The Rise of Universities in the Middle Ages and the World of Gregory Chaucer

So when I was at work today, I heard two customers chatting about the past and an author that one of their children was studying. They mentioned the ridiculous refrain that people in the Middle Ages were all uneducated unthinking idiots (not my word by the way.) As part of the discussion that these two individuals were having, they discussed both the idea that the medieval people thought the world was flat and that Chaucer is a bore. I don't know if my studies have truly given me a unique perspective on this time in history or if I simply take that knowledge for granted and assume that other people know it as well. But, I soon found myself holding a pile of prescriptions in my hand, standing behind the corner of the wall and avidly listening to the conversation while pretending to rearrange toothpaste – that must have been pretty silly to watch. :)

When these to men shook hands and appeared to go their separate ways to finish their errands, I found myself really thoughtful. It is so clear looking at older maps and studying the early scientists that well before the Middle Ages- the time frame that is generally accepted is 500 AD- 1500 AD and this time frame may be considered to include the Dark Ages and is also known as the Medieval Period. Depending on how you look at this time and what has been documented of its history truly colors how you see it and judge its people and history. I don't think that addressing whether people at the time thought the world was flat is useful- there is so much evidence that has been collected over the years that strongly suggest that we moderns who believe these ideas about the people/past are really 'culturally snobbish' and ignorant of our ancestors and our collective past. I did think I would take the time to talk a little bit about Chaucer and his work as well as the rise of education and universities during the Middle Ages... because the idea of higher education/degrees and a college/university themselves were developed during the Middle Ages and are not products or children of the Renaissance or later modern times.

Gregory Chaucer was probably born in 1343 in London, England. While we do not know much about any of the other poets and writers of this age, Chaucer is an exception due to his decades of work in his government – as a courtier, a diplomat (who was captured by the enemy and ransom paid by King Edward III during the Hundred Years War), and a public servant. So many aspects of his life are actually quite well documented giving us a great portrait of this man's life and the world he tried to describe in his works. He studied law, traveled around Europe and married... being blessed with a few children. Hi writing career includes several works and translations- not only the famous 'Canterbury Tale' – most that are believed to have been written between 1374-1386. His famous work is very different from other literary works of the period and far from being boring, it gives us images into the lives and occupations of different people during this time. In some cases, historians feel they have been able to actually determine some of the individuals that were used by the author for characters. Gregory Chaucer also is known for his metrical innovation as well as the first user of many English words in his works- these words were probably in common use at the time and many are still in use today. He is also credited to helping to standardize the Middle English language and is known as the 'Father of English Literature' – his writings in it were uncommon at the time as most writing in England was written in either French or Latin. It is unknown exactly when he died or even how he died- there is some speculation that he was murdered for political reasons during a regime change, etc.... One interesting tidbit of information was that Mr Chaucer owned a building in London that (while unknown if Chaucer was in it at the time) would have given him a great view of the Peasant's Revolt and it's leaders passing under his windows at Aldgate... that would have been an interesting thing to see!

So, some of Chaucer's work is able to tell us about a lot about his society's problems in the fourteenth century! The Canterbury Tales helps us to see some of the problems that Chaucer's society needed to deal with at the time... or at least we can understand what problems he saw around him. One focus in his work is on the Catholic churchman and the corrupt practices of these men and the church. (It goes without saying that Chaucer is probably describing the vast majority of churchmen, but not an absolute truth.) Two characters in the book are members of the Catholic church who sell indulgences or whose jobs are to bring people to the church for excommunication and repentance- characters that both are portrayed as greedy, selfish, and even guilty of the same charges that they bring against others... suggesting they are corrupt and dishonest as well. Other characters that represent church members, such as the monk, the nun, etc..., tend to also suggest corrupt and spiritually lacking individuals with the exception of the nun. So it seems clear that concerns about the Catholic church were fairly widespread and not easily fixed during this time. (I make the assumption that they are not easily fixed if they are so widespread and 'in the open'.) Chaucer's writing when looking at the story of the Knight suggests that violence was too often resorted to for 'noble' or 'pure' reasons... which in the grand scheme of things were useless and ridiculous motives. Many of the stories also suggest problems in society between the different classes of people in the society as hierarchy is starting to be eroded in public thought and expression.

One important thing to note about the culture of reading and writing during the Late Middle Ages is that is that education was still something that was only 'trickling' down a little bit. The vast majority of people did not know how to read or write. Some of the poetry and music movements of the time gave the educated few more opportunities to express and enjoy a change in the culture that made it acceptable to talk about relationships and love in society. In the past, music and poetry was really a bizarre form of propaganda in the sense that the cultural writings , etc... tended to focus on war and the heroes of war, their deaths, etc.... Talking about love or relationships was quite taboo and for this idea to come out into the open society was quite new and also helped change some societal attitudes. Love poetry was also used to develop acceptable patterns of behavior for the society at large which gave rise to some of the behaviors that we see as chivalry. Fables and fairy tales became popular at this time... and it is this period that we can thank for Grimm's fairy tales and Aesop's fables. In fables, various characters of medieval society were thinly disguised as animals and were very entertaining... still are actually. :)

It was during this time that the idea of universities was envisions and began to take shape. Universities were first envisioned by the emperor Charlemagne who saw the need to have a large group of educated men (priests) that his communities could draw from for leadership... so he wanted to develop a program in which all the cathedrals and monasteries in his lands would provide a free education for any male child who was intelligent enough and motivated enough to complete the study (not just from a wealthy family). However, Charlemagne died before his dream became a reality. Some schools had been established and these schools managed to continue.... even through the worst of times they would continue to train priests. These schools basically taught two distinct groups of teaching. There was the 'grammar' school which taught grammar, rhetoric and logic and then the 'humanity' portion which included math, geometry, astronomy and musical studies. All of these studies were necessary to work in many capacities in the church so all were considered essential. Around the year 1000, some schools began to add more elements of education to their grammar and humanity studies. Universities began to not only try and teach knowledge that was known, but they also tried to learn and extend knowledge itself. Mathematics and classical studies as well as the study of law was expanded. By the time of Pope Gregory VII in 1079, in which he issued a papal decree for all cathedrals and monasteries to establish schools for the training of clergy, education and the idea of learning for people interested was on the rise. So the first universities were established in Italy (Bologna, Modena, Siena, and Padua), England (Oxford and Cambridge), France (Paris, Toulouse, Orleans, and Montpellier) and Spain (Palencia, Salamanca and Coimbra). The city of Paris developed a few great centers of learning that were associated with their monasteries. Qualified teachers could apply and become part of the teaching faculty there. The terms professor- reserved for the teachers that lived within the monastery- and associate professor- for the teacher who lived outside provided the words that we still use today in a slightly different context at our modern universities. In Paris, students at universities could pick which lectures and courses they took and they would settle in an area that was closest to the desired regions. Professors would then rent halls to lecture in and this area in Paris became known as the Latin Quarter- due to the common language of the people living, teaching, and studying there. The idea of a university separate from the Catholic church and the monasteries began to form as the Chancellors and leaders in their local areas in the church would try to control all subjects and knowledge taught under their jurisdiction. (This is a struggle that will still continue today between the Heads of Universities and the professors themselves). Around this time, students were not just taught to 'regurgitate' the knowledge that was taught to them, but also to use logic and reason to interpret and use it.... which began the public 'debate'. In fact, science was a heavier portion of a degree in those days and was required course work... not mainly electives. Due to a small but nasty incident of violence between students and teachers and others, the first truly separate university was developed in Paris and was called the University of the Masters and Students of Paris. This university fought and gained many rights that all colleges and universities take for granted today... such as the rights to pick curriculum, the right to choose their own faculty, etc...

This was also the time of the rise of the Humanists. The Humanists were individuals who thought that humanity itself was a grand miracle and to study humanity and its culture and accomplishments would help you to be a better person in your life and society around you. If you went to a university at that time, there was very little difference in the few degree programs that were offered in the beginning because the classes that you would take were the 'humanities'- language and grammar, history and law, poetry and classical writing as well as philosophy. (When you get a liberal studies degree today, you are getting many of the same kind of ideas that you would have received in the past... with updates of course :) It was thought that well rounded educated people would be better equipped and able to participate in their communities and civil obligations. It was also thought that the more educated and capable you were, the more likely you were to not only live a good life, but to influence those around you to do go as well and to help people around you to become better. I don't disagree with them at all really. I think that sometimes we can get too focused on a small part of education and lose our 'humanity' in that, but otherwise I think that education only helps us to help ourselves and others.

So, far from boring, I guess I tend to find this time in history fascinating. So much or our modern world was shaped by this time period and those who helped develop it. I speak a language that began to be developed during this time, attend colleges that came to exist because of the fights and challenges and hopes of past generations, and I am even getting a degree based on the medieval ideal... although I will say that the degree has changed a bit over the centuries. :) Can you imagine a world without these changes... a world where we all write mostly in Latin with Greek and French as secondary languages... a world where only those of more privilege birth are able to afford education at all and a world where you are very must limited by your birth and place. While our modern world still has some of these limitations, our ancestors have managed to remove some of the barriers that would have restricted us. I f you have attended a university in your life, would you be willing to comment on how it has benefited you, what it means to you in your life, etc....? I would love to hear your experiences! :)


  1. Three comments:
    1. Try to get your hands on a text of the Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English and read it side by side with a modern translation; it's fascinating.

    2. Is it possible that Chaucer's characterization of priests, knights, etc was exaggeration for the sake of making a point? In a similar vein, there are plenty of people today who imply that most Catholic priests are pedophiles, but that's certainly not the case.

    3. Another way that culture was maintained without the use of written language was through painting. If you look at portraits from that period, the subject is surrounded by an odd collection of plants, animals, and objects; most were symbolic

  2. Katey... I love reading the translation side by side. It makes it easier, but I feel like I can also enjoy the original language!

    It is possible that Chaucer used exaggeration, but not by too much at least in upper levels of the church. There is a bit of documentation on that. I suspect that he saw many cardinals,etc... during his travels around medieval Europe. I can give you some sources if you would like. They make fun reading but tend to leave a bad taste in my mouth becasue I hold church mebers and preachers to a much higher standard- my bias.

    I studied symbolism in one of my history classes and its amazing at how much symbolism there is in so much. I would like to take an art history class. I think that would be neat and make it easier for me to understand the symbols in past art and documents. :)