the cash-strapped student which may resonate with their modern counterparts. For example, two twelfth-century brothers wrote to their father requesting funds:

This is to inform you that, by divine mercy, we are living in good health in the City of Orleans, and are devoting ourselves wholly to study…We occupy a good dwelling, next door but one to the schools and market-place, so that we can go to school every day without wetting our feet. We have also good companions in the house with us, well advanced in their studies and of excellent habit…Wherefore lest production cease from lack of material, we beg your paternity to send us by the bearer…money for buying parchment, ink, a desk, and other things which we need, in sufficient amount that we may suffer no want on your account (God forbid!) but finish our studies and return home with honour…[3]

Although only one example, it begins to balance the view and reveals that there were plenty of assiduous students in attendance. The majority of requests were replied to by parents who remitted the desired amount – though some parents might have added a caveat for the student to moderate their expenses.

Medieval learning was a transmission of knowledge from masters to students. This was accomplished through lecturing from a specific text as well as through disputations, all of which were in the pursuit of knowledge. The university, however, was primarily an institution of vocational training; graduates were the clerks of government, high-office holders of the Church (bishops and theologians) as well as lawyers and doctors. The university thus offered a rare avenue for social mobility, providing poorer students opportunities not available before. Learning was especially useful to the State as governments ‘modernised’ trade, tax collection, record keeping and legal systems. Thus, it was university-educated men who increasingly came to underpin the bureaucratic machine of both Church and State.


[1] Hunt Janin, The University in Medieval Life, 1179-1499 (Jefferson: NC, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2008).

[2] Charles Homer Haskins, The Rise of Universities (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1923) pp.79-80

[3] Ibid.