The term "dark ages”

Francesco Petrarca, an Italian author and the father of Renaissance culture, coined the phrase "dark ages" to describe the Middle Ages. This spans the era of European history from the Renaissance to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire (476). The word is used to refer to the more condensed time period from the middle of the VI century to the middle of the XIII century in contemporary historiography. Because of the regress and decline of culture and art, this time era was called "dark." A time of violence and atrocities, bloody battles, and passionate feelings, the Middle Ages are depicted in many historical books as being gloomy and dark. However, despite lack of scientific knowledge, the Middle Ages were characterized by the development the first Universities, which became the basis for the rise of education and its spread in Europe. The suggested research is devoted to the role of the Universities in Middle Ages, their development, curriculum and importance for the rise of culture and science.

Factors, contributed into the development of the Universities in the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages is a complex, important and interesting period of human history, characterized by feudal fragmentation, rise and development of the cities, which were centers of trade, science, culture and civilization. Everything has led to the development of state power, which, in its turn, created the necessity for qualified employees, such as lawyers, theologians, who developed science and education. In this eventful period, masses of people came into the movement as a result of the Crusades and development of trade. It should be noted that the Middle Ages witnessed the rise of great number of students. A number of factors, such as political unification of different lands, the folding of the international trade relations and economic development, affected the emergence of the first European universities. People, who were eager to gain precious knowledge, were ready to pass huge distances to get to the universities, which were small in number in XII century. However, due to various talented lecturers and scientists, students from all over the world were attracted to Europe. It had a huge impact on the development of universities.

Origin of the First Medieval European Universities

The first institutions were established in XII century and were working according to the Bologna-Law. Medieval institutions were characterized by a great number of institutions and facilities, where students could get education in all spheres, although, there was no unique form of teaching, as every scholar has his own ways of presenting information. At the end of the 11th century, Scholasticism was established. This was the first mode of scholarship, which was about faith and reasoning in search for the truth. Theology was one of the most important and obligatory subjects in the Universities due to the immense role of Church in the Medieval Europe. At those times, there were three major universities, Oxford, Bologna, and Paris, which were under a strict guidance of the Church. It is worth noting that the universities did not have physical facilities, so the lectures were conducted in parks and other public places. In 1088 AD, Bologna University became the first one, which had its own building.


The age of the students was different at different universities. Thus, the students of Oxford and Paris Universities were given the right to attend classes at the age of 14. As a result, these universities were unable to provide discipline for their students. As for Bologna University, it accepted students at the age of 30.

Curriculum and Way of Conducting Classes

Students entered University after successful completion of the grammar school. The teaching process was organized in such way that students were having classes from sunrise till sunset. The total period of education varied from 3 to 6 years, depending on the course: Art degrees took from 3 to 4 years, while Master’s Art took 6 years of completion. The amount and number of subjects varied in different courses. Thus, the art subjects were geometry, arithmetic, rhetoric, music theory, astronomy, grammar, and logic. The major language, in which students were taught, was Latin. The students were obliged to study Latin and speak it fluently. Later, the curriculum of the universities was supplemented with the Aristotelian philosophy, which included physics, moral philosophy, and metaphysics.

After completion of the Master’s Level, the student was free to choose any other course to complete. The most famous and widely-spread were law, medicine and theology. These were the most prestigious and popular among students. Education at these faculties took 12 years, after completion of which, the student received Master’s degree or Doctorate. After the six years of education, the student was awarded a Bachelor’s degree and received the license, which gave permission to practice as a teacher at the same faculty.

Influence of Church on the Education at Universities

It has been already mentioned that the role of the Church in the system of education of the medieval universities was immense. The Church defined and approved curriculum of the Universities and created the list of compulsory subjects to be taught. Thus, the church made science and mathematics obligatory subjects in order to build a path for future implementation of these sciences in the construction of cathedrals, churches in the European countries. It explains why the leading sculptures and mathematicians graduated from the European universities and made their huge contribution to the development and rise of architecture in the leading European countries. Although, at first, sciences were studied at the universities for the reasons of curiosity, later this knowledge has been applied to make the most important and valuable discoveries and inventions, such as machines and stream engines.

Women in the Medieval Universities

The educational process at the Universities was based on Roman and Canon law. Canon laws state that women had no right to take the position of a cleric; therefore, many women were uneducated. They were taught the basics of childcare, scripture, reading, and writing; however, with the flow of time, some leading and progressive European countries changed positions and rights of women in society. For instance, in Italy, women were allowed to take leading positions in society and get education in the universities.


The role of the universities in the life of the medieval Europe was immense, as they helped shape the government and deliver science to the masses. The universities gave education to many Europeans, who later have played a considerable role in the life of society and the world. Curriculum was organized in a way that students could have gained knowledge in all spheres and could choose specialization to focus on in the future. The role of the Church was significant, as it dictated the subjects to be taught.


Brooke, Christopher. Europe in the Central Middle Ages, 962-1154. (3rd ed.) Routledge, 2000, 464.

Mundy, John H. Europe in the High Middle Ages, 1150-1300. (3rd ed.) Longman Publishing Group, 2000, 417.

Ridder-Symoens, Hilde. A History of the University in Europe, Vol. 1: Universities in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 536.

Rashdall, Hastings. The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages. F.M. Powicke and A.B. Emden (2nd ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936, 605.

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