Universities, 1400-1650: an introduction

Universities, 1400-1650: an introduction

Historians like change. Nowhere is this truer than in our treatment of the age of Renaissance and Reformation, 'at the threshold of the modern world'. But how fully did those movements transform established learning? The best way to answer that question is through the lens of the institution devoted to transmit established learning from one generation to the next: the university. Did the Renaissance and the Reformation overturn the structure of the late medieval university? Did they radically alter is methods, practices, and traditions?

This lecture begins by showing that the period 1400-1650 represented a golden age for the European university. The reason, it concludes, is in part because the long-established structures of the university easily absorbed the impulses and innovations from these movements without being transformed by them.

This assessment raises an obvious question: if intellectual transformation did not arise primarily within the universities, where did it come from? Answers to this question will be sought in the following lecture.  

The materials which follow should be regarded as work in progress. Sections I, II and VI are essentially complete. Sections III, IV, and V are about half finished. Section VII is lacking completely. 

I. An academic golden age? 1650 as a watershed in the history of European universities

  1. University foundations in Europe, 1400-1800
  2. College foundations in Oxford and Cambridge, 1249-1878
  3. University matriculations in Germany and England, 1400-1810

 II. What was a university?

  1. Where, and what, was the univertsity?
  2. ‘Universitas’: the original meaning of the term
  3. ‘Universitas magistrorum et scholarium’: a self-governing corporation of teachers and students
  4. Privilegium scholasticum: the jurisdiction of the Chancellor's Court
  5. Authentica habita: academic garments to distinguish     town and gown
  6. Academic hierarchies made visible

 III. What was taught?

  1. A common curriculum
  2. Grammar as the key to the tower of learning
  3. Seven liberal arts
  4. Three philosophies: natural, moral, metaphysical
  5. Three higher faculties: medicine, law, theology
  6. Common authorities
  7. Aristotle: the master of those who know
  8. Aristotle and the macrocosm: the four elements
  9. Aristotle, Galen and the microcosm: the four humours
  10. Aristotle, Ptolemy and the cosmos: the fifth elemen

 IV. How was it taught?

  1. Scholasticism as the method of the ‘schools’
  2. The task: assessing and transmitting an intellectual heritage
  3. The challenge: defending Christian orthodoxy
  4. The challenge: reconciling Judeo-Christian theology with Greco-Roman ‘science’ 
  5. The lecture: a method for expounding authorities
  6. The disputation: a method for debating questions

V. Adaptations: Renaissance humanism and the universities

  1. ‘Humanist’: the origins of the term 
  2. The studia humanitatis: what was at stake?
  3. Grammar as a window on the past
  4. Rhetoric and active life in the polis
  5. Moral philosophy and the principles of individual and collective life
  6. History and the conduct of classical politics
  7. Literature and the recovery of classical culture

 VI. Adaptations: The Reformation and the universities

  1. The Reformation and the universities: continuity or change?
  2. The overall pattern: matriculations and motivations
  3. The founder: Luther as university professor
  4. The founding event: a university disputation
  5. Early milestones: Reformation disputations
  6. The Reformation as disputation
  7. The Reformation as lecture
  8. Institutionalising humanist philology
  9. Unintended consequences
  10. Universities and consolidating secular authority

VII. Exclusions

  1. Learned women
  2. The mechanical arts
  3. The pedagogical imperative
  4. The academic guild and the republic of letters

Image 1.  Collegio Ghislieri, Universita di Pavia, 1571-85. Photo: 7 July 2016. Source: Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Founded in 1567 by Pope Pio V Ghislieri, the college which bears his name was constructed between 1571 and 1585 by Pellegrino Tibaldi, one of the leading architects and painters of the time.  Its purpose was to prepare deserving young men lacking financial means for the responsibilities of government.  The austerity of the architecture suggests the serious purpose also expressed in its motto: 'Sapientia cum probitate morum coniuncta humanae mentis perfectio' ('Wisdom conjoined with moral integrity is the perfection of the human mind').