What Did European Universities Teach During the Middle Ages? | History Hit

What Did European Universities Teach During the Middle Ages?

Laura Burgazzi

14 Mar 2019

During the medieval period, European universities taught the same broad curriculum, although some chose to study a slightly different selection of texts within these topics. The medieval university curriculum was predominantly based on ancient Greek and Roman ideas of education.

A medieval student began his studies with the Seven Liberal Arts, divided into the Trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic), and the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Astronomy, Geometry, and Music). This required 8 or 9 years to complete.

Philosophia et septem artes liberales, the seven liberal arts. From the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century).

If a scholar graduated from these studies and became a master of arts, he then had the option of studying one of the higher faculties: Theology, Medicine, or Law.

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The Trivium


1. Grammar

The Seven Liberal Arts. Grammatic and Priscianus.

According to a German clergyman who attended the University of Paris in the fourteenth century, boys began learning grammar at the age of seven. This suggests that a university student should arrive with a good level of grammatical knowledge.

Nevertheless, a university scholar still had to spend an entire year studying grammar. During this term, they learnt the art of speaking, writing, and pronunciation. Students also analysed, memorised, and wrote their own texts.

2. Rhetoric

Rhetoric and Tullius. Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Studying rhetoric taught scholars to clearly express themselves, particularly in a persuasive way. This was a useful and practical skill for clergymen as their peers expected them to deliver clear sermons.

Despite its practical applications, rhetoric was not a key part of the curriculum. At Paris, for example, it was only taught on festival days, when no other lectures could occur.

3. Logic

Logic and Aristotle.

The writings of Aristotle and Boethius were central to medieval studies of logic – for example, Aristotle’s idea of topical logic or topical argument. This was the idea that something can be commonly known to be true, despite there being no evidence to explain why it is true.

Some historians have argued that logic was crucial, eclipsing all of the other liberal arts.

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The Quadrivium

The quadrivium was extremely important during the middle ages, as arithmetic and astronomy were needed to calculate the movable date of Easter which was a requirement for every medieval cleric.

1. Arithmetic

Arithmetic and Boethius. Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus Boethius.

A medieval student would hear lectures on the properties of numbers, as well as rudimentary algebra.

Medieval arithmetic was based on the teachings of Ancient Greece. However, during the Twelfth-Century Renaissance, the Hindu-Arabic numerical system was introduced to Europe, gradually replacing the use of Roman numerals, and introducing the concept of zero.

2. Astronomy

Astrologer-astronomer Richard of Wallingford is shown measuring an equatorium with a pair of compasses in this 14th-century work.

During the medieval period, most scholars did not differentiate between astronomy and astrology as we do today.

Medieval astronomy included both what would now be classed as astronomy – calculating the positions of the planets – and what is now termed astrology – looking at which zodiac sign each of the planets are in, and subsequently using this information to make predictions about the future or to explain the past.

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As well as being used to calculate the date of Easter, astrology was used heavily by medieval medical practitioners. Medieval doctors consulted the stars to determine if a patient was likely to live or die from their illness.

Similarly, some astrologers created horoscopes of the moment of someone’s birth, known as a nativity. It was done to see if the newborn child was likely to be particularly susceptible to certain illnesses or if they would die young.

3. Geometry

Geometry and Euclid.

Medieval geometry was extremely rudimentary, and mainly focused on measuring the Earth, specifically its size, shape, and position within the universe. Geometry was thus particularly important for geographers, map-makers, and architects.

4. Music

Musicians playing the Spanish vihuela, one with a bow, the other plucked by hand

The study of music in medieval universities centred on melodic composition. Music was supposedly reliant upon arithmetic, as a melody had to utilise both numbers and proportions in order to be pleasant to listen to.

As the majority of university students during the medieval period were clerics, they focused on learning and producing songs which could be used in church worship.

The higher faculties

The higher faculties included: theology, medicine, and law. A scholar could not begin studying one of these courses until after he had completed the study of the seven liberal arts.

1. Theology

A painting of St Thomas Aquinas, one of the most famous, influential theologians of the medieval era.

Prior to the development of universities in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, theology was studied and debated by religious orders.

Even after its introduction to universities, the study of theology was tightly controlled by the Church, and universities having to apply for permission from the pope, known as a papal dispensation, in order to teach theology.

Even if they received this, what was taught by faculties of theology was under severe scrutiny. In 1277, for instance, the bishop of Paris, Stephen Tempier, issued 219 condemnations of heretical propositions that he believed were being taught by Paris’ faculty of theology

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At the core of all medical teaching was humoral theory. According to this theory, humans consisted of four humours: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Illness was believed to occur when one of these humours was in excess. Medical scholars also studied the works of Avicenna, Galen, and Hippocrates.

Salerno was the first medical school in Europe – as it only taught medicine, it is often not classified as a university. However, Salerno quickly began to decline in importance and Bologna, Montpellier, and Paris became known as the best centres for medical teaching.

This was presumably because these universities placed a much greater emphasis on practical medicine, which was clearly much more useful for those who wished to become practising medical doctors.

3. Law

A university class, Bologna (1350s).

During the medieval period, there were two main forms of law: canon law, and civil law. Canon law was that used by the Church in their own courts – these were also the courts wherein scholars were tried.

In contrast, civil law was secular, being that used by municipal governments and royalty to prosecute those who were not members of the clergy.

Civil law was banned at some universities, such as Paris, forcing scholars to study canon law or to travel to another university where civil law was taught.

Laura Burgazzi