HomeMiddle AgesUniversities and Students in the High Middle Ages

Universities and Students in the High Middle Ages



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In the early 14th-Century, Alvarius Pelagius, a Franciscan, described some of the university students of that age. Pelagius commented that, “They attend classes but make no effort to learn anything…The expense money which they have from their parents or churches they spend in taverns…” From various accounts, some students were as distracted from university studies as contemporary students are today.

Unlike the proliferation of colleges and universities in contemporary Europe and America, the High Middle Ages had few such institutions and the fields of study were limited to rhetoric, canon law, civil law, and medicine. The first universities appeared in Bologna, Paris and Oxford, offering studies in rhetoric, civil law, cannon law and medicine to male students.

Although some historians credit Bologna in Italy as the first university, others note that the University of Paris, followed by Oxford in England, was founded around the same time. Closely associated with the Catholic Church, masters or instructors received their certificates to lecture from ecclesiastical sources. This changed in the early Thirteenth Century when universities received charters and direct support either from kings or other powerful nobles.

Students formed themselves into guilds, paying masters for the lectures. Although students tended to come from well-off families, each university had its share of poor students. In addition to paying teachers, students paid for their own room and board. In one account, Richard of Chichester (also known as Richard de Wych), later a bishop, shared the one gown required to be worn during a lecture with two rooming companions.

By the mid to late Thirteenth Century, wealthy benefactors established “colleges” that housed poor students such as the Sorbonne, founded in 1258 by Robert de Sorbon. Other benefactors, notably in England, established preparatory schools for students whose knowledge of Latin was poor.

Despite a tendency toward rowdiness that frequently ended with student groups physically fighting local townspeople, students were immune from punishment. Universities were also good places for criminals and other social undesirables to blend in and avoid detection and capture. Students were always in need of money, writing letters to parents pleading for more funds. They drank, frequented brothels and partied.

Some professors lamented that students avoided studying theology, the “queen of the sciences,” and a discipline requiring the most rigorous study. Rather, students pursued law and medicine, two fields that tended to be far more lucrative.

Sorbonne University
Sorbonne University

The learning format was lecture and debate and students were required to master Latin. Students and faculties were male; high-born women or women in religious communities were educated in their homes or in convents. For the female in the Middle Ages, life as a nun was one of the few ways to receive an education and even this was limited and frowned upon. An excellent example is the life of Hildegard of Bingen.

The Twenty-First Century University Inherits Medieval Traditions

Despite technology, many university classes still feature the lecture format. Some fields of contemporary study, such as law, utilize the Socratic Method in lectures. Graduation attire, including regalia, can be traced to the traditions begun in the Middle Ages.

Although religious studies were considered the top tier of university studies in early universities, religion and theology has become de-emphasized and many universities no longer offer religion programs beyond a Bachelors Degree. In America, Harvard University is a perfect example. Founded in 1636 as a seminary, it is usually equated today with its other programs, notably the law school.

Continued Growth of the University System in the Middle Ages and Beyond

From the end of the Thirteenth Century and into the next, greater numbers of colleges and universities were founded. Recovered texts from the Roman period, such as Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis, expanded the field of learning, particularly legal studies. Increased contact with the ever diminished Byzantines resulted in scholars fleeing Muslim incursions and bringing their books with them.

By the Renaissance, university studies underwent more significant changes. Ultimately, the birth of the university system in the Twelfth Century began a process that substantially impacted Western Civilization, effecting law, medicine, and a pathway toward an openness that would eventually break with the old order of thinking, leading Europe into the early modern period.


  • Morris Bishop, The Middle Ages (American Heritage Press, 1970)
  • Maurice Keen, The Pelican History of Medieval Europe (Penguin Books, 1987)
  • Brian Tierney and Sidney Painter, Western Europe in the Middle Ages 300-1475, 5th Edition (McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1992)
  • Brian Tierney, The Middle Ages: Volume 1, Sources of Medieval History, 5th Edition (McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1992)

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