Were the First Universities Created by the Church?
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Universities as centres of learning in the 21st century flourish with people who attest to being atheists. When I was in Russia in 1991 with a group of young people going through Moscow sharing the Gospel with pantomime and personal testimony, the most closed were those in the university. But where did universities arise from? Did they always harbour many people who were closed to religious thinking or discussion?
Back in the middle ages schools were attached to cathedrals, parishes and monasteries. With education in the cities people flocked to the cities. In the west, Paris was the first university with many of the students not being French. It arose from students banding together to protect their rights. At this time members of different crafts and guilds were banding together too. Masters of advanced studies wanted to be free of local control and so appealed to the pope. Thus the first western university was born. Pope Innocent III in 1273 stressed the university was a river of knowledge that fertilises the universal Church. The core subject of the university was to be theology which was known as the queen of the sciences. With the patronage of the pope the Paris University was given a charter, a document founding the university.
Paris thus blossomed with the influx of students. A monk from China in 1287 said there were 30,000 students; it was more likely about 4,000 students as the population of Paris was about 50,000. There were four faculties, or areas of expertise in the University of Paris: Theology, Law (civil and canon law – Catholic), Medicine and the Arts. Most of the students were clerics as they could read and write.
In the Middle Ages the university was only for boys, as young as 13. Alongside theology there was seven years of academic study which included the Trivium (speaking arts of grammar, rhetoric – reasoning and speaking properly to help persuade – and logic) and Quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy). Between 1200 – 1400 A.D. twenty five universities were founded throughout Europe.
So the western universities were founded by the Catholic Church. The first university which taught other areas of science, such as astronomy was comprised mainly of clerics such as monks and priests. Therefore the queen of sciences, theology was taught and embraced. So all those who have learnt through education have the Catholic Church to thank for it. When you next gaze at the stars, remember that Father Nicolaus Copernicus is responsible for discovering the sun-centred model of the universe.
Brendan Roberts is a writer/author from New Zealand. He is in his last year of academic studies to a Bachelor of Theology. He is grateful to the Catholic Church for founding the western university system. His website is www.godfact.com .
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