Sunday, September 26, 2010

Book Review: A History of the University in Europe Vol 1

You must know the past to see the future, so to the library I went. I've been reading Volume 1. of "A History of the University in Europe" edited by Walter Ruegg. For completeness sake, I'm posting a short review here, if you'll forgive me for going off piste a little, both in topic and style.

The Book is dull, scholarly and thorough.

It paints a richly detailed picture (or, perhaps, collection of jigsaw pieces) of the emergence of the European University in the high middle ages, describing how they emerged from the fog and assumed their more modern form. Chapters by different authors provide a fairly high level of detail about what is known on the subject. Sometimes it's too much detail, and because of that, and the multi author nature of the book, no grand narrative emerges to keep the pages turning. In fairness to the authors, it probably wasn't intended to be a page turner. I'd been hoping to get an idea of why Universities spread and survived so well in the period, but that picture isn't drawn, although there are clues. I'll have read the other three volumes in time, but I'm not looking forward to it.

Interestingly, the book views the University as a distinctly European institution, and dismisses any precursors from outside out of hand. I'm not an expert on medieval history, but that seems rash and Eurocentric, given that as European institutions were coming out of the murk, some fairly sophisticated institutions of higher learning existing on the other side of the Mediterranean in the Islamic world. Strangely, the very old institution in Constantinople, unarguably in Europe, and a University in all but name, is not mentioned at all. It seems improbable that European developments were not informed by those places. I suspect that the operating definition of a University was very much framed by form rather than function, which excluded other matters of importance.

To be fair, the book notes that little is really known about the ecosystem in which the universities fitted into.  What came before? How did they relate to the cathedral schools? Before attending, what kind of education did students have? There is a survivor bias here, Universities survived and kept their records, and bred scholars interested in researching their origins. Other institutions did not survive, and left little trace.

Other issues, significant factors, like the Medieval Warm Period and population increase, which drove European society forward to the point where the Universities could grow, get scarcely a mention. The High medieval period was an exciting time, you could call it 'Europe's false start' - cut short by the Great Famine and Black Death in the 14th century, but the book doesn't really give a good sense of the historical context. It's very much a fact basket book.

Nevertheless, the book is full of fascinating titbits and snippets, which illustrate how little has changed. For example, the tendency of lecturers to simply read through a body of notes and have students write them down, it seems, came from a time before printing when getting a book copies was an expensive proposition. Thus, students preferred lecturers to read the text so they could write it down.

Other insights show how little has changed in 800 Years:
  • On Meetings: "Little is learnt and the time needed for study is wasted in meetings and discussions" Phillippus de Grevia, on the new Universities, c1220AD.
  • On Student/Landlord disputes: Some of the earliest church documents pertaining to Universities relate to bishops laying down the law to limit sharp practices by landlords gouging students.
  • On Fees:  "Science is a gift from God, and cannot be sold" argued the medieval church. Teachers disagreed. The fees/no fees debate clearly goes back a long way.
No mention of University rankings in Volume 1, which covers to 1500AD. They appear to be a more recent torment.

Overall, a detailed and thorough work, full of tantalising snippets of information, but weak on context and big picture. Worth reading if you are interested and your local library has it, but I wouldn't have rushed out to buy it, or keenly read it if my interest was only casual.


  1. Thanks for your review, it saves me a lot of time. By the way, I'm looking for information about origin of university or education system in Europe and Asia. Do you have any suggestion for me? Books or keywords?

    Thanks in advance

    1. The four red volumes of which the review above is the first would be the definitive works on Europe. There are a number of one volume works, but I haven't read enough of them to steer you to any one over others. Haskins 1923 is old, but free online. No idea about Asia, but a good Wikipedia dig will reward, as the traditions in India, China and Japan go back fantastically far, but I'm not up to date on the scholarship around their history.