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Adelard's Questions and Ockham's Razor:
Connections between Medieval Philosophy and Modern Science

(Released November 2008)

  by Carolyn Scearce  


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Medieval Education and the Rise of Universities


Meanwhile, back in Europe, the early Middle Ages saw a decline of not only Greek literacy but Latin as well. In the face of successive barbarian invasions, the Roman aristocracy abandoned the city for rural estates. Rome's population decreased and few schools remained open. Some learning was preserved and transmitted in private households and monasteries. Medieval education was modeled on the Roman curriculum of the trivium, consisting of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and the quadrivium consisting of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (Durant, 1950).

The reign of Charlemagne (768-814) heralded a brief interlude of cultural expansion. Charlemagne himself was only marginally literate; he could read but was never able to learn to write. Still, he patronized the arts and enthusiastically embraced learning. Charlemagne exhorted every cathedral and monastery to establish schools (Luscombe, 1997). The Carolingian "renaissance" did not long outlast Charlemagne's life time. The establishment of monastery and cathedral schools, however, led to an increasing literacy rate even after the Carolingian dynasty went into decline.

Charlemagne receiving crown
The Coronation of Charlemagne (AD 800)

The 12th and 13th centuries saw the establishment of the earliest medieval universities. Informal schools were established in various regions of Europe, when teachers began to collect students. Universities initially emerged not as physical edifices, but as associations of students who contracted lecturers to teach them. Universities were formalized when they were granted charters. The University of Bologna can trace its origins back to the late 11th century and received its charter in the 12th century. Other early universities established in Europe include the University of Paris in France and Oxford in England. They modeled the structure of schooling after the trade guilds. After five years of study at a university a student might obtain a bachelors degree after passing private and public examination. After three more years of additional study and further public examination, a student might obtain a masters degree. The masters degree entitled a scholar to teach anywhere in Christendom (Durant, 1950).

teacher & students
University class, (1350s)

The development of universities during the Middle Ages provided and still provides an important center for scholarship and intellectual exchange. At universities scholars from all over Europe would come together as a single student body. Aided by a common tongue, the universities help forge a single intellectual community over the face of the greater part of a continent. Since the Middle Ages, the university has become such an entrenched institution in intellectual development, it is hard to picture the face of scholarship outside of its context. The modern disciplines of the sciences are particularly deeply rooted within this academic hierarchy that was initially developed in the Middle Ages.

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