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Education in the Middle Ages: The Medieval University and More

Updated on February 4, 2014

What do You Know about Medieval Education?

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14th-century University in France
14th-century University in France

What was Education Like in the Middle Ages?

Many misconceptions exist about education in the Middle Ages (and about the Middle Ages in general). In fact, education was quite advanced compared with the ideas that people usually have in their heads. Most middle-class medieval people could read and write, and do some basic arithmetic (enough to pay their bills, count money, and keep track of accounts). What most people do not realize is that the opportunities for education were profound, and medieval education continues as the basis for most educational systems today.

The level of education a person reached depended, as it does today, largely on the individual family. Children who were raised in towns were generally educated to some level of reading and writing, along with the basic arithmetic necessary to run the family business, whatever that was. We know this because there are many surviving letters written by ordinary people, showing that generally people knew how to read and write at a basic level sufficient for everyday concerns. New historical research shows that many towns paid to have public schools built and staffed.

Women were educated in household skills, which included cooking, sewing, weaving, dyeing, spinning, butchering animals, food storage, and servant management (which may have included payroll, and certainly including accounting for paying bills to tradesmen and employees). In addition, "genteel" women, that is, the royalty, the nobility, and the middle-class social climbers, were educated in "accomplishments" such as music, dancing, fine needlework, and other subjects. Tradespeople generally taught their daughters some math for accounting, as well as what they learned helping out in the family business, which may have included a wide variety of skills, including reading and writing. Those tradespeople who were well-to-do often educated their daughters in order to show off to their friends and acquaintances.

Women also had the option of the clergy, and in many convents reading, writing, singing, biology, and other subjects were nurtured and encouraged.

Men had several options: the military, in which case in addition to reading and writing, those who rose in the ranks were taught the trivium and the quadrivium; the clergy, which taught reading and writing (and those who showed promise were taught such skills as herbalism, cooking, and brewing); the trades, in which young boys were apprenticed to brewers, weavers, dyers, goldsmiths, woodworkers, and just about every kind of trade imaginable; and the universities, which at a minimum taught the trivium and the quadrivium. In the later Middle Ages universities were well-established, and specialized law schools and medical schools were attracting students from all over Europe and parts of Asia. Those students already knew how to read and write, which defies the presumption that most people in the Middle Ages were illiterate.

Formal Education in the Early Middle Ages

In Western Europe, many cathedrals, monasteries and convents held classes for adults and children in the area, and in 1179, the Church decreed that all boys be educated, regardless of their ability to pay. Students were taught as much as the clergy knew; in some cases, that knowledge could be quite extensive. There were monks who had, before taking vows, been highly educated, and they readily passed on their skills in agriculture, brewing, and other useful occupations, as well as the basics of reading and writing, including Latin.

The Trivium

 What was the trivium? The trivium was the basis for what might be considered an "undergraduate" education in the liberal arts: grammar, or the mechanics of a language; logic, or the mechanics of reasoning; and rhetoric, the use of reasoning and language to instruct or persuade. Grammar would typically include what we would think of as a language, such as taking courses in English or French today, and usually concentrated on Latin and Greek as well as the local language. Logic included a lot of what we would consider philosophy today, and rhetoric included writing skills as well as today's "speech communication."

Fun Fact about Medieval Education

Our modern-day word, "trivia," is the plural of the Latin word, "trivium." Everyone in the Middle Ages who had our equivalent of a high-school education knew trivia, which may help to explain our fascination with trivia today!

The Quadrivium

The quadrivium, on the other hand, would be what was considered a graduate education,and included four subjects: arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Music was not applied music (playing an instrument or singing), but music theory and the study of classical harmonics, or what would today be considered acoustics and music theory.

Map of Medieval Universities

Map showing locations of medieval universities--you can get this on a mouse pad!
Map showing locations of medieval universities--you can get this on a mouse pad! | Source

Wait . . . Universities? Medical Schools? Law Schools?

Yes, that's right. Universities sprang up all over Europe during the Middle Ages, along with the degree system of Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral degrees. Medical schools and law schools requiring a Masters degree were well-established by the end of the Middle Ages (the law school at Bologna, Italy, and the medical schools at Montpellier, France, and Salerno, Italy were particularly prestigious and still maintain their sterling reputations today).

University Admission in the Middle Ages

Although women could not be formally admitted to universities, some attended classes informally at university, and before the official recognition of a school as a university, women were officially taught there (such as Héloise at what would become the University of Paris).

You did not have to be wealthy to attend university in the Middle Ages. Although in some schools teachers were paid by the students, many teachers were paid either by the Roman Catholic Church or by the State, and admission to these schools was either inexpensive or free.

Seals of Medieval Universities

Seals of the University of Oxford, Cambridge, Balliol College, Oxford and University of Prague
Seals of the University of Oxford, Cambridge, Balliol College, Oxford and University of Prague | Source

A Medieval Lesson at the Sorbonne

Lesson in Theology at the Sorbonne, Illustration to Text Written by Nicolas De Lyre
Lesson in Theology at the Sorbonne, Illustration to Text Written by Nicolas De Lyre | Source

Learn More about Education in the Middle Ages

Medieval Universities

Name of University
Date Established
Date Recognized
Other Information
University of Bologna
Bologna, Italy
1158, charter granted by Frederick I Barbarossa
Famous for its law school, until recently the university granted only doctoral degrees.
University of Paris
Paris, France
organized in the twelfth century from a number of smaller schools
1200, in a foundation act by the Roman Catholic Church; previously (about 1160)
Schools in Paris had been instructing students in higher education since the tenth century; the University of Paris was reorganized into its present form in 1896
University of Oxford
Oxford, England
before 1096
University of Modena and Reggio Emilia
Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy
disbanded in 1338 and re-established in the 1680s, received imperial charter in 1685
Bosnian Church University
Moštre near Visoko, Bosnia
known to have existed in 1175
disbanded along with Ottoman advancement into Bosnian Kingdom between 1463-1528
University of Vicenza
Vicenza, Italy
popularly considered as having declined in significance
University of Cambridge
Cambridge, England
1209, following the execution of two scholars in Oxford
1231, by charter from Henry III, 1233 by papal bull
University of Palencia
Palencia, Spain
1208 or 1212
1212, by Alfonso VIII
transferred to Valladolid in 1264
13th-century illuminated manuscript showing students at university
13th-century illuminated manuscript showing students at university

Medieval Universities

Thirteenth century:

  • Arezzo, Italy – recognized 1215
  • Salamanca, Spain – established in the 12th century, recognized 1218
  • Padua, Italy – recognized 1222
  • University of Naples Federico II, Italy – recognized 1224 by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor
  • Toulouse, France – recognized 1229
  • Siena, Italy – recognized 1240
  • Piacenza, Italy – recognized 1248
  • Valladolid, Spain – recognized 1250
  • Seville, Spain – recognized 1254
  • Sorbonne, France (at the University of Paris, known as Paris IV) – recognized 1257
  • Northampton, England – recognized 1261
  • Montpellier, France – recognized 1289; famous for its medical school; Nostradamus studied here after the University of Avignon was shut down, but was expelled for being a practicing apothecary (a manual trade explicitly forbidden by the university statutes), and for had slandered doctors.
  • Coimbra, Portugal – recognized 1290 (in Lisbon)
  • Macerata, Italy – recognized 1290
  • Lleida, Spain – recognized 1300

Fourteenth century:

  • Rome La Sapienza, Italy – recognized 1303
  • Avignon, France – recognized as University 1303; Nostradamus was originally a student here, but the university temporarily was forced to shut down during the Black Plague
  • Orléans, France – recognized 1306
  • Perugia, Italy – recognized 1308
  • Treviso, Italy – recognized 1318
  • Cahors, France – recognized 1332
  • Stamford (or the Stamford Schism) - recognized 1333 to 1334
  • Angers, France – recognized 1337
  • Grenoble, France – recognized 1339; another famous medical school
  • Pisa, Italy - recognized as University 1343
  • Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic – recognized 1348
  • Florence, Italy – recognized 1349
  • Perpignan, France – recognized 1350
  • Pavia, Italy - recognized 1361
  • Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland – recognized 1364
  • Vienna, Austria – recognized 1365
  • Pécs, Hungary – recognized 1367
  • Heidelberg, Germany – recognized 1386
  • Cologne, Germany – recognized 1388
  • Ferrara, Italy – recognized 1391 by papal bull
  • Erfurt, Germany – recognized 1392
  • Zadar, Croatia – recognized 1396
  • Fermo, Italy – recognized 1398 by papal bull

Fifteenth century:

  • Würzburg, Germany – recognized 1402 by papal bull
  • Turin, Italy - recognized 1404
  • Leipzig, Germany – recognized 1409
  • St Andrews, Scotland – recognized 1413 by papal bull
  • Rostock, Germany – recognized 1419 by papal bull
  • Leuven, Belgium – recognized 1425
  • Poitiers, France – recognized 1431 by papal bull
  • Caen, France - recognized 1432
  • Catania, Italy - recognized 1434
  • Bordeaux, France - recognized 1441
  • Barcelona, Spain – recognized 1450
  • Glasgow, Scotland – recognized 1451 by papal bull

Representation of a class at university, around 1350 A.D.
Representation of a class at university, around 1350 A.D.

Did You Learn Something?

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Submit a Comment
  • saif113sb profile image


    8 years ago

    Very interesting hub. thanks

  • suziecat7 profile image


    8 years ago from Asheville, NC

    Interesting Hub. You're right, I never would have thought that people were very educated during that era. Now I do. Thanks.


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