A Recreation of the University Curriculum of the Middle Ages

by Feradachus filium Tralini

My Background

My SCA career began in 2011 when I attended an event in the neighboring shire of Myrtleholt. Since then I’ve been predominantly involved with the combat arts, heavy, rapier, and cut and thrust, and have held multiple marshal offices. I was admitted as a member of the Order of Defense in May of 2019. My journey in the arts and sciences began with the bardic arts in 2018 as I’ve participated in regional, principality, and kingdom championships and have held both shire and principality championship for bardic performance. As the 2020 pandemic set in I started my current project of researching medieval universities and working to recreate their curriculum.

Mundanely, I have an interdisciplinary bachelors degree in philosophy, sociology, and psychology and am especially interested in epistemology (the study of knowledge). My job is the head of the content creation division for a medium sized online education company.


General Goals

lecture
A professor lectures at a medieval university. Woodcut, Geneva, c1525.

My research goal is to understand and recreate the educational system of the medieval world. I greatly value education in our modern world and I want to develop a better understanding of what an educated person in the medieval world would know.

Additionally, while the SCA recreates the feudal system and the guild system, it lacks a strong university system. By helping to study and recreate the university system, our recreation of the middle ages can be more complete and holistic.


Overarching Questions/Topics

In order to recreate a university education it is necessary to understand what that education looked like. Therefore my primary research questions are:

  1. What lead to the founding of the universities?
  2. What was the social climate of the universities, both internal and external?
  3. What would a representative medieval curriculum look like?
  4. What pedagogical techniques were used within the universities?
  5. What were the educational outcomes for students, such as possible degrees?

My ultimate goal through this process is to create a curriculum which would be recognizable to a medieval student and which will educate modern Scadians in these medieval topics.


Process

Giovanni d’Andrea lecturing at the University of Bologna Sepulchre of Giovanni d’Andrea with a relief depicting him, a professor of canon law, lecturing to students at the University of Bologna, 1348; in the Medieval Civic Museum, Bologna, Italy.

My process is Read, Write, Teach.

  • I am starting with a historical question and gathering as much research as possible.
  • Once I have digested the research I will create a research paper based on the research.
  • After the research paper has been completed I will create classes based on the research paper.

My goal with this process is two-fold. The first is that I am forcing myself to synthesize the information into a new form, thus ensuring that my internal education is utilizing the entirety of Bloom’s cognitive domains. The second is that I am creating products which ensure I have a goal to work towards and allow me to disseminate my learning.

I will use my research papers and classes as A&S entries at events and contests in order to ensure that I can receive feedback and do not become trapped in my own biases.


Projects completed

I have worked on and completed one major project. This project is a basic overview of the university system and the collection of the university curriculum.

There have been three outputs from the project:

  1. The research paper: Education Within the Medieval University
  2. The class: Life in the Medieval University
  3. The class: De Nuptiis and the Foundation of a Medieval Education

Education Within the Medieval University

Printed 5/23/21.

This paper is an exploration of the basic format of the medieval university system along with the subjects taught.

The journey to begin this paper started with my initial question, “what topics were taught in the medieval universities?” Initially I had hoped to find a syllabus, curriculum, or some other guidance that laid out what was taught at a specific school. Through the milieu of modern culture I knew that Aristotle was important so my naive assumption was that he would form the foundation of the educational system.

Initially, I wasn’t able to find any good resources on the curriculum and almost everything referred to a broad overview of the university system. I let my research follow these resources. Eventually, by doing a deeper dive into the university systems overall, I was able to find specific references and lists of the curriculum which was studied.

This paper was designed to be a summation of that research and would serve as a foundation from which I could move into a discussion of the actual historic topics studied.

Lessons Learned

There were a number of interesting lessons that I learned through the process and new questions that were raised.

The first lesson was about my own process in writing papers. I graduated from college in 2012 and haven’t written a research paper since then. So not only did I need to brush up my skills but I also had to figure out how to balance writing a paper with work. My general philosophy with the SCA is that this is a hobby so I shouldn’t be doing things I don’t enjoy. While the goal of having a completed paper is something I definitely wanted, the actual sitting down and writing of it was difficult to prioritize. Having a deadline (both Athenaeum and May Crown Ithra) helped. This is the first real A&S project I’ve done (other than bardic) so I’m hoping that good feedback will make the end goal more desirable and thus have a greater “pull” to do the work.

My initial belief, that Aristotle was the foundation of the medieval curriculum, did bear out, both specifically and generally. Through the research I was able to find the specific topics studied in the universities and even the specific books which were used. This finding will definitely make the future projects far easier.

When gathering resources I started with an initial google search for a broad overview. That didn’t return much concrete information so I purchased a well reviewed book on the topic and I looked at the reading lists for various medieval studies programs. By putting these together, and tracking down the reading list from the books that I found, I was able to identify the major thinkers. The two most prominent researchers, who were referenced everywhere, were Hastings Rashdall (1858-1924) and Charles Homer Haskins (1870-1937). There are some more recent books such as R. W. Southern’s Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe whose second of three volumes was published in 2001 but he died before he could write and publish volume 3, and the History of University in Europe volume 1 by Hilde de-Ridder Symeoens (2003), which seem to be held in high regard but I haven’t been able to get a hold of either of them yet. This lack of recent scholarship is something that is concerning as there may be biases and new research which I am not seeing. I will need to continue researching to discover any changes in the scholarship.

Life in the Medieval University

Students in a classroom
Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia By Laurentius a Voltolina pinxit Late 1300’s

First taught at May Crown Ithra – 5/23/21

This was the second arts and sciences class I had ever taught (the first being a look at the Song of Roland and chivalry) and so it was a bit intimidating. In preparation I wrote up an outline and created a slideshow. I then practiced recording myself giving the lecture a few times to polish up the outline and expand it where necessary.

For an online class, I’ve already discovered that an outline isn’t terribly useful and I do much better with an actual script to read. For an in-person class I think an outline would still be preferable as I couldn’t be looking at a script the whole time.

Lessons Learned

I based the class off the research I did for my paper so I feel decently confident in its assertions, but the Q&A sessions that come with the class are more difficult because I haven’t spent enough time reading the breadth of the material. I’m planning on continuing to buy and read additional books on the topic and I think this will make me more confident when taking questions.

My goal is to continue to polish up the script, add more information to it as I read more, and deliver it decently often. I also want to add a bit more information to it. The biggest areas I would like to improve on it are in the day to day life of students (as I assume that is what others would find interesting) or the dichotomy of scholasticism and humanism (which is more of what interests me). One problem I am internally struggling with is that I want to be interesting and I don’t know exactly what the public likes. So I’m trying to create a class for a theoretical audience that I don’t know. I don’t have the confidence necessary to create a class for a group of students exactly like me. My current fear is that I will try to teach classes and no one will show up. It’s something I’m trying to work on internally (being okay if there is less enthusiasm) and finding ways to make it less likely (teach popular subjects, teach at bigger events, etc.).

De Nuptiis and the Foundation of a Medieval Education

Painting
The seven Liberal Arts PONTE, GIOVANNI DAL Florence, 1435

Not yet presented

This is my next planned class. My initiative to teach this class comes from two sources. The first is that the paper I wrote focused both on the experience of being in the university and the content taught in the university. The previous class looked at the experience and so I want this class to be focused around the content taught.

The second reason for making this class is that, upon reading the book De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii I found it quite interesting and an amazing introduction to the liberal arts. The book was written as a text book of sorts where the reader is introduced to each liberal art as a character and then taught the basics of that art.

My desire is to achieve the same goal that Martianus Capella had, namely to inspire students to study the liberal arts.

Lessons Learned

The previous class was designed to be a broad overview. With this, I tried to cover big swaths of information in the smallest amount of time. This second class is of a different nature. Since it is based on a single textbook, there is a much greater pull to get into the weeds of the topics. Since no reasonably sized SCA class could accommodate the entirety of the 382 page book this is based on (or the 243 page companion volume) I needed to balance showing people what the different topics consist of while not going into the same depth that Martianus does.

My hope, with this class, is to give an introduction to the topics such that one could determine which of them is interesting and be prepared for further classes that go in depth on the topics.


Projects Planned

My ultimate goal with this project is to teach a medieval curriculum. I’m a very “foundational” thinker, so it was important to me that I not only get an authoritative list of the texts that students would rely on, but that I also communicate the broad understanding of the universities, via classes, before I started on that project.

With the two classes above I feel like I am ready to dive into specific topics. My first step is to read and digest the historic texts. I also want to find and read historic commentary on those texts as that will give a better sense of how they were understood in period. One issue I am having with this step is that I am aware that glosses exist (essentially lecture notes) but I have not been able to locate any. Having access to glosses would be immensely helpful as it would give a much clearer view of how the topics were presented.

With the Ithra project allowing online classes, I am very enthusiastic about the idea of creating long form classes. I feel that the current method of an hour long class here or there won’t be able to fully convey the breadth or depth of these subjects. Therefore I want to create lecture series which cover the entirety of the topic, to the best of my ability. Having a ready made platform for hosting those in sequence will make this possible.

This also means that I am going to need to learn how to do video editing. I have coworkers who already do this so I will be able to ask them for advice on how to get started and will be able to bug them with questions (minimally).

Another skill that I will have to pick up to complete this project correctly is Latin fluency. I have begun using duolingo to learn Latin but haven’t put the effort needed into it. While I understand their “learn it like a child” methodology, it is frustrating because I know there are meanings, conjugations, and rules that they aren’t explaining to me. I’m actually hoping that by using these period sources, like Donatus, I can fill in those gaps and benefit from both approaches.

At the moment, my goal with this is to teach the 7 liberal arts and the 3 philosophies. I am somewhat interested in the doctoral level topics (Canon law, Civil law, Medicine, and Theology) but there are difficulties with them. For medicine, I have phobia issues with the internal workings of humans, so I have no desire to study medicine. Both canon law and theology are interesting topics but their connection to Christianity, which I do not adhere to and which is frowned upon in the SCA, makes them less desirable for teaching classes. I am interested in Civil Law and will likely work on studying that once I have gone through the rest of the schooling.

In the teaching of these classes, and especially in regards to the goal of reproducing the medieval education, I see two big issues that I’ll need to accept. The first of these is that, no matter how hard we try, it is impossible to remove ourselves from our own context. While I will try to understand how the medieval educators understood Aristotle and Pythagoras, I will forever be a modern person engaging in that project. Therefore my plan is to look at if from both “how do I as a modern person understand it” and “how did the medieval thinkers understand this” and comparing those two. Related to this is pedagogy. The medieval pedagogy (listen, memorize, repeat) is far out of line with our current educational theories. Since my ultimate goal is to teach the material (rather than replicate the teaching) I will need to use more modern pedagogical approaches. For instance, there is no sense in making students memorize the text when I can send them a PDF of the text. That being said, I want to keep as much medieval scholastic pedagogy as possible and so am interested in using the disputation method.

The second issue I’ll need to deal with is the time element. For a true medieval degree one was expected to spend years working at it full time. While we can reduce that time somewhat through more modern and efficient pedagogical methods, it would be extremely unreasonable to expect someone to spend over 20,000 hours (assuming 13 hours a day 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year) on these topics. While it’s possible that I may spend that many hours, it is highly unlikely if I am still doing this as a hobby rather than a profession. I will therefore need to accept that I likely won’t be able to reach the same level of knowledge and insight that the actual medieval students and professors reached. My initial goal, for the amount of hours of classwork to have to cover the topics, is currently based on the Ithra guidelines. I am going to aim at first to have enough training to meet a full “degree”. As I research and build up content I’ll discover whether that is reasonable, and if not what a better number is.


Reading List

Books on a shelf
Physical reference books for researching medieval university topics

This is a list of the books that I have read, have acquired, or plan to acquire in order to further my research. My goal is to get scholarly resources that are recognized as authoritative.

My list of historic books which were used as textbooks in period is below. I have been able to gather almost all of these either as a physical book or as a PDF download. As I am not fluent in Latin, I have tried to gather English translations of these where possible. As learn Latin I will try to gather Latin versions as well and compare the two.

  • Trivium
  • Quadrivium
  • Overall Liberal Arts
    • De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii – by Martianus Capella
  • Philosophy
    • Natural Philosophy
      • Physics – by Aristotle
    • Ethical Philosophy
      • Nicomachean Ethics – by Aristotle
    • Metaphysical Philosophy
      • Metaphysics – Aristotle
  • Medicine
    • Tegni – by Galen
    • Pantegni – by Galen
    • Aphorisms – by Hippocrates
    • Prognostics- by Hippocrates
  • Canon Law
    • Decretum – by Gratian
  • Civil Law
    • Code of Justinian – Justinian
  • Theology
    • The Sentences – by Peter Lombard

For my research on the medieval schools and institutions which surrounded them started by going to university medieval studies programs and looking at their recommended reading lists. While these gave good books on the totality of medieval studies, they didn’t have much on the topic of universities. My next path has been to do google searches, and amazon searches, for highly reviewed books on the subject and then look at the reading lists for those books which have good citations in them. While I haven’t read them all yet, the books I have gathered so far are:

  • The University in the Medieval Life – by Hunt Janin
  • Three volume set of The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages – by Hastings Rashdall
  • The Rise of Universities – by Charles Haskins
  • The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century – by Charles Haskins
  • The Making of the Middle Ages – by R. W. Southern
  • Medieval Humanism – by R. W. Southern
  • Life in the Medieval University – by Robert Rait
  • Two volume set of Selections from Medieval Philosophers – edited by Richard McKeon
  • Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300 – 1475 – edited by Rita Copeland and Ineke Sluiter
  • Two volume set of Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts – by William Harris Stahl, Richard Johnson, and E. L. Burge
  • What is Medieval History – by John H. Arnold
  • Medieval Reading: Grammar, Rhetoric, and the Classical Text – by Suzanne Reynolds
  • Humanist Educational Treatises – edited and translated by Craig Kallendorf
  • Selected Philosophical Works of Francis Bacon – edited by Rose-Mary Sargent
  • Scholasticism – by Josef Pieper

The additional books that I have marked as ones I want to acquire are:

  • Music Theory and Its Sources: Antiquity and the Middle Ages – by Andre Barbera
  • Two volume set of Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe – by R. W. Southern
  • Four volume set of the History of University in Europe – by Hilde de Ridder-Symoens
  • Medieval Studies: An Introduction, Second Edition – by James Powell
  • The Twelfth-Century Renaissance: A Reader – by Alex Novikoff
  • Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy

12 Replies to “A Recreation of the University Curriculum of the Middle Ages”

  1. What an excellent project to take on. Thank you for sharing both your plan, what you want to explore, and your process, how you’re intending to complete it. I’m delighted that your classes may one day make up a new full degree in Ithra. I’ve noticed that SCA education has many craft-based courses, so seeing one that is core knowledge and is based on period knowledge makes my heart sing! I’ve been greatly intimidated by learning other languages, but reading your rationale for it, I may have to revisit that decision.

    Thank you for an engaging read.

    Merci,

    Madame Jaqueline

    1. The lack of knowledge based classes is something that held me back for a while. I was concerned about whether people would be interested or want to hear about projects that don’t produce some kind of artwork.
      My experience so far has been really positive and I hope that I can trail blaze for anyone else who is interested in topics like this but aren’t sure if there is space in the A&S community for them.

  2. As one who has attended enough modern university time to choke a horse, this is an area that has long interested me. My research and reading to date has focused more on the interaction (often interference) between universities and the Church, and the differences in higher education between Christian and Islamic nations. Be aware (hopefully you already are) that your research into curriculum will be strongly influenced by “when” and “where” you look. I am impressed by the ambitious goals you’ve set, and would be happy to help you out in any way I can. I’ll schedule a 1:1 and maybe I can show you some online resources I use to track down obscure resources.

    1. That would be very helpful. I haven’t worked out how best to handle the contextual issues. 1550’s Oxford and 1220’s Paris are going to be very different. There are advantages both in being super contextualized (the training that this specific student would have) and being very de-contextualized (we are learning Aristotle, full stop).
      At the moment I’m leaning more towards the de-contextualized “what would an SCA version of this look like”. Primarily, this is because it’ll be easier to research but it’ll also give more freedom to explore the topics in ways that are interesting even if they aren’t purely historical.

  3. Ambitious and wonderful!
    Will you be including online links to source material?
    Two titles of possible interest:

    The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. One of the earliest medieval encyclopedias known, often referred to by just about everyone who considered themselves a scholar.I finally found a copy in English! https://sfponline.org/Uploads/2002/st isidore in english.pfd

    PRINT ONLY:
    Orme, Nicholas. Medieval Schools From Roman Britain to Renaissance England. Yale University Press, 2006. Exhaustive and fascinating!

    Thank you!
    Mistress Arlys o Gordon, OL, OP

    1. Thank you, I didn’t know about those two resources.
      In my list above of the period sources, I tried to provide links to as many as I could find. I haven’t dug into the higher level topics (law, medicine, theology) enough to start sourcing those documents.
      I also focused initially on getting at least one book for each topic but do want to continue my research to get additional books.
      For actual classes, I definitely plan on including further reading and online resources wherever possible.

  4. This is some fantastic work – I really enjoyed reading about it, and I look forward to seeing where you go from here.

    If you’re looking for more assistance with learning Latin, there’s a guy on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/c/ScorpioMartianus/videos) who is practically fluent and that channel is, I believe, entirely in Latin or about teaching Latin. He has another channel that’s more for fun and is in English (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCLbiwlm3poGNh5XSVlXBkGA). I haven’t seen a lot of his work, but was shown his channels by a good friend who also has an interest in Latin.

    Also if you’re ever searching for difficult to find sources (possibly including those glosses you were talking about), I’d be happy to help as source-finding is a passion of mine. I’m on Facebook as Jen Peters or The SCAdian Librarian, and I’d have a lot of fun looking for stuff on these topics.

    Thanks again for such an interesting read!
    YIS
    Isabella da Firenze

  5. Be honest I never thought of this as a topic. But it is very fascinating and I agree it is under researched. Your approach is very methodical well-thought-out and I can’t wait to see all of your findings. I agree a series of lectures is probably the best way to show it all to get a good depth and breadth. As you are teaching the classes are you finding that the questions are giving you good ideas of where are some gaps or further research is needed? As to the topic if you teach what you love that excitement is more likely to draw someone in then an an exciting topic presented by someone not interested in it. Just my opinion though.

    1. When I was trying to go through and summarize Martianus I definitely got a good sense of where some of my big holes in knowledge are. I couldn’t even summarize the music book as it was so far over my head.
      Doing the overview also gave me the roughest sense of the scope and it’s something that could keep me going for decades if I want any kind of thoroughness.

  6. This Awesome! I have always thought this was an under researched area and am thrilled someone has taken it on, as I have so many other projects on my plate I never got deeply into it.
    Thank you for this!
    Tanikh bint Farida Lions Gate Tir Righ

    1. Thank you. It’s such a massive project yet, in period, it was expected of any educated individual. So it’s obviously possible to present it in a way which doesn’t take a lifetime of study. I’m hopeful that having an easily digestible version will be something that the whole community can benefit from.

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