The Birth of the University: An Italian Story

This fall roughly 207 million college students will converge at universities across the world to learn, study, gather and debate with like-minded individuals in the name of higher education.

As they select roommates, buy books and balance the demands of a new schedule, it understandable that many may not have medieval Europe on their minds. But the university as we know it today — the gathering of scholars in one location for the purpose of studying and learning — was born more than 600 years ago in Bologna, Italy, with specific designations for the protection and safety of foreign students wishing to study. 

Credited as one of the oldest universities in the world, and certainly the first in Europe, the University of Bologna formed sometime around the year 1088, when the first organized teaching from master to student not associated with the church took place. Prior to this time, higher learning was only found in cathedral or monastic schools which were intended solely for the clergy.

File:Archiginnasio ora blu Bologna.jpg

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This new opportunity to pursue knowledge must have been very attractive, because scholars from all parts of Europe flocked to Bologna to study canon law, civil law and the laws of ancient Rome. 

Students from many different ‘nationalities’, non-citizens of Bologna that is,  posed a variety of issues, prompting students to unite in a very medieval way — by forming a guild.

“Guilds of merchants and craft workers were formed in medieval Europe so that their members could benefit from mutual aid, production standards could be maintained, competition was reduced and, by acting collectively, a certain political influence could be achieved.” Source

“The first so-called universities at Bologna were actually guilds formed by lay students (who as noncitizens lacked legal rights) to protect themselves against abuses of the law and the extortionate prices for food, shelter, and books that were demanded by the townies.” Source  

Image result for medieval student guilds

Above: Henricus de Alemannia with his Students (in Bologna) 

by Laurentius de Voltolina, circa 1300s

Two specific abuses threatening the students were city laws dealing with collective punishment and the Right of Reprisal. With the former, laws “imposed collective punishment on foreigners for the crimes and debts of their countrymen…a form of retaliation whereby a suspected perpetrator’s family members, friends, acquaintances, sect, neighbors or entire ethnic group is targeted…” With the latter, through the Right of Reprisal, “property could be seized [based on] debts incurred by countrymen.”  (Source 1, 2)

To address some of these concerns, in 1158 Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I issued a charter to the University of Bologna. Known as the authentica habita, the charter granted basic rights and protections for Bologna’s foreign scholars, most importantly the “freedom of movement and travel for the purposes of study,” as well as immunity from the right of reprisal. 

Additionally, authentica habita gave students same protections of the clergy, which was intended to be a positive but sometimes prompted, shall we say, poor choices and naughtiness among the students. 

Nevertheless, the charter became “a key founding document in the history of the medieval university” and, by means of evolution, universities as we know them today. Although the actual physical, contained campus of a university developed slowly over time, eventually designated space with the intent of teaching became a deliberate focus. Prior to the campus concept, courses took place in various available spots, such as churches or even private homes.

Biblioteca dell'Universita di Bologna.jpg

Today, the number of universities worldwide to educate those 200+ million college students is around 25,000. Of particular historical interest to this writer is that 39 european universities have been in continual operation since the 1400s, 14 in Italy. Metaphorically speaking, in the case of higher education, all roads lead to Bologna.

A Little Latin Lesson: University Vocabulary Words

• Student guilds were known as universitates scholariumwith each different subject of study being represented by a different guild.

• Subjects were studied separate of each other in informal schools known as scholae.

Eventually, different universitates scholarium decided to unite into a larger group, known as a studium, or university.

• The word university also has roots from universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which can translate to a ‘community of teachers and scholars’.

• The literal translation of alma mater is ‘nourishing mother’, and is connected to the word alumnus meaning ‘one who is nourished’. Calling upon its distinction of the first university in the Western world, University of Bologna’s motto is Alma Mater Studiorum — nurturing mother of studies.  

Seal of the University of Bologna.svg

Source list

University of Bologna

Medieval University

Oldest Universities in Continual Operation

Wikipedia: Alma Mater

Ancient History Encyclopedia

Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World



9 Comments Add yours

  1. Annmarie says:

    Fantastic! Great work, Stacy!

    1. Thanks so much! So happy you enjoyed it.

  2. Beth Cafagna says:

    Another old protection for students (which is still invoked in America) is the concept of “in” or “en” “loco parentis,” whereby the professors or administrators of a school of higher learning take on the role of local parents to the young students. This may give comfort to the students’ parents, but I don’t think that much parenting is happening in this modern era! Beth Cafagna

  3. Beth Cafagna says:

    Thanks for this explanation, which most people (even seniors) have no understanding. I’m sorry that when I took Al to Italy in 2011, we didn’t stop in Bologna (we passed it on the train to Venice). I was born at a university, daughter of a Western Civilization professor, and then married a Philosophy professor, so the history of academia is important to my life! My two degrees from Mich. State Univ. prepared me for a lifetime of interest in culture (history, art, architecture, philosophy and music) and enabled me to understand the principles of our democracy.

    1. Thank you so much! Glad you enjoyed it.

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