The origins of the universities are somewhat obscure, but they seem to have dawned from the Cathedral Schools instituted by Charlemagne (768-814) in the Carolingian renaissance. Many characteristics of the early university system still exist today in present universities.
The Cathedral Schools began when Charlemagne issued a letter in 787 to all the bishops and abbots, saying that all monasteries and cathedrals were to open schools that would teach both the clergy and the laity. These schools taught seven liberal arts, divided into two groups; the Trivium and the Quadrivium. The Trivium was made up of three areas of study, including logic, rhetoric (which also included literature), and grammar (which was in those days the art of writing). The Quadrivium consisted of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. These institutions, the Cathedral Schools, lead indirectly to the development of the universities.
The universities of the middle ages had several important innovations, which were the awarding of degrees (the degree of PhD did not exist until the 19th century, but the Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees were present from the beginning), a fixed program of study, and the distinction between undergraduate and graduate study. None of these ideas were present in any of the learning institutions of ancient Greece and Rome. These ideas were completely new, and persist to this day in modern universities.
There were some differences between the organization of the early universities and that of the universities of today. For example, at the university of Bologna, the students ran things. They could go on strike, and even punish their professors. At the university of Paris, professors were required to deliver their lectures extemporaneously, and were not allowed to read from notes. In the beginning, universities usually did not have designated buildings, so the students and professors met in church halls and private buildings. There were also no libraries in the early years of the universities, because books had to be copied by hand, and subsequently were extraordinarily expensive. The exams that the students had to pass were oral, and in order to receive a degree, students had to resolve a question, that is, reconcile two different arguments without omitting any of either sides’ beliefs.
As is often the case today, there were tensions between the townspeople and the students of the universities. The townspeople had a natural bias against the students because the students tended to be unruly and troublesome (as they often are today). If some crime were committed in the town, it would often be assumed that the culprit was a student. At one point, when a woman was murdered, a student was suspected and the townspeople attacked the teachers and students at their meeting place and killed several of them. In response the students and teachers left and formed a new school at a place called Oxford. Sometimes, accused students were not given fair trials, so the Church intervened and gave the students access to ecclesiastical courts. The Popes even intervened on some occasions in order to pay the professors’ salaries.
The early universities of the middle ages, which probably developed from the Cathedral Schools, established ideas which have come down through the ages into modern universities. The university system began a new way of learning unlike anything in the ancient world, which endures to this day.