At the Crossroads


A 14th-century university class — contemporary painting by Laurentius de Voltolina. (Image Source)

Last time out (far too long ago), we took a look at the University of Heidelberg, one of the oldest in Europe and indeed the world, and at its long and turbulent history.  This time, a quick post with a little bit of a look at what actually went on in a medieval university.  What did a student learn there, and what was the general course of study?  Read on, for a very quick introduction.

A caveat before we start: this is a tremendously over-simplified look at things.  Medieval universities varied considerably across Europe in terms of their specialities and the exact structures of their degrees.  However, this should do as a superficial introduction.

Medieval universities, more or less, drew their curriculum from that of the ancient Greeks, and in particular Plato and the Pythagorean writers.  It was amended and tweaked by philosophers, theologians, and others with an interest in education down the centuries.  At the core of the medieval curriculum lay the three subjects that, combined, formed what was known as the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.  These three areas were designed to equip the student commencing studies with the ability to use words, in all senses of that phrase.  Once the trivium was mastered, the student moved on to the quadrivium, four subjects dealing broadly with numbers: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (musical education at medieval universities was more theoretical than practical, and focused on math-related topics like harmonics).  The seven areas of the trivium and quadrivium, taken together, comprised the seven Liberal Arts, and learning them (a process that generally took about six years, although it could vary widely) earned the medieval student the title of Master of Arts.  The title of Bachelor of Arts was awarded partway through student’s learning of the trivium and quadrivium.

There are some interesting etymological things going on in those various terms, by the way.  Both “trivium” and “quadrivium” are Latin, and essentially mean “crossroads,” with “trivium” referring to the place where three roads come together, and a “quadrivium” being a four-way intersection (hence the title of this post).  As for the degree titles, “Bachelor” is a fascinating word indeed.  Its meaning of “unmarried male” pre-dates its use as an degree title, and likely derives from Old French term referring to a squire (a young and indeed unmarried man who served as a knight’s understudy).  As for the term’s original root, opinions range from the medieval Latin “baccalarius,” meaning “someone who fights using a stick” (a putative reference to squires practicing swordplay) to a possible Celtic origin.  If “bachelor,” does indeed derive from “baccalarius,” then the Latin equivalent “baccalaureate,” still in use today, is in fact a pun; the added “u” gives the word a connection to the laurel wreath, traditionally handed out as a sign of accomplishment.  Anyway, end digression.

Thus armed with the trivium and quadrivium, a Master of Arts could go on to what we would now consider “graduate school,” and generally focused on one of four faculties: law, medicine, philosophy, or theology.  Some universities were especially well-known for one or two of those areas of study; Heidelberg University, our particular focus in this little series of posts, included all four but particularly specialized in theology and law in its early days.   Other universities, such as those at Salerno and Montpellier, were famous medical schools in the medieval era, and so on.  After a decade or so working on one of those topics, a student earned the title of “Doctor” (literally: “teacher”), although other subsidiary degrees — Bachelor’s, Master’s, and/or Licentiate —  were awarded along the way.

Of course, university degree titles have remained much the same down to the current era, although their exact application has changed.  The curriculum, however, has obviously undergone a massive change from the days of the trivium and quadrivium, as you may discover if you stroll into the Registrar’s office at Trent University and try to  find out the timetable for courses in rhetoric.  How did we get from the medieval curriculum to the standard university course-offerings of today (and what are those, anyway?)?  That’s for next post, and in the meantime thank you for reading!


This entry was posted in Cities of Literature. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s