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Published on Aug 26, 2011
During the early Middle Ages, any type of higher education was usually available only in monasteries and cathedral schools, where Christian monks and nuns taught each other and preserved the writings of classical authors. But by the eleventh-century, medieval Europe was becoming more urban and complex, and royal governments needed highly trained men to run their bureaucracies. Students and teachers were also demanding better ways to be educated, and the solution to this came about with the creation of universities.
Universities come from the Latin word universitas, which means guild, and these schools were essentially groups of students and teachers who got together into their own groups for the purposes of learning -- in some universities it was the students themselves who paid the teachers and ran the institution. The main curriculum was based on seven areas - grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy - all of which were important for a cleric in the Catholic church. In some universities, other subjects were also important - Salerno was renowned as a place to study medicine and Bologna for law.
By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries universities were becoming important centres of learning and some would become quite famous - like Oxford and Cambridge in England, and the University of Paris in France. In the later Middle Ages, universities would emerge in most other parts of Europe too, as monarchs and cities wanted them as sources of highly-skilled bureaucrats and to increase their own reputation. Occasionally, though, the relations between university students and their local communities could get hostile, and since students were treated as clergy, it meant that they could not be tried by local courts for crimes, only the much more lenient ecclesiastical courts.
While very few medieval men (and no women) could be part of a university, the institution did develop and grow throughout the Middle Ages, and became home to some of the periods greatest thinkers -- such as Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas. The university has since become the standard of higher education not just in Europe, but throughout the world.