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Earliest Renaissance Education

Current Day Universities

If you happen to be a student in a current day college or university, it would not be difficult to learn the charter date of the educational institution. The odds are that you could find a plaque or citation honoring the founding date of the school somewhere near the registration office. You might even find a cornerstone somewhere near the gates to the university grounds carved with the date the school was built and dedicated.

If you happened to live during the Renaissance, however, during the eleventh or twelfth century, to be exact, you would be hard pressed to find any dates at all. In fact, you probably wouldn’t even be sitting in a classroom as we know it today. You would most likely be seated on well worn cathedral steps, or inside the church itself, listening to the master of the particular discipline being “taught” on that particular day. At that early time, there were no such rituals as conferring of degrees, indeed, there were no degrees or diplomas, or graduation at all. There was simply learning for the sake of learning and most of the teaching was done by clerics who wished to continue the preaching and fables passed down through the ages from one generation of church father to the next and promulgated among the lay people forming the congregations or church communities. Their task was to pass on the liturgy and teachings of the Bible and a cleric had to be literate to meet that task.

“Collegium” as a defined Latin word was used to describe a guild or community of people, mostly men, who gathered around a common interest or field of study or pursuit. There were craft guilds, animal husbandry guilds, baker’s guilds, textile workers guilds. There was also a guild of students who gathered around a common “teacher” for the purpose of listening to what the teacher had to share. In this way, new knowledge was passed on and gained, and legacy knowledge was preserved. The “universitas” was the entire universe of colleges, of students, and masters who gathered to share knowledge in one central location.

The very earliest universities, complete with buildings of some sort, were established in Salerno and Bologna, both in Italy and both before the twelfth century. There is no cornerstone commemorating their founding, but there are ancient documents written by kings, emperors, and popes conferring on the two schools their legitimacy in recognition of their general curricula of study. The schools were referred to as ‘studium’, meaning community in Latin – a community of students and masters, teaching one another philosophy, law, and medicine.

Some of the early universities, such as Oxford, in England, in the very early twelfth century, had upwards of 100 students in pursuit of scholarly learning and growth. The university at Cambridge followed in the footsteps of its older brother, Oxford, both controlled by their teaching staff, rather than by the students as was the case in Spain and Italy, where the earliest “student unions”, as we know them today, were formed.

Because students tended to be clerics or others who wished to pursue learning rather than a craft or farming, for example, they typically and of necessity, would have to travel great distances to find the university that offered the particular topic of their interest (i.e., mathematics, language, philosophy, astronomy, law, medicine, etc.). Each university, or a college within the university, was known for a particular focus or subject matter and more often than not, the student was far from home, and at the mercy of the landlords and merchants in the towns and cities where he would seek living quarters while studying. This led to profiteering on the part of opportunistic merchants and, as a result, student guilds soon formed in self-protection. Young men would gather in more or less communal living arrangements where they could enjoy purchases at reasonable prices because they were buying as a larger group rather than individually. They had begun to have a collective voice and started to exert pressure on the universities to provide them with the best education their money could buy. There were times when the teachers had to pay students if expectations of knowledge gained on a particular topic, or within a given period of time, were not met.

The Chaucerian character in the recent film, “A Knight’s Tale”, exemplified the nomadic nature of the early Renaissance scholar. While Geoffrey Chaucer as portrayed in the film most probably represented some artistic interpretation on the part of the film director, he nonetheless portrayed with quite accurate depiction the sorry financial plight of the early scholar in his travels in the company of a knight, who would serve as a protector of sorts, while the student continued his quest for the next available university setting.

Education had become a thriving and challenging business of enterprising students and teachers – predominantly men.

While women were expected to be competent to perform certain literate functions as early as the fourteenth century, in fact, they were discouraged from seeking or achieving higher education. At best, many could read only enough to permit them to sell their wares or purchase goods at the markets. Those women who were more highly educated, more often than not, were either noble women or women who had been sent to convents to pursue a holy life of prayer and beneficial contemplation. The skilled female writer was a rarity; among the notable exceptions were Heloise (fabled student and wife of Abelard, a preeminent teacher during the twelfth century), and Suor Maria Celeste, abbess and eldest daughter of Galileo. Both women were confined to the cloister for various reasons, but both shone through history as brilliant examples of learned and capable women of letters.

The great universities of the coming Golden Age were just emerging, awaiting their place in history.

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