III.4 The Three Higher Faculties: Medicine, Law, and Theology

III.4 The Three Higher Faculties: Medicine, Law, and Theology

Image 1. At the top of the medieval and early modern academic hierarchy reigned the 'three higher faculties' of medicine, law, and theology. Such was their prestige that the study of the seven liberal arts and the three philosophies was generally regarded as 'propaedeutical' (or preliminary) to the study of one or another. Yet even at the very top of a highly stratified society, battles for supremacy were everywhere; and the university was no exception. Our period produced a voluminous literature in which representatives of individual arts and sciences asserted their superiority to others and demanded even more respect. In this image, for instance, 'personifications of law, medicine and theology argue over the superiority of their respective professions' sometime around 1720. By the early eighteenth century, when this engraving was published, the playing field may have been sufficiently leveled that all three higher faculties could make a plausible case for supremacy. But throughout our period, the supremacy of theology was beyond dispute.  

Image 2. In the famous depiction of Oxford academic vestments engraved by David Loggan in 1675, the most humble members of the university community (college servants) lead the procession, and the most prestigious (the vice chancellor) comes last. At every level of the degree hierarchy -- bachelors, masters, and doctors (depicted here) -- medicine comes before law which is followed by theology. Within the three higher faculties, in other words, theology reign supreme. This supremacy went largely unchallenged because its theoretical justification was so compelling. Just as the wellbeing of the body politic (the preserve of law) is of greater importance than the wellbeing of the individual physical body (the domain of medicine), the eternal wellbeing of the immortal soul (the province of theology) is of infinitely greater value than the merely temporal wellbeing of either. 

Images 3-4. The most sublime expression in Oxford of this superiority comes not from the seventeenth century but from the fifteenth. The Divinity School was built during over six decades starting around 1420 to serve as the university lecture theatre and debating chamber for theology. The beauty of the vault, completed in 1483, is testimony to the undisputed status of divinity as the queen of the sciences within the medieval university. 

Image 5. This superiority of status becomes even clearer when the Divinity School is compared with the 'Scholae Publicae' which served the other disciplines during the sixteenth century. This engraving of 1578 depicts the building which housed the lecture theatres for all the other academic disciplines, besides theology,  throughout the second half of the sixteenth century. Even this humble building was replaced by the far grander Schools Quadrangle in the early seventeenth century, the superior status of theology was emphatically preserved architecturally both in the glorious interior and in its central place in the composition of the quad. 

Further discussion of the wooden furnishings and their use for the university practice of 'disputation' can be found here. A panorama of the interior is available here.

Credits: Howard Hotson (October 2017, January 2024)