Perhaps the greatest and most enduring achievement of the Middle Ages was the creation of the university, an institution for which there was no precedent in the history of the West. It sprang into existence seemingly out of nowhere in the late 12th century primarily in two cities, Paris and Bologna. Both claim to be Europe’s first. By the early decades of the 13th century, others had emerged modeled on them—Oxford on the Paris model and Padua on Bologna. From that point forward, universities proliferated across the face of Europe and became a standard, important and self-governing institution in larger cities.
Medieval universities, although they differed among themselves in significant ways, all quickly developed highly sophisticated procedures and organizational strategies that we recognize as our own today. The list is long: set curricula, examinations, professorial privileges and duties, a full array of officers of various kinds, division into different “faculties” (we call them schools) and the public certification of professional competence through the awarding of degrees.
The invention of degrees was particularly important. A man could practice medicine without a university degree (and the vast majority of doctors did so), but with a degree he enjoyed greater prestige and could exact higher fees. He was a professional with documentation to prove he had passed the scrutiny of his peers. A university degree spelled upward socioeconomic mobility, whether in the church or in society at large.
Creating the Liberal Arts
In the Middle Ages there were four university faculties—law, medicine, theology and arts. The first three trained young men aspiring to distinction in a profession. Theology, we must remember, was a professional subject like law and medicine. Not a single course in it, therefore, was taught in the other three faculties. (For that matter, neither was a course in catechism.) Theology was not, therefore, considered one of the liberal arts. A degree in theology qualified an individual for a university chair (or its equivalent in religious orders), which would enable the holder to teach others pursuing such a career. It might also commend him as a candidate for a bishop’s miter, although a degree in canon law might better commend him.
The arts faculty was the entry faculty where one learned the basic skills of the trivium and quadrivium. As Aristotle’s works on physics, metaphysics, the heavens, animals and other subjects were translated into Latin, they began to dominate the arts curriculum. This faculty thus evolved, especially in Italy, into a professional school where the cultivation of natural philosophy gradually took precedence over the other branches and became the seedbed for modern science. The professors of natural philosophy drew better salaries, attracted more students and enjoyed greater prestige than professors of metaphysics.
Not all universities had all four faculties. Even when they did, the faculties were not equal in strength and prestige. Bologna was renowned for law. It had been founded by wealthy students intent on a career in law who banded together to form a university to hire experts to teach them. Bologna did not have a theological faculty until 1364, nearly two centuries after its founding. Even then the faculty consisted essentially in a kind of consortium of the “houses of study” of the religious orders in the city. Most large Italian universities had only one or two professors of theology and one or two of metaphysics in a professorate of 50 to 100. Instead, they were renowned for law, medicine and, in time, natural philosophy.
The pattern was different in universities in northern Europe, where theology was strong and law and medicine weak or nonexistent. What is important to recognize for both northern and southern universities, however, is that the faculties operated independently of one another and communicated with one another only on the most formal level.
They all, however, had the same scope: intellectual problem solving through the acquisition of professional skills. Intellectual problem solving was perhaps nowhere more evident than in the arts and theology faculties because of their appropriation of dialectics (disputation or debate) as central to their method. Logical, left-brain, agonistic, analytic, restless and relentless questioning was the method’s hallmark, in which the resolution of every question led only to further questions. It is no wonder that virtually all the heretics from the 13th until the 16th century were scholastic theologians; their very method led them into asking questions that challenged received wisdom.
Catholic Mission, Secular Values
When Catholic educators and prelates speak of the origin of Catholic universities, they locate it in the Middle Ages. Although such talk is rarely free of an idealized vision of the “ages of faith,” it is, in this instance, not unreasonable. Catholicism permeated medieval culture. It therefore permeated the culture of the universities. Faculty and students were all Catholics. Many universities held papal charters. Theology enjoyed an uncontested place among the disciplines.
But would medieval universities satisfy the norms held up today to qualify as “authentically Catholic”? A composite profile of such norms drawn from such documents as “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” would look something like this: The university explicitly professes the Catholic faith, is unquestioning of the magisterium, installs theology as a core subject, contributes to “the common good” of the church and of society at large and professedly fosters the students’ moral and religious formation as well as their commitment to the church. A Catholic university is a religious university.
One difficulty in answering the question is that medieval universities, unlike many universities in the United States today, did not issue mission statements. Unlike the humanist schools that developed later, they did not profess to operate out of a clearly articulated philosophy of education. They just did what they did. And what they did was engage in intellectual problem solving, which entailed the development of professional skills that led to career advancement. Intellectual problem solving and career advancement were the core values of the medieval university. They are secular values, identical with the values operative in today’s secular universities.
Without a mission statement, there was no way for the medieval university to profess that it was concerned, for instance, with the common good or with the students’ religious and moral development. In fact, the medieval university, as such, took no systemic measures to deal with such concerns. That does not mean that in the university milieu these concerns did not find expression. Although the medieval university made no provision for the morals of its students, residences of various kinds officially or unofficially affiliated with it took on this task in some cases. The Collège de Montaigu at the University of Paris, where in succession Erasmus, Calvin and St. Ignatius of Loyola lived as students, was famous (or notorious) for the discipline it imposed.
Even though the university as such did not concern itself with “the common good,” the theological faculties in northern Europe took on at least one such task. They became the self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy, not in the least shy in condemning those who deviated from the orthodox standards of the day. These faculties, rather than obeying the magisterium (a thoroughly modern concept), were the magisterium. The faculties of Cologne and Louvain, for instance, condemned Luther before the papacy did.
Were medieval universities Catholic universities? It is a question easier to ask than to answer. One thing, however, is certain: the contemporary grid for an “authentically Catholic” university does not neatly fit the medieval reality. There are even grounds for asserting that in their core values, medieval universities more closely resemble the contemporary secular university than they do today’s Catholic model. If we are looking for historical precedents for that model, we do not find them clearly in the Middle Ages.