Religion, Education and the Role of Government in Medieval Universities: Lessons Learned or Lost?

By Georgedes, Kimberly | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Religion, Education and the Role of Government in Medieval Universities: Lessons Learned or Lost?


Georgedes, Kimberly, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


INTRODUCTION

Religion, education and government were very closely connected in the Middles Ages, as indeed in nearly every age except the modern world, beginning perhaps as early as the Reformation, but with continuing secularization of education through the Scientific Revolution, but more importantly, the Enlightenment. Here I propose to give some historical background to modern developments concerning the role of government and religion in education, particularly as related to the university. To this end I will briefly examine the relationship between the Church and secular governments and how they influenced the universities and education in Medieval Europe. I will also examine the impact of the rediscovery of both Roman law and Aristotle on the rise of the universities and on the university curriculum itself (including not only the close relationship between faith and reason, but also the strains between the two as well), and how this might have influenced or had an impact on both church and state. Finally, I intend to discuss what lessons we might learn from this period with regard to our own. Thus, there are really two questions I am addressing here. The first concerns the role of religion and government in education, especially as it pertained to medieval universities. The second concerns the differences between medieval and modern American universities, and whether we have learned anything from past experience.

This is a rather large, and somewhat unwieldy topic. As a result, the examination will be only cursory and informative as opposed to ground breaking or innovative. I have also assumed a minimal knowledge about the Middle Ages on the part of the delegates, by which I mean no offense to anyone. In any case, perhaps this paper will provide some impetus to discussion.

My task is perhaps best accomplished through a general comparison of medieval and modern American universities (my own experience). However, before I do that, I should give some background. (1)

As noted by many scholars, the university of the Middle Ages was an institution unique to the West. There was nothing quite like it in either the ancient or Islamic world. (3) There were several historical circumstances that came together in the eleventh century that would ultimately have a huge impact on the rise of the universities and flourishing of medieval intellectual life. It is difficult to present them as "cause and effect" because in many ways the factors were so entwined as to make that impossible. The eleventh century was a watershed century for the West in many ways. By about A.D. 1000 the invasions of the North men, the Saracens of North Africa and the Magyars in the East effectively ended, which allowed Europe time to recover and begin to build new political structures, such as the feudal monarchies. New agricultural methods allowed for the production of a surplus of food, which in turn allowed population to increase, which in turn necessitated bringing new lands under cultivation. Moreover, since surplus could be sold in towns, it allowed for town and cities to increase their sizes, thus, increased urbanization began, and thus the need for a new type of law to govern town structures and interactions, and the increasing commercialization of the economy. As a result of the needs of a commercial, urban society, which include an emphasis on moveable property, the need for contracts and the need for protection regarding disputes over contracts, as well as the desire for the peaceful resolution of disputes, one begins to see an emphasis on written law as well, because feudal law was not designed to deal with urban structures and needs. (3)

This emphasis on written law was also becoming critical to the Church in its struggle with kings and emperors over investiture and who would control the highest offices of the church, including the papacy. The Gregorian Reform was arguably the chief catalyst of everything that followed (including the Crusades, and the development of universities), because the papacy struggled to free itself from the control of the German emperors and in order to do so, as usy compiling past church laws and pronouncements, which becomes known as canon law. …

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