History Abridged: The medieval origins of university

Historian feature

By James Sewry, published 3rd February 2023

History Abridged: In this feature we take a person, time, theme or event and tell you the vast rich history in small space. A long dip into history in a shortened form. See all History Abridged articles

Medieval history can suffer from an image problem. Even a conventional name for the period – the ‘Dark Ages’ – embeds the notion of an interruption in classical learning between the fall of the Roman Empire in the west and the Renaissance. Owing to its remoteness from the present-day, medieval history can appear ostensibly less relevant and consequently, less worthy of study. If we are to understand the complex world around us, more Cold War and Nazi Germany, fewer knights in shining armour and jousting tournaments, or so the argument often runs.

Leaving aside the obvious retort that not all learning need necessarily help us understand the world as it is experienced, a little exploration reveals that the medieval period has in fact bequeathed a powerful legacy, for example in the development of political structures, legal systems, and the institutional church. The period also gifted to subsequent generations a new type of educational institution: the university. So, what were its medieval origins?

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