The Twelfth Century Schools


Charlemagne had decreed that all monasteries and cathedrals were to have schools, but this command was not universally applied. The emphasis of these schools was on the education of the clergy, although some maintained external schools for the laity. During the tenth and eleventh century  centers of education were established or maintained by the leadership of individual bishops or schoolmasters, which was fortunate, since there was no longer any consistent encouragement or support from the rulers.


During the early twelfth century some cathedral schools began to distinguish themselves based on the reputation of their masters, and they attracted students from all of Europe.  The best example of this was Chartres, under Bernard of Chartres.  At the same time the importance of the monastic schools declined.  The education at the cathedral schools was somewhat regulated, as evidenced by the requirements that masters have a license to teach from a bishop and the consent of the other masters [1].


The Paris schools were not very important before the twelfth century, but then, along with the growth of the French monarchy and the city itself, these schools rose to the forefront of European education.  The main difference between Paris and other educational centers was the number of masters and students that Paris could support, due to its economic advantages.  There were three centers of education at Paris.  The was a group of masters at the cathedral of Notre Dame, another group associated with the church of Mount Ste. Genevieve on the left bank of the Seine, and the school of St. Victor on the outskirts of Paris.  The school of St. Victor was established in 1109 by William of Champeaux who had been the archdeacon of Paris.


Cosmologists and School Masters

The concept of a cosmos, or natural order, originated with the Greeks, and several Christian thinkers such as Isidore of Seville and Bede made important compilations of the preserved knowledge, but any interest in continuing to investigate and understand this cosmos waned through the early Middle Ages, and many of the original Greek  scientific works disappeared from the west.  The scientific tradition was better maintained in the Arab world. The Arabs acquired considerable knowledge of Greek Science from two main sources, the Byzantine Empire, and the Nestorian Christians of Eastern Persia.  Much of this knowledge was translated into Arabic. Some of this knowledge now became available  through the centers of  translation in Toledo and the kingdom of Sicily.  In Toledo translations were from Arabic, but in Sicily there were also some direct translations from the Greek [2]. As this material began to circulate among the schoolmasters, there was a renewal of interest in scientific subjects. 


William of Conches was born around 1190 in Conches, Normandy, and he studied at Chartres.  William then became a teacher, probably at Chartres and at Paris, and he wrote several influential  works on nature, philosophy, and education. William was familiar with some of the recent translations of scientific works made in the Southern Italy.  He believed that the world was “an ordered aggregation of created things,” and that human reason could penetrate this order. After getting entangled in theological controversies as a result of his writings, William left his position as schoolmaster and joined the court  of Geoffrey Plantagenet at Normandy in the 1140’s, where he tutored Geoffrey’s two young sons, one of whom would become Henry II, king of England. William dedicated his last major work, the Dragmaticon, to count Geoffrey.  In this book, which takes the form of a dialogue between him and the duke, he states his philosophy on the social value of education:  "If you enslave yourself to idleness and inactivity, you will be destroyed by the rust of wanton indulgence.  But if you devote yourself to some valuable study, you will be of use to others...Hence it is that the wise man allows no time for idleness; he is always doing something of use to others, not for himself  [3]."


Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141) was born in Saxony, studied at the monastery of Hamersleben and went on to St. Victor in 1125 to continue his studies.  He was  in charge of the school there from 1133 to 1141, where he was a great believer in the value of education: “Learn everything; you will see afterwards that nothing is superfluous [4]." His most important work,  the Didascalicon, aims to select and define all the areas of knowledge important to man, and they are presented as fundamental to attain human perfection as the destiny ordained by God.  Like William, Hugh  also exalted the value of human reason: “But the third power of the soul appropriates the prior nutritional and sense-perceiving powers, using them, so to speak, as its domestics and servants.  It is rooted entirely on reason, and it exercises itself either in the most unfaltering grasp of things present, or in the  understanding of things absent, or in the investigation of things unkown.  This power belongs to humankind alone [5].”


The First Universities

After the middle of the 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 and were better organized. 


Historian Richard Dales summarizes the process that lead to the first universities:

The universities came into being in response to pressing social needs, and this social function was always their most obvious characteristic.  An increasingly urbanized society ruled by increasingly burocratic governmental units put a premium on legal education; the educated and wealthy citizens of the towns required scientific medical attention; and a society that was deeply Christian and assailed form all sides by reforming and heretical groups required thoroughly trained theologians [6].

[1] Sidney R. Packard, 12 th Century Europe (Amherst:  Univeristy of Massachusetts Press, 1973),157.
[2] A. C. Crombie, Medieval and Early Modern Science (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books), 33-35.
[3] William of Conches, Dragmaticon Philosphiae (Notre Dame: Universsity of Notre Dane Press, 1997), 57.
[4] Hugh of St. Victor, The Didascalion (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 175.
[5] Ibid., 49.
[6] Richard C. Dales, The Intellectual Life of Western Europe in the Middle Ages (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), 234.