Q&A with Jane Toswell on her Today’s Medieval University

So, what features of the modern university are actually medieval?
Well, not much really: the structure, the ceremonies, the relative autonomy, the system of decision-making, the faculties, the curriculum, the architecture, the symbols and costumes, the roundly pragmatic approach to learning.  Okay, so actually an enormous amount.

Why don’t I already know this?
People who talk about the university today tend to fix its origin point in Western Europe, especially in Germany, with the Humboldtian development of two ideas: the university as the home of the genius professor, the brilliant researcher surrounded by hordes of students and junior colleagues running a massive and original project; and the idea that the university espouses a process of learning, a dialectic engagement that takes the individual student from ignorance to a system or style of learning and to knowledge of one discipline or subject on a deep and substantial level.  The first notion, that of the genius faculty member, probably does belong more to the nineteenth century than to the Middle Ages (though I could contest that too), but the second one, usually seen as the way in which the university system re-founded and reorganized itself, is actually a profoundly medieval notion taken from the earliest universities.

What parts of the modern university are completely medieval?
The physical structure of many modern universities reflects the medieval ecclesiastical quadrangle, the buildings set in a square, with staircases at regular intervals corralling the students into up-and-down movement for their living quarters and study space.  The large green space in the centre of the modern quad reflects the medieval cloisters, and gives students an outlet, a place to play games and relax.  When they get themselves into trouble with other students or with the inhabitants of the town or city, they immediately invoke the university’s code of conduct or other rules about its autonomy and right to police its own.  That too, reflects the medieval benefit of clergy, and all universities today fiercely defend their right to discipline their own students and faculty, their autonomy from oversight.  The organization of most universities into faculties, and the system for approving curriculum, the system of student aid,  fundraising events and efforts, the honorary doctorate, even the division between professional schools (some of them graduate schools) and the more general undergraduate program: all these elements are completely medieval.

 What parts of the modern university seem medieval, but are a kind of re-created medieval?
That would include many, though not all, of the ceremonies.  The inception ceremony, when a student is accepted at a university, survives only in a few places today, but the graduation ceremony (where the students steps forward, or in the Middle Ages upwards onto the dais of the masters) remains.  The colourful regalia of today is a kind of recreated medieval element, as in the original medieval universities of the twelfth century the students and masters would have worn black gowns resembling the undergraduate robes of today, almost always with a cap of some kind.  Undergraduates today generally do not have to debate and argue in public venues in order to win their degrees, but the concept of winning the degree by defending one’s written work still lives today with thesis degrees (the doctorate in particular).

What is this book really about?
The book explores the medieval foundations of the modern university, first in Bologna in 1098 and Paris shortly thereafter, perhaps earlier in Salerno with the first medical school, and slightly later in Oxford.  It analyses the liturgy and ritual, the structure, and the curriculum that a medieval student would have pursued and a medieval master would have attempted to instill.  And it essentially points out the advantages and disadvantages of this highly autonomous and yet highly connected system of learning; universities generally had charters from both ecclesiastical and secular authorities, and very much played one off against the other in order to keep their own privacy and independence intact.

By M.J. Toswell

Browse By Month