The following extract is taken from 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power: Volume 2, out this week at Christian Focus Publications. This 4 volume set from Nick Needham now features a fourth volume covering the 16th-18th Centuries. Essential reading for anyone with an interest in church history.
The Universities and the rise of Scholasticism
The 12th and 13th centuries saw a great flowering of knowledge, especially theology and philosophy, in Western Christendom. It reached its high point in the 13th century, which many consider to be the “golden age” of Western Catholic civilisation in the Middle Ages. At the heart of this flowering of knowledge was the university.
The institution of the university came to the West from the Muslim world. The most important Muslim university was al- Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. Al-Azhar was founded in 970; it still exists today, one of the world’s oldest centres of learning. These Islamic universities had a strong influence on the development of European education, e.g. in the use of Arabic rather than Roman numbers. However, the greatest impact Islamic universities had on the West was simply the way they acted as channels for the Muslim world’s medical, scientific, mathematical and philosophical knowledge to flow into Western academic institutions. (At that time, the Islamic world far surpassed the West in intellectual achievement.)
Western universities began to appear in the 12th century. They developed out of schools which were attached to cathedral churches and abbeys. … The first universities were those of Bologna (northern Italy) and Paris (northern France). There had been a law school in Bologna since 890; this formed the basis of what became Bologna University, given official recognition by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa (1152-90), in 1155. In Paris, there was a famous school attached to Notre Dame Cathedral, which by 1150-70 had taken on the features of a university.
The other Western universities were modelled on Bologna and Paris. In Bologna, the university was a “corporation” (a sort of trade union) of students; the students controlled the policies of the university, and hired and fired the teachers. In Paris, the university was a corporation of teachers; they controlled policy and set the fees for the students. The name “university” arose out of these methods of organisation. A university organised on the Bologna model was called in Latin a universitas scholarium – “the whole body of students”. A university organised on the Paris model was called a universitas magistrorum – “the whole body of teachers”.
Many universities sprang up in the period 1200-1500. By 1500, there were about 80 universities in Western Europe. Some were celebrated for teaching particular subjects: Paris was famous for theology, Bologna for law, Salerno (southern Italy) for medicine, Oxford (southern England) for science and mathematics. A fully developed university would have four departments or “faculties”, teaching theology, law, medicine, and arts. The ideal was to make the university into a centre for preserving and communicating the sum total of all human knowledge.
The normal age for entering a university was 14 or 15. All a man needed was an education in the Latin language and the ability to pay his fees. Latin was the only language spoken in universities; the Western world considered it the proper language of culture and civilisation. A Latin-speaking student from any country could therefore study in any university in any part of Europe: there were no national language-barriers. However, the student bodies of universities were divided up according to nationality. Each national body of students had its own rules and regulations. It was presided over by a university officer called a proctor. The proctors elected a rector who was head of the university. Each faculty was governed by a dean. Almost all lecturers in all subjects were clergymen, and the few laymen had to be celibate; all students, too, had to be unmarried during their time at university. It was a long academic year: 11 months, with just a few weeks off for Christmas and Easter.
The method of education used in universities was twofold: (i) the lecture; (ii) the disputation.
(i) In the lecture, the teacher would read out a set text to the students (e.g. Peter Lombard’s Sentences – see section 3), and make his own comments on the text. The students were expected to take very full notes of what the teacher said. Books were scarce in the days before printing was invented, so we must not imagine that every student had his own copy of the textbook. Probably the university had only one copy which was kept chained up in the library.
(ii) The disputation was a public event in which a teacher and a student would set out to solve a problem. The problem would be two statements which appeared to contradict each other, but which were both found in authoritative texts. To take a theological example, an early Church father might be quoted as saying, “God cannot die.” But then another Church father might be quoted as saying, “God died on the cross.” The student would have to give all the arguments for and against each statement, by quoting passages from the Bible and great theologians, and offering his own comments on these passages. The teacher would then make remarks on what the student had said, and would offer a solution to the problem. …
When a student had finished his university course, he was awarded the degree of “bachelor”. It normally took five or six years to become a bachelor. To obtain the higher degree of “master” or “doctor”, which entitled its owner to give his own lectures in a university, took much longer – 14 years of study were necessary to become a doctor of theology.
The growth of the universities produced a theological revolution in Western Christendom. Previously, the great monasteries had been the centres of learning; the leading theologians had been monks who studied theology within the setting of monastic life and worship. The universities challenged this. Theology now became an intellectual subject in its own right, and people studied it in the academic context of university life, outside the constraints of monastic discipline. The great theologians were now university professors who earned their living by teaching doctrine. In one way, this had a liberating effect on Western theology, releasing torrents of intellectual energy, debate, and writing, in the stimulating atmosphere of free academic discourse. In another way, though, it introduced a certain element of division between spiritual life on the one hand, and intellectual and theological pursuits on the other. Many have judged this division to be a deeply harmful feature of Western Christianity since the 1100s.
Nick Needham’s volumes on church history explain everything that someone new to the subject might not understand. At the same time, they achieve a depth of detail to interest those who already know something of the subject. We use them as standard texts at LTS and look forward eagerly to forthcoming volumes.
Robert Strivens, Principal, London Theological Seminary, London
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