The Earliest Universities - Sarah Woodbury

The Earliest Universities

My second child graduates from college this year.  I’m sort of stunned that we’re here already 🙂  But millions of kids have gone before him, dating all the way back to 1088.

“The word university is derived from the Latinuniversitas magistrorum et scholarium, roughly meaning “community of teachers and scholars”. The term was coined by the Italian University of Bologna, which, with a traditional founding date of 1088, is considered the first university. The origin of many medieval universities can be traced to the Christian cathedral schools or monastic schoolswhich appear as early as the 6th century AD and were run for hundreds of years as such before their formal establishment as university in the high medieval period.”

The next three oldest schools are the The University of Salamanca in 1134 (, The University of Paris in 1150, and University of Oxford. The dates of all these vary depending upon the source.

“There is no clear date of foundation, but teaching existed at Oxford in some form in 1096 and developed rapidly from 1167, when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris.

In 1188, the historian, Gerald of Wales, gave a public reading to the assembled Oxford dons and in 1190 the arrival of Emo of Friesland, the first known overseas student, set in motion the University’s tradition of international scholarly links. By 1201, the University was headed by a magister scolarum Oxonie, on whom the title of Chancellor was conferred in 1214, and in 1231 the masters were recognized as a universitas or corporation.

In the 13th century, rioting between town and gown (townspeople and students) hastened the establishment of primitive halls of residence. These were succeeded by the first of Oxford’s colleges, which began as medieval ‘halls of residence’ or endowed houses under the supervision of a Master. University, Balliol and Merton Colleges, which were established between 1249 and 1264, are the oldest.”

University of  Cambridge, which I attended, was founded in 1209:  “We were founded, eight hundred years ago, by scholars fleeing persecution during a period of conflict between church and state. In 1209 the burning issue of the day was whether King John or Pope Innocent III should appoint the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Such power struggles were going on all over Europe, and had been for years (John’s father Henry II had had St Thomas Becket killed). One of the church’s reactions was to organise crusades – against infidels abroad and heretics at home. Robert Moore tells the story of how successive popes in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries incited the mob against lepers, gays, Jews and other undesirables, in the process forming a culture of persecution of outgroups and minorities that has blighted Europe ever since.

It was against this background that our founders fled Oxford in 1209 and settled in the newly-chartered town of Cambridge. The townsfolk of Oxford had hanged two clerks for a murder of which they were apparently innocent; the king backed the townsmen, and the scholars dispersed for five years. Some of the refugees came to Cambridge, and established our university. A generation later, in 1231, both Cambridge and Oxford got charters from Henry III which exempted us from taxes; and two years after that a Bull from Pope Gregory IX gave our graduates the right to teach everywhere. Had these men foreseen the role Cambridge would play in later reformation and revolution, they might have been less generous!”

Harvard University (then Harvard College) is the oldest college in the United States and was founded in 1636 by a vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Our family lore says that John Woodbury (who arrived in Massachusetts in 1624) was one of the men instrumental in bringing that vote forward, but I can find no mention of it anywhere officially.  The University was modeled on Oxford and Cambridge, of course.  U Penn says it’s the oldest ‘University’ in the US, established in 1765.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *