Alcuin’s Educational Reform in 8th Century Europe

by Alexander Rumann

As a result of barbarian attacks on the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Europe was in chaos and confusion. This led to the creation of the Holy Roman Empire, controlled by the Catholic Christian church. Education at this time was nearly nonexistent and was only in the scholastic form in monasteries with monks copying texts. Most of the learning toward the 8th century was focused on Biblical texts or written works of the members of the church that were related to the Bible. The monasteries copied texts from early Greek and Roman literature but only those which they found interesting and most important, so limited topics were kept. Education overall at this time was in a sorry state, as most did not obtain any at all and what they did receive was very constricted to focus on the Bible. Literature that had been easily accessible in the early Roman Empire had been isolated to libraries in cathedrals and monasteries. Due to the lack of access to literature and education most of Europe’s population was illiterate. The church at this time believed that most of the teachings on secular subjects were a sin against God and was therefore not taught. Those that received an education were those who were wealthy and being groomed for a career in the church. There were those that came along who wished to change education and made huge contributions not only to the church but to society as a whole, one of these people is Alcuin of York. Alcuin of York built the foundation of which the revival and reform of education in Europe was built upon in the centuries to come. This education reform was backed by Charlemagne who was successfully keeping the barbarians of Europe at bay in his military campaigns, which allowed Alcuin to carry out his efforts to change education of the known kingdom.

Education in the arts and philosophy were studied to help further understanding of the Bible but for only that purpose. Liberal arts that were studied for the sake of interest alone and apart from biblical understanding were considered heresy and people were put to the death or banished for such actions. The arts of Greek and earlier Roman culture were considered to be pagan learning and seen by the church as ineffectual and immoral. In the 5th Century liberal arts were viewed as suitable studies for Christians due to the necessity of understanding scriptures in a clearer way. Augustine considered the liberal arts to be grammar, music, dialectics, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, and philosophy (West, pg. 10, 12, 14, 15). The culture of this time revolves around God and learning about God in a scholastic setting. Learning was limited to only that which would further ones knowledge of biblical scriptures and understanding of those scriptures.

Alcuin was born sometime between the years of 730 and 740 CE in Northumbria, England which is close to York (Plater). He came from a modest family of nobility from York and went to the cathedral school there. While at school he was taught by Egbert who was a student of the Venerable Bede. He remained at the cathedral school in York where he became the master at the death of Egbert in 766. Alcuin became a deacon of the church and officially held the office of scholasticus teaching young boys to be leaders of the church. Through his works as an educator he became the most well known master in Britain (West 31, 34, and 38). Alcuin quickly became a reputable teacher of adolescents in Britain despite that in the late 760’s the area was violent and unstable due to the attacks of the barbarian tribes of the Anglo-Saxons (Bullough 137). In the year 780 Alcuin was given charge of the most famous cathedral library in Britain. Despite his duties he took many trips to Rome, either for personal reasons or he was sent there to retrieve documents from the Pope, where he met influential people such as Charles the Great in 781. He was called by Charles the Great to go to Frankland to head the teaching at the chapel in the palace (West 34). Aside from the vast amounts of educational reforms that Alcuin made he also made a very large contribution in literature. He wrote numerous letters back and forth to very well known people of the Empire such as the Pope and Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne and various priests and bishops throughout the kingdom. He also wrote many theological treatises and Biblical commentaries which were very common for scholars of that time. In addition he wrote books on dialectic and rhetoric works that he shared in his lessons with Charlemagne. He also produced textbooks that could be used by schools around Europe for their curriculum. Although it is less noted, and it was considered unimportant to any except traders who needed basic accounting skills, Alcuin also wrote a text book on arithmetic that was comprised of fifty three word problems (Sunshine). He left immense amounts of comprehensive works of books on liberal arts from the earlier Roman Empire that were mostly lost, dialectics, rhetoric and dialogues that he stored in the library at Saint Martin’s that were used for teaching in his school (Pedersen 75).

Around the year 782 Alcuin left England to start educating at the palace of Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne, at Aachen (West 39). He was given charge of educating the administrators of the kingdom but he was most famous for teaching Charlemagne himself. He also taught Charlemagne’s children and the clergy of the chapel at the palace in France (Sunshine). Alcuin was given a difficult task of tutoring not only the young royalty in the palace but also the elders there as well. He had to find a way to interest a broad range of ages to keep order in his classes. He covered what was considered the liberal arts starting with the basics of grammar and moving to arithmetic and then dialectic and rhetoric. The palace soon became the only centre for higher studies in the kingdom (West 45). Alcuin became the trusted advisor to Charlemagne and together they would set up schools all around the Frank kingdom in the cathedrals and monasteries. The palace schools that Alcuin started would only last a few generations however the schools he set up in monasteries and cathedrals would later be the main front for educational revival in Europe. As Charlemagne’s advisor, Alcuin convinced Charlemagne to stop the forced baptism of the barbarians and made a convincing point to the king that Christianity can only be chosen not forced upon the people of his kingdom, faith is not something that can be coerced (Sunshine). Charles did not want to be the king of a barbarian and illiterate kingdom so he sought to educate his kingdom and install Christian ideals in his people with the help of Alcuin. Alcuin was an indispensible asset and advisor to the king during this time. Alcuin and Charlemagne together set up schools around the kingdom to advance the church. Schools were set in cathedrals, monastic settings and eventually in villages. The cathedral and monastic schools were to educate at an elementary level and in some case there was superior learning. In local villages education was at the elementary level and didn’t advance past that (West 48, 56). This was by far better than what education was in up to the early 9th century when there were a very few that were educated and even those that were educated were only educated enough so they could read and write adequately to copy old books or scrolls. Alcuin had taken the palace school and built it up into the finest institution in the kingdom which was the center for culture and an undeveloped academy. In the short amount of time that Alcuin spent at the palace school he made a huge impact on academics with the works that he did and the ideals that he instilled there. Alcuin strove to encourage learning to be more tolerant of the liberally scholastic tradition of earlier Rome and Greece (Pederen 75). Alcuin believed in a standardization of the curriculum used in schools and he strove to provide those standard versions by studying the available copies and he would select the best document or documents that he found for the master copy. Then all copies were made from the master copies of these texts he found and these became in a sense textbooks for use in schools. These textbooks that Alcuin had created were then in a standard version of the texts that were easily copied, before that was a lot of variation in copied texts but Alcuin eliminated a large portion of this error (Sunshine). Along with creating these textbooks Alcuin would go through the libraries and collect large amounts of books and other works of literature and he would collect excerpts from the texts that he would spend a great amount of time reading and sometimes complete works as well. These works that he found had been neglected for centuries would then become extremely useful as textbooks (Bullough 138). Among many other things Alcuin had a doctrine of separating liberal literature and Christian morals. He believed that learning should not be limited to the sole purpose of advancing ones knowledge of biblical text. Previously the church had frowned upon knowledge for the only purpose of educating one’s self and Alcuin strove to present this as an acceptable thing to do (Bolton 17). The idea that education and the church should be apart was an idea that he founded his teachings on and applied them wherever he went. In gaining knowledge through the process of education he found he saw that virtue, truth and learning had an independent value that the church and Christianity must come to respect if the kingdom was to survive (Pedersen 76). Alcuin and Charlemagne organized three levels of education in the empire: the “university” which was the palace school and stood at the top of the hierarchy of schools, secondary schools found in a select few monasteries and cathedral schools, and then the primary schools which were at every level at the cathedrals, monasteries and also the village schools throughout Europe. Primary education was the only material covered in the village schools (West 58). This hierarchy of schooling is the progression of education that is found in the modern era. Even though the teachings at different levels education varies, the progression through primary, secondary, then the university is still how things are today. This is the system that was set in place by Alcuin and his followers with the help of Charlemagne.

After eight arduous years at the palace Alcuin reluctantly took up the position in Tours, France as an abbot at the abbey of Saint Martin’s. Even though Alcuin was reluctant to take the post as abbot he did some of his greatest work at St. Martin’s. He set up a large library with the textbooks he had put together along with other literature from centuries before. Along with the library Alcuin set up a scriptorium where he trained scribes to accurately copy texts that were used in schools throughout the kingdom. Through these courses that Alcuin was setting up the monastery of St. Martins became tremendously prosperous and eventually turned into the most noteworthy centre of learning of the age (Pedersen 75). Alcuin had reached his 60th year of life in 792 and wished to retire to a quiet monastery in Fulda but Charles ignored his request and made him Abbot of the abbey, St. Martin in Tours. Alcuin wished to return to his home town of York but when he returned on a short vacation found it in a sad state and the ruler was very cruel and unjust. He returned to the palace for a short while where he came up with several treatises before becoming the abbot. Apart from the learning in Alcuin’s monastery, there was a monastic revival that had to take place because of the loose morals of the monks and the lack of discipline they showed to their vows. Alcuin brought in monks from other parts of the kingdom to help with this revival of Benedictine order. Alcuin saw that the educational system he set up in Northumbria was falling apart and that the system in Frankland would not always be protected by a powerful ruler like Charles and he feared that his teachings would disappear. He devoted the last years of his life in an effort to train his pupils to carry on his teachings and instill in them the dedication to learning and education that he himself had. Alcuin set up the same educational structure that he did at York and the palace. He teaches the younger boy’s grammar and the older students he teaches scriptures and ancient disciplines, liberal arts, and astronomy. He had now planted the same three schools at York, the palace and now Tours. Although Alcuin was continuing to educate at Tours he felt that he was inadequately supplied with books and sent a request to the king to have monks sent to York to retrieve his library. Alcuin writes “I, your servant, lack the rarer books of scholastic erudition which I had in my own country through the devoted industry of my master, Egbert, and by my own labors” (West 63-67).

The monastic schools alienated themselves from the cathedral schools, even with the bishops having jurisdiction over the monks. Along with the constant conflicts that were going on between the bishops and monks there was a split in the monastic schools. There were the interior schools and exterior schools. Interior schools focused on only training boys who were given to the monasteries for a life as a monk. The exterior schools were to train boys to become priests of the church and also for those who were intended for secular professions. Both of the interior and exterior schools gave a gratuitous instruction. The monastic schools were extremely strict and flourished more than the cathedral schools even though the education received was not that much different between cathedral and monastic schools. Whether in the monastic or cathedral schools education started with the basics of reading and writing which were the most essential and rudimentary skills. Students would then proceed to grammar, which was crucial in understanding the scriptures and therefore the most time was devoted to grammar. Along with grammar, reading and writing there was also sometimes dialectic and rhetoric, past this there was nothing further in education except in a few monasteries. In all the schools the study of the Holy Scriptures was of the upmost important and was studied in great detail at the cathedral and monastery schools and was only viewed at the most basic level in the village schools. In the village schools the only important aspects of the bible they were expected to learn was the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and a few of the psalms (West 58).

While in Tours, Alcuin spent most of the last 8 years of his life corresponding with kings and leaders of the kingdom, over 300 letters about education. Alcuin’s main concern with not only educating the youth that were in attendance at his school at the time but also for future generations after he was gone. He strove to not only educate men that were to be priests and monks but also those that were to someday become teachers that would rise up and take his place one day. Alcuin found out in the year 796 that one of his former pupils had been elevated to archbishop of York. He rejoiced that he was privileged to have taught someone that has reached such a high honor. He then proceeded to help the archbishop by giving him advice on how to run the schools of York, telling him to separate students into classes of those who study books, those who practice music and those who transcribe. Alcuin also writes to his old pupil about assigning a master to each subject in order to keep the boys from getting unruly (West 76).

Alcuin’s life was spent making dramatic changes to academics. He dedicated his life to educating an illiterate country that desperately needed instruction. With the help of King Charles the Great they revolutionized education. Alcuin set up three institutions that all instilled the same ideals of education. The school in York is what put Alcuin on the map and got him recognized as an extraordinary teacher and sought after by Charles the Great. The two other institutions at the palace and later in Tours were just as great as the school in York and paved the way for education in the centuries to come in Europe. Alcuin’s school at the palace of Charles was considered a university at the time; although it is not what we would consider a university today. The revolution that Alcuin started with his educational reforms in the late 8th century would be a small stepping-stone to what would later become the first recognizable universities. The simple changes that Alcuin made and the fact that he reintroduced the liberal arts from the earlier Roman Empire caused a huge change in the literacy of Europe. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, Europe was in a state of barbarianism that was spiraling down. The leaders of the time were only focused on scholastic learning of biblical texts and only certain people were allowed to go through extensive learning. The empire hung by a thread and if not for the changes that Alcuin made and the works he contributed the empire might have fallen due to its illiteracy. Alcuin laid the foundation for what would later become the university through his works in education.



Bolton, W. F. Alcuin and Beowulf. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1978. Print.

Bullough, Donald. Charlemagne: Empire and Society. New York: Manchester University Press, 2005. 137-138. Print.

Pedersen, Olaf. The First Universities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.

Plater, Ormonde. “Alcuin of York.” Through the Dust. N.p., 19 May 2008. Web. 22 Jan 2012..

Sunshine, Glenn. “Alcuin of York.” Christians Who Changed Their World. (2011): n. page. Web. 21 Jan. 2012.

Jabir Ibn Hayyan: Alchemist

by Jazmyne M. Sturgeon

Atoms. Electrons. H20. The Periodic Table. All of these are familiar terms people remember from their 10th grade chemistry classes and have all grown accustomed to. While this may be the case, it is important to keep in mind that these are relatively modern concepts. A thousand years ago, pre-teens had a much smaller Table with only four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. The idea of these four elements is a very Greek concept, but one alchemist continued Aristotle’s work: Arabic alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan. Jabir ibn Hayyan influenced education by deepening the understanding of alchemy and encouraging a dynamic learning system over a scholastic system.

Jabir ibn Hayyan is considered the earliest great name in Moslem alchemy. He was born circa 720 (C.E) and died in about 815 (C.E) at the astonishing age of 95 (Stalzberg 1991). It is widely believed that he lived as a physician in Baghdad under the protection of the Court of Harun-al-Raschid (Hopkins 1967). Jabir’s passion was alchemy, which, one must note, differs from modern day chemistry in the fact that ‘magic’ was used to supplement studies. Jabir could not avoid the magical influences of his day and is therefore considered an alchemist, not a chemist (Cobb 1995). Arthur John Hopkins supplements this in his book Alchemy: Child of Greek Philosophy, when he states, “Believing that alchemy was real, [Jabir] undertook the almost superhuman task of bringing this discredited subject up to the same honorable plane as philosophy, medicine or mathematics.” Hopkins later notes that Jabir’s literary output included at least five hundred works on alchemy alone. Others agree that this number is alarmingly high:

“The complete body of works attributed to Jabir includes more than two thousand books, and of course no one man could have written that number, even if he did live to be ninety five. Obviously, most of these books were written over a period of many years by different authors who attributed their writings to Jabir, either out of respect or as a method of remaining safely anonymous” (Stalzberg 1991).

It is not unreasonable to agree that Jabir did not write many of the works attributed to him, but that he did inspire and have influence over their content, no matter how indirectly.

His name has been linked and interchanged with the Latin name ‘Geber’ throughout history, even though Jabir ibn Hayyan is Arabic.

The name ‘Geber’ was to enjoy among the Latins a celebrity similar to that of ‘Democritus’ among the Greek alchemists and ‘Balinus’ among the Arabs, and like these worthies Geber’s real identity retains a considerable element of mystery. The works of Geber have not been found in Arabic, and he remains, despite persistent attempts to equate him to Jabir ibn Haiyan, an anonymous Latin alchemist. (Multhauf 1996).

It remains to speculation who exactly Geber was and how he became associated with Jabir. “…Popular belief [is] that the Geber works of the thirteenth century were actually translations into Latin of the Arabic of Jabir of the eight century;” although recently, that assumption has been challenged to question the true identity of Geber (Hopkins 1967). However, in order to analyze Jabir ibn Hayyan’s impact on the chemical world, the assumption must be made that ‘Geber’ was merely a pseudonym future writers used to show respect to their inspiration, Jabir, as well as having the intent to remain anonymous, as Hugh Stalzberg suggested earlier. Author Hopkins believes that “if all that has been deduced from the writings of Geber is true, he was one of the greatest single constructive influences in science, particularly in the science of the metals, that the world has ever known.” The fact that Jabir may not have written the works credited to him under the name Geber does not, however, make him any less influential. In fact, it makes him more so. It displays how many chemists were inspired and influenced by him and how they respected him enough to attribute their works to his name. As flattering as this tribute may be, Robert P. Multhauf puts it best when describing the difficulties it has caused:

Modern scholarship has laboured mightily to reconstruct Jabir’s biography with the following result: (1) the Latin writings attributed to Geber have not been found in an Arabic version, and probably originated in south Italy in the thirteenth century; (2) there is in Arabic a large body of alchemical writing attributed to Jabir, but little is known to the Latins of the Middle Ages; and (3) Jabir, who also enjoyed a great reputation among the Arabs, was not the author of all these works… (Multauf 1966)

These three statements support the assumption that ‘Geber’ was used by future alchemists to show respect towards Jabir. Although this theory is not flawless, it is among the most likely, and it is important to understand who Jabir ibn Hayyan is and who he is not before discussing his impact on society and education.

The most important collection of texts supposedly written by Jabir is known as the Jabirian Corpus. The corpus was completed by 987, but was most likely compiled over many years. Jabir ibn Hayyan died in 813 and it is unknown how much Jabir personally contributed (Hudson 1992). However, it is not unreasonable to believe that Jabir inspired the contributors, as they clearly credited their work to his name. Another source tells us that, “by the second half of the tenth century the entire Jabirian Corpus had been constituted, and was generally, if not unanimously, admitted as the authentic work of Jabir” (Multhauf 1966). Either way, Jabir’s influence on the world of alchemy (and therefore chemistry) is clearly displayed, whether the work was done by his hands or simply by inspiring others. Jabirian texts had a strong correlation with Aristotle’s theories, concepts, and discoveries. In many cases, Jabir simply took Aristotle’s existing work and expanded, added, or took away from it depending on what had been discovered. Jabir especially focused on metals and their properties which were:

“…clearly based on the views of Aristotle but included a significant new idea. Aristotle had considered metals to be formed by the combination of moist and dry exhalations, and in the Jabirian works these exhalations are identified with the vapours of mercury and sulfur. The cause of the different metals was the different quality of the sulphur from which they were formed.” (Hudson1992)

In this example, Jabir takes Aristotle’s existing ideas and expands on them, deepening the general understanding of alchemy during this time. Aristotle had already established that metals were formed from combinations of moist and dry, yet Jabir took it a step further to explain what exactly those wet and dry exhalations were. “The Jabirian alchemists also believed that metals were ultimately composed of the four Aristotelian elements earth, water, air, and fire, and in consequence possessed the qualities of coldness, hotness, dryness and moisture in varying proportions” (Hudson 1992) (See Fig. 1). Another important distinction between Jabir’s work and that of Aristotle, is that Jabirian texts considered each substance to contain all four elements instead of just two (Salzberg 1991). According to Richard Morris, author of The Last Sorcerers, this theory strongly influenced much of later alchemy. Jabir’s work, and the work he inspired others to undertake, clearly had a lasting impact on the way alchemy was studied.

Jabir ibn Hayyan also was a strong advocate for a dynamic learning system over a scholastic one. A scholastic learning system is stagnant, and basically taught straight out of the book, much like a high school. On the other hand, a dynamic system involves research and learning new things, instead of accepting what one is told without question, more like a university (Jackson 2012).

The first duty of an alchemist, [Jabir] said, is to carry out experiments in order that he may acquire knowledge. He accepted the doctrine of transmutation, but did not baldy inform his contemporaries that transmutation had been accomplished. Instead he gave specific directions for experiments in transmutation, such as ‘project some of this substance upon so much copper and you will get silver,’ thus allowing them to draw their own conclusions and inducing his friends to try experiments. (Hopkins 1967)

This is the same sort of teaching that a college professor would set up for his students today. Design an experiment, give the steps of the procedure, but allow the students to actually do the experiment and discover the results for themselves. This is dynamic learning.

One example of dynamic learning is demonstrated in a distinct difference between Aristotle and Jabir ibn Hayyan. Aristotle believed that the elements (air, fire, water, and earth) were only abstract and philosophical; more hypothetical than fact. Jabirian texts, on the other hand, suggested that the quantities and elements were real and could be isolated (Salzberg 1991). With this theory, the only logical step was to prove it by setting up an experiment:

The Jabirians attempted to do this in two stages. First they subjected various organic materials to dry distillation, which often resulted in the formation of a volatile combustible substance (air), a liquid (water), and combustible tarry material (fire) and a dry residue (ash). These elements were supposed to be composed of two different qualities, and the Jabirians assumed that the predominant quality could be isolated by extended purification…Once he had obtained his pure elements, consisting of only one quality, the alchemist was supposed to mix them in the correct proportions to obtain an elixir that he could use to treat a base metal. (Hudson 1992)

Here we have a clear example of a hypothesis, procedure, and conclusion set in motion by Jabir ibn Hayyan’s theories. He was a clear initiator of experiments and therefore dynamic learning, setting in motion a chain reaction of his academic decedents to follow suit.

Whether or not Jabir ibn Hayyan actually wrote what was attributed to him means little. It is clear that his work (or the work that he influenced) had a lasting effect on alchemy, and therefore chemistry in later years. His ‘tweeks’ to Aristotle’s existing theories were widely accepted, and later generations would go on to improve and further develop Jabir’s theories. However, instead of simply allowing future alchemists to blindly accept his ideas, he encouraged the use of experiments and designed his work so that learners would have to understand procedures, set up experiments, and discover results on their own; therefore, becoming a revolutionary teacher by pressing a dynamic system upon his field of study. Jabir ibn Hayyan influenced learning, thinking, and education by expanding general knowledge of alchemy through his own experiments and by leaving experiments for future alchemists, a radical idea in the world of science.

Cobb, Cathy, and Harold Goldwhite. Creations of Fire: Chemistry’s Lively History from Alchemy to the Atomic Age. New York: Plenum, 1995. Print.

Hellenistic Physics. Digital image. Wikipedia. Public Domain. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.

Hopkins, Arthur John. Alchemy, Child of Greek Philosophy. New York: AMS, 1967. Print.

Hudson, John. The History of Chemistry. New York: Chapman & Hall, 1992. Print.

Jackson, Steve N. “The Thin Tweed Line: The Rise of Literacy.” DHC 261: The University. Black Hall 151, Ellensburg, WA. Jan. 2012. Lecture.

Multhauf, Robert P. The Origins of Chemistry. London: Oldbourne, 1966. Print.

Salzberg, Hugh W. From Caveman to Chemist: Circumstances and Achievements. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society, 1991. Print.

A Spark Of Knowledge

by Emily Hudson

The “Dark Ages” of Europe were not as “dark” as they seem. Instead, they were a time of knowledge and research, especially to one remarkable individual: Gerbert of Aurillac. During Gerbert’s time, science was important to monks, emperors, and even popes. Religious figures studied science and mathematics to gain an understanding of the earth. According to Nancy Brown, author of The Abacus and the Cross, “Mathematics ranked among the highest forms of worship, for God had created the world, as scripture said, according to number, measure, and weight. To study science was to approach the mind of God”. The “leading mathematician and astronomer of his day” goes by the name of Pope Sylvester II, earlier referred to as Gerbert of Aurillac. Known as “The Scientist Pope” (Brown 2010, 3), Gerbert is an example of an intellectual light in the dark ages. Gerbert made an impact on the future study of math and science by bringing Muslim learning through a dynamic study of the quadrivium to Europe. Regardless of initial rejection due to Europe’s scholastic ways, the discoveries and knowledge Gerbert has contributed to Europe eventually made a lasting impact on math and science and universities as a whole throughout time and still today.

Born as a peasant boy, Gerbert came a long way to become the first French pope in the year 999. Gerbert d’Aurillac’s journey began with his early education. He was born in Belliac, France in the year 946 A.D. Born with a love of learning and intellectual perseverance, Gerbert attended the monastery of St. Gerald of Aurillac and was singled out of the other students for scholastic training as a teenager. A huge opportunity presented itself in 967 when Count Borrell II of Barcelona visited Gerbert’s monastery. Gerbert’s abbot convinced the visitor to support the brilliant student’s education and take him to Spain. Count Borrell agreed and Gerbert’s journey was off to a strong start. In 968, Gerbert visited Cordoba, which was considered a major milestone of his career, as will be discussed later. In Rome, Gerbert met Pope John XIII who introduced him to Emperor Otto I of the Holy Roman Empire, after which Gerbert began tutoring the Emperor’s son Otto II. When Otto II became Emperor, Gerbert was appointed abbot of the monastery of Bobbio. In 991, the Archbishop Arnulf of Rheims was removed on charges of treason and Gerbert took the position. However, four years later Arnulf was re-instated after his removal was claimed invalid. Gerbert took a break from public life and began tutoring Otto III. Otto III then became Emperor and Otto’s cousin became Pope Gregory V, who appointed Gerbert as Bishop of Ravenna. In 999, Pope Gregory V died and Gerbert became Pope Sylvester II (Didymus 2011).

When Gerbert visited Cordoba in 968, he was deeply inspired by the Arabs and their sophisticated knowledge. He then convinced his ward Atto to allow him to study under the Arab teachers (Didymus 2011). This was a great idea and a huge contribution to Europe because the Arab teachers had much to offer. According to John Didymus, “Arabic learning and culture was at its peak and, compared to the Arabs, the Europeans (Western Europeans especially) were unlearned and culturally backward” (Didymus 2011). This is one of the examples of how Gerbert brought light to a dark age. He was wise enough to bring back knowledge from the Arab Muslim Kingdom of Cordoba, “the greatest center of learning and culture in Europe“ and incorporate it into his teaching (Didymus 2011). The Islamic culture of the Arabs came from Greek influence, and the culture was very successful in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, physics, and the arts. (Didymus 2011). In The First Universities, Olaf Pederson states that in the medieval society following the first millennium there was a “rapid transformation within education” and “to a great extent this development can be attributed to the steadily increasing contact with ‘Arab’ culture” (Pederson 1997, 122). The fact that Gerbert brought knowledge from his Arab teachers and his trip to this foreign land reveals to today’s scholars something about knowledge. This proves that there is much to learn from other cultures that could greatly benefit education, just like Europe learned so much from the Arabs through Gerbert. Many of Gerbert’s contributions to Europe and to today’s universities derive from his understanding and studying of the advanced Arab knowledge.

Gerbert greatly contributed to Europe’s education during his time and even to today’s education through his teaching techniques. According to Nancy Brown, author of The Abacus and the Cross, “Gerbert was an orator, not a writer. He shared what he knew through speech and demonstrations, not texts” (Brown 2010, 69). This is a technique that many teachers and professors mimic to this day. It is a very successful teaching style because it proves the teacher is very familiar with the topic, which gives the students more confidence to ask questions. Also, when teachers use demonstrations often in their lessons students are able to witness what it is they are learning, not just read about it in a book. Just like he taught his students through experiments, Gerbert also obtained much of his knowledge through experimentation. For example, to determine the best way to calculate the area of an equilateral triangle he measured the triangle with cut out square inches of parchment (Brown 2011). Gerbert’s techniques also included that of encouragement. While teaching one of his students, Otto III who became emperor, Gerbert would address him as “ever august Ceasar”, “my glorious Lord Otto”, and “exalted Imperator of the Romans”, just to boost the Emperor’s morale. Otto was very insecure, and Gerbert’s encouraging words often kept him going (Erdoes 1988, 185). Whether or not teachers today took their teaching style straight from Gerbert, it is evident that his successful techniques were passed down through generations, eventually affecting today’s education system.

Gerbert had an interest in studying and teaching the trivium and quadrivium. These are the seven subjects of the liberal arts. The trivium is more basic and consists of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. After learning the trivium, a student is taught the quadrivium which includes arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy (Lattin 195, 57). When Gerbert would teach trivium he would start with Latin grammar by having his students study Cicero, the poets Virgil and Terence, the satirist Juvenal, and other classic Literature. He then led his students to rhetoric by having them practice the art of oratory. To teach dialectics, Gerbert read aloud from a series of books, mostly by Boethius, and gave his students his explanations (Brown 2010, 73). He taught the basic principle of Aristotelian logic. According to Olaf Peterson, “that Gerbert incorporated Aristotle’s other texts on logic into his teaching syllabus gave logic a new impetus, witnessing to the new philosophical interest” (Pederson 1997, 109). Many teachers of Gerbert’s time stopped with the trivium. There were very few people capable of teaching the complexity of the quadrivium. Gerbert was qualified to teach these subjects because he had obtained rare knowledge from the Arabs, especially in math and astronomy (Erdoes 1988, 25). However, since people of Gerbert’s time were very illiterate and inadequately educated, those who were smart enough to teach the quadrivium were accused of possessing magic, or studying the black arts. William of Malmesbury even stated that Gerbert “acquired the art of calling up spirits from hell” (William 1847, 173). This type of accusation made it tough for Gerbert’s teachings to be accepted. After becoming pope, Pope Sylvester II was still rumored to be a sorcerer (Didymus 2011). Clearly, people were so uneducated during the dark ages that they rejected new knowledge and those who possessed it. This reveals much about Pope Sylvester’s character because although many disliked him and accused him of terrible things, he still reached for all knowledge possible and brought it back to Europe through his students. When it came to teaching the difficult quadrivium, Gerbert was a “master of visual aids” (Brown 2010, 73). He was able to use small models of large things, such as Earth, to understand concepts such as astronomy (Brown 2010, 73). Regardless of accusations of sorcery, Gerbert still spread his knowledge of the quadrivium through his teaching and if he hadn’t we may not have all the knowledge of the quadrivium that we do today.

Gerbert’s students spread his knowledge in many ways, leaving Gerbert’s impact on the world. The school of Reims where Gerbert taught developed into a “proto-university” (Brown 2010, 68) and students from France, Germany, and even Italy came to his school. Gerbert taught many sons of noblemen so that they would be prepared for court life. In the 24 years he was teaching at Reims, Gerbert taught “thirteen future bishops or archbishops, six abbots of important monasteries, Emperor Otto III’s chancellor, the secretary to Emperor Henry II, the future Pope Gregory VI, and King Hugh Capet’s son Robert the Pious who would rule France from 996 to 1031” (Brown 2010, 68). All of these students came from different places in the world, taking back with them what Gerbert had taught. This is a chain reaction of knowledge, one that may have never occurred if Arab teachers hadn’t taught Gerbert when he was younger. Gerbert’s students spread throughout Europe the educational attainments of their teacher and the discoveries he was shedding light on. An example of something that flourished from Gerbert’s teachings is the cathedral school in Chartres. This school was founded by one of Gerbert’s students, Fulbert, who became the bishop of Cartres in 1007. Fulbert’s school was so successful because it was known in Europe as a center of liberal arts, which include the trivium and quadrivium of which Gerbert was such an expert on. Once again, this was significant because many Europeans rejected this higher knowledge, assuming it was related to the Devil and Sorcery. However, this school led to the twelfth-century Chartres becoming the home of “a series of thinkers more interested in problems of natural philosophy than was the case in cathedral schools elsewhere” (Pederson 1997, 129). Fulbert’s school is proof that his teachings led to the development of quadrivium-informed students who used Gerbert’s knowledge to excel Europe during the dark ages, which eventually affects Universities in modern time.

One of Gerbert’s colossal contributions to Europe and to Universities of today was his knowledge and advancements in mathematics, which is part of the quadrivium. Gerbert showed a great understanding of the abacus. An abacus is a device, discovered by the Chinese, which was used to calculate arithmetic long before Gerbert’s time (Lattin 1951, 59). Gerbert devised the abacus so that it used the nine Arabic numerals, instead of Roman numerals. He introduced the abacus to Europe, and was the first Christian to teach math using the nine Arabic numerals (Brown 2011). An actual copy of Gerbert’s Abacus board was discovered in 2001. Its counters were marked with nine different signs proving he introduced the Arabic numerals to France (Brown 2010, 79). However, Europeans did not adapt Arabic numerals right after Gerbert introduced them. According to Olaf Pederson, “they only became common in the thirteenth century” (Pederson 1997, 119). The numerals one through nine looked too much like what pagans used, so monks rejected them at first, in fear that they may have a connection to dark magic (Lattin 1951, 59). The number system would have been even less popular if it included zero, because people “rejected the infinitely large, the infinitely small, and the void” (Seife 2000, 77). However, this did not stop Gerbert from introducing the concept of these Arabic numerals. He was fascinated by the numerals and experimented with them until they made more sense. When he first discovered the numeral’s simplicity he was very excited. For example, instead of writing thirty-seven as “MXXXVII”, it could simply be written as “37” (Lattin 1951, 60). If Gerbert had never discovered the Arabic numerals and introduced them to Europe, we may still be using Roman numerals today. Despite many scholastic scholars being against the new system, these numerals and calculations involving them eventually spread, which has affected universities throughout time.

Gerbert was also educated in the field of astronomy. Astronomy is one of the more complicated subjects of the quadrivium (Lattin 1951, 57) and once again, his study of the subject led to people accusing Gerbert of sorcery. According to Didymus, “in Gerbert’s time, astrology and astronomy were extensions of a single body of knowledge and astrological thought involved in the old Babylonian ‘science’ of fortune telling and divination” (Didymus 2011). The skill he demonstrated in this area, one that was so foreign to everyone else, made it easy for him to be accused of learning the black arts. Gerbert, however, agreed with those who taught that “God himself had set His seal of approval upon astronomy when He made use of the stars in the heavens to mark the birth of His son” (Erdoes 1988, 39). He pursued his dynamic studies and eventually this led to the reintroduction of the armillary sphere in Europe. The armillary is a model of the earth and its relation to the “heavens”, used as a “visual aid for mathematical astronomical instruction and teaching” (Didymus 2011). Gerbert learned about this device and how to use it from his Arab teachers and eventually he was able to locate the north and south poles in their slanting rotation and distinguish the arctic polar circle, the equator, and the tropic of cancer (Brown 2011). He used the armillary as a small model of a very large concept to demonstrate to his students the paths of the planets and stars. He also made sighting tubes to observe stars and constructed globes recording their positions. Gerbert’s astronomical advances did not stop there. He also produced a sophisticated sundial, musical instruments, water clocks, and a steam-powered organ. (Erdoes 1988, 89). Gerbert is also credited for making an astrolabe and writing about its use. The astrolabe was invented in Greece, and once again, Gerbert used his foreign studies to bring to Europe new knowledge. The astrolabe was used to measure elevation, compute latitudes, and determine when the sun rises and sets. (Erdoes 1988, 39). Without Gerbert’s astronomical advances, astronomy may have stayed an “evil” subject, and we may have never known what we know of the subject in universities today.

Most of Gerbert’s greatest accomplishments occurred before he even became Pope Sylvester II. However, becoming Pope helped him to make an impact on how science and religion could exist with one another in the future. Being the “Scientist Pope” (Brown 2010, 3), Pope Sylvester was able to look past diversity in religion and culture to obtain knowledge of which Europeans were blind. During Gerbert’s time the phrase “scientist pope” seemed to be an extreme contradictory statement, for science and religion did not normally mix. Persevering through accusations and angry citizens, Gerbert was able to acquire an extreme amount of knowledge, passing it on through his successful students. Becoming Pope meant that this dynamic individual was now “the keeper to the keys of the kingdom, the living link between humanity and God” (Erdoes 1988, 187). The Pope had to stay true to his religion even through multiple accusations of sorcery, studying black magic, and being inspired by the Devil. When many people would avoid these accusations, Pope Sylvester II endured them and kept pursuing knowledge to better himself, his students, and his world. If Europeans of the Dark Age would have been more open to Pope Sylvester II’s dynamic ways, his teachings could have even led to European Enlightenment.

Gerbert was a spark of light in the dark ages. His Arab education (Didymus 2011), his knowledge of the quadrivium (Brown 2010, 73), his successful teaching methods (Brown 2010, 69), and his perseverance through accusations and rejection led to his discoveries and knowledge of math and astronomy. Gerbert’s accomplishments and contributions greatly affected Europe’s education, and even affected education in universities today. According to Nancy Brown, Pope Sylvester II projected a world in which “Muslims, Christians, and Jews could sit down together and translate works of science from Arabic and Greek into Latin; the world in which a peasant boy who had excelled in such science could end up as Pope” (Nienaber 2011). Gerbert may have not been the most liked Pope as is evident of his accusations of sorcery and black magic, but he still made a tremendous impact on education during the dark ages and the impact has lasted over a thousand years, affecting students eager for knowledge today.

Brown, Nancy Marie. Interview by NYer. Religion Dispatches, 2 Jan. 2011. Web. 17 Jan. 2012.

Brown, Nancy Marie. The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages. New York: Basic, 2010. Print.

Didymus, John Thomas. “Pope Sylvester II: Pontiff in Compact with the Devil-Early Life and Career.” Goddiscussion. N.p., 9 April 2011. 17 Jan. 2012.Web.

Erdoes, Richard. A.D 1000: Living on the Brink of Apocalypse. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988. Print.

Lattin, Harriet Pratt. The Peasant Boy Who Became Pope: Story of Gerbert. New York: Henry Schuman, 1951. Print.

Nienaber, Paul. “The Student Pope.” America the National Catholic Weekly. America Press Inc., 2 May 2011. Web. 18 Jan. 2012.

Pedersen, Olaf. The First Universities: Studium Generale and the Origins of University Education in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.

Seife, Charles. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea. New York: Viking, 2000. Print.

William, John Sharpe, J. A. Giles, and William. William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England: From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen. London [England: Henry G. Bohn, 1847. web.

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.



Baldwin, John W. The Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, 1000-1300. Lexington, MA: Heath, 1971. Print.

Colish, Marcia L. Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition: 400 – 1400. New Haven [u.a.: Yale Univ., 1997. Print. Web. 29 Feb. 2012. .

Ferzoco, George, and Carolyn Muessig. Medieval Monastic Education. London: Leicester UP, 2000. Print.

Grant, Edward. The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

Janin, Hunt. The University in Medieval Life, 1179-1499. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2008. Print.

Kehoe, Thomas J., Harold E. Damerow, and Jose M. Duvall. Exploring Western Civilization to 1648: A Worktext for the Active Student. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1997. Print.

Madden, Thomas. “Cathedral and University.” Lecture. One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic: A History of the Church in the Middle Ages. Print.

McCluskey, Stephen C. Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.

Radice, B. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1974. Print.

Authentica Habita and the Protection of Medieval Roman Scholars

by Nichole Slack Saturday

Authentica Habita, also known as “Privilegium scholasticum,” was a law issued by Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa at the Diet of Roncaglia sometime around November, 1158. It was an edict intended to protect traveling scholars. In a time where roads were unsafe and cities were becoming increasingly dangerous, Barbarossa felt that scholars should be shielded from the perils they were faced with. He believed that scholars shed light on the world, and he felt compassion for those “who for love of learning choose exile and poverty, and divest themselves of their patrimony while exposing themselves to every peril and suffering what must be most grievous to endure: bodily injuries without cause from the vilest of men.” Authentica Habita was a huge advancement in the protection of scholars throughout the Roman Empire.

At the Diet of Roncaglia, Barbarossa issued the decree to ensure the safety of “all those pursuing studies in one of the schools.” The first school that this was applied to was the university at Bologna. Today, it is considered by many to be the first university in the western world, and although historians attribute its establishment to somewhere around the year 1088 C.E., it still remains in operation today. Perhaps if a piece of legislature like Authentica Habita had not come into being to protect its students, the University of Bologna may not exist in the present day. (Pacaut, 1970) (University of Bologna, 2012)

Authentica Habita’s main purpose was the protection of scholars as they traveled to universities and during the time they spent at such schools. Authentica Habita included many provisions to ensure the safety of such scholars, and some sections were left vague, as to be interpreted differently for each individual incident that may occur. Some of the major conditions made law via Authentica Habita included imperial protection during their travels, immunity from the jurisdiction of the local civil magistrates in the areas in which they were studying, and the right to summon their foes in specific cases and they could choose the judge who would preside over the matter. Students were also protected from a variety of small legal charges (things that today we would most likely consider misdemeanor crimes). However, it was the law’s open-endedness that truly allowed for students to really take advantage of their newfound security.

Since the emperor demanded that Authentica Habita be included into the Corpus iuris Civilis, it was able to be broadened. Corpus iuris Civilis (also sometimes called the Corpus juris Civilis), translated as “Body of Civil Law,” is a collection of Roman laws that Emperor Justinian I ordered to be compiled. (Halsall, 1998) Because Authentica Habita was included in this anthology, it was then analyzed, annotated, and expanded by jurists occupied with Roman laws. Eventually, the law would come to represent much more than was actually present in the text. For example, oftentimes students were able to avoid paying taxes or tolls on various items related to their studies or their stay in university towns. Access to adequate housing was required for scholars, and under Authentica Habita, students were actually able to commandeer housing and a horse (to provide transportation) during their stay at a university, even if the owner of the lodgings and horse disapproved.

Students did, in fact, reap the benefits bestowed on them by Barbarossa’s new piece of legislature. Authentica Habita wasn’t just words on paper—it was actually enforced. There is one old story of a weaver who sang loudly as he worked in his home near the Collѐge du Vergier at Montpellier. His singing was interfering with student’s learning, so he was told that he had two choices: one was to stop singing, and the other was to leave and work where he would not disrupt the educational process. Unfortunately, the old man was so used to singing while he worked that he had to leave and go about his weaving elsewhere. This was permissible because Authentica Habita had been interpreted in such a way that the ease and comfort of scholars during their studies was protected by act, and since the weaver’s singing was disturbing their studies, scholars had the right to ask him to leave, and since they had the law of the Roman Empire to back them up, citizens were obliged to do as they were asked. (Kibre, 1962)

The Corpus iuris Civilis was serious business when it came to Roman law. When Justinian I came into power, Roman civilization was as messy and unclear as the boundaries of the Roman Empire. The Emperor restored civilization to his domain, and in the process, recognized that the entire aspect of civilization had plummeted into disarray, and he believed that law would pull things back to the way they should be, and would keep them as such. Justinian believed that when there was law, people would follow it, and by following such laws, would be civilized.

The Corpus iuris Civilis was therefore a project very close to Justinian’s heart. Since the former system of law was in ruins, he took it upon himself to have it restored. He went about hiring men to carry out the task, and the employee most closely associated with constructing the Corpus iuris Civilis was a man named Tribunian. It took him two years to compile (with assistance), and was published by Justinian (at his own expenditure) in the year 529 C.E. (Baker, 1931)

When a project such as this is so near and dear to an emperor that it is not only one of his first priorities upon ascending the throne, but he also publishes the completed work at his own expense, it would be foolish not to take it seriously. Since Authentica habita was added to this key body of work 629 years after it was published, it was recognized as a legitimate and important piece of Roman law.

All in all, Authentica Habita became an extremely important piece of legislature. Its seriousness was marked not only in its practical execution, but also because of its presence in Justinian I’s Corpus iuris Civilis. Because it protected scholars in a time where being a traveling student was becoming more and more dangerous as time progressed, it allowed scholars to safely carry out their studies. Because it also allowed for things like tax exemption and adequate housing, scholars were able to carry out their studies in peace and comfort, quite possibly increasing the quality of their work. The work of medieval scholars is still recognized today as being influential in their respective fields, and had scholars not had the protection granted to them through Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in Authentica Habita, that work may have never been completed (or perhaps not even started to begin with, since scholars often encountered obstacles during their travels to universities, and therefore, their studies could have been brought to a close before they even arrived). Authentica Habita protected medieval Roman scholars, and without their work, we may not have the knowledge we have today, making it important not only when it was issued in 1158 C.E., but also today, over 800 years later.



Baker, G.P. Justinian. Binghamton: Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc., 1931. 99-102.

Halsall, Paul. “Medieval Sourcebook: The Institutes, 535 CE.” Fordham University: The Jesuit University of New York. Fordham University, Jun 1998. Web. 12 Mar 2012.

Kibre, Pearl. Scholarly Privileges in the Middle Ages: The Rights, Privileges, and Immunities, of Scholars and Universities at Bologna, Padua, Paris, and Oxford. William Clowes and Sons, Limited, London and Beccles, 1962. 1-17. Print.

“Our History.” University of Bologna. ALMA MATER STUDIORUM- Universita di Bologna, 2012. Web. 12 Mar 2012.

Pacaut, Marcel. Frederick Barbarossa. William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. and Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970. 85-88. Print.

The Relationship of Christianity and Scholasticism During The Middle Ages

by Elizabeth Anne Rathburn

The era of Scholasticism was not merely the narrow-minded and constricting form of education many modern scholars had deemed rank with intellectual stagnation. The overall concept of Scholasticism cannot be understood outside of its historical context. The Scholastic movement began as a response to the bitter turmoil of the Dark Ages, and at its peak in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries culminated into a well-refined method of critical thought. Scholasticism can be thought of as the intellectual refinement of the knowledge available to scholars of the Middle Ages. While the Middle Ages were not a time of great intellectual growth, it ensured that Europe would never again see a time of complete intellectual stand still. In relation to scholasticism’s historical context, the Middle Ages cannot be understood without the recognition of the dominating force of Christianity through out all of European society. The scholastic movement was seeded within, and grew with the progression of the Roman Catholic Church: its primary cultivators. The Fathers of the Roman Catholic Church became the initial authors of scholastic thought by creating harmony between the contrasting viewpoints of philosophy and theology. The works of saints became the texts, which the schoolmen of the monastic and cathedral schools committed to memory. As a result, the growth of Christianity and Education coincided with one another through out the span of Medieval Europe. The intellectual thought of the Middle Ages was highlighted by the symbiotic relationship formed between Scholasticism and Christianity, resulting in a fixed and formal system of education, and the preservation of religious, classical and antiquity works, which together, carved the intellectual path into the European Renaissance.

While the scholastic movement did not consist of new intellectual developments, it did serve the purpose of an intellectual awakening. This period of education and intellectual thought would serve as the foreground for the development of higher education. Scholasticism began in the Christian monasteries with the accumulation of knowledge, these monasteries would later transform into universities. The rise of universities however, began towards the end of scholasticism’s reign; as so, this discussion will stay within the confines of the development of the monastic and cathedral schools. In its broadest framework, scholasticism developed within the Church. Due to the meager intellectual material available, “the limited learning of the times arranged into a systemized form largely on the deductive basis of the Aristotelian logic” (Graves 51). Because of the power wielded by the Church, all subject matter, whether religious or secular, was approached through a highly theological perspective. Medieval thought from the ninth to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was dominated by this ideal, and thus was taught within the schools of the Church, thereby solidifying the methods of scholasticism. Scholasticism was indeed, “the peculiar methods and tendencies of philosophic speculation that arose within the Church”. The term scholasticism was derived from ‘doctor scholasticus’, the term used for the authorized teachers in the monastic schools (Graves 50). From the very beginning of monastic education in the Middle Ages, scholasticism and Christianity were intertwined, influencing those who sought higher intellect within its schools. Both the Christian religion and scholastic method were the basis of a schoolman’s learning. It became a young scholar’s goal through scholastic deduction and argumentation, to show how doctrines, “were consistent with each other and in accordance with reason” (Graves 51). Even with its apparent flaws, such as its characteristic narrowed scope, the greatest aim of scholasticism was to equip a student with the dialectic and intellectual discipline that enabled an individual to be keen and well versed in knowledge of the time.

Medieval education in Europe began with the development of the monastic and episcopal schools, and thus is where the origin of scholasticism is found. The establishment of monasteries, “rose from a protest against vice and corruption, and pointed the way to a deeper religion and nobler life” (Graves 21). Based upon the Benedictine code, the primary purpose of monastic education was the discipline and repression of the body, and gave great prominence to doctrines of labor and systematic reading. It was through the daily devotion of reading that literacy began its revival in Europe (Graves 10). Small isolated communities formed around monasteries, creating a reserved educated culture, whose knowledge would soon spread with the growing influence and strength of the Church. Monks within these communities created the demand for manuscripts and the reproductions of the text. As a result monasteries became precious depositories, providing the preservation of ancient literature and learning. As monastic life grew, so did the interest and care of ancient manuscripts increase, and the demand for duplicates of the sacred writings resulted in the addition of the scriptorium, a room reserved for the copying of texts. Thus the preservation of texts became the primary source of labor in monastic life.

While the copying of sacred texts were in primary regard to the neatness of lines and careful ornamentation, monks gained both intellectual and moral influences from the content of their work. Not only did the text strengthen an understanding of language, reading, and writing, but also monks began to make their own personal connections to the religious topics. As a result monks became authors concerning mainly religious topics such as, “commentaries upon the Scriptures or the Christian Fathers, The Lives of Saints, and the sermons or moral tales” (Graves 12). These writings indicated the first instances of the rudimentary characteristics of scholastic thought/education. The monks and schoolmen of the monasteries began what would be a strong emphasis on the extension of knowledge through dialectical reasoning. What began in the writings of monks was the method of critical thought that would dominate the teachings of Medieval Europe.

A greater understanding of the relations between the Christian faith and the scholastic method can be seen within the influential writings of medieval monks. Their works solidified both the understanding of the doctrines of Christianity and the growth of the critical intellectual thinking characteristic of scholasticism. One such Benedictine monk was St. Anselm of Bec (1033-1109), whose writings, consistent with the methods of scholasticism, contributed greatly to the understanding of the intricacies of the Christian faith. Remember that scholasticism combined, “philosophy, seen as the autonomous operation of reason, and theology, where certitude of the conclusions is based on the principles of faith” (Vignaux 35). This concept was considered an idea under the generalized term of philosophical theology. With the growing influence of secular works through out the middle ages, monks such as Anselm supported the Christian dogma through the elimination of contradictions by intense dialectical analysis. Anselm believed in the accord of reason with dogma, but held that faith must precede knowledge as he once said, “The Christian ought to advance to knowledge through faith, not come to faith through knowledge” (Graves 51). Anselm spent much time in making clear various Christian dogmas such as the Trinity, becoming the most influential/famous to future scholars in his ‘ontological’ argument for the existence of God (Graves 51-52). Adhering to scholasticism, Anselm didn’t seek to discover new truth, but sought to define a clearer concept of his existing beliefs through reason. Reason came through the comparison of works such as his De veritate, what would be considered philosophical, to the Holy Scripture (Vignaux 35). Luscombe supports this idea, for in his perspective Anselm, “sought to explore his existing beliefs with the instrument of reason – and not with this alone for prayer was used as well – and with the aim of bringing out and elucidating the meaning, the implications, and also the truth and the plausibility of Scripture and of revealed truth” (44). Anselm’s work, like many other scholastics, furthered the complex understanding of traditional doctrines. The most significant characteristics of Anselm’s arguments were that while they were purely arguments of Christian faith, they also proceeded as arguments of logic and reason.

While the monastic schools established small communities of education, it was not until the establishment of Abbey and Cathedral schools that learning became widespread. It was through the relationship between education and the Roman Catholic Church that scholasticism became well established during the Middle Ages. This progression took form during a short period within the Middle Ages called the Carolingian Renaissance. The Carolingian dynasty arose out of a period of time reflecting political disintegration. One of the more prominent figures of this era known as Charles the Great, or Charlemagne (742-814), who utilized his power given to him by the Pope over the united Frankish state to ensure a genuine unity of his people (Pedersen 72). Charlemagne, having been taught by monks and thus receiving some formal education recognized that the unity of his people, “could be brought about only through the inner life by means of a common language, culture, and ideas”, and so a revival of learning was deemed necessary (Graves 27). Historically during the end of the eighth century, there existed a lack in education found within not only the officials of the Church, but also the ‘secular’ clergy and nobility. The monastic and cathedral schools had become sadly stagnant in manuscript and intellect production. This case was proven through Charlemagne’s letter to the Abbot of Fulda, in which he states,

We have frequently received letters from monks and in them have recognized correct sentiments, but an uncouth style and language. The sentiments inspired in them by their devotion to us they could not express correctly, because they had neglected the study of language. Therefore, we have begun to fear lest, just as the monks appear to have lost the art of writing, so also they may have lost the ability to understand the Holy Scriptures; and we all know that, though mistakes in words are dangerous, mistakes in understanding are still more so (Graves 27).

Because of this lack of sustained knowledge, Charlemagne utilized his power over the monasteries and bishoprics as the foundation of a revised organized system of education. It was Charlemagne who wished to therefore link public education with the already established education of monks (Pedersen 74, 78). In 787 an educational capitulary was issued to the abbots of all the monasteries, to reprove the clerics of their literacy, and for the schools to offer at least a complete elementary course of education. By using the Church as a vessel of learning, the floodgates of knowledge began to open enabling the scholastic movement to reach a wider pool of intellects. Teachings that were once reserved for the ‘regular’ clergy of the monastic community were brought forth to the general European society.

The schools established within the churches served significant roles to the growth of intellectual awakening during the Middle Ages. Granted, these schools began as institutions of fundamental knowledge in which, “the word school almost invariably mean a grammar school: its chief function was to supply the Church with clergy” (Lawson 8). The schools initially began teaching reading, writing, computation, singing, and Scriptures, which would later lead to the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) (Graves 34). Eventually, through the work of Alciun of York, the educational advisor of Charlemagne, was encouraged the adoption by the Carolingian Franks a program of education in the liberal arts (Luscombe 29), a conjunction of both the trivium and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). As the Middle Ages progressed, scholasticism began to involve more areas of study as opposed purely to the realm of theology. However, throughout all education, the Church held great influence and control over knowledge, and schoolmen were affected through the direct association with their teachers. The Fathers were the first interpreters of the sacred texts; “it was they who gave inspiration and direction to the achievements of the Schoolmen with the importance of philosophy and theology so that the science of God became the monument of medieval learning” (Cassidy iii). It was not until the decline of scholasticism that the Church began to lose power over the intellectual knowledge of European schools, thus proving the close relationship between scholasticism and Christianity.

In regards to the scholastic movement, it cannot be judged fairly apart from the historical context in which it took place. Scholasticism developed within confines of the Roman Catholic Church, and thus like all aspects of European society of the time, submitted to its power of Divine revelation. The range of knowledge the scholastics of the time were able to investigate, served as both an advantage and disadvantage. Unfortunately, only the subjects deemed orthodox by the Church could be defended, lest the men wished to endure persecution. The Middle Ages presented the great thinkers with a fine line between secular knowledge deemed useful and acceptable, and that which threatened the foundation and power of the Church. Counter to this regard, the limited knowledge forced the schoolmen to reduced knowledge into an extreme and logical system, and therefore, “obliged to exercise their keen analytic minds most intensively, and so divided, subdivided, and systemized their material beyond all measure” (Graves 59). Scholasticism allowed these schoolmen to sift through centuries of traditional and rather irrational doctrines, and culminate their findings into a rational system of intellect. Not only did scholasticism equip its subjects with the skills necessary to be keen in what was considered ‘modern’ knowledge, but also it forced the highest accuracy in thinking, refined by careful analytical argumentation. Scholasticism therefore fostered the intellectual development necessary for the beginning of the Renaissance. As Cassidy stated, “whatever is learned that is new must be learned in terms of what is already known (27). Scholasticism, through the preservation of knowledge, as well as the refinement of intellectual thought, became the foundation for new thought to occur.



Angeles, Moses Aaron T. “St. Anselm on the Being of God.” Philippiniana Sacra. 64.130 (2009): 5-20. Print.

Cassidy Ph.D, Rev. Frank P. Molders of the Medieval Mind. Binghamton: B. Herder Book Co. , 1944. Print.

Graves, Frank Pierrepont. A History of Education During the Middle Ages and the Transition to Modern times. Norwood: The Macmillan Company, 1910. Print.

Pedersen, Olaf. The First Universities studium Generale and the Origins of University Education in Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.

Vignaux, Paul. Philosophy In The Middle Ages. London: Burns & Oates, 1959. Print.


The Trivium Through The Ages

by Alexander Rumann

Liberal Arts have been the basis for education since ancient Greece and are still used to this day. The Trivium has been long standing as the foundation for education. The trivium makes up the first tier of the liberal arts and consists of Grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. Learning the first three liberal arts is the starting point for the rest of learning that would consist of the quadrivium and then higher learning in research. The three parts to the trivium all feed off each other and one must learn each subject thoroughly before moving on. The starting point of the trivium is grammar for obvious reasons. Students must learn to read and write their letters and make complete coherent sentences. After grammar students move on to the more difficult subjects of rhetoric and dialectic. The last two that are mentioned are argument, also known as public speaking, and logic respectively. These three subjects are to prepare students for the other half of the liberal arts, the quadrivium. The trivium was an instrumental tool for education in ancient Greece and is still used in the world to this day.

As a young child in Greece you would have three teachers. One teacher would be for physical training, a music teacher and one who would teach you letters. The teacher of letters would teach you the basics of reading and writing (Barrow 62). The belief was that a student could not continue on to other parts of the trivium until they had a solid foundation in grammar. The goal of education was to generate sociable and happy citizenry. Education of the Athenians in the fifth century B.C.E. was a form of training in a very strict sense that was more a system of instruction. It consisted of two main parts: the training of the mind and training of the body (Walden 10). Due to the strict sense of education the Greeks used physical was the only way they knew how to deal with unruly students and a child’s resistance to learning to read which they found incomprehensible. The reason for having such a strict system was for the purpose of trying to create a civic spirit, a pride in belonging to a free city, and having loyalty to a political community (Finley 186, 188).

Education in ancient Greece was heavily influenced by the sophists. The sophists especially were the ones who promoted grammar (Walden 20). In the ancient civilization of Greece the trivium was started around the age of twelve, much older than a child in today’s world would start education. In Greece a child would start grammar school at twelve and typically stay there till the age of fifteen where they would then move on to the next stage of the trivium. According to an ancient writer grammar is an ancient discipline that we are exposed to from a very early age. This is true that in grammar there is a concern with the written word and literate societies were concerned with an education that had a large role in the mastery of words (Clarke 11, 12). Before reaching the age to attend grammar school, boys were to be taught by their father or guardian. Fathers were to provide some sort of training to their children so they could obtain some profession or trade when they are older (Walden 60).

The ultimate goal of teaching grammar was to assist student in becoming proficient and effective language users (Glenn 10). Grammar was taught by a specialist called the grammatikos. The basic function of the grammatikos was most revealed in times of decadence when the program was reduced to the bare essentials. Even to this day our vocabulary bears witness to the irreducible nucleus of grammar. The grammatikos would teach very elementary exercises in composition. He would also do some preparatory work with students in the areas of the other parts of the trivium. He would give the basic instruction of the theory behind the art of oratory and the elementary principles of logic (Marrou 192). This early instruction would lead into the area that would be taught by the rhetorician. Grammarians would have boy citizens from the ages twelve to fifteen and then the children would move to the rhetorician. The grammatikos would provide what would now be considered preparatory school (Clarke 12).

Today we still have what we would consider preparatory and grammar schools. Even though in today’s life children are sent to school at the ages of five to seven depending on the parents. Grammar schools are still the first step in a person’s education that must be mastered before they can move on just like in Greek culture. Without grammar a student would be completely helpless in higher education and would have no hope of obtaining the necessary tools to knowledge. The use of grammar is important throughout a person’s life no matter what profession they enter in to. Without the ability to read and write there is little that one can do in society today and causes a great hindrance on them as a functioning role in society. Grammar is of the upmost importance and is the major stepping stone for education.

The second part of the trivium is known as rhetoric, also known as oratory or argument. Boys would start rhetoric school after completing grammar school at the age of fifteen and remain there until the age of eighteen (Walden 33). Rhetoric or public speaking was considered a way of employing various oratorical tropes or ‘tricks of the trade’. Scholars like Plato and Aristotle didn’t initially agree with the art of rhetoric because it was not based on objective facts that could be backed up, it was all about presenting your side in a fair light. Oratory was mainly used to appeal to a person’s emotions rather than present facts (Fuller 296). The main goal of an orator is to express his appealing personality to his audience. It is of the utmost importance to impress that he is a man of common sense, upstanding moral character, and of good will. The orator must be able to read the various emotions of the audience any play to their sympathies and use their feelings to his advantage, in a sense he must excite them. In rhetoric a man must be an expert in controlling the emotions of his audience. He should be able to cause a rise in anger or quickly turn away the wrath of a crowd; or possibly implant a feeling of friendliness or hatred. He cultivates fears in his listeners or inspires them to make a motion. In the same ways he should make the audience feel shame or shamelessness or he must impress on them how kind he is and the unkindness of his opponent and by doing that appeal to their pity. Needless to say the orator must use various methods to excitants not with any respect to the merits of his cause but only to ensure victory. A great rhetorician is one who has the power to impress his own personality onto the audience. He uses this art to manipulate what he says into something that seems credible so as to win the assent of his spectators. It makes no difference if he uses this power of influence for good or falsehood. Orators’ who skillfully choose or invent maxims that express the beliefs of his listeners gets a reputation of being a man of good reputation. The gist of oratory is to string together maxims properly and apply them to the situation at hand. In order to be a great rhetorician one must be familiar with the subject they are presenting whether it is history, finance, or law. Athenian society was constituted on the fact that every citizen should be both their own congressman and lawyer if they were ever convicted of a crime but also to function in society. Most political arguments largely consist of discrediting the opponent as making the other persons argument seem unjust, unimportant or useless (Fuller 294, 296-7, 301).

Rhetoric has two sides to it. When someone uses the art of oratory for good everyone loves it but when it is used for evil we find rhetoric to be terrible. Modern day rhetoricians that we know are Roosevelt and Churchill and also Hitler (Barrow 25). As in ancient Greece as it is today public speaking is extremely important whether it is used for good or evil. Speaking clearly or marshalling an argument can determine whether anyone will listen to or follow you. In today’s world rhetoric is still in use to the same extent it was in ancient Greece. Lawyers and congressmen today use the art of oratory every day to defend clients or rally people to their cause. Without rhetoric there would be a different world than the one we live in. The United States justice system is based on rhetoric; condemning or clearing accused of charges is the way our courts run.

The third part of the trivium is dialectic or also known as logic. Dialectic is literally translated means ‘discussion by question and answer’. Plato argued that discussion between individuals is a much better way of seeking knowledge. Through this discussion one can develop understanding which Plato saw as the essence of education. Dialectic plays off of rhetoric in the sense that it is a form of conversation that is built from the basics of grammar and also a part of rhetoric. The original purpose of dialectic was to understand mathematics. “The metaphor of the line introduced four modes of perception, the final two of which are thinking focused on mathematical objects and true intellect or knowledge focused on the Forms. Mathematical thinking is inferior to dialectic in two respects: it makes use of models, diagrams and so forth and it takes its own concepts for granted or does not question its own hypothesis”, this was not the case later on (Barrow 87, 96, 105-6). What Plato defined dialectic as was “not thinking applied to this or that field but pure thinking, proceeded by independently by sensuous perception”. Dialectic was and is a very abstract study. One devotes themselves to the analysis and clarification of concepts, leading to their arrangement in the interrelated systems which follow the laws of classification and decision and make technical definition possible (Lodge 97, 106).

Logic is still a topic that is used in education today. There is no set curriculum for logic in today’s school system but it is still used. At a young age children usually learn by question and answer even before they are enrolled in school. Anyone who has been around a four year old can attest to that. This style of learning has been used since ancient Greece. There are classes in the college level that are logic based but this is a subject that has been eradicated from early education.

The trivium has come a long way since ancient Greece but it is still a vital part in our educational system. The use of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic has continually been a part of the education that a young person receives. The main pieces are in place still to this day even if how they are taught is completely different. The quadrivium was abandoned during parts of the Middle Ages but the trivium has been constant. There have been changes to the teaching method and presentation of the trivium but it has ever been there in education. The trivium as the foundation of the liberal arts is still the same today as it was back in ancient Greece.

Clarke, M.L. Higher education in the ancient world. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971. 11-2, 33. Print.

Marrou, H.-I. The Legacy of Greece. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981. 186-192. Print.

Glenn, Cheryl. The Place of Grammar in Writing Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Boyton/Cook Publishers, 1995. 9-11. Print.

Fuller, B.A.G. History of Greek Philosophy. New York: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1968. 294-301. Print.

Barrow, Robin. Plato. Great Britain: Biddles Ltd, 1988. 5, 25, 62, 87, 96, 105-6. Print.

Walden, John. The Universities of Ancient Greece. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909. 10, 20-21. Print.

Barrow, Robin. Plato, utilitarianism and education. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975. 179-180. Print.


This paper was originally created for Steve Jackson’s History of Higher Education course.

Master and Student Run Universities

by LeAnn J. Williams

Two systems were used to run universities in the medieval ages. The master-run university system was adopted by the Northern Schools of Europe (Oxford, Paris, and Cambridge). The student-run university system was adopted in Southern Europe, specifically Bologna. The northern part of Europe was civilized and organized. The government knew that people wanted to learn, and the government could do something about it. They created colleges, where the professors were paid by the government, and the students were under the professors. The masters of these schools set the rules, and the students were meant to follow them, no matter what they were. In the south, things were different. Society was chaotic, and the government was not established universally. Each region was a city-state, each with its own government. The students wanted to learn, but had no way to attend college, because the government was too chaotic to set one up. The students took matters into their own hands, and set up a university system. They paid professionals to teach them. The masters were under the students; this is the opposite of what was happening in the north. The students set the rules, and could fire a master if they broke those rules (Jackson). The master run system and the student run university system both worked, however the master run university has survived through time because of its stability, while the student run system has not.

In the north, the medieval universities were master-run. The University of Paris was founded, organized and funded by the government. The students were under control of the strict regulation of the faculty (Long). The Masters worked within a corporation, and they created the rules; these universities were organized by the professors and teachers. This model is what most universities today use (Jenkins). The North was organized, the government was powerful, and was willing to pay professors to teach their citizens. The governments wanted their people to learn and be educated past the typical grammar school level. With this high education system, citizens would become an active member in society, which increased economy, and lead to the Enlightenment (Jackson). The University of Paris is an example of the master-run university system.

The University of Paris was one of the first universities in Europe, and is based upon a master-run system (Long). The university grew out of the cathedral schools of Notre-Dame, and was founded in 1170 (Universities). This university was run from the top down, and was funded by the government. The students were under strict regulation of the faculty, they controlled everything (Long). The university was divided into four faculties, and each one was headed by a dean, the dean later became the university Rector (Universities). The master run systems were organized and administered by the professors and teachers who worked in a corporation (Jenkins). The systems were run by a Chancellor, who had the power to issue licenses to teach. Once scholars got their licenses, they became a part of the faculty. The professors would offer lectures or courses, and the students would take notes. Once the student felt ready, they could appear before the Chancellor for an examination and attain their diploma if they passed the exam (Nelson). The students would prove their time of study by two examinations, and would become licensed (Halsall). The masters ran the lectures and the examinations, therefore making Paris a master-run university. Though this university system worked, there was another system showing up in the southern part of Europe.

In southern Europe, the universities being formed were student run. The structure was entirely controlled by the student body. They elected representatives, paid the professor’s salaries, and made/enforced rules and regulations for their teachers. These rules would include things like the number of teaching hours, and the content delivered by the instructor. The students who were running the university were not young, they were not eighteen or nineteen like seen in the university systems today, they were much older, and generally had experience in liberal arts.

These universities were run by “post-graduates,” one could say. This institution was not a typical university, or built like one. The power in the university was not enforced by politics or games, it was by the wealth of the students and how well the students thought the professors were. The professors relied on the students for their salaries. If the students did not like the professor, they would withdraw their fees (Jenkins). The professors were scholars in their subjects, and as long as they followed the rules of the students, they could stay (Jackson). The University of Bologna was a student-run university.

The University of Bologna, as the first western university, has contributed to the advancement of education and law (University). The students of Bologna came from all over Europe to study with the prominent scholars. The professors were freelance, and offered courses on their own, and charging whatever the students were willing to pay. Professors had to compete for students. Students would only pay the professors if they thought the professors’ class was worth taking (Long). The students organized into unions called universitas, and they had to bargain with the professors. The professors taught scholastically at first, using scholars like Aristotle and Avicenna. The teachers were hired by the students to give instruction and the lectures were either “ordinary” or “extraordinary.” The ordinary lectures were reserved for the doctors, and the extraordinary ones were given by a student as a part of his preparation for the baccalaureate. The students had power over the professors, even the power to fire a professor if the professors lectures were not to the students liking (Long).

A committee, called the Denounces of Professors, would keep an eye out for misbehaving professors, and had the power to fire masters who did not follow the rules. The professors could be fined if they did not begin or end a lecture on time, or if they failed to present all course material by the end of the course. The professors formed a CBA (collective bargaining association) called the College of Teachers, this “college” gave the professors power. They gained the right to determine examination fees and requirements to earn a degree. A balance of rights was soon determined, where the professors would determine the obligations of the students, and the students determined the obligations of the masters. This was a power-sharing scheme, which seemed to work, though the students still held most of the power because they paid the salaries (Long). The student run system did not last long.

In 1220, the University of Bologna changed. The government began to pay for the salaries of the professors, and the professors guaranteed that they would stay at Bologna, which created continuity and stability in the university (Net). This converted the University of Bologna into a publicly funded university. The professors were now dependent on the city government rather than the students (Long). The students, however, got to make rules in which the masters had to follow. The masters had to swear loyalty to the student rectors and agree to abide by all the rules the student government made. If the professor, or masters, failed to comply with one or more of the rules, they would be fined. The rules included things such as the professor starting class late, or going over allotted class time; falling short of creating syllabus in the allotted time of the course or, leaving the town of Bologna for a day without permission. The rules were established by the city and the student body (de Foix). This was the ultimate power-sharing system. Bologna was later a research university (Pace). The communes tried to favor the students over the teachers at Bologna. The masters were to make an oath that they would not teach outside of the University of Bologna’s walls. Their tenure was secure, only if they limited themselves to the teaching of students at Bologna. The university was run by students and professors until the Napoleonic Era, where the Rector was reintroduced. Thus, the university became more organized. The Rector is elected every four years, and is the head of the university (Monaco).

Student-run universities do not work because the professors can be fired on a dime. If the students do not like the class, or the professor, or the grade they receive, they can pull their tuition. By pulling their tuition, the professor may be forced to leave, because his salary is lowered. Professors would be incoming and outgoing, which is hard on students in a university setting. Student cannot get to know a professor, or work with them long enough to establish a relationship, or even a research team. Master-run schools work because the Masters have to stay. They teach the students all they know, and they do not have to be afraid of being fired suddenly. The only problem with this system is that the students may not like what the professors have to say, and instead of the masters being fired, the students leave. This happened at Oxford in the medieval ages. The students at Oxford were fed up with their professors, so they moved. The students formed another university at Cambridge, and the Oxford professors lost. The best system is the three way one that Bologna now follows. The government, student body, and professors all work together in a balanced system. Each group has to compromise what they want, and what they get. It ends up working out for everyone, and is more functional than the master-run or student-run systems (Jackson).

The medieval period showed an increase in the want and need to learn. Paris was one of the most prestigious schools north of the Alps (de Foix), and the University of Bologna was the first university in the modern world (University). The University of Paris was a master-run school of the North, and Bologna was a student-run university of the South. Each program had great scholars and students, but one university was more stable over the other. The stability of this system led it to be more successful than the student-run universities of its time. The University of Paris’ master run model “is this model of the university which survives to this day” (Jenkins).




De Foix, Isabelle. “A TALE OF TWO MEDIEVAL UNIVERSITIES: BOLOGNA AND PARIS.” Jan. 1996. Web. 10 Feb. 2012.

Halsall, Paul. “Medieval Sourcebook: Courses in Theology [1271] and Medicine [1270-74].” Medieval Sourcebook: University of Paris: Courses in Theology [1271] and Medicine [1270-74]. Feb. 1996. Web. 22 Feb. 2012.

Jackson, Steve N. “The Thin Tweed Line: The Rise of Literacy.” DHC 261: The University. Black Hall 151, Ellensburg, WA. Feb. 2012. Lecture.

Jenkins, Scott. “The Specre of ’68, Student Activism and the ‘student University'” Modern Medieval. 21 Nov. 2011. Web. 16 Feb. 2012.

Long, Roderick. “A University Built by the Invisible Hand.” Roderick T. Long’s Home Page. Apr.-May 1994. Web. 16 Feb. 2012.

Monaco, Fabio. “Nine Centuries of History.” Rector of University of Bologna. Web. 10 Feb. 2012. <>.

Nelson, Lynn. “The Rise of the Universities.” Lectures in Medieval History. Web. 22 Feb. 2012.

Net Industries. “University – The Creation Of The University.” Http:// Net Industries, 2012. Web. 16 Feb. 2012.

Pace, Edward. “The University of Bologna.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 2 Feb. 2012.

University of Bologna. “Our History.” Universita Di Bologna. ALMA MATER STUDIORUM, 2004. Web. 10 Feb. 2012. <>.

“Universities of Paris I–XIII.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 22 Feb. 2012.


This paper was first presented in Steve Jackson’s History of Higher Education course.

Socratic Education

by Danielle Brandli

There are many figures of educational importance throughout history. This essay will focus on the Greek philosopher Felix Socrates and his contributions to dynamic education, which are still prominent in educational systems today. Throughout this analysis Socrates’ background will be recounted and a thesis of his impact on education will be revealed. His concepts and theories will be declared and identified in multiple dialogues and those who furthered his theories will be noted. The reader will find that Socrates was the founder for present methods of philosophy and teaching as well as the founder for the present theory of knowledge. The philosopher Plato studied Socrates’ methods and Plato in-turn, taught Aristotle. All three of these dynamic philosophers play a large role in the knowledge underlying our education system today. To begin grasping Socrates’ impact on education, one must be knowledgeable about the life of Socrates.

It is important to know the background behind Felix Socrates in order to understand his philosophies. The Sophists, Socrates’ pupils, groups created from Socratic theories, the Peloponnesian War, the Democracy of Athens, and the trial and death of Socrates must all be known for any reader to gain a broad enough knowledge of Socrates’ background. Socrates was born in May of the year 468 BCE, as reported by C.C.W. Taylor in Socrates: A Very Short Introduction, published in 2000. It is believed that Socrates’ father was Sophroniscus, a sculptor, and his mother was a midwife named Phainarete who gave birth to Socrates in Athens (Taylor 4). He married Xanthippe who bore him three sons (Taylor 5). It was speculated that Socrates had a second wife named Mytro whom he was possibly wedded to at the same time as Xanthippe (Taylor 5). Little is known about the first part of Socrates’ life, but supposedly Socrates was a pupil of Archelaus who studied natural philosophy and ethics (Taylor 7). Complimentary to this belief, Archelaus’ studies can be noted as the probable foundation for many of Socrates’ analyses on human morale.

To our knowledge today, Socrates wrote no works of his own; therefore historians have only discovered Socrates through other philosophers’ writings as stated in The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy (2003) by D.N. Sedley. In fact, there is no material proof that Socrates was even a living person. However based on other philosophers’ writings, it is very probable that Socrates lived. In this aspect Socrates parallels Jesus, for Jesus had no written works of his own but similarly, multiple people wrote him about. The written works philosophers left behind about Socrates give historians a look into the second half of Socrates’ life (Sedley 89). Plato, one of Socrates’ pupils, wrote numerous dialogues that exhibit conversations between Socrates and another person—who was usually a Sophist—about ethics and morals (Sedley 89). Some of these dialogues, the Laches, the Crito and the Apology, the Charmides, the Protagoras, the Gorgias, and the Hippias Major can be found in Trevor J. Saunders’ 2005 edited version of The Early Socratic Dialogues and will be discussed in latter portions of this paper. Xenophon (another student of Socrates) wrote a series of dialogues, called the Memoirs, which also depicted Socrates conversations with different Sophists (Sedley 89).

The Sophists, defined by W.C.K. Guthrie in the second volume of A History of Greek Philosophy printed in 1962, were a group that focused on customs and laws and started to develop universal moral principles as well as a theory of knowledge. Protagoras, a Sophist who converses with Socrates in one of Plato’s dialogues, developed the idea that every argument has an opposing argument and since each argument already has an opposite, one cannot argue by contradicting an argument but rather by questioning the knowledge behind the argument (Sedley 80). This thinking was adopted by Socrates and was eventually developed into the method of Socratic questioning as seen in education today. Others (some of whom were Sophists) also adopted this thinking and became students of Socrates. There were many followers of Socrates; however his most devoted disciples were Alcibiades, Critias, Charmides, Euclid, Aristippus, Antithenes, Xenophon, and Plato (Guthrie 47-48). Keep Alcibiades, Critias, and Charmides in mind for a later point. With his pupils, Socrates developed theories on knowledge, virtue, the psyche, and teaching. His most well known pupil, Plato, further developed Socratic education after Socrates’ death.

Socrates’ philosophies were at the root of multiple groups meaning that his knowledge was a large influence on other philosophers. Antithenes, who built off of Socrates’ theories and Sophist ideas, founded a group called the Cynics who explored the concept of morals (Guthrie 96). Cynics theorized that happiness was the sole goal of a moral life (Guthrie 115). Similarly, Euclid led the Megarics who explored the concepts of possibility, motion, chance, and annihilation while Aristippus led the Cyrenaics (Guthrie 93, 118). The Cynics and the Cyrenaics directly opposed the Platonic theory of reality being composed of Forms, which is intriguing because Platonism and the theories of the Cynics and Cyrenaics all stemmed from Socrates.

Next, information about the Peloponnesian War comes from Henry J. Perkinson’s work Since Socrates: Studies in the History of Western Educational Thought that was published in 1980. The Peloponnesian War occurred from 431 to 404 BCE, during the second half of Socrates’ life (Perkinson 2). The war ended in 404 BCE when a group called the Thirty Tyrants overthrew the democracy of Athens; three of these tyrants were Alcibiades, Critias, and Charmides (Perkinson 2). Shortly thereafter—in 401 BCE—the Tyrants fell and the democracy was restored (Sedley 91). Following the democracy’s restoration, three men filed a claim against Socrates in 399 BCE for worshipping unknown gods and for corrupting the youth (Taylor 14). Although the claim was that he had corrupted the youth through his teachings, it has been speculated that part of the reason a case was brought against him was due to his connection to Alcibiades, Critias, and Charmides (Perkinson 2). Since these tyrants were taught by Socrates and also involved themselves in the overthrow of the Athenian democracy, the Athenian government concluded that Socrates must have taught them that democracy was a bad form of government and therefore Socrates was responsible for their actions (Perkinson 2).

Plato’s dialogues show that Socrates did in fact dislike democracy. However, the laws of the Athenian democracy, deduced by Richard Kraut in his 1984 novel of Socrates and State, pleased Socrates because they were designed for improvement of the youth and they provided correct standards for behavior. Even still though, Socrates disagreed with the idea of democracy because he believed it gave power to the majority (Kraut 196). He thought that the majority—what he called the many—was corrupt because their morals were false and because the many could not give children an appropriate education (Kraut 196). Socrates concluded that democracy was not the ideal way to govern and he suggested that a board of experts could rule. Yet he questioned who was even qualified to be an expert for this proposal, and thus Socrates eventually recognized that there were no better options than democracy (Kraut 208).

Returning to Socrates’ trial— Socrates was tried in the spring of 399 BCE; the jury convicted him of corrupting the youth and sentenced him to death by hemlock poisoning (Taylor 12). Before his execution in late spring, Socrates spent a period of time in jail and while in jail Socrates had the chance to escape, but he chose not to (Taylor 14). Socrates stayed to be executed due to personal morals and he inevitably became a martyr to prove a key point: it is wrong to silence critics (Perkinson 13). Teaching society through action and sacrificing himself was what he considered to be the greatest act of teaching (Perkinson 13).

Socrates’ pupil Plato wrote two dialogues that accounted Socrates’ trial and personal motivations behind drinking the hemlock poison. The Crito and the Apology dialogues explain Socrates’ justification for his life and his reasoning for the necessary continuation of dynamic education. The Apology explains how Socrates teaches and that his life has been spent philosophizing which is essential to teaching; therefore Socrates concludes that his life is a just cause. The Crito explicates that Socrates must obey the law unless that law requires him to do an injustice. In this dialogue, Crito presents an argument for Socrates to escape from jail after he has been convicted, but Socrates refuses to do so. Socrates argues that he must stay and be executed for the well being of his psyche. Socrates believes that his psyche will no longer be able to philosophize if he commits the injustice of escape. Socrates deems that he may be able to continue to philosophize in heaven so his educational task will not be stopped by his execution (Teloh 98-128). After Socrates’ death, Plato continues to progress Socrates’ dynamic teaching.

Now that Socrates’ background is established, the nature of Ionian science must be explained before beginning to explore the theories Socrates created. As explained in Before and After Socrates written by Francis Cornford in 1958, Ionian science first began in an Ionian colony in the sixth century. Ionian science was the change to a science of impersonal nature from mythology with personal sacrifices to the gods (Cornford 17). Very few had claimed this point of view and most Greeks still carried on with their mythology for thousands of years to come (Cornford 17). This forward view of Ionian science is also called pre-Socratic science; moreover it is the science of “how,” which is asked before the “why” (Cornford 1-2). Socrates also pioneers this concept of asking the “why”.

Socrates had a few concepts that asked “why,” which were publicized in the dialogues of his pupils. His theories and concepts that will be introduced are the psyche, “know thyself,” a theory of knowledge, the concept of virtue, and the Socratic Method. With these concepts, Socrates created a basis for dynamic learning that was further developed by both Plato and Aristotle. Although Socrates had no written works of his own, his theories can be seen in the dialogues of Plato. Yet, was the purpose of these dialogues to educate people about Socrates’ dynamic theories? The immediate use of Plato’s dialogues is unknown but the philosophical purpose was to create something concrete that others could not argue with. Plato claims no original thought and credits the theories in his dialogues to Socrates, thus one can conclude that Plato constructed his dialogues to be a tangible and unarguable assembly of Socratic theories. The dialogues examined in this essay are the Charmides, the Protagoras, the Laches, the Gorgias, and the Hippias Major. Through the investigation of these dialogues, Socrates’ theories and his dynamic teaching style will be discovered and deemed as largely important to philosophy and education today.

First, Socrates’ concept of the psyche will be defined. Judged in Ellen M. Wood’s work Class Ideology and Ancient Political Theory: Socrates, Plato, And Aristotle in Social Context (published in 1978,) the psyche, or the soul, was an important concept to Socrates (Wood 107). He believed that the psyche was more superior to the body, and thusly that the body was simply a tool to be used by the psyche (Wood 107). Socrates observed that most men were too infatuated with the physical aspects of life and that people needed to pay more care to their psyche (Wood 107). Socrates believed that caring for your psyche correctly was the path to goodness and the first step on this path was critical self-examination: one must “know thyself’ (Wood 107). Socrates created a hierarchical system based on the purity of psyches (Wood 108). This system is ordered from the most pure to the least pure psyche:

-Authentic Philosophers

-Warrior Rulers

-Law Abiding Kings

-Physicians, Athletic Trainers, and Athletes

-Prophets and Priests

-Poets and Artists

-Artisans and Farmers

-Sophists and Demagogues


It is ironic that Socrates listed Tyrants as having the most impure psyches considering that three of his pupils later became Tyrant Rulers. If Alcibiades, Critias, and Charmides followed Socrates’ teachings truly, then they would have known that their act of tyranny made them impure.

Next, Socrates’ greatest commandment was “know thyself” (Guthrie 65). He believed that if one knew oneself (defined as improving the psyche) then that person’s knowledge would greatly increase (Perkinson 9). In his 1979 work, Socrates: Philosophy in Plato’s Early Dialogues, Gerasimos X. Santas reports that Socrates theorized that virtue is the knowledge of goodness and that the knowledge of good and evil is the foundation for teaching and defining the world around us. If virtue—also known as moral—is the knowledge of goodness, then what is the definition of “goodness?” Socrates likely pondered this question and then defined what was useful and beneficial to mankind as “good” (Guthrie 68). If a man was knowledgeable in what was beneficial to other men, then they were virtuous. This type of thinking led Socrates to conclude that virtue was wisdom and success (Guthrie 70). Socrates also believed that being aware of one’s ignorance made one wise. These concepts are Socrates’ theory of knowledge and virtue, which he stayed firmly fastened to throughout his lifetime as seen during his trial and execution.

Plato’s dialogue the Charmides displays Socrates’ theory of virtue. In the dialogue, Charmides, Critias and Socrates discuss the aspects of temperance: self-control and modesty. Charmides says that temperance is doing one’s own business, which Socrates concludes to be immodest thinking, and therefore wrong. Thus, Socrates seeks to change Charmides thinking. Socrates decides to improve Critias’ thinking who, in-turn will improve Charmides’. Critias defines temperance as self-knowledge, which causes Socrates to deem Critias ignorant. Critias will not admit his ignorance but Charmides did and also asks Socrates to teach him more of virtue and help increase his wisdom. This brings up the earlier topic of Socrates’ accountability for the overthrow of the Athenian democracy by Alcibiades, Charmides, and Critias. Is Socrates to blame for Charmides role in the Thirty Tyrants? The last line of the dialogue, “You [Socrates] must expect me [Charmides] to use force…since he [Critias] gives me the command: take counsel…” clearly shows that Charmides becomes Critias’ pupil and thus, Charmides is made into a tyrant by Critias, not Socrates (Teloh 57-68).

The Protagoras dialogue also explores the teaching of virtue. In the Protagoras, Protagoras and Socrates start their conversation with different views on both teaching and virtue; Socrates thought that it was impossible to teach high demotic virtue while Protagoras believed low demotic virtue could be taught. After discussing Socrates decides that all virtue is the knowledge of good and evil which can be taught, while Protagoras changes his view to deny that any virtue can be taught. This dialogue does not show that Socrates successfully educated Protagoras and yet it does not recommend Protagoras’ teaching methods either. Plato could have written this dialogue while questioning Socrates’ teaching techniques (Teloh 164-175).

Another key concept that Socrates held was that what was “good” or “evil” could not be decided by society (Santas 139). He viewed society as a corrupt mass—as examined earlier—and thought that one should not look for societal approval but rather seek answers from experts on the subject. Socrates suggested consulting experts for help to decide what was “good” or “evil.” Furthermore, he emphasized that one must also learn these things from within (Perkinson 10).

Socrates aimed to change the thoughts of everyone, not just of the upper class and Sophists (Kraut 200). He wanted to spread his theories and educate people using his teaching techniques. These techniques, also known as the Socratic Method, were used to educate others and can be defined as “extorting a common truth from the loose and contradictory statements of different individuals” (Guthrie 47). This method is successful because it is based on the fact that man is fallible and that man does not know all. One must make mistakes when conceiving their morals and Socrates points out these faults through questioning arguments and creating counter-arguments (Perkinson 11). If a person admitted his ignorance during an argument with Socrates, then Socrates believed he would be able to successfully educate them. Socrates taught by not telling his pupils what was good, true, better, or desirable but rather by directing his pupil to see what was evil (Perkinson 11). This kind of teaching—as stated by Henry Teloh in his 1986 work Socratic Education in Plato’s Early Dialogues—was new for the time period and many of the people who would converse with Socrates would in turn become irritated with his techniques (Teloh 46). People were obviously unaccustomed to the Socratic way of thinking. Most Sophists still thought of philosophy as having an external nature while Socrates philosophized about the study of man and human action.

The Socratic Method, which we use today, is defined as the extraction of a common truth of “good” from loose and contradictory statements that are “bad” or “wrong” (Guthrie 47). Socrates theorized that wisdom came from virtue—the knowledge of what was “good” through personal thought—and that the better a person knew themselves, the more pure one’s psyche was, the more knowledgeable one could be. Socrates was a teacher who did not directly teach these theories but rather he educated his pupils by questioning them until they discovered the truth for themselves (Perkinson 11).

In the Laches dialogue, two fathers Lysimachus and Melesias have both been failures and they want their children to turn out better than they did. These fathers ask two generals, Nicias and Laches, if their children will be better off if they fight. The generals give contradictory speeches about fighting which leads to a discussion between Socrates and the generals about psyche and courage. Socrates questions the generals about what makes a man courageous and when the generals start to tire of Socrates’ questions he simply admits his ignorance. Socrates states that the generals have been more courageous than him; therefore they are wiser than him on the topic at hand. Socrates’ humility persuades the generals to answer his questions and the conversation ends with the conclusion that internal psychic is the cause of courageous actions. Two different definitions of courage come from both general; courage is the knowledge of good and evil or courage is endurance. This dialogue shows Socrates’ teaching methods and his success in educating both Nicias and Laches through guiding them to extract their own true meaning of courage (Teloh 41-56).

Now that we have discussed Socrates’ concepts in Plato’s dialogues, we will briefly look at how his pupil Plato further developed his philosophies. Platonism was developed with the Socratic Method as its foundation. Platonism in fact follows the Socratic Method so strongly that the separation of one method from the other is unclear (Cornford 55). However, Plato’s dialogues the Gorgias and the Hippias Major show that the Socratic Method of teaching needed to be expanded.

In Plato’s dialogue the Gorgias, Gorgias, Socrates, Polus, and Calicles discuss the teaching methods of rhetorical and dialectical teaching. Socrates believes that the ultimate goal of dialectic is to gain knowledge. Socrates and Gorgias contrast rhetoric and dialectic until Socrates concludes that dialectic is the ideal way of educating and Gorgias, Polus, and Calicles use the wrong method of rhetoric. Socrates however does not change these men into dialecticians. The dialogue shows Socrates’ failure was due to the fact that these men had already established their values. Also in this dialogue, Plato notes that Socrates’ teaching methods needed to be advanced, which becomes his reasoning for the necessity of pre-dialectic teaching in the Republic dialogue (Teloh 129-150).

The Hippias Major dialogue displays a conversation between Socrates and Hippias about beauty. Socrates rejects Hippias’ definitions and Socrates unsuccessfully attempts to change Hippias’ thinking. Socrates uses all of his usual teaching methods, yet they do not seem to have any impact on Hippias. In this dialogue Plato highlights that Socrates fails his educational mission and proposes his own answer: people need basic education in music and gymnastics (Teloh 176-194).

Plato’s dialogues illustrate how Socrates taught others. Every dialogue discussed shows Socrates using the Socratic Method while trying to guide the student towards finding the truth in Socrates’ theories. However, the Gorgias and the Hippias Major dialogues show Socrates’ failure to educate the other conversers, which Plato spends his life trying to progress. Plato took Socrates’ theories and advanced them into a system of the world. Plato’s system embraced both the nature of man and external Nature, whereas Socrates was only concerned with the nature of man (Cornford 56). Plato created the Republic dialogue as a program (based on the philosophies of Socrates) for the reform of Athens, dedicated to restore a moral life to society (Cornford 58). Plato’s main theory of Forms, or ideas, was that the vision of a Form was knowledge. He expanded on Socrates use of definitions and created a universal definition for Forms called absolute meaning: Forms are fixed within Nature and are unchangeable (Cornford 61). Plato believed that a world of perfect Forms contains the truth of all things, which further developed the Socratic Method of seeking the truth (Cornford 64). Plato’s work led to the establishment of the Pythagorean doctrine as well as the theory of reminiscence (Cornford 70).

Plato’s teachings also led to the establishment of Aristotle as a philosopher, whom migrated to Athens specifically to become a pupil of Plato’s (Cornford 85). For the first part of his life, Aristotle followed Plato’s teachings and created dialogues in imitation of his teacher. During the second part of his life, Aristotle moved away from Plato’s theories. Like a true dynamic learner, he questioned Plato’s idea of Forms and shifted from Platonism towards philosophy of the common sense (Cornford 88). Aristotle’s philosophy that “knowledge lies within Nature as revealed by the senses” was rooted in the Socratic idea of seeking the truth (Cornford 90). With his students, Aristotle began researching the nature of things through observation (Cornford 92). This Aristotelian system led to the development of biological science that broadly included physics and metaphysics (Cornford 106). Through research, Aristotle believed that one could find a universal answer to every question because everything is rational (Cornford 106). This theory of a universal answer completes Socrates’ search for the truth. Aristotle’s expansion of Socratic concepts may not have had an impact on our present educational system today if Aristotle had not taught Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great spread the Socratic knowledge he gained from Aristotle throughout the Roman Empire.

To conclude this analysis of Socrates’ educational influence, we will return to a few key points. Felix Socrates was a highly influential philosopher in the field of education. He was the foundation for philosophy as a study of mankind, teaching methods, and the theory of knowledge that were all continually developed by others and are prominent in our educational system today. Without Socrates’ theories, Plato and Aristotle may have never created their own philosophies. Without Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander the Great, Socrates’ dynamic teaching methods may not have been taught. Without the spread of the Socratic Method, our education system might not be what it is today. There is no doubt that Socrates’ life dedication to the study of the philosophy was very impactful in the education of man.



Cornford, Francis M. Before and After Socrates. Cambridge [Eng.: University Press,1958. Print.

Guthrie, W K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. 3 vols. Cambridge: University Press, 1962. Print.

Kraut, Richard. Socrates and the State. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1984. Print.

Perkinson, Henry J. Since Socrates: Studies in the History of Western Educational Thought. New York: Longman, 1980. Print.

Plato, and Trevor J. Saunders. Early Socratic Dialogues. London: Penguin, 2005. Print. Santas, Gerasimos X. Socrates, Philosophy in Plato’s Early Dialogues. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1979. Print.

Sedley, D N. The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Taylor, C C. W. Socrates: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Teloh, Henry. Socratic Education in Plato’s Early Dialogues. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986. Print.

Wood, Ellen M, and Neal Wood. Class Ideology and Ancient Political Theory: Socrates, Plato, And Aristotle in Social Context. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.Print.


This paper was originally presented in Steve Jackson’s History of Higher Education course.

Al-Khwarizmi: Arabic Numerals and Geometric Justification to Algorithms

by Jordan Vidmore

In today’s western schooling system students take for granted the rules of algebra when they are taught at a young age how to solve simple equations. When presented with the equation 3x-5=7, students immediately solve it by getting rid of the negatives and then dividing to get 4. It wasn’t always like this though. It took the works of a persian mathematician named Muḥammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi to make this possible. Without Al-Khwarizmi’s works, math would not be the coherent process it is today.

Al-Khwarizmi did not invent the idea of algebra. “Finding solutions to equations is a pursuit that dates back to the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians.” (Tanton, 2005) Clay tables from the Babylonians (1700 BCE) show the existence of crude algebra in the form of a few quadratic equations worked out in full. However they lacked a general method to work out new ones. These tablets were used by finding a worked out equation on them similar to the equation they are currently faced with. Then they adjust the worked out equation’s values to fit the current situation. This method had major setbacks and was extremely limited as to which equations it could solve. (Tanton, 2005)

Early Greek mathematics improved algebra by using the method of false position. This method was taught in the Rhind Papyrus, a mathematical text of theirs, which contained the problem “A quantity; its fourth is added to it. It becomes fifteen. What is the quantity?” (Chace 1979)The reader was asked to solve this problem by false position. One would guess a solution to the problem, and then adjust to get the answer. For example, if one guessed 5 as the solution, they would get 25. They would then subtract 15, the answer from the original problem, from 25 to get 10 and divide 10 by 5 to get 2. This 2 would then be subtracted from the 5 to get 3, which is the answer. This method always worked for linear equations but could not be developed into a viable formula to work on quadratic equations successfully. (Tanton, 2005)

Under the teachings of Pythagoras, followers gave geometric proofs to the distributive property and created the difference of two squares formula. This new formula made it possible to invent a quadratic equation and then find the solution to that equation. Even with this formula, though complex or large equations were far to difficult to solve because the Greeks lacked symbols for math and were forced to write out their equations. An equation such as 23x+x=82 in modern notation would be written as: “A number, its twenty-third is added to it. It becomes eighty-two. What is the quantity?” As the numbers get larger and the equation bigger, the complexity to solve it increases exponentially. It wasn’t until later that symbols started to appear, and were use by Diophantus of Alexandria; but these were only used as shorthand and not actually used to solve the equations. These symbols existed only as a way of writing the problem; this is, until a brilliant Persian mathematician discovered how to use them to solve equations.

Born in CE 780, Al-Khwarizmi – full name Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi – would grow up to be a great mathematician and be considered one of the “eight great brains of ancient world scientists.” (Graham 2009) Not much is know about his early life other than he grew up when Arab science and culture were beginning to flourish and transferring into the golden age of Islamic science. As an adult, Al-Khwarizmi spent most of his life in Baghdad where he had access to avast amounts of mathematical manuscripts as he studied in the House of Wisdom. One of his tasks here was to translate the works of ancient societies to make it available to Arabic scholars. With the knowledge of ancient mathematics, Al-Khwarizmi wrote two books titled al-Kitab al-mukhtasar fihisab al-jabr wa’l-muqabala and Al-jam’ w’al-tarfriq ib hisab al-hind. Know as the “father of modern algebra,” the word algorithm is actually a corruption of Al-Khwarizmi name. (Britannica 2011) He died in CE 850 but left behind these two texts which contain knowledge that has shaped modern algebra into what it is today.

Al-Khwarizmi’s text, Addition and Subtraction in India Arithmetic, introduced the Indian numerical system to the western world. In this book he explains the advantages of using the decimal-place system, such as in Indian numerals, over the current Egyptian technique based on finger counting. Al-Khwarizmi firmly believed that the Hindu method of arithmetic, based of fixed values, was more useful then the tradition form. (Healey 2006) This book actually didn’t contain any significant new knowledge that wasn’t already available in the Hindu language but his translation into Arabic, and Fibonacci’s subsequent translation into latin 300 years later, made the text available to many educated scholars and the numerals to be know as “Arabic numerals”. (Healey 2006) In this text, Al-Khwarizmi uses a symbol for zero which he calls “sifr”, and explains it as a placeholder but not as a number. The significance of which, for example, was to make 23 appear different than 203 when written.

This text created a basis for Al-Khwarizmi’s subsequent texts on algebra which would be based off of this system of numerals. These texts would not work with the old finger counting method and therefore caused Al-Khwarizmi to have to use the Arabic numerals based off of the Hindu ones. (Hutchinson’s 2011)

Al-Khwarizmi’s Calculation by Restoration and Compensation was designed as a teaching guide. “It aimed to offer an array of techniques and methods for solving very practical problems in matters of trade, inheritance, law, surveying, and architecture.” (Tanton 2005) This book begins with the basics and defines natural numbers and how to count them. It then moves on to the process of solving simple linear and quadratic equations. In this text, Al-Khwarizmi uses two simple methods, al-jabr (completion) and al-muqabala (balancing), which he says could reduce any linear or quadratic equation into one of six basic types. Al-jabr, or completion, is the process of removing any negative terms from an equation. An example of this would be changing 2x^2-6x=8 into 2x^2=6x+8. The word algebra comes from Al-Khwarizmi’s term al-jabr. The second, al-muqabala, or balancing, is the process of subtracting terms with the same power that appear on each side. 2x^2+3=x^2+8x would be simplified down to x^2+3=8x. The text goes on to explain the concept of completing the square and how this method could be used on all of the six basic equations. (Tanton 2005)

In part 2 of the text, Al-Khwarizmi explains the practical applications of al-jabr and al-muqabala. In this section he explains how the quadratic equations yield both a positive and a negative answer; but he also advises the reader to reject the negative answer as it has no real world value.

The final, and larges section of the book does not develop any new mathematical content, but instead focuses on the complicated Islamic rules for inheritance. All of the equations in this section are completely worked out and show how they can be used in different situations, such as inheritance land division. (Healey 2006)

When developing Calculation by Restoration and Compensation, Al-Khwarizmi attempted to be practical by including equations that would very likely be seen in relevant fields such as law, business, geography, engineering, and trade. (Healey 2006)

One of Al-Khwarizmi’s main concerns was to find the roots of quadratic equations. He accomplished this with the use of proofs based on geometric equations. Each of the six basic types of equations has its own geometrical proof. Consider the problem x^2+10x=39. Al-Khwarizmi writes:

“The manner of solving this type of equation is to take one half of the root [Coefficient]. Now the root in this problem is 10. Therefore, take 5 which multiplied by itself is 25, an amount which you add to 39 to give 64, having taken then the square root of this which is 8, subtract from it the half of the root 6, leaving 3”
From al-Kitab al-mukhtasar fihisab al-jabr wa’l-muqabal

Al-Khwarizmi also includes two geometric justifications for this equation.

“In our first, you start with a square of side x; adjoin to it two identical rectangles, each of length 5 and width x so as to form an L shape whose base and height are each x+5, and then superimpose on it a big square of side x+5. the area of the L shape is x^2+5x+5x, that is, x^2+10x which, by our original equation, must equal 39; the area of the big square, viz. (x+5)^2, is 25 more units than the area of the L shape and so much equal 39+25=64. Thus, (x+5)^2=64 and so, taking positive square roots, x+5=8, that is, x=3.”
Al-Khwarizmi through Maher 1998

The second:

“The small square of side x is centered in the middle of a big square, a gain of side x+5. Here, the area of the four corner squares is 4×2.5x.5=25 and the area of the cross shape is x^2+4(2.5x)=x^2+10x, so again the area of the big square is 64, whence x=3.”
Al-Khwarizmi through Maher 1998

These methods that Al-Khwarizmi used only gave positive solutions, which since the negative solutions didn’t have a practical use, he didn’t mind. Al-Khwarizmi’s work still had a large impact on the mathematical community.

Al-Khwarizmi’s work was most influential after Fibonacci translated it into Latin. Quickly thereafter his work became quite important to scholars and businessmen alike during the Middle Ages. (Healey 2006) The use of his Arabic numeral system was quickly adopted and became the standard. This had a huge impact on the education system by giving a ten-digit system to use rather then Roman numerals. There are two main impacts this had on the mathematical community in the university system. The first was that Arabic numerals are far easier to write, read, and work with than Roman numerals. A problem written as XXVx+XIV=CVII is much harder to work with than 25x+14=107. What makes the Roman numerals so difficult to work with is that they are not based off of ten, but rather a system of 5. The single digits change at 5; I,II,III,IV,V, the ten digits at 50; X,XX,XXX,XL,L, and so forth. The major problem with this, and its relation to math, is that formulas can not be made to work with all the values. The second main impact was that they made it possible for someone to solve the problem in symbol form.

Al-Khwarizmi’s work, Calculation by Restoration and Compensation, also had a large impact on the school system of the Middle Ages and beyond. Al-Khwarizmi may not have invented algebra, but he perfected it in this book. His perfection, and geometric proofs, of algebra is the foundation for many of todays upper level mathematics. All upper level math uses the idea of al-jabr and al-muqabala to simplify problems into a manageable and familiar equation.

As the university system spread, they adopted Al-Khwarizmi’s Arabic numerals and ideas of algebra as a foundation to their math. This led to the end of using the false position method and the practice of finger counting and being replaced by Al-Khwarizmi’s methods. If it wasn’t for Al-Khwarizmi, math would not be the coherent process it is today.


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Brezina, Corona. Al-Khwarizmi : The Inventor Of Algebra. Rosen Central, 2006.

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Graham, Amy. Astonishing Ancient World Scientists : Eight Great Brains. Books, 2009.

Healey, Christina. “Al-Khwarizmi.” Al-Khwarizmi (2006): 1. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 18 Jan. 2012

“Khwarizmi, Al-” Britannica Biographies (2011): 1. MAS Ultra – School Edition. Web. 18 Jan. 2012.

Maher, Philip. From Al-Jabr to Algebra. Vol. 27. Print.

Tanton, James Stuart. Encyclopedia of Mathematics. New York: Facts on File, 2005. Print.