The unquestioned leader of the European mind, in the medieval meridian of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, was France. Its cathedral schools had from the early eleventh century achieved international renown. If these schools flowered into a great university at Paris, rather than at Chartres, Laon, or Reims, it was probably because the thriving commerce of the Seine, and the business of a capital, had brought to the city the wealth that lures the intellect and finances science, philosophy, and art.

The first known master of the cathedral school of Notre Dame was William of Champeaux (1070?–1121); it was his lectures, given in the cloisters of Notre Dame, that stirred up the intellectual movement out of which the University of Paris grew. When (c. 1103) Abélard came out of Brittany, slew William with a syllogism, and began the most famous lectures in French history, students flocked to hear him. The schools of Paris swelled their ranks, and masters multiplied. A master (magister), in the educational world of twelfth-century Paris, was a man licensed to teach by the chancellor of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The University of Paris rose by now untraceable steps from the church schools of the city, and derived its first unity from this single source of pedagogical licensing. Normally the license was given gratis to anyone who had been for an adequate period the pupil of an authorized master, and whose application was approved by that master. It was one of the charges made against Abélard that he had set himself up as a teacher without having served such an approved apprenticeship.

This conception of the teaching art in terms of master and apprentice shared in the idea and origin of the university. As the masters multiplied, they naturally formed a guild. The word universitas had for centuries been applied to any collectivity, including guilds. In 1214 Matthew Paris described a “fellowship of the elect masters” at Paris as an institution of long standing. We may assume, but cannot prove, that the “university” took form toward 1170, rather as a guild of teachers than as a union of faculties. About 1210 a bull of Innocent III—himself a graduate of Paris—recognized and approved the written statutes of this teachers’ guild; and another bull of the same Pope empowered the guild to choose a proctor to represent it at the papal court.

By the middle of the thirteenth century the Parisian masters were divided into four faculties or powers: theology, canon law, medicine, and “arts.” In contrast with Bologna, civil law had, after 1219, no place in the University of Paris; the curriculum began with the seven arts, advanced to philosophy, and culminated in theology. The arts students (who were called artistae, artists) corresponded to our “undergraduates.” As they constituted by far the greatest part of the academic population in Paris, they divided, probably for mutual aid, sociability, and discipline, into four “nations” according to their place of birth (natio) or origin: “France” (i.e., the narrow realm directly subject to the French king), Picardy, Normandy, and England. Students from southern France, Italy, and Spain were taken into the French “nation,” students from the Low Countries into “Picardy,” students from central and eastern Europe into “England.” So many students came from Germany that that country was delayed in establishing its own universities until 1347. Each “nation” was governed by a procurator or proctor, each faculty by a decanus or dean. The students—and perhaps also the masters—in the faculty of arts chose a rector as their head; gradually his functions widened until by 1255 he had become the rector of the university.

We hear of no special university buildings. Apparently, in the twelfth century, the lectures were given in the cloisters of Notre Dame, St. Genevieve, St. Victor, or other ecclesiastic structures; but in the thirteenth century we find teachers hiring private rooms for their classes. The masters, who came to be called also professores, proclaimers, were tonsured clerics, who, before the fifteenth century, lost their position if they married. Teaching was by lectures, largely for the reason that not every student could afford to buy all the texts to be studied, and could not always secure copies from the libraries. The students sat on pavement or floor, and took many notes. The burden on their memories was so severe that many mnemonic devices were contrived, usually in the form of verses pregnant with meaning and repulsive in form. University regulations forbade the teacher to read his lecture; he was required to speak extempore; he was even forbidden to “drawl.”49 Students graciously warned newcomers not to pay for a course until they had attended three lectures. William of Conches, in the twelfth century, complained that teachers gave easy courses to gain popularity, students, and fees; and that the elective system by which each student had a wide choice among teachers and subjects was lowering the standard of education.50

The teaching was occasionally enlivened by public disputations among the masters, advanced students, and distinguished visitors. Usually the discussion followed a set form, the scholastica disputatio: the question was stated; a negative answer was given, and was defended by scriptural and patristic quotations, and by reasoning in the form of objections; a positive answer followed, defended by quotations from the Bible and the Fathers of the Church, and by reasoned replies to the objections. This scholastica disputatiodetermined the finished form of the Scholastic philosophy in St. Thomas Aquinas. In addition to such formal quaestiones disputatae there were informal discussions called quodlibeta—“whatever you please”—where the disputants took up any question that might be propounded at the moment. These looser debates also created a literary form, as in the minor writings of St. Thomas. Such debates, formal or informal, sharpened the medieval mind, and gave scope for much freedom of thought and speech; in some men, however, they tended to promote a cleverness that could prove anything, or a logorrhea that piled mountains of argument on trivial points.

Most of the students lived in hospicia or guesthouses hired by organized student groups. Sometimes a hospital would board poor students at a nominal fee; so the Hôtel-Dieu, adjoining Notre Dame, set aside a room for “poor clerks.” In 1180 Jocius of London bought this apartment, and thereafter shared with the hospital in providing lodging and meals for eighteen students in it. By 1231 this group of students had taken larger quarters, but they still called themselves the Collège des dix-huit—the College of Eighteen. Other hospicia or residence halls were established by monastic orders, or churches, or philanthropists, with endowments (bursae) or annuities that reduced the cost of living for the student. In 1257 Robert de Sorbon, chaplain to St. Louis, endowed the “House of Sorbonne” for sixteen theological students; additional benefactions from Louis and others provided more accommodations, and raised the number of scholarships to thirty-six; out of this “house” grew the College of the Sorbonne.* Further “colleges”—collegiain the old sense of associations—were founded after 1300; masters came to live in them, served as tutors, heard recitations, and “read” texts with the students. In the fifteenth century the masters gave courses in the residence halls; such courses increased in number, courses given outside decreased, and the college became a hall of education as well as a student dwelling place. A similar evolution of the college out of the hospicium occurred at Oxford, Montpellier, and Toulouse. The university began as an association of teachers dealing with associations of students, and became an association of faculties and colleges.

Among the residence halls at Paris were two designed for student members or novices of the Dominican or the Franciscan Order. The Dominicans had from their inception stressed education as a means of combating heresy; they established their own system of schools, of which the Dominican studium generale at Cologne was the most renowned; and they had similar institutions at Bologna and Oxford. Many friars became masters, and taught in the halls of their orders. In 1232 Alexander of Hales, one of the ablest teachers in Paris, joined the Franciscans, and continued his public courses in their Convent of the Cordeliers. Year by year the number of friars lecturing at Paris increased, and their nonmonastic audiences grew. The secular masters mourned that they were left sitting at their desks “like lonely sparrows on the housetops”; to which the friars replied that the secular masters ate and drank too much, and became lazy and dull.51 In 1253 a student was killed in a street brawl; the city authorities arrested several students, and ignored their right and demand to be tried by the University masters or the bishop; the masters, in protest, ordered a cessation of lectures. Two Dominican teachers and one Franciscan, all members of the masters’ association, refused to obey the order to cease talk; the association suspended them from membership; they appealed to Alexander IV, who (1255) ordered the university of masters to readmit them. To avoid compliance, the masters disbanded; the Pope excommunicated them; students and populace attacked the friars in the streets. After six years of controversy a compromise was reached: the reorganized masters admitted the monastic masters, who pledged full obedience to “university” statutes thereafter; but the faculty of arts permanently excluded all monks from membership. The University of Paris, once a favorite of the popes, became hostile to the papacy, supported the kings against the pontiffs, and formed in later days the center of the “Gallican” movement that sought to separate the French Church from Rome.

No educational institution since Aristotle has rivaled the influence of the University of Paris. For three centuries it drew to itself not only the largest number of students, but the greatest dynasty of intellectually distinguished men. Abélard, John of Salisbury, Albertus Magnus, Siger of Brabant, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, William of Occam—these are almost the history of philosophy from 1100 to 1400. There must have been great teachers at Paris to produce these greater ones, and an atmosphere of mental exhilaration that comes only to the peaks of human history. Furthermore, through those centuries, the University of Paris was a power in both Church and state. It was an influential organ of opinion; in the fourteenth century a hotbed of free speculation; in the fifteenth a citadel of orthodoxy and conservatism. It cannot be said to have played “no mean role” in the condemnation of Joan of Arc.

Other universities shared in giving France the cultural leadership of Europe. Orléans had had a school of law as far back as the ninth century; in the twelfth it rivaled Chartres as a center of classical and literary studies; in the thirteenth it was second only to Bologna in the teaching of civil and canon law. Hardly less famous was the school of law at Angers, which in 1432 became one of the major universities of France. Toulouse owed its university to its heresies: in 1229 Gregory IX compelled Count Raymond to pledge himself to pay the salaries of fourteen professors—in theology, canon law, and the arts—who should be sent from Paris to Toulouse to combat the Albigensian heresy by their influence on Aquitanian youth.

The most renowned of the French universities outside of Paris was at Montpellier. Situated on the Mediterranean halfway between Marseille and Spain, that city enjoyed a stirring mixture of French, Greek, Spanish, and Jewish blood and culture, with a sprinkling of Italian merchants, and some remnants of the Moorish colony that had once held the town. Commerce was active there. Whether through the influence of Salernian or Arabic or Jewish medicine, Montpellier, at an unknown date, established a school of medicine that soon outshone Salerno; schools of law, theology, and the “arts” were added; and though these colleges were independent, their propinquity and co-operation earned for Montpellier a high repute. The university declined in the fourteenth century, but the school of medicine revived in the Renaissance; and in 1537 one François Rabelais gave there, in Greek, a course of lectures on Hippocrates.

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