What was it like to be at a university, when universities were still a new idea? The world's first university was up and running by 1088 A.D. in Bologna, Italy. How was it organized?
The early universities were very loose in structure, compared with the institutions of later eras. The professors who taught there were very much "freelance" businessmen. If you wanted to teach, you simply posted a notice about when and where you would be lecturing, and what the topic of your lecture was. Students didn't pay the university, but rather they paid each professor individually. A professor could get a higher price for his lectures if he had the reputation of being a good teacher. What helped him build that reputation? If his students could pass the comprehensive examinations given by the university. In such as a system, there was a great deal of freedom for both professors and students.
Eventually, both groups realized that they had something to gain by uniting. The professors formed a guild, much as other Medieval tradesmen (bakers and cobblers, for example) did. Students formed unions. The guild for professors was called a collegium - the origin of our words 'college' and 'colleague'. The guild helped to stabilize prices and set standards for what students could expect.
The student unions found that they could bargain lecture prices downwards when they bargained as a group: a negotiating tactic which has many parallels. The students would also boycott a certain professor's lectures if his teaching was found to be defective. The student body was self-governing: they wrote and enforced their own rules upon their fellow students.
The first generation of universities were independent of both ecclesiastical authority and the power of nobles. They were organized and operated by laymen - by ordinary Christians, not employees of the church. This led to a certain amount of speculative freedom in theology: professors taught students from the text of Scripture - Hebrew and Greek - instead of from the church's interpretation of Scripture. In areas of politics, too, there was a chance to discuss divergent views.
Eventually, however, the nature of the universities would change. Their success led to growing numbers of students, and more universities, and the demand for more facilities. To fund the infrastructure - libraries, dormitories, lecture halls, cafeterias - required more funding than the freelance structure could provide, and so the universities looked for sponsors with deep pockets. Most universities would end up being funded either by local nobility, or by the church. If funded by regional aristocrats, the political teachings of the university might be somewhat self-conscious in light of the view of the local duke, earl, or baron. If funded by the church, the theology department might keep its speculations a bit more tame.
The university movement started in Bologna, and spread throughout Europe in a couple of centuries. A notable exception was Spain - of which Portugal was still a part - which lagged behind the rest of the continent in terms of cultural development. It was still recovering from the damage of several centuries of occupation by Islamic armies.
The university of Paris is often considered the high point of Medieval academic life. Founded by William of Champeaux and Abelard of Brittany around 1170 A.D., it is an example of the more developed stage of the university. Although William and Abelard are listed as the 'founders' of the university, this is not entirely clear; like Bologna, the university in Paris was formed in part by merging several older schools. In any case, it soon developed the more formalized structure typical of the university after its founding phase. The teaching faculty - the term magister was retained - was no longer purely freelance, but rather had to be licensed to teach by the university. One the one hand, this helped to ensure quality; on the other hand, it could generate a limiting force on academic freedom. The university in Paris was organized around four faculties: theology, cannon law, medicine, and the arts. 'Cannon law' is the body of regulations applying to those who work for the church. 'The arts' - or 'the liberal arts' as we now call them - includes disciplines such as mathematics and physics.
The teaching methods of the university at this stage consisted of two main practices. The first was dictation and lecture. The printing press, and the revolutionary changes it would bring into intellectual life, had not yet been invented. (Gutenberg would do that in the 1400's.) Student brought large quantities of blank paper with them to lectures, sometime bound into a book form, other times as loose sheets. The professor would read very slowly a text - perhaps a couple paragraphs of Aristotle or Cicero - and the students would copy exactly what he said (this was the 'dictation'). After the students had captured the text, the professor would then go on to deliver what we would consider a normal university lecture about those texts, taking questions at the end. Over the course of several years at the university, a student would create for himself several books this way: the collected dictations and lecture notes. Since it was impossible to buy textbooks (no printing press!), students literally had to make their own.
The second teaching method which dominated at the universities was debate. This was crucial, not only to learning the subject matter at hand, but also to forming the creative intellects which would make the major scientific discoveries of the Middle Ages. A debate would begin with a question posed. Often it was in the form of a statement, and the implied question following it was "is this true or not?" Students were assigned to prepare evidence for the debate, and the professors acted as umpires or referees. A student, or team of students, on one side of the question would offer data to support the statement - quotes drawn from pagan philosophers, from Holy Scripture, and from the church fathers; evidence could also be based on original reasoning from the students. On the other side of the question, the same procedure was followed: students presented data to attempt to prove the statement false. The professors judged the work according to the quality of the argumentation. After such a debate, students then changed sides, and were required to argue in favor of the other view - thus students became thoroughly familiar with both sides of the argument. This method was used in teaching all subjects.
It can be seen how this type of instruction - requiring students to become familiar with both sides of a dispute, encouraging them to develop sophisticated logic to out-maneuver the students on the other side of the debate, and allowing them to use their own original reasoning in addition to the data found in texts - created several generations of shrewd and clever mathematicians, astronomers, philosophers, physicists, and theologians. The large amount of intellectual creativity generated during the Middle Ages was responsible for advances and progress in various academic disciplines. The relative lack of progress made in subsequent times (during the Renaissance) was hidden by the fact that the Renaissance would claim as its own many of the intellectual creations properly belonging to the Middle Ages.