Early Universities and their Rise

The university, as we know them today, arose sometime during the 12th century. Of course, it is not exactly clear in terms of the exact date. The universities followed the example and traditions laid down by the Romano-Hellenic schools of the Roman Empire and the monastic/episcopal schools of the church.  This post will look at factors that led to universities, characteristics of universities, and the church’s view of the growing influence of universities.

Factors Leading to Universities

Several things had changed over the centuries from the fall of the Roman empire that led to the development of universities. First, the crusades had exposed Europeans to many Arab/Middle East ideas. Among these ideas was Aristotle, concepts related to medicine, and the possibility of some form of higher education.

There were also economic factors such as the establishment of free towns. Free towns were essentially free of feudalism in which you had independent artisans and other free people. With the rise of an independent middle class came a correlated need for specialization in some areas of expertise, especially medicine, law or even theology. The freeman seemed to always have issues with the nobility and clergy and wanted people who were trained separately from the monastic schools. The priest/monks lacked the expertise to thoroughly train people for practical occupations such as doctors or lawyers.

Furthermore, universities provided an education the was free from the rules and oppression of the monastic orders. The rules for monastic life can be highly arduous for a layperson. Waking up early, eating in silence, harsh living conditions, physical labor, all this was a part of the educational experiences in a way that was bewildering to the laity at times. Universities offered a similar education in a secular environment which naturally led to the release of a high amount of licentious behavior that the universities had to suppress eventually. In other words, whereas the monastics schools were too strict the universities were initially to lenient.

Despite the disdain that many had for the church, the church itself helped to contribute to the growth of universities through the stability it provided. Supposedly, if someone was a priest or scholar, they were safe to travel throughout Europe unmolested. The accuracy of this is hard to assess but if scholars could move freely it would have made it easy to start schools and move to the best positions rather than being trapped in a single place due to safety issues.

The church also provided the closes thing to an international language that Europe had through its use of Latin. Latin became the language of government and scholarship. Its influence is still felt today in the Latin names that are used in science for the classification of animals.

University Characteristics

A major difference between the universities compared to monastics schools involves the leadership style. Monastic schools were monarchies in nature in that one person made the decisions. Universities are run by a community, which is a more democratic style of leadership. Universities were also founded by major European leaders such as kings, emperors, and popes. Monastic schools were founded by lesser leaders.

In addition to the specialization, universities emphasis the three R’s (reading, writing, arithmetic). Philosophy would eventually join as well. The course of study was four years, which is supposedly an idea from ancient Greece.

Church’s View

The church supported learning that supported the church. Other lines of thought were either ignored if non-threatening or discourage if they poised a problem. The primary goal was normally the preservation of existing knowledge and the transfer of this knowledge through education. When universities first arose, the church did not have any control over them, as they were independent.

Universities initially had a large number of clergy faculty. However, this slowly changed and the clergy facility disappeared and were replaced by secular facility. With time, the church would begin to have their clergy teach in the secular universities along with starting their own universities. This is especially true with the rise of the Jesuits several centuries later. During this time, priest and monks were still trained by the monastic/episcopal schools


Universities are a standard part of life in the modern world. However, this was not always the case. What first began as a way to escape the power of the church eventually became an expensive requirement in the training of the middle class.

Leave a Reply