The art of reading in the Middle Ages

Temples of knowledge

Reading culture in medieval universities

The establishment and development of the university in the European Middle Ages made a specific contribution to global culture and global history. Earlier monastic and cathedral schools had been more or less closed to the general public and rarely taught the entire range of human knowledge and learning. Universities, on the other hand, were both much more open, providing education to a larger number of interested people from a variety of backgrounds.

They also offered a much wider selection of the fields of study, including scientific disciplines. This was reflected in the organisational structure of the university, which ideally included a faculty of the arts as well as a professional component (the theological faculty and the faculties of law and medicine). This social and cultural openness and the general intellectual scope of each university was mirrored in their reading culture, which was not confined to the educational institution itself, but also had an impact on local society.

The university remained formally an ecclesiastical institution: its members were almost completely drawn from the clergy, and its chancellors often were local hierarchs, archbishops or bishops. Nevertheless, it became slightly more accessible to a larger (albeit exclusively male) public institution. Therefore, each university quite naturally and greatly influenced the city where it was located, because a significant part of the city’s population was directly or indirectly related to the university.

University masters were respected figures and sometimes even had a sort of celebrity status. University students influenced daily life of the cities where they studied: student poetry and drama were performed in and outside the university boundaries, as well as written in manuscripts containing study texts and commentaries.

Unlike today, most students left their studies before graduation. In a society where diplomas and academic degrees were less important than they are today, many students stopped having acquired the desired skills, and gained employment as town clerks, public notaries and often (legal) officials at courts. Consequently they influenced the development of professional as well as everyday reading and writing.

Universities generally consisted of four faculties: arts, law, medicine and theology. The arts (artes) was considered to be a prerequisite to gain access to the other three faculties. The subjects taught in artes-courses were the seven ‘liberal arts’: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. After three years of studying, one would become bachelor (baccalaureus artium); after six years and following completion of their studies, they would become master (magister artium).

Students wishing to further advance their studies could join one of the three higher faculties. The law faculty would include both Roman law and canon (ecclesiastical) law. Its scholars also wrote opinions on contemporary legal matters, such as Kuneš of Třebovel’s tractate on the possible heathen basis of specific principles of inheritance rights for farmers, written in response to a conflict in which Kuneš’ church was involved. Medicine focused on the works of classical authors such as Hippocrates, Galen and Arabic authors such as Avicenna. Finally, theology was deemed the highest faculty. The Bible was studied, along with its many commentaries (that by Peter Lombard being the most important). To acquire a doctoral degree in theology, a student would have had to study for around another ten years; meaning in all he spent nearly two decades at university.

As some universities had developed out of monastic and cathedral schools, they maintained special colleges that were reserved for members of a specific monastic order. These ‘order houses’ were quite common in Central Europe: for instance, the University of Prague had such houses for Dominicans, Franciscans, Cistercians and Augustinians. Here, the general studies that were taught at monastic and cathedral schools were still provided. At the same time, however, they were strongly influenced by the intellectual breadth of the subjects lectured in public universities and intensively developed by the university masters through their own writing and scholarly activities.

The focus of the general studies of monastic orders was exclusively theological, but in the sense of the medieval conception of theology as an all-encompassing discipline and the pinnacle of human knowledge. This meant that theology at the time also dealt with areas now considered to be mostly non-theological, such as psychology, ethics, economics, political science, sociology, etc. Such encounters and clashes between religious and secular education, religious and secular themes and their intermingling led to the dynamic development of knowledge and intellectual interrogation. The intellectual clash between secular and religious ideas in the universities was a mirror of the political clash of secular and religious powers in society. In particular, the question to whom the supreme authority on Earth belonged - the Emperor or the Pope? - was heavily debated at universities, with many supporters for either stance.

Thus, a consequence of the prominent position of universities in the culture of medieval Europe was the gradual emergence of tension between universal and cosmopolitan ideals on power and hierarchy on the one hand and territorial, regional, local and socio-political anchorage on the other. Universities thus became an arena of international as well as domestic ecclesiastical and state politics. This was repeatedly manifested in annual quodlibetal disputations: debates in which students or others could fire away questions on any topic (quodlibet meaning ‘whatever’ in Latin), which the masters then needed to discuss and answer according to scientific customs. In these disputations all masters were to participate and they reflected the often conflicted situations. Especially during the Great Schism (1378-1417), when first two and later even three claimants to the papal crown simultaneously existed, Europe split over which claimant to support. Depending on both religious and political arguments, different universities took up different stances. In Prague, for example, different factions within the university chose opposite sides. While the king of Bohemia opposed the Roman claimant, Gregory XII, the majority of the university members remained loyal to the latter. The theologian Mauritius Rvačka even wrote a treatise in defense of Gregory.

These conflicts resulted in frequent secessions of the university population and mass transfers to other universities. This led not only to intellectual development but also to the strengthening and spread of what had originally been only rather local controversies and conflicts. In connection with this, authorities increasingly sought to appoint academically schooled persons to administrative, juridical and financial positions.

University masters, some of whom were also ecclesiastical beneficiaries, and graduates, who were both church beneficiaries and secular officials, thus often acted in the dual role of intellectuals and practitioners, not feeling the discrepancy between the scientific and professional roles. The idea(l)s developed in university reading culture spread to other social and intellectual environments.