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Rethinking the Future of the University

David Lyle Jeffrey
Dominic Manganiello

Part I. Where did we come from?

The original idea of the university

B. Carlos Bazan

Texte intégral

1In keeping with the main theme of the McMartin lectures, my aim is twofold: to identify the idea that inspired the constitution of the medieval university and, at the same time, to extract the subsequent meaning of this original idea for all those who, nowadays, ponder the future of the university as an institution. Essayed in this way, the aim is difficult to achieve, for, on the one hand, it obliges the author to engage in a kind of theoretical abstraction that can risk offending professional historians, who respect the rich variety of the particulars of the medieval universities as well as the trajectory of their progressive development. On the other hand, because of a tendency to idealize a historical reality located in another space and time, it can also be overtly tempting to make anachronistic connections to the here and now.

2These caveats notwithstanding, one can still make profitable use of the human capacity to abstract ideas from their particular manifestations, provided that the rules of abstraction are respected. Abstraction responds to the old problem of the one and the many and to the antinomies that haunted the first philosophers. It is a strategy that should, of course, be exercised with humility, knowing that, in keeping with the nature of our intelligence, we bring the order of a concrete and particular existence to an order of intelligible representations that makes discourse possible. Abstraction is the result of induction, and it depends directly, in its constitution and in its exercise, on specific data furnished by experience. In order not to burden my theoretical synthesis with erudite apparatus, I will simply note that the mass of historical data supporting it is readily available so that, if the need arises, one can verify the general ideas that I will put forward. As a historian, I am aware of the modus operandi of my profession as a philosopher.

3As for the risk of anachronism, all I can add is that it has always been possible for the human spirit to lean on its previous achievements in order to draw valid orientations and to unify in an inclusive aim the historical experience that defines our identity. And we will be surprised to see the extent to which today we still have profound links—in the order of representation that we have of ourselves as intellectuals and as a university institution—with our medieval predecessors. I think it might be fruitful for us, upon beginning our series of reflections on the future of the university, to reflect also on our origins and on the ideals that brought our colleagues together seven centuries ago in the Middle Ages.

4My exposition consists of four parts. In the first, I treat the idea of the uniuersitas as a corporation. In the parts that follow, I subject the historical reality to scrutiny—following an epistemological model dear to the medievals—from the point of view of the “four causes” that, by their convergence, made possible the constitution and development of medieval universities, that is to say, the efficient, final, material and formal causes of the university corporation.


5There is no doubt that universities are typically medieval institutions, fruit of the spirit of association that took hold of medieval society from the twelfth century onward, and of the power the medieval genius seemed to have had for incarnating in institutions their most cherished ideals (Rashdall, 4). The term uniuersitas needs to be clarified in order to avoid any ambiguity it might evoke in our contemporary mindset. In the first place, uniuersitas does not correspond exactly to what nowadays we call a “university.” For us, this term has an abstract meaning designating an institution or establishment of higher learning. For the medievals, the term that corresponds to this abstract meaning is studium (or studium generale). Uniuersitas, on the other hand, means an assembly of persons.

6For example, when a letter is addressed to the uniuersitas uestra, it means it is addressed to the “assembly of you people.” Uniuersitas is thus a legal entity, a corporation bringing individuals together on the basis of a common interest. In this sense, it applies to various types of associations of individuals having common goals. In the particular case of professional teachers, it is the corporative organization that makes the studium function (Verger, 48).

7The idea of uniuersitas has deep roots. Used for the first time by Cicero and later by Chalcidius (in his translation of Plato’s Timaeus), it translated the Greek “to pan” or “olotes,” that is to say, it meant simply “the totality.” In the ecclesiastical literature of the Middle Ages it meant “universe” (in the sense of the totality of creation), but also a (religious) “community.” Its meaning was linked to the affiliated terms collegium, corpus, communitas, fraternitas. The term was applied as much to ecclesiastical collectivities as it was to urban or rural communities. Starting in the twelfth century, the evolution of feudal society fostered a vigorous movement of an association of people having common interests who perceived in the act of association the best way of defining, in the interior of this complex and unequal network of rights that characterized feudalism, their own rights and liberties. These associations were called uniuersitas.

8Historical and social factors contributed to the promotion of this movement. Often cited are the increase in population, the creation of an agricultural surplus, the expansion of cities, the development of trades, the increase in commercial exchange and, of course, the interests of the central authorities (king and Pope) who saw, in the act of granting rights to these associations, an effective way to affirm their primacy over the personal authority exercised by the local lords and bishops. In the particular case of intellectual corporations (a point to which I will return), the existence of instruments of intellectual work (scientific books) should be duly noted.

9It is beyond the scope of this paper to analyze these socio-economic factors. Just bringing them to your attention will serve my purpose. But since the existence of associations required an act of acknowledgment on the part of the authorities, theoretical instruments to justify the existence of a legal entity were also required. These instruments were supplied by Roman law. The fourth title of the third book of the Roman Digest considers uniuersitas estates no less than diverse groups of persons benefiting from a particular system and capable of acting through the intermediary of a representative. But Roman law was restrictive as to the type of associations that could ask for the status of a legal entity. It would become the work of canon rather than civil lawyers to elaborate on this notion based on a theoretical reflection on the long experience of life in common that the ecclesiastical communities had. The empiricism of the canonists allowed for the theoretical unpacking of the notion of uniuersitas so that it could be applied to a very wide range of associations of individuals. Indeed, their work has helped to clarify a fundamental element in the notion of uniuersitas. In effect, the gloss of the Digest affirmed that the uniuersitas was nothing more than an assembly of individuals that composed it. While being literally true, this definition failed to illuminate the existence of a special relation founded on the formal difference between the sum of individuals and the legal entity that they constituted together. Again, it would be the work of canonists to highlight this dimension. And that is why Pope Innocent IV, in the middle of the thirteenth century, could declare that the collectivity designated by the term uniuersitas fingitur una persona and that it is a nomen intelletuale. The university is therefore a term that arises from an intellectual operation made by the jurist unifying as a legal entity the assembly of individuals composing it. This legal entity is independent of these same individuals and transcends them: they pass on, but it remains and keeps its identity intact through all the changes (Michaud-Quantin, 204-211).

10This new being, independent of the individuals who compose it, is, to use the expression of Innocent IV, a res incorporalis that defines itself by the individuals who compose it (the material cause), by the rights that both it and its members as members are subject to (the formal cause) by the goal that it sets itself (the final cause) and by the acknowledgment of its existence, its rights and its objectives (the efficient cause). I intend to examine each of these causes that define the medieval uniuersitas in turn, but I want to pay almost exclusive attention to the particular uniuersitas of the intellectuals.


11The consideration of the individuals who compose the medieval uniuersitas allows us to distinguish immediately between two principal models: there are universities of masters, where students, though members, play a passive role; and there are the universities of students, where teachers are hired to offer the formation students seek. The first model is that of the University of Paris; the second, that of the University of Bologna. I am obliged to limit myself, for practical reasons, to underlining the salient features of the two models that influenced all the other medieval universities.

12Whether it is a question of a university of masters or a university of students, one thing is clear: the medieval university had need of teachers. And it is precisely the history of the gradual establishment of this “trade” that should be briefly examined in order to understand the birth of the university.

13Since Charlemagne, the reform in teaching proposed by Alcuin had consolidated and considerably standardized the formation offered in “schools” (palatine, cathedral, abbatial). The Church, for its part, had the vocation and the infrastructure that permitted it to assume in an almost exclusive way the educational responsibility in the West. It exercised this responsibility by demanding that those in charge of education be linked to the Church much in the manner that clerics were, while demanding for itself the exclusive power of granting a teaching licence (licentia docendi). This power was exercised through the mediation of the bishops, that is to say, by the local ecclesiastical authorities. The bishop had delegated this power to the magister scholarium, also called scolasticus and finally cancellarius (chancellor). The latter had teaching responsibilities from the outset, and, closely linked to this function, he had the responsibility of recognizing, by an official act, the teaching competence of someone who had completed the program of studies. The chancellor thus monopolized the granting of licences and he profited from it to such an extent that the Pope felt obliged to denounce as simony the selling of grades. As long as the number of students multiplied they, in turn, took on teaching assignments, and the role of the chancellor became progressively that of a superior of “schools” opened by the new teachers, all the while retaining the exclusive power of granting the licentia docendi. The various schools gathered together in a city were referred to as studium, without this term designating any collective reality having a proper juridical status (Delhaye, 211). The schools continued this practice of reproducing themselves and in this way planted the seed of what would become uniuersitas, masters who demand for themselves the right to control their profession.

14Two observations need to be made in this context: first, not all schools evolved into universities (e.g., Reims, Chartres, Tours); second, the old structure of the schools survived even after the foundation of the universities. But those that did not follow the associationist trend did not survive.

15What was it that made certain schools evolve, at the very end of the twelfth century and in the first 20 years of the thirteenth, into universities? There is no question that the key element is the existence of a critical mass of masters (Verger, 22). And this mass is the result of the success certain schools attained in recruiting candidates for the master’s degree. The success of schools in this regard is, in turn, linked to the prestige of its masters. It is known that Abelard did not found the University of Paris, but without his prestige and intellectual quality Paris would not have attracted as many students and would not have evolved later into a university. The same thing can be said of Irnerius and the legendary Peppo at Bologna. From their birth, the universities relied on a tradition of excellence, and the game has not changed since then. The other key element is the awareness masters developed of themselves as a community linked by the same interests and the same goals, that is to say, their awareness of the profession of teachers and of their place within society where they wanted to see themselves recognized. It seems well established today that two social groups—merchants and intellectuals—developed this awareness before others did (Michaud-Quantin, 169-170). In the case of merchants, the phenomenon is linked to the development of commercial trade in Western Europe and to the need of protecting the rights simultaneously of those who brought merchandise to the cities and of those who produced it there. In the case of intellectuals the phenomenon is a complex one given the more “spiritual” nature of the factors that come into play.

16The one thing needful was a conception of knowledge that responded to proper rules of discourse and to specific goals. While Christianity limited itself to preserving knowledge, the role of intellectuals had been a passive one. From the moment the critical examination of this preserved knowledge required discernment of the amount of truth it contained, then the role of intellectuals became more active. In order to conduct a critical examination of knowledge, two elements were required: an important mass of accumulated knowledge and a method of critical examination. The movement toward translating Greek and Arab works and the works of synthesis made by Peter Lombard in theology, by Gratian and Irnerius in law and by the articles produced by the learned doctors of Salerno, furnished the critical mass of knowledge. The method of sic et non (Abelard again) provided the instrument of work. The self-awareness of intellectuals was thus linked to the availability of a mass of knowledge and to the possession of an instrument of critical research. But the proper characteristic of the individuals who constituted the universities was that they cultivated this knowledge for its own sake. It is remarkable that the uniuersitas should gather together individuals who wanted to cultivate their disciplines with the simple goal of reproducing them by way of teaching and not by exercising them in a profession outside of teaching. This does not mean that the people who went to university did not see them as means of social promotion by the exercise of professions. On the contrary. We know that a great number of students frequented the university for only short periods, and that they did not at all aspire to acquire higher qualifications. After some years they retired from the university and were incorporated into society to exercise there the diverse social responsibilities for which the university had prepared them. But the ultimate goal of the corporation was the production of teachers, that is to say, of experts in the discipline capable of reproducing and developing it by way of teaching it.

17The payment of taxes, from this point of view, was not perceived as a problem. According to available historical data, only 30 percent of students obtained their bachelor’s degree, while barely 10 percent received their master’s. But this was the final product that the corporation aimed for as an objective, the professional formation being practically a by-product, a positive and laudable one, and important from the social point of view, but not considered essential to the vocation of those who made up the corporation. Another proof is supplied by the fact that professions with a heavily intellectual component did not evolve into universities (as was the case with architects, for example), and that there were parallel professional corporations often covering the same area as the university corporation (for example, there were corporations of doctors and lawyers, whose goal was the training of their members for the exercise of their professions). The university was rather to be composed of individuals who sought knowledge for its own sake and who, on the basis of possessing this knowledge, would take their place in society. Autonomous knowledge, a method of research and amor scientiae, were to be the principal components of professional self-awareness of the individuals who made up the uniuersitas. These characteristics were to make the magister into a man of professional authority certified by his peers, and allow him to claim his place in the city as a distinguished person.

18But this spirit could not simply give itself a body (Rüegg, 11). The movement toward association that gave rise to the universities was maintained, as I noted earlier, by social phenomena and external economics. In a society characterized by the inequality of rights, the need to assure a group of individuals of their own rights—their corporate integrity—must be effected by a whole series of parallel initiatives. One of the first manifestations of this need had been the incorporation of masters (in Paris) and of students (in Bologna). In effect, if in Paris it was the masters who needed to affirm their rights before the chancellor, in Bologna it was foreign students who experienced the same need with regard to the city that did not accord them the same rights and privileges as the rest of its citizens. For it was the fact of belonging to a city that determined the rights of the individual. The foreigner lacked such rights by definition. But Bologna had for a long time attracted students from other Italian cities (the citramontanes) and from foreign countries (the uitramontanes), all desirous of acquiring competence in civil and canon law that the reputation of Bologna promised them. These students were adults (by comparison with the young adolescent students of the faculty of arts in Paris) and rich (they were often members of the nobility, especially from Germany). They sought in the study of law a sure means of consolidating their privileges within their own cities. But in Bologna they were downgraded. To alleviate the situation they formed themselves into a corporation, they hired masters and then demanded the rights and privileges of the city. The city fathers indeed accorded them these rights and privileges, mindful of the economic advantage that a mass of rich consumers meant for the welfare of the city. This is the origin of the uniuersitas scholarium.

19As much in the case of Paris as it was in the case of Bologna, the individuals who composed the uniuersitas were linked to a community from the inside of which they defined their freedoms. This membership was consecrated by a medieval institution that bound them to a corporation in a profound and personal manner: the oath. They swore to respect the university community, to pursue its interests, to contribute to the attainment of its goals, to make an effort to excel in the activities that were proper to them. This oath was the foundation of their sense of belonging: it was not merely a sufficient condition for membership, it was the necessary condition. Its effects permeated the whole life of the individual, who was always to feel linked not to an abstract institution, but to a concrete community of colleagues. The oath also explains the primacy of the faculty of arts: the students took the oath on their entrance into this faculty, and they were linked from this point on to the rector of the faculty. This explains why the head of the faculty of arts was recognized as the head of the whole uniuersitas.

20Since the entrance of individuals into the medieval uniuersitas touches on a current problem among ourselves, that of accessibility, it should be noted that the medieval university recruited its members from all social classes. While there were certain faculties that recruited among the most wealthy, such as law, the general policy of the universities was to accept their students on the basis of merit and not according to social origin. In fact, the universities became an efficient means of achieving upward social mobility. This policy was supported by the Church: the Pope intervened to prohibit the chancellor from exacting payment for the granting of a licence. He also intervened vigorously so that bishops and priests would establish prebends on behalf of poor students and so that priests who undertook studies would keep their ecclesiastical benefits while they were absent from their local churches. The Pope himself established a series of scholarships to support financially both students and teacher-students in the arts.

21To understand the sense of corporate spirit and the sense of belonging to a uniuersitas it is necessary to analyze the formal cause of the corporation, that is, the whole of the rights and privileges that the uniuersitas ensured for their members.

22Even if these rights and privileges were often acquired by a preemptive, de facto implementation, they were required in the end to be recognized by an authority. This is why the study of the formal cause of the universities’ foundation should be made in conjunction with a study of (or at least a mention of) the efficient cause (the power that recognized these rights and privileges).


23In general, every corporation wants to defend the professional interests of its members by establishing an appropriate jurisdiction and a monopoly on the exercise of the profession. Inevitably, it defines itself, then, in comparison with the centres of jurisdiction that surround it and in comparison with those that compete with it. In the case of the uniuersitas, this implies a struggle to define its juridical relations with the city, the political and ecclesiastical powers, as well as its professional relations with regard to other communities that aspire to achieve the same objectives (as, for example, in the case of the mendicant orders). The study of what I have called the formal cause of the universities (its rights and privileges) is thus indissolubly linked to the study of the efficient cause (the source of its rights and privileges). I will therefore focus on these two aspects simultaneously.

24Yet a point of clarification needs to be made right away: in the case of “spontaneous” universities, born of the associational instinct I have already mentioned, it would be incorrect to say that these rights and privileges had as an initial source an act established by the civil or ecclesiastical authority. In fact, these rights were established as a result of battles between the corporation and the external local powers, and the subsequent interventions of larger powers (king and Pope) that came to recognize and sanction in law that which had already been in place for some time. The case of universities created by the intervention of various powers is, of course, different. And there were even cases where the actual situation was never recognized in law (Oxford never received the licentia ubique docendi by papal decree), and cases where even the royal decree created a studium but did not give rise to a uniuersitas (Naples).

25The question of rights and privileges of the corporation is always important for, as a legal entity, the corporation presupposed, as I have said, that it would be subject to these rights as a collectivity that remained superior to and transcended its individual members. But in the Middle Ages the question was even more crucial because of the nature of juridical relations in a feudal society. Every medieval corporation tended to define for its members a domain of law. The uniuersitas was no exception and it tried to define this domain by a form of opposition to “foreign” powers. It tried to remove the obligation of its members to submit to these powers in order to replace it with its own power, an authority representing the collective will of its members. The sphere of rights and privileges that it procured constituted that domain which the members of the corporation called “their freedoms.” And this notion essentially meant freedom from the dominion of an arbitrary external power. To be free meant to be able to discuss the limits of submission, to possess a statute indicating the rights and duties defined in a contract. In feudal society one could not attain these freedoms as an individual; one could only attain them by becoming a member of a collectivity, or a uniuersitas. “Academic freedoms” are those which a corporation secures for its members; and it is the corporation which is the cause of these liberties. One is free within the uniuersitas. “The air of the city makes one free” (Michaud-Quantin, 268-269).

26The appropriate status of the corporation manifests itself in the symbolic order (the seal—which was the object of important confrontations—the rings, the biretta, the academic gown, symbols that we have kept to this day), but, above all, in the establishment of a jurisdiction with regard to its members and by comparison with external jurisdictions. By force and by the recognition that the Pope and king later accorded it, the medieval uniuersitas determined its own jurisdiction. I would like to highlight, briefly, the different aspects of this jurisdiction.

27In the first place, the universities removed their members from the jurisdiction of the city in order to place them under the jurisdiction of the Church and of special tribunals. This tendency to liberate itself from the city manifested itself even before the consolidation of the corporation. Already, the emperor Frederick Barbarossa by his authentic Habita (1185) gave the students of Bologna the right to be evaluated by their masters or bishop; and King Philip Augustus granted the same rights to the students of Paris in 1200. But that was not yet a privilege of the corporation: it was a right that came to students on account of their being clerics. Later in the thirteenth century, the corporation, already in full flight, secured these privileges for its members as members.

28Still later, the universities demanded the right to recruit or to expel their members. In the case of Paris, the action of Pope Innocent III was decisive in this regard and allowed the uniuersitas to confirm its jurisdiction with respect to the chancellor. By a series of effective interventions, from 1208 to 1213, Innocent III recognized the right of the masters of Paris to act as a body (recognition of an already existing fact) and to intervene actively in the recruitment of members of this corporation. In effect, the chancellor, who had the exclusive power to grant the licence, saw his power gradually diminish to the point that it became purely symbolic (as is the case today). In 1212-1213, Innocent III accorded the masters of Paris the right to examine candidates for the licence and obliged the chancellor to accept all the candidates recommended to the uniuersitas. In 1231, after grave conflicts provoked the secession of the uniuersitas, Pope Gregory IX obliged the chancellor to obtain the approval of masters (these do not, therefore, give a simple consilium; their consensus is required). The ambiguities of this way of consolidating the rights of the uniuersitas with respect to the chancellor have often been underlined by historians: to become independent from the local ecclesiastical authority, the corporation had to become dependent on the Pope (it had, nevertheless, played another card, that of appealing to the chancellor of Sainte-Geneviève). The universities gradually became the protégés and dependants of the Pope. And so that the university might exercise its right to recruit in a rigorous manner, the popes intervened in the establishment of programs of study. Thus, after the rights acquired in 1213, the university had to review its plans of study in accordance with the directives of the legate, Robert de Courçon, in 1215; and the Parens scientiarium of Gregory IX, which is considered the Magna Carta of the University of Paris, imposed on this university very precise directives concerning the plan of studies and the methods of examination.

29But the right to recruit that it had just obtained had limits for the university. In effect, if the papal directives did not contain limits for the faculty of arts, they indicated that the number of chairs in theology must not exceed 12 (a directive followed with little rigour since there were 15 by the middle of the century). But the point deserves to be examined because it can illuminate certain subjects of our own contemporary debates. In effect, the corporation continued to give diplomas to a great number of teachers, and they received the licentia ubique docendi. With the same stroke they became full-fledged members of the corporation of masters. They were even obliged to teach during the first two years following their inceptio. They were at that time called “regent masters.” But the limited number of chairs (the policy of numerus clausus) forced the university to accelerate the turnover of positions. A master did not remain a regent his entire life (only some exceptions that confirm this rule can be noted). There was no tenure (in spite of the clear medieval origin of the term). After some years (a minimum of two), the teacher became a “non-regent master.” But he continued to be a member of the corporation, and he was entrusted with extraordinary courses, or participated in their discussions. In modern terms, the “alumni” continued to be part of the corporation, and they participated in teaching activities as invited professors. Membership was not broken by the fact of no longer holding a chair. Meanwhile, many sought avenues other than the ones the licentia ubique docentia offered them and opened schools in other studia generale.

30Finally, the uniuersitas demanded the right to give statutes and its norms of internal working procedure. This right had various interconnecting aspects: a legislative aspect, strictly speaking, but also an executive aspect (the right to give itself authorities and to have representatives) as well as a judicial aspect (the decision of tribunals to which academics submitted their cases). The uniuersitas gave itself statutes well before having official approval. And when the pontifical legate Robert de Courçon approved them in 1215, he took over, it seems, the essence of the ancient norms while adjusting them to the new realities. In 1231, Gregory IX confirmed the statutes of the universities. They contained norms on the program of studies, on procedural norms at the time of official ceremonies, on the corporative duties of members of the uniuersitas and other internal norms having equal value to the statutes that touched on the remuneration of professors: even if knowledge was a gift of God that one would not know how to sell, teaching was regarded as work that deserved remuneration. It is reported, moreover, that “market differentials,” alas, already existed in the Middle Ages, and that in this struggle lawyers were the winners, “arts students” the losers. Other statutes governed the taxes that could be levied on members (particularly the question of tuition fees, or collectae), the exams and conditions for obtaining a licence, dress, religious ceremonies and funerals, the responsibility of teachers toward their students and professional ethics (the authority of the master should be exercised with humility since there is only one master; one was to avoid devoting oneself to vain curiosities in teaching—the socalled “vanity courses”!). Still other statutes legislated the duties of students (no pupil without a teacher), the oath of membership, rent, teaching assignments and the obligation to carry on disputations. The statutes thus defined the common good of the corporation, of its members, who, subjected to the same laws and enjoying through this contract well specified rights and privileges, constituted the uniuersitas, the group of persons responsible for the general studium of Paris.

31Two aspects strictly linked in the statutes are particularly important: the establishment of authorities responsible for the administrative management of the corporation and the legislative mechanisms to modify the statutes. The first aspect concerns the right of all corporations to install officers to ensure the application of the statutes and to represent the corporation before external authorities. The University of Paris was organized according to four faculties (arts, theology, canon law and medicine). The last three, which can be considered as faculties of graduate studies, had a dean at their head. The faculty of arts (the one with the greatest number of students by far since it was the “entrance” faculty) and masters were divided into four nations that grouped the professors and their students according to their geographical origin. Each one was directed by a procurator (proctor) and the four assisted the rector, head of the faculty and in effect chief executive officer of the whole uniuersitas starting in 1280 (not without meeting some resistance from the faculty of theology). Rectors, procurators, deans: all were masters elected by their peers, and all were therefore full-fledged members of the uniuersitas. The only external power was the chancellor as chancellor, since if he was a professor he was also a member of the corporation as a master. The rector carried out a double function: he convoked and presided over the university assembly and established an agenda (without taking part in debates). At first he represented the faculty of arts and later the whole university. He had judicial powers: with the four procurators he constituted the court of highest authority in questions of discipline (of masters or students, and of civil conflicts with the middle class). After this tribunal of the highest authority, the members of the university could make appeal to special tribunals created by the bishop or papal legate. He controlled part of the funds of the faculty of arts. He remained in his position for three months and had to give an account (accountability—syndicatio) of the administration to the end of his mandate. Other officers completed the team of administrators: the proctor, who represented the university before the Pope; the procurator and the accountant, who represented in court both the individuals and the corporation; the vergers, entrusted with the communication of decisions and the circulation of important information; the registrar, in charge of matriculation; the massarii (treasurers). All these officers were members of the uniuersitas, not outside administrators. That is why the real representative, having full legislative powers in the corporation, was the general assembly (congregatio generalis, plena congregatio, generale concilium). Each faculty in turn had their own assemblies (congregatio, conuentus). The members of those assemblies were the master regents (but from the fourteenth century even the non-regents formed part of the assembly). The constitution of these assemblies and their central power resulted from the application of the old juridical principle quod omnes tangit (“that which concerns all should be decided by all”). The assembly represented the legal entity of the uniuersitas. Since the university was a federation of faculties, each one deliberated separately and brought its vote to the general assembly. The rector did not have the right to vote. The virtual veto that each faculty had was replaced by majority rule, though not without resistance (a dissenting faculty refused, for example, to bring the key to the coffer where the seal of the university was kept, impeding in this way the validation of the decision. The solution? The coffer was broken.)

32This instance notwithstanding, what should be remembered about this early structure of government is the profound collegial sense it helped to obtain in the medieval university. Masters, students, alumni and administrators constituted the same community, and were alike responsible for its government in view of common interests and objectives. This collegiality is the essence of the medieval university as it derived from the Paris model. Perhaps needless to say, it no longer exists, or, if it does, it lives on in a system that is fraught with ambiguity. In the medieval university even the parallel professions enjoyed the sense of belonging and were protected and supervised by the corporation: librarians, stationers, brokers, craftsmen in parchment, etc. The uniuersitas was a community of persons dedicated to the same goal: knowledge and scientific excellence. It was the institutional framework responsible for the good functioning of the studium and of the protection of the rights of its members.

33To defend these rights and to show its responsibility with regard to the interests of the corporation, the uniuersitas had a formidable means: the right to strike (that the bishops and the cities tried to limit, but which the popes always protected). This power was increased, curiously, by the poverty of the universities: they had no possessions, no land of their own, but they constituted a very important group of consumers for the cities’ economy. When the occasion justified it (for example, when the police of the city or the king did not respect the rights or the life of the members of the corporation), a strike was declared, which meant in practice that they left the city. Thus, in 1229, after the police killed students following a brawl with the middle class, the corporation left Paris and did not come back until two years later, and then only after the Pope intervened to confirm their statutes. The solidarity of the uniuersitas included all its members, and so masters went on strike to defend their students.

34Historians have highlighted the profound impact this collegial practice had on the mentality of the Middle Ages. In effect, the universities constituted “living and active models of a representative system which applied in a concrete fashion the principle quod omnes tangit... of which the parliamentary system represents another practical example” (Michaud-Quantin, 324). The collegial principle compels the member of the uniuersitas to exercise his freedoms within a community that vouches for it. Its freedom acquires weight because it is part of a communal decision taken by the uniuersitas and put into practice by a representative system. And this freedom is safeguarded even if, by the institutional play of the representative mechanisms of the community, the adopted decision expresses, in fact and at a given moment, a conception opposed to that of a specific individual. If the rules of the game of collegial decision making have been followed, there is no further right to lodge a complaint. In this respect, there is a profound difference between the medieval university and the hybrid model (collegial-adversarial) of many contemporary universities.


35The medieval uniuersitas, as Alexander IV had well defined it in 1255, designated a community of persons (masters, students, alumni) all of whose members wanted to live a communal existence in which they affirmed the reality of their collective and single personality and pursued a common goal (Michaud-Quantin, 57).

36The collection of rights and principles I have analyzed in the preceding section did not constitute the goal of the uniuersitas, but the means the community perceived to be necessary to pursue the goal. In order to have a corporation it was necessary that the corporation be a university. The purpose of the uniuersitas was to ensure the functioning of the studium generale.

37A studium generale was a collection of disciplines that were cultivated for their own sake, which meant, in effect, the preservation, development, communication and dissemination of the knowledge that they contained. To say that the uniuersitas had the responsibility of the studium means that its members had the will and the conscience to live a life devoted to the flourishing of these areas of knowledge, which they perceived to be worthy of being cultivated for themselves as goods for the proper functioning of society and of institutions.

38The uniuersitas was a professional corporation, but it should be well understood what kind of profession is meant. At the beginning of this chapter it was recalled that there were corporations of doctors and lawyers that were not uniuersitas and that did not have the responsibility of a studium but of the professional training of its members in view of the exercise of their profession. Their aim was not to cultivate medicine or law as disciplines in themselves but to prepare people for the exercise of their profession (as the exercise of the profession was too tied to economic interests, the corporations of professions were more closed than the universities were in matters of accessibility).

39The uniuersitas, by contrast, had for its aim the cultivation of disciplines like the sciences, which implies research (preservation and development of the discipline) and teaching (communication and dissemination of the discipline). The profession for which these professional corporations prepare one was therefore the profession of teaching, or, to use a contemporary term that is a bit ambiguous, of being an intellectual. Communal existence that brought together the members of the uniuersitas was grounded in the theoretical life, the ancient idea of bios theoretikos, which had nothing passive or lazy about it, but which brought with it above all in the Middle Ages a particular vocation open to the acceptance of poverty and capable of resisting the temptation to embark on activities of a more lucrative type than that of acquiring knowledge (kings and popes—and even students—had to remind certain masters about this, especially in the faculty of law). As I have already said, this did not exclude people from frequenting university and then leaving it after a certain time to assume their professional work.

40But it was not for this that the uniuersitas was founded. Its goal was not the practice of medicine and law, or the direct cure of souls, but rather the study of medical science, the discipline of law and theology as a science. And in doing research, in teaching, these intellectuals ensured the preservation, the development and the dissemination of their scientific activity. In cultivating these areas of knowledge for themselves, they accorded them a universal value (the university is not an institution where all the sciences are cultivated, but where the ones that are cultivated are cultivated for their own sake).

41Further, if knowledge is universal, those who aspire to possess it do not recognize national boundaries. The original medieval university was international by vocation and in fact. This international character manifested itself by the diploma it granted to those who passed the tests: it is the licentia ubique docendi. The medieval university did not grant a diploma for the direct exercise of the profession; it granted a diploma that attests to the fact that the one who holds it can engage in university teaching in his discipline throughout the world; that is to say, that one has the acquired competence to do science and to initiate others into pursuing the same objective.

42It was very important for the medieval universities to have the right to accord the licentia ubique docendi, and they defended it vigorously. Far from their understanding was the purely local vocation that was proper to trade corporations. Echoes can still be heard today: a doctor in law of our University can teach right away in any university of the world, but he cannot exercise this right as legal practice before having passed the bar exam in each province where he would like to work. And a doctor in history can teach anywhere, but cannot teach history in primary or secondary school without passing the exams of the school boards, which nevertheless will typically accord this privilege to someone who has but a few credits in history.

43That which defines the uniuersitas in terms of its final cause is therefore an intellectual life constituted essentially of research and teaching. And the “university man” is one who has embraced, collegially, this common life. It is true that it is a theoretical type of life, but it is a practical one at the same time, for it includes teaching as a fundamental activity. It is on account of the surplus of this kind of life that the universities are also able to nourish the concrete exercise of professions. And it is as institutions that today would be called “scientific and educational” that the universities were irreplaceable in medieval society, or, perhaps, in any society.

44This way of life communicates itself in certain activities through which the scientific goal of the uniuersitas is achieved and takes shape. All these activities shared a common aspect: they had to confirm the master in the exercise of his twofold responsibility as researcher and teacher, and they had to prepare the "apprentice" students for the exercise of the two components of their own profession as intellectuals and teachers. In order for these activities to develop and acquire their typically medieval forms, a long process of enrichment of tire cultural life had already to have been established.

45As already noted, it was necessary from early on that Western culture generate for itself a method of creative intellectual work. This distinctive method was in large part due to the contribution of Abelard, whose method of sic et non permitted not only the enrichment of logic (cultivated in the schools as part of the trivium), but also the development of speculative theology. Speculative theology, that is to say scientific theology, had a similar impact on other disciplines which were in the process of being raised professionally from the simply affirmative stage (the repetition of texts) through a veritable questioning of the tradition to a research into matters of truth based on reason as well as on authority. The development of these methods of research has been fundamental to the survival of universities since the beginning of their existence.

46What was needed next was an enrichment of the available body of knowledge. Two formidable enterprises contributed in a decisive manner to satisfy this condition. In the first place, a movement toward translating works from Greek and Arabic was initiated in many places in Christendom. (This took place particularly in Toledo, a notable site of cross-cultural encounters—a point that permits me to add that university life has nothing to gain by closing itself within a single cultural profile, and has everything to gain if it exposes itself to other cultures.) This movement toward translation put the Latins in contact with a scientific world constituted next to and independent of the Bible and yet which contained, to be sure, truths about human existence, about the structure of the universe and about the nature of discourse. In the second place, important syntheses of the tradition were carried out by Peter Lombard (in theology), by Gratian and Irnerius (in law) and by the masters of Salerno (in medicine). These syntheses already utilized the essentials of Abelardian method, granting value to the anomalies of an enormous intellectual tradition, and inviting the reader in this way to offer a critical judgment.

47Finally, it required a clear understanding of the structure of knowledge capable of inspiring structures of teaching. The initial intuition came from far away: the reform of Alcuin, in the time of Charlemagne, had made the study of artes liberales the necessary preparation for all the other types of graduate studies, particularly of theology or of the Sacra pagina. The need for a basic formation of a methodological and scientific nature as a prerequisite for further studies was thus affirmed. Thus, when the move toward translation shattered the heretofore narrow framework of the liberal arts, and the needs of the disciplines like medicine pointed to the insufficiency of a purely formal education, the “arts students” promptly introduced new texts into the curriculum of studies, not without generating some strong reaction on the part of the Church. But the uniuersitas succeeded in affirming its principled position. It was necessary for the faculty of arts to be capable of enriching itself with the most recent “scientific discoveries” in order to fulfill its formative function in an efficacious manner. It is on account of this factor that the texts of Aristotle and those of Arab commentators found their place in the curriculum. Prohibited in 1210-1215, accepted conditionally (quosque ab omni suspitione errorum fuerint) in 1231, they ended up making it into the curriculum in 1255 with papal approval. The uniuersitas thus gradually formed its members from a common base solidly established by a “core curriculum,” the nucleus of the basic formation furnished by the faculty of arts.

48The tension which this faculty experienced in the Middle Ages is no different from that which our faculty experiences today: are we a faculty of service or do we have our own autonomous scientific project? The crisis of “Latin Averroism” arose out of this problem, when the “arts students” wanted to make philosophy an aim in itself. But Albert and Thomas already possessed a clear understanding of the scientific autonomy of the arts: “nihil ad me de Dei miraculis cum naturalitier de naturalibus disseramus.”

49With these three prerequisites, the uniuersitas could begin to flourish as a community of intellectuals. The evolution of their awareness as intellectuals manifested itself in the evolution of methods of teaching and research.

50The first form that the activity of the university men took was the lectio (lesson, lecture). This was appropriate for a culture centred on texts, a culture with a hermeneutical disposition. It developed on three levels: lettera, the simple explanation of terms; sensus, the analysis of meanings taking into account the context and underscoring this through a lucid reformulation; sententia, the disengagement of the underlying thought from the mechanics of the exegesis toward an accurate understanding of the text (Chenu, 70). Such texts were the auctoritates of medieval culture. Problems began once the masters realized that these “authorities” did not always necessarily agree on a given topic. The argument from authority, then, proved to be insufficient and the master needed to examine the question in a critical manner with the aid of dialectical methods worked out by the logicians. As Abelard himself said: “dubitando enim ad inquisitionem venimus; inquirendo veritatem percipimus” (Bazan, 27).

51The second method to be developed, that of the questio, was always strictly linked to the text and formed part of the lectio. The questio is the first effective surplus of the practice of exegesis, and it allows the intellectual to adopt a new role: he actively participates in the research for truth, without limiting himself simply to transmitting it. If the text or texts are the first element of the questio, the second, equally important, is the ability of the master to incorporate himself into a tradition by his own activity of researching the truth (not of the text, but of the subject matter itself!). As Thomas Aquinas would later put it before the divergence of “authorities”: “Quidquid autem horum sit, non est nobis multum curandum; quia studium philosophiae non est ad hoc quod sciatur quid homines senserint sed qualiter se habeat veritas rerum” (De Caeolo). By introducing the questio, the disciplines cultivated in the different faculties asserted themselves as veritable areas of rational knowledge. And not only the master changes roles; the student also, from the passive auditor that he has been, now becomes an active participant in the work of critical examination of the truth (research) that takes place in the lectio (teaching).

52This method of establishing the question was so successful that it ended by replacing the purely literal lectio. But another step needed to be taken. Here appears the medieval disputado, the veritable masterpiece of the uniuersitas, for this method synthesized all the functions that characterized the university corporation. In having acquired a method for raising questions about a text, the university men had, in effect, emancipated their method of textual exegesis. Masters and students alike began “to put the question” to problems and propositions, even if their truth was established, because what now most interests them is to practise the active acquisition of truth, the only way to grasp the fundamental sense and to realize its true value. Of the original questio only the form will remain; now masters and students examine a theme by mobilizing all the textual tradition as well as the arguments from reason they can develop on their own. Clearly, this method is only possible if there are teachers who are conscious of their duty to advance knowledge, of the value of their speculative spirit and of the need to teach students the steps toward acquiring new truths or toward the critical confirmation of received truths.

53The disputado came to be a method practised in all the faculties—in the arts, in theology, in law and in medicine. But it was to be the theologians who, by using the work of Thomas Aquinas, would lead it to its formal perfection. The medieval disputation became a success because it brought together the activities of research and teaching. It was a method of teaching from which the student could learn to discover the truth for himself. Teaching and research were now seen as but the two faces of the common intellectual activity essential to the uniuersitas. And this method of teaching and research came to be so efficacious that even when the authors wrote their treatises, they did so using the method of disputation. Nothing was more foreign to the medieval university than an opposition between teaching and research.

54This brings me to present some details about the concrete life of the corporation. The masters knew they had to teach, and the new methods permitted them to see no contradiction between this profession of teaching and their vocation as intellectuals. The corporation obliged them to accord a great importance to teaching. They protected the number of “reading” days (during which lessons could be given). The calculations of Verger lead one to think that there were between 130 and 150 "readable" days, and the masters would have to give two hours of lessons each of these days. That gives a teaching load of between 260 and 300 hours per academic year. In addition, the masters were supposed to dispute once or twice a week, and a session of disputation could not be held for less than three hours. Since the academic year consisted of 32 weeks, this allowed between 96 and 192 supplementary hours for teaching-research. The masters, after their courses or disputes, withdrew to write up the result of their course (lectiones et disputationes) as well as to write works independent of their teaching. The great advantage for them was that the teaching-research method allowed them to bring out publications derived from their teaching.

55Be that as it may, the norm, according to my calculations, is that the medieval master would dedicate some 356 hours to teaching (Verger arrives at 492). By way of comparison, a professor in the faculty of arts in our university teaches for 195 hours each year. In Paris there were exceptional cases, such as that of Thomas, who added to his regular teaching load an enormous amount of time devoted to disputations, to the point that historians have difficulty in explaining how he managed to do so many things, since, in addition to teaching, he published prolifically. But perhaps his example is not a good one to follow: he died when he was only 49 years old!

56The other aspect that is interesting to underline is the role that students played in the medieval university. It is well known that when a student finished in arts he became a master of arts before becoming a student in a graduate faculty (one could not stay too long in this intermediary stage: non est senescendum in artibus). And some began their graduate studies immediately, all the while teaching in arts in order to finance their studies. But this is not the point I would like to underline. What seems to me more important is that students had gradually begun to participate in the master’s own tasks: they were active in disputations, be it as respondens or as opponens; in the graduate faculties they had to take on teaching assignments from the moment they became bachelors (sententiary or biblical). The student was not passive. In the course of his formation, he was prepared for assignments both in teaching and in research. And that was consistent: for at the end of his career he was granted the licence to teach. This complete apprenticeship in the profession was not separate from the apprenticeship in the discipline and in the development of competence in research. It was by participating in activities where teaching and research coincided that he prepared himself to fulfill all the aspects of his discipline and of his profession.

57The idea of a faculty of education, separate from the faculties of various disciplines, did not make sense in the medieval uniuersitas. From the moment he received his bachelor of arts diploma, the student was incorporated into the activities of teaching and research, and it was by exercising the acts proper to his profession that he became master (researcher-teacher). This aspect has seemed to me most worthy of note because it reveals perhaps a deficiency in our universities, where the student is typically passive for most of the time, and then, once he becomes active, works on his own. And perhaps the cause is that the professors themselves divide the spheres of teaching and research. In the medieval university, it is because the student participated in all the activities of the profession that the corporation accorded him the licentia docendi, disputandi et predicandi.

58There was yet another important dimension of their scholarly activities. The disputations served not only to develop the ability to engage in dialectic or to explore difficult themes; they were also the occasion for the students to show and to affirm their competence before the masters and the people of the city who could be thus interested in giving them financial support. It was by means of their accomplishment in the work of the university that their scholarships were won. As for the masters, they were also supposed to present themselves before the learned community once or twice a year. They were the questiones de quodlibet, where the master presented himself before the corporation and the general public and joined in the discussion on any subject of his discipline (de quodlibet). This was the equivalent of our learned societies’ meeting—or of this McMartin lecture—but it had a much greater social impact.


59The medieval uniuersitas was born as a result of the corporate effort of people who had as a goal the preservation, development and dissemination of scientific knowledge cultivated for its own sake, and who saw in collegiality the best means of attaining this goal. As a community, it was not exclusive; it welcomed candidates from every sort of background, it provided its own representatives and directors, and asserted itself before external powers in demanding necessary privileges and rights for the exercise of a common vocation. Collegiality, universality, a commitment to learning, harmony between teaching and research, these were the strengths of the original idea of the university. Nothing could be more foreign to this original idea of the university than the current division between professors and administrators, nothing so contrary to its original spirit as to want to be a purely local institution, nothing more minimizing of its interests than to be simply a school of professional training, nothing more contradictory to its goals than to oppose teaching and research.

60Rectors, deans, masters, students and support staff—all were inspired by the same spirit of service to knowledge. To achieve this object they had to define, within their feudal society, a sphere of rights and privileges, simple means that guaranteed their independence and their autonomy as a corporation. Above all, they won the right to formulate their own rules and statutes, to choose their own authorities and representatives, to establish through the plan of studies the required conditions for the exercise of the profession and to control by their own criteria of excellence access to the profession despite the attempt of external powers who wanted to control knowledge. The medieval university wanted above and before all to be the guardian of the criteria of excellence that allowed one to be accepted into the corporation. And these criteria of excellence were taken to have been clearly attested to by participation in the exercises of research and teaching controlled by the corporation. The corporation did not define itself by distinguishing itself from those responsible for university administration (for they, too, are its members), but by an opposition to powers external to the corporation, that is to say, with those who do not share the same objectives.

61The weaknesses of the medieval uniuersitas are practically the opposite side of the coin of its strengths. Le Goff has remarked, with reason, that corporate organization is paralyzed even by those forces which have helped it to consolidate; the very elements that manifest its progress prepare for an eventual decline (Le Goff, 89). Thus, wanting to free itself from local ecclesiastical authorities, the uniuersitas ended by becoming dependent on a higher ecclesiastical power; wanting to assert itself before the city authorities, it ended by becoming dependent on the king. And when the Pope and king entered into conflict, the university corporation found itself caught in the crossfire; wanting to affirm its rights in the feudal structure, it did not know how to distinguish between rights and privileges in such a way that when the evolution of society developed a sense of the equality of rights, the uniuersitas could be perceived as anything other than an ivory tower, a centre of privileges from which the ordinary citizen did not benefit. Thus inadvertently, the universities gave rise to the just complaint or jealousy of the civil population. Inspired in its early days by a strong commitment to internationalism, it did not know how to confront nationalism and regionalism (Paris Frenchified itself and ceased to be the intellectual centre of Christendom). In wanting to give students an active role in teaching, the university eventually forgot that teaching ought to rest principally with the masters (in the fifteenth century, professors of certain faculties might teach but once or twice a year, a phenomenon that seems to occur even today).

62The more the uniuersitas abused its privileges, the more the intervention of external powers seemed justified. Thus, when the university community of Paris demanded the privilege of having special tribunals, Parliament returned them entirely to the common jurisdiction. When the University of Bologna did not want to respond to the requests of the city, reformatoresstudii were imposed upon it. The kings of France did the same thing by the end of the fourteenth century and above all in the fifteenth century. The popes ended by playing a purely formal role and the universities gradually passed under the control of the political power.

63But there is nothing strange about this. The universities are historical realities and not supratemporal essences. What should be retained for our consideration of the contemporary university are the elements that constituted the strengths of the medieval university (its collegiality, scientific vocation, the harmony between teaching and research), even as we are mindful of its weaknesses so as not to repeat them. Of these weaknesses, most important are the abuse of its privileges, the forgetting of the complete vocation of the university as a community devoted to research and teaching, the regionalizing of that which is by nature a universal institution and the distance that too many privileges create between the university man and his fellow citizens.

64The ideal of the university that the medievals first intuited and then achieved is an ideal worthy of being lived. It is an ideal of life and common activity among colleagues, masters and students, who search for truth for its own sake and who share it among themselves—for truth is a common good. Here was a community of learning where administrative service was accomplished not by isolating oneself from colleagues, but was undertaken as a service in the name of one’s colleagues.

65When at the beginning of his career the exceptional medieval master who we know as Thomas Aquinas discussed the question of knowing whether teaching belonged to the active or contemplative life, he answered the question by underlining the fact that teaching has two aspects or objects: that which is taught and the person who is taught. Because of the first, Aquinas highlights the contemplative life, whose object is the contemplation of scientific truths; because of the second, he highlights the active life, which is the good of one’s neighbor. Teaching thus unites the two types of life: by its end it belongs to the active life, but the principle and root of this activity is research: Contemplatioaliistradere (“research functioning as service”).

66It was the medieval ideal of research, teaching and collegial service that I embraced in my youth. It is the ideal that continues to inspire my life today and that I try to achieve in my daily university work (even if at times the limits of mortality prevent me from living it with the desired equilibrium). And it is in the pursuit of this ideal that I will finish my days, when the moment will come to join another uniuersitas, be it the material universe out of which I came by chance, necessity or providence, or be it that which joins the creature with his Maker—if such a society is accessible to the human being, as Aristotle once wondered.



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The author of Siger de Brabant (1974) and Les Questions disputées, principalement dans les facultés de théologie (1985), as well as editor of the Leonine edition of the De Anima of St. Thomas Aquinas. He is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Philosophy of the University of Ottawa and a member of the Royal Society of Canada

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 1998

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