Characterised by creativity and attuned to the needs of their age, the first European universities have important lessons for higher education today, says Miri Rubin

As a historian of the Middle Ages, I am frequently asked about the links between universities then and now. Given the momentous changes that are affecting modern-day institutions of higher education and that touch the lives of so many people – students, parents, teachers, employers – such questions have become more frequent and more urgent, too.

All historians (especially those of us who focus on more ancient times) delight in pointing out parallels between “our” period and the present. An assessment of the role of medieval universities reveals some telling affinities between higher education then and now – and may hold lessons for today’s turbulent times.

When universities emerged between 1150 and 1200 in Italy, France and then England, they answered the needs of the two main institutions of governance – the Church on the one hand and dynastic kingdoms on the other. These institutions required bureaucrats: people trained in the procedures of government and in its lingua franca, Latin.

The standards of written Latin still depended on the conventions that had developed in the Greco-Roman world, encoded in the liberal arts of rhetoric, logic and grammar. The jobs for university graduates – bachelors of the arts – included the drafting of letters and diplomatic documents and the recording of important transactions, personal and public, ranging from marriage contracts to manorial accounts.

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