The Medieval Universities of Paris and Bologna: Structure and Operations

From the lecture series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William and Mary

Medieval universities are one of the greatest legacies of the High Middle Ages. Of these, two universities stood out: the University of Paris and the University of Bologna. What was the basis on which these two illustrious universities developed their own structure, curriculum, and functioning styles? Why was it that given a choice to choose between the two, the teachers would rush to Paris?

Inner patio of the medieval university in Paris.
College of Sorbonne was founded in 1257. It was later renamed as University of Paris. (Image: Visual Intermezzo/Shutterstock)

The medieval universities evolved from monastic schools during the High Middle Ages due to the various shortcomings that these schools posed to the students, teachers, and ecclesiastical authorities. Despite the fact that the various universities in Europe emerged due to almost similar reasons, they were different in terms of their structure and academic specializations. Also, while many aspects of the medieval universities are no longer in practice, some of them, such as system of degrees, continue to this day.  

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Different Structures of the Medieval Universities

All of the medieval universities conformed to either a student-dominated model or a master-dominated model. The difference in structures was due to the manner in which the teachers were paid. It was believed that the knowledge teachers were imparting was God’s gift to humanity, and to charge a fee for God’s gift was presumptuous. All the teachers during the period were supposed to accept only gifts that students presented to them out of gratitude. This was a highly disappointing system for the teachers, who had to find ways to feed themselves.

Of the two prestigious medieval universities, the University of Bologna was a student dominated one, while the University of Paris was run by teachers and magistri (meaning master). The difference in structures also reflected in the differences in academic specializations. The University of Paris was highly reputed for providing excellence in theology. As the faculty of theology were supported and paid by the Church, they did not rely on student gifts. They were free from the shackles of the students as they received ‘benefices’ from the Church. As a result, these teachers dominated and ran the university as they deemed fit. Things were quite different at Bologna, which was renowned for its law faculty, especially its civil and secular law. Here, the livelihoods of teachers were directly dependent on student fees, and hence the students got to run the university.

Plight of Teachers at the University of Bologna

Image showing the entry of some students in the Natio Germanica Bononiae, the nation of German students at Bologna.
The University of Bologna was a student-dominated university. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Present day faculty and students would shudder to hear the plight of the faculty members at the University of Bologna. Teachers were levied with a fine if they were late to the class or failed to keep pace with the syllabus. The teachers were also fined if they failed to gather more than five students in a class on any given day and were marked absent as they failed to gather a quorum. If a master wanted a weekend off, he had to sign a bond with the students, promising to return to the university and resume classes. 

The negotiation of the salaries of teachers was done at the start of each academic semester. The teacher was allowed to select a student whom he trusted to negotiate the salary on his behalf with the student body. The teacher had to anxiously wait outside the room while the selected student negotiated his pay. The outcome of such negotiation hardly turned out to be a lucrative option for any teacher.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Possibilities of Degrees in the High Medieval Era

Illustration from a 14th-century manuscript showing a meeting of doctors at the Medieval University of Paris.
Medieval universities used the same hierarchy of obtaining degrees as used today: Bachelor of Arts, followed by Master of Arts, and finally, the doctorate. (Image: Étienne Colaud/Public domain)

The key medieval universities of Europe comprised of four different faculties; a faculty of arts, a faculty of law, a faculty of medicine, and a faculty of theology. It was absolutely necessary for a student to make it through the faculty of arts to proceed to the higher schools of law, medicine, and theology. This meant that only when the student completed the arts faculty, he could take up a degree in doctorate in any of the other three faculties.

Interestingly, medieval universities used the same hierarchy of obtaining degrees as those used today. The first degree one earned after enrolling in a medieval university was the Bachelor of Arts degree, and then if the student wished to study further, he would obtain a Master of Arts degree. On completion of the Masters, if the student desired, he could obtain a doctorate in his subject of interest. Although all the three schools were considered to be prestigious, theology was the most admired. It was the most challenging of the three, and students considered it a pride to enroll in theology.

Students who were either in the advanced stage of the bachelor’s degree or had received their degree were allowed to teach in the university. They were permitted to give the lectio, the reading that occupied the morning, or to conduct the disputatio, the afternoon sessions of the debates under the supervision of a teacher. Once the students received their Master of Arts degree, they could teach independently. They also received the insignia of the Master of Arts, which included a pair of gloves and a kind of hat called biretta.

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Curriculum of the Medieval Universities

Though the degrees conferred in the High Middle Ages were almost the same as that of present day, the courses offered were quite different from today. The course curriculum was all set, and there was no concept of electives or a range of subjects to choose from. The only choice available was to choose teachers as different teachers would offer the same subject in a particular semester. Courses were not pursued thematically but according to specific books.

The main curriculum within the faculty of arts focused on seven liberal arts, which were divided into two major groups: the ‘trivium’ and the ‘quadrivium’. The trivium dealt with expression of knowledge and consisted of three subjects, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, while the quadrivium consisted of four subjects, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music theory. While the students glanced through the subjects under quadrivium, they engrossed themselves in studying the trivium, especially logic, which was close to the hearts of medieval scholastics of the thirteenth century.

Common Questions about the Medieval Universities of Paris and Bologna

Q: What was the age of students who entered the medieval universities of Europe?

Students who enrolled in the medieval universities were quite young and the common age to join a medieval university was around fourteen or fifteen.

Q: How long did it take to complete a course in the medieval universities of Europe?

It took much longer to earn a bachelor’s degree in the medieval universities compared to the present day scenario. To earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, it took six years on an average, while a doctorate took longer, up to twelve years.

Q: What time did classes start in the high medieval period?

Classes started as early as 5 am or 6 am in the morning in the high medieval period.

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