The original Latin word “universitas” was used at the time of emergence of urban town life and medieval guild, to describe specialised “associations of students and teachers with collective legal rights usually guaranteed by charters issued by princes, prelates, or the towns in which they were located.”The original Latin word referred to degree-granting institutions of learning in western europe, where this form of legal organisation was prevalent, and from where the institution spread around the world. For non-related educational institutions of antiquity which did not stand in the tradition of the university and to which the term is only loosely and retrospectively applied, see ancient centres of higher learning.
An important idea in the definition of a university is the notion of academic freedom. The first documentary evidence of this comes from early in the life of the first university. The University of Bologna adopted an academic charter, the Constitutio Habita, in 1158 or 1155, which guaranteed the right of a traveling scholar to unhindered passage in the interests of education. Today this is claimed as the origin of “academic freedom”. This is now widely recognised internationally – on 18 September 1988 430 university rectors signed the Magna Charta Universitatum, marking the 900th anniversary of Bologna’s foundation. The number of universities signing the Magna Charta Universitatum continues to grow, drawing from all parts of the world.
Prior to their formal establishment, many medieval universities were run for hundreds of years as Christian cathedral schools or monastic schools(Scholae monasticae), in which monks and nuns taught classes; evidence of these immediate forerunners of the later university at many places dates back to the 6th century AD. The University of Salerno followed by the University of Constantinople (founded by Theodosius II in 425 with 31 chairs),Preslav Literary School and Ohrid Literary School in the Bulgarian Empire, established in the 9th century, were the first institutions of higher education in Medieval Europe, thereby forming part of the pre-history of university education.
The first universities with formally established guilds in Europe were the University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (c. 1150, later associated with the Sorbonne), the University of Oxford (1167), the University of Palencia (1208), the University of Cambridge (1209), the University of Salamanca(1218), the University of Montpellier (1220), the University of Padua (1222), the University of Naples Federico II (1224), the University of Toulouse(1229).
The University of Bologna began as a law school teaching the ius gentium or Roman law of peoples which was in demand across Europe for those defending the right of incipient nations against empire and church. Bologna’s special claim to Alma Mater Studiorum is based on its autonomy, its awarding of degrees, and other structural arrangements, making it the oldest continuously operating institutionindependent of kings, emperors or any kind of direct religious authority.
The conventional date of 1088, or 1087 according to some, records when a certain Irnerius commences teaching Emperor Justinian’s 6th century codification of Roman law, the Corpus Iuris Civilis, recently discovered at Pisa. Lay students arrived in the city from many lands entering into a contract to gain this knowledge, organising themselves into ‘Learning Nations’ of Hungarians, Greeks, North Africans, Arabs, Franks, Germans, Iberians etc. The students “had all the power … and dominated the masters”.
In Europe, young men proceeded to university when they had completed their study of the trivium–the preparatory arts of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic or logic–and the quadrivium: arithmetic,geometry, music, and astronomy. (See Degrees of the University of Oxford for the history of how the trivium and quadrivium developed in relation to degrees, especially in anglophone universities).
Universities became popular all over Europe, as rulers and city governments began to create them to satisfy a European thirst for knowledge, and the belief that society would benefit from the scholarly expertise generated from these institutions. Princes and leaders of city governments perceived the potential benefit of having a scholarly expertise develop with the ability to address difficult problems and achieve desired ends. The emergence of humanism was essential to this understanding of the possible utility of universities as well as the revival of interest in knowledge gained from ancient Greek texts.
The rediscovery of Aristotle’s works – more than 3000 pages of it would eventually be translated – fuelled a spirit of inquiry into natural processes that had already begun to emerge in the 12th century. Some scholars believe that this these works represented one of the most important document discoveries in Western intellectual history. Richard Dales, for instance, calls the discovery of Aristotle’s works “a turning point in the history of Western thought.” After Aristotle re-emerged, a community of scholars, primarily communicating in Latin, accelerated the process and practice of attempting to reconcile the thoughts of Greek antiquity, and especially ideas related to understanding the natural world, with those of the church. The efforts of this “scholasticism” were focused on applying Aristotelian logic and thoughts about natural processes to biblical passages and attempting to prove the viability of those passages through reason. This became the primary mission of lecturers, and the expectation of students.
The university culture developed differently in northern Europe than it did in the south, although the northern (primarily Germany, France and Great Britain) and southern universities (primarily Italy) did have many elements in common. Latin was the language of the university, used for all texts, lectures, disputations and examinations. Professors lectured on the books of Aristotle for logic, natural philosophy, and metaphysics; while Hippocrates, Galen, and Avicenna were used for medicine. Outside of these commonalities, great differences separated north and south, primarily in subject matter. Italian universities focused on law and medicine, while the northern universities focused on the arts and theology. There were distinct differences in the quality of instruction in these areas which were congruent with their focus, so scholars would travel north or south based on their interests and means. There was also a difference in the types of degrees awarded at these universities. English, French and German universities usually awarded bachelor’s degrees, with the exception of degrees in theology, for which the doctorate was more common. Italian universities awarded primarily doctorates. The distinction can be attributed to the intent of the degree holder after graduation – in the north the focus tended to be on acquiring teaching positions, while in the south students often went on to professional positions. The structure of Northern Universities tended to be modeled after the system of faculty governance developed at the University of Paris. Southern universities tended to be patterned after the student-controlled model begun at the University of Bologna.
Although the university is widely regarded as “the European institution par excellence” in terms of its origins and characteristics, some scholars have argued that early medieval universities were influenced by the religious Madrasah schools in Al-Andalus, the Emirate of Sicily, and the Middle East (during the Crusades). Other scholars oppose this view and argue that there is no actual evidence of the transmission of Arab scholarly methods discernible in medieval universities.