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The First Universities

The development of Western Civilization has often been characterized by some golden moments when a number of factors came together to make possible a burst of culture and humanism. These bursts are often called "renaissances." The birth of universities took place during one of this periods, what is called the "Twelfth Century Renaissance", which actually began in the late eleventh century.

Cultural life gradually returned during the middle ages, as important classical documents were rediscovered. Some medieval educational centers  gradually excelled due to the leadership of individual bishops or schoolmasters. One of the most important of these centers was at Paris, which consisted of several schools. After the middle of the twelfth century, the number of masters and students in Paris required some sort of organization. The masters took the lead on this, and some regulations were established on curriculum and the length of study. A similar development took place at Bologna, another important urban center, except that at Bologna the students took the leadership. The foundation date of the University of Oxford has not been established, but it acquired prominence after 1167. John of Salisbury (1116-1180), who studied at Paris, is very appreciative of his education, John dwells on the value of preserved and transmitted knowledge:

The very thing which several men have expended their whole lives in investigating, and which they have labored and sweated in discovering, can now be quickly and easily learned by one person. Our own generation enjoys the legacy bequeathed to it by that which preceded it. We frequently know more, not because we have moved ahead by our natural ability, but because we are supported by the [mental] strength of others, and possess riches that we have inherited from our forefathers.[1]

And he continues with a well known comment from another one of his teachers: "Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision of greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature." [2]

The Medieval Professions

Throughout the Middle Ages, many monasteries had infirmaries and herb gardens to take care of the medical needs of the monks. Benefiting from Arabic contacts at nearby Sicily, monks at the monastery of Monte Cassino and at Salerno in Italy translated a number of Greek and Arab medical works into Latin during the eleventh century, making Salerno an important medical education center.[3]

The early medieval world was ruled, to the extent that there was any rule by law, by what is called customary law. This mostly verbal law was based on Germanic traditions with some element of Roman law. During the twelfth century some of these laws began to be written down. The formalization of legal education was primarily the result of the leadership of Bologna. Law was initially taught there as a branch of grammar or rhetoric, but there appeared during the late eleventh and early twelfth century series of respected law professors that developed Bologna into the leading law school.

Chartres Cathedral
Photo Source: Wikipedia, Author: © Olvr

The art of working with stones was preserved and cultivated throughout the Middle Ages. The construction demand caused by economic progress and the increasing appreciation of the artistic aspects of building design encouraged the development of the trade of the master masons. Architecture and engineering would not become a truly scientific professions for several centuries, but it is clear that in building the great Gothic cathedrals, the master masons took a significant step in the direction of professionalism during the middle ages.

The Florentine Renaissance

The most famous renaissance, the Florentine resurgence beginning in the fourteenth century was mostly in literature and some of the visual arts that had been neglected for some time. During this period, many of the cities of Northern Italy became self-governing republics. Florence was one of these cities. Its wealth was mostly based on a widespread network of banking and commercial activities.

The Northern Renaissance

The renewed interest in classical civilization and the heightened sense of humanism spread from Florence to the rest of Italy and then throughout Europe, facilitated by the invention of the printing press. A corresponding renaissance developed in Northern Europe during the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth century.  It included important intellectuals such as Erasmus of Rotterdam and Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540).

Vecchio Palace, Florence
Photo  © Margarita Gavaldá Romagosa

Vives studied at the universities of Paris and Louvain, and he taught at Louvain and Oxford. In 1531, Vives wrote a large volume on his views on education, The Transmission of Knowledge. In this book, Vives gives the quest for knowledge and the professions a vocational sense or purpose, which he relates to the Christian teaching about the use of talents:

Having acquired our knowledge, we must turn it to usefulness, and employ it for the common good... With bold confidence, therefore, we must study all branches of knowledge for that use, for which they were appointed by God.[4]

This knowledge that Vives wants to put to social use is not only the result of individual effort. It is developed and preserved as a heritage of the human species:

In the beginning first one, then another experience, through wonder at its novelty, was noted down for use in life; from a number of separate experiments the mind gathered a universal law... Then it was handed down to posterity. Other men added subject matter which tended to the same use and end. This material, collected by men of great and distinguished intellect, constituted the branches of knowledge...[5]

Juan Luis Vives
Photo source: Wikipedia
(public domain)

The Branches of Knowledge

Vives provides a detailed treatment of some of the branches of knowledge and professions of his time and their value to society, including the humanities, social sciences, medicine and law:

For all the humanities come under the head of wisdom; from it spring those sciences which the Greeks called Ethics, Economics, and Politics. These are subjects which the human intellect and the whole nature of man with impulses aroused by the Creator, necessarily found out and built up into organized knowledge. If they were excluded entirely, man would not live at all, and if removed in part he would live not a human life, but the life of a wild beast or a savage.[6]

Let us now treat of medicine. This art has power of life and death over the bodies of men. To it a power is entrusted greater than any King or Emperor has ever possessed. Wherefore God and man demand that the physician himself should perform diligent work; they assert and require that he shall treat as wisely and affectionately as possible, those matters which are assigned to his good faith and authority![7]

The States and assemblies of men are all bound together by justice as if by glue. For justice is the preserver, and, as it were, the soul of all human society…Those who defend and interpret the laws, which have already been ordained and accepted, are called jurisconsults... it is the function and office of a true and thorough jurisconsult to explain the sense and spirit of laws, so as to discover the justice that is present in each law...[8]

[1] John of Salisbury, The Metalogicon (Westport, CO: Greenwood Press, 1955), 36.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Richard C. Dales, The Intellectual Life of Western Europe in the Middle Ages, 151-152.

[4] Juan Luis Vives, "The Transmission of Knowledge" in Vives: On Education, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1913), 283-284.

[5] Ibid., 20.

[6] Ibid., 15.

[7] Ibid., 216.

[8] Ibid., 261-262.