From Cathedrals to Universities

by Emily K. Hudson


“Renaissance” is used to describe an “age of educational reform paying closer attention to classical literature, in which the liberal arts were studied as professional disciplines in their own right as well as for their ability to mold character or to inform biblical exegesis, homilectics, and theology.” (Colish 1997, 175). This accurately describes what took place during the European Renaissance. One of the greatest changes that contributed to the Renaissance is the development of monastic schools. These monastic schools led into the emergence of cathedral schools. Cathedral schools then flourished and had a huge impact on education by leading into the development of the first universities ( Madden).

Up until the 12th century, education was very important to the church; because that was the only place it existed. Only clergy members and monks needed to know how to read and write so that they could copy and write manuscripts. From 800-1100 A.D. the only organized schools were the abbey and monastic schools (Madden). In the Admonitio Generalis (789) the Emperor of the Romans, Charlemagne, states “Let schools be established where children can learn to read. Carefully correct the psalms, notation, chant, computus, grammar, and the Catholic books in every monastery and diocese, because often some desire to pray to God properly, but they pray badly because of the uncorrected books” (McCluskey 1997, 131). This means that the development of monastic schools was required, so that the leaders of the church could be educated, and spread the knowledge of the Bible as accurately as possible. In Medieval Monastic Education, George Ferzoco states that “monastic house were places where monks developed their theological sensibilities in order to find God” (Ferzoco 2000, 1). Basically, Monastic schools educated future priests and monks of the Church. The Monk’s primary goal was not to instruct but to “serve God by prayer, worship, and spiritual perfection” (Baldwin 1971, 35). The curriculum in these schools was very limited because abbey and monastic schools were not meant to serve society as a whole. These schools focused on Latin, rhetoric and grammar because the main purpose was to educate the future leaders of the church. The only things these leaders needed to do were translate and copy information of the Bible, perform services, and administrate the monastery (Madden).

In the High Middle Ages cathedral schools began to exceed the monastic schools in their numbers and importance (Kehoe 1997, 323). Cathedral schools were “ad-hoc” like the monastic schools, meaning they were set up in order to respond to a necessity. This necessity was that Europe needed an educated secular clergy. Like monastic schools were set up in monasteries, cathedral schools were set up in the cathedrals. Because the cathedrals were located in mainly urban areas, the cathedral schools were urban by nature. This resulted in the schools attracting many different types of students, from all over Europe. Many of the students of the Cathedral schools were interested in pursuing a career in the church, yet some were only claiming to go into major orders, but actually had no intention of taking permanent vows. This occurred because the middle class desired for an education, knowing it was the only way of bettering themselves (Madden). According to Marcia L. Colish, “Cathedral schools ceased to be princely courts grooming young men for careers in church and state and became full-time educational institutions purveying technical instruction in the arts, viewed as learned disciples” (Colish 1997, 176).

The many differences between these types of schools led to the disappearance of monastic schools and the rising popularity of the Cathedral schools. In monastic schools, the teachers were the monks. In Cathedral schools, however, the teachers were educated men that were hired by the cathedrals. This resulted in a sense of competition, and the men competing for the job were a very proud and ambitious group. This type of competition is beneficial because it leads to the teachers researching for more knowledge to be the best, in turn affecting the knowledge that is passed down to students. Unlike the teachers of the monastic schools, the teachers of the cathedral schools were not just teachers, but also scholars and researchers. (Madden). This is very similar to teachers of modern universities. This is a dynamic educational system in the making, having a huge impact on the later dynamic system of universities.

An example of this type of teacher is Gerbert of Aurillac, who was one of the best known and earliest cathedral school masters. From 972 to 989 Gerbert was a teacher at the cathedral school of Reims, where he shared his knowledge of not only the trivium, but also the quadrivium. Gerbert used his studies of advanced Arabic education, which he acquired by learning under Arab teachers. This foreign knowledge made Gerbert educationally advanced in Europe and a very forward thinking and dynamic teacher in an age of “intellectual deprivation” (Grant 1996, 19). Gerbert’s students then went forward to continue his teachings. In The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages, Edward Grant states that “many of the cathedral schools that rose to prominence in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, replacing the monastic schools as centers of learning, were either founded or revived by Gerbert’s pupils. Gerbert’s most eminent students were Adalberon of Laon, John of Auxerre, and especially Fulbert of Chartres” (Grant 1996, 20). Clearly, Gerbert is an ideal example of a cathedral schoolmaster because he used a dynamic type of study to spread knowledge of the quadrivium to his students, eventually leading to a huge contribution toward cathedral schools and eventually the universities that result from these schools.

Another significant difference between monastic and cathedral schools is the curriculum that is taught. Cathedral schools, especially those in larger towns, tended to possess and produce higher education than Monastic schools. Cathedral schools focused on “traditional roman education” which consisted of the trivium and quadrivium. The trivium is a more basic study of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. Once this was mastered, the student proceeded on to the more advanced study of the quadrivium which consisted of mathematics, astronomy, geometry, and music (Madden). The study of the advanced quadrivium led to a dynamic educational system because the advanced knowledge resulted in the students and teachers researching more. Monastic schools only focused on basic education that was required for the priest such as Latin and grammar. Monastic schools also started to vanish compared to cathedral schools because they only accepted already educated men, and believed there was no point in arguing theology.

Unlike the monastic schools, the cathedral schools wanted to study logic, so that they could test theology. During the 12th century, the cathedrals re-introduced Aristotle and his teachings. These Europeans were actually studying from translations of translations because Aristotle’s texts were first translated into Arabic and made their way around the Muslim world then translated into Latin reaching Europe. Aristotle stressed observation, logic, and experimentation. The masters of the Cathedral schools were most interested in Aristotelian logic, which focused on Aristotle’s views of reason and logic. The masters of the Cathedral school attempted to demonstrate that faith is reasonable through logic. For example, if what is believed about Jesus is true, then logic can reveal more about our faith. This is known as scholasticism (Madden).

One of the main characters of scholasticism is French scholastic philosopher and logician Peter Abelard (Janin 2008, 20). Abelard greatly contributed to the appearance of Universities because he taught in Paris where one of the first universities appeared (Madden). According to Hunt Janin, “Abelard’s intellectual skepticism was to a large degree responsible for the growing fame of Paris as an intellectual center and thus helped to prepare the ground for the later appearance of a university there” (Janin 2008, 21). The importance of education was instilled in Abelard throughout his whole life by his father (Ferzoco 2000, 105). In one letter Abelard writes “My father had acquired some knowledge of letters before he was a soldier, and later on his passion for learning was such that he intended all his sons to have instruction in letters before they were trained in arms. His prurpose was fulfilled. I was his first-born, and being specially dear to him had the greatest care taken over my education (Radice 1974, 62). Abelard was taught by Jean Roscelin, William of Champeaux, and later studied under Anselm of Laon when he turned his attention from philosophy to theology (Ferzoco 2000, 105). Abelard often challenged scholarly debate on controversial subjects such as faith and human reason, Adam and Eve, baptism, sin, and marriage. He firmly believed that “by doubting we come to inquiry, and by inquiry we perceive truth” (Janin 2008, 20). His best known philosophical work is titled Sic et Non (translated as “Yes and No”), which is a pro-and-con argumentation on 158 philosophical and theological debatable issues. As a brilliant teacher, Abelard encouraged and taught his students how to seek answers by using reason. His curriculum included studies of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis through procedure of dialectic reasoning, which was pioneered by Greek professors. By the age of 22, Abelard set up his own school and soon began teaching at the cathedral school of Notre Dame in Paris, which later became the University of Paris; one of the first universities (Janin 2008, 20).

Perhaps even more than his studies, Abelard is well known for his love affair with one of his students, Heloise. Hired by her uncle Fulbert, one of the cathedral canons at the cathedral school of Notre Dame of Paris, Abelard tutored and fell deeply in love with Heloise, who was a brilliant scholar herself. When speaking of Heloise Abelard states “We were united, first under one roof, then in heart; and so with our lessons as a pretext we abandoned ourselves entirely to love” (Radice 1974, 67). The two scholars got married after Heloise got pregnant, but Fulbert inaccurately accused Abelard of planning to abandon his niece. With some accomplices, angered Fulbert broke into Abelard’s room and castrated him. Heloise then decided to enter a convent to give birth, and encouraged Abelard to become a monk, of which he complied. Abelard and Heloise wrote many romantic love letters to one another which were published and are still read today (Janin 2008, 22).

In medieval Paris, the cathedral school of Notre Dame which Abelard taught at was very dominant. Successful scholars such as Abelard attracted many students to Notre Dame, and by the end of the twelfth century some sense of order emerged within the group of scholars. Many of the students who came to the cathedral school were not necessarily interested in having a career in the church, but just wanted the education that was offered for jobs, such as those within the secular bureaucracies (Madden). John W. Baldwin states that “with increasing numbers came the need for regulation” (Baldwin 1971, 40). Overwhelmed with students, the school began to combine with schools nearby which were ran by independent masters. All of the masters remained under the control of the Bishop of Paris, and he had to license them to teach, giving him complete control. At first the Parisians were happy about the growing popularity of the cathedral school because it resulted in more money for them and their businesses. Then, however, the students became rowdy and the townspeople were very angered by the young student’s behavior (Madden).

To protect and separate themselves from the angry townspeople, the students and masters decided to form their own guild. A guild is defined as an organization of peoples with similar interests and goals to maintain standards and protect the interests of its members ( In the cathedral schools, such as the school of Notre-Dame of Paris, the guild set standards of education, examinations, prices for courses, products, and qualifications for degrees (Madden). According to Baldwin, “The application of the guild system to education resulted in the universities of the thirteenth century” (Baldwin 1997, 40). This is supported because a university was simply a universitas, meaning “a sworn society of students or masters bound together for their mutual protection” (Baldwin 1997, 40). The degrees offered within the guilds consisted of the first level and second level, meaning the “bachelor” degree, and “masters” degree. The scholar who received his bachelor degree was equivalent to a “journey man” in a non-educational guild. In guilds such as merchant guilds and craft guilds, by which the guild of education was aspired from, the journey man was someone who had basic training, but was not yet a master. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, a scholar could then pursue his master’s degree. The master’s degree gave the scholar the ability to teach with the masters, assisting new students (Madden).

Even with the guild system being used, Violence still remained between the Parisians and the students of Paris, so King Philip II confirmed that masters and students would have ecclesiastical protection. This meant that only ecclesiastical courts could try them, city courts could not. While this cathedral in Paris was developing into a university, so were others such as Oxford in England, and Balogna in Italy. These were the first universities, each derived from cathedral schools. The University of Paris and the University of Balogna differed greatly because Paris was a student university, while Paris belonged to the masters, therefore it is stated that “Most of the universities which were founded in the thirteenth century imitated Paris and Bologna in one way or another” (Baldwin 1997, 44).

Up until the 12th century, education only existed for the church members and those inspired to become part of the church. Monastic schools were required by Charlemagne so that the Bible and religious works could be understood and taught properly. With the help of brilliant scholars such as Gerbert of Aurillac and Peter Abelard, monastic schools led into the development of Cathedral schools, which were much more diverse and taught higher education. Through the assembling of guilds at cathedral schools, such as the Cathedral school of Notre Dame of Paris, universities were born.



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