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How the Church Has Changed the World: Mother of Universities


Yes, the university was a Medieval guild, born from the bosom of the Church.

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Mob_Quad_from_Chapel_TowerEystein leaned over the side of the ship, his flax-light hair tousled in the breeze. He was steady on his feet as the waves rolled, a true lad of Norway, at home on the water.  Eystein had often rowed from his father's farm at the head of the fjord, down to the busy town of Nidaros, the seat of the archbishop.  Now he could see the single spire of Saint Olav's Church receding in the distance, and it wrung his heart with love.  "Eystein," said the bishop, "when you go to Paris, our Nidaros will seem little more than a summer hamlet for hunters and shepherds."  Eystein had no idea how that could be true.

So here he was, aboard a ship bound for France.  He carried a letter of introduction to the prior of one of the most famous schools in the world, at the Abbey Saint-Victor.  Eystein spoke no French.  That was all right, though.  The late prior of Saint-Victor, the brilliant philosopher Hugh, was a Saxon.  Eystein had heard tell of a mystical theologian there named Richard, from Scotland.  Eystein would meet young men from all over Christendom.  They spoke Latin, the language of the Church.  Sure, there would be rivalry among the nationals, and much drink, and snowball fights, and nodding off at the bench during lectures.  But imagine, wise and learned men from Italy, France, Germany, England, Spain, and now farthest Norway, united there to take into their minds and hearts the Word of God, the order and beauty of his creation, and the laws of human thought and action.  "Lord," said Eystein, "help me to bring your wisdom back to my beloved land."

When Eystein finally rode into Paris, he thought the world had never seen anything like it — and he was right.  Yet the first stone for the magnificent Cathedral of Notre Dame had yet to be laid, and the pupils and masters of Saint-Victor, Saint-Genevieve, and Notre Dame had not yet formed the universitas scholarium: the union or guild of scholars, come together to secure their liberties, and to assure that awards of degrees would depend upon knowledge, not upon where you came from or what money you had.  Yes, the university was a Medieval guild, born from the bosom of the Church.  And colleges?  Dormitories for students, to keep them out of trouble!

Never Before

If Eystein had been born in Italy at the time of Cicero, and if his father had had the money, he'd have gone to a school for boys, and then, as a young man, he might have traveled overseas to Athens, to study at the old Academy founded by Plato.  Other philosophers too had founded academies; so why don't we call them universities?

There was no set course of study, acknowledged as valid everywhere.  Masters did not come from everywhere to unite in the pursuit of truth, and to pass their knowledge to their successors, granting them the license to teach for other scholarly guilds: at Oxford, Bologna, Prague, Coimbra, Valencia, Krakow.  There was no universally recognized degree: bachelor, doctor, master.  Most of all, there was no common faith, no common worship of God, no theology of the revealed Word of God — theology, the queen of the sciences, the one field of study uniting in itself the truths from all the other fields.

What was developing at Paris when Eystein Erlendsson studied there would become a happy coincidence of two meanings of the Latin universitas.  It would be a union bound by union: by a common faith in the God who made the universe, in whom we live and move and have our being.

And because we're talking about the Church, we are also in the realm of the universal society founded by Christ upon earth.  The Church was the first World Wide Web, caring for her children wherever they lived, and sending her priests to teach kings and peasants, farmers and townsmen, merchants and wheelwrights — everyone.  Eystein knew it well.  Saint Olav, King of Norway, had begged the Church to send missionaries to his land, to tame the ways of his warlike countrymen, and bring them the light of Christ.  It was Olav who had made Nidaros a northern aurora of Christian life.

An Examination for all to Behold

It's a few years later, and we see Eystein standing before the teachers of Saint-Victor, in the open air.  The teachers are robed in their clerical garb.  Grocer girls mill about, selling hot loaves from baskets.  The owner of an inn across the way stands in his garden, beckoning people to come in and refresh themselves.  Some schoolboys climb a beech tree to get a better view.  Just as you can't have a real celebration unless heaven and earth are invited, so here, in Paris, as will be the case for a long time after, you can't have a real examination unless everyone can behold it.  For the questions bear upon everyone and everything, even now, long before Thomas Aquinas, from southern Italy by way of Cologne, will teach in Paris and write his all-comprehending Summa Theologica.

"Augustinus," says the master, "if a king should demand something that does not violate the natural law, but does violate the liberty of the Church to correct and punish her own, is he to be obeyed?  Saint Paul says that all authority is of God, and the Lord Christ says we must render to Caesar what is his."

The boys in the tree lean forward — this is a live question.  They're used to odd looking people from strange places, but the tall and fair Eystein holds their attention.

The masters don't want Eystein's opinion.  What good is that?  Nor a flash of rhetorical fire.  They want reason, they want the Word of God.  They want truth.

"Master," says Eystein, furrowing his brow, "we must draw distinctions.  Authority derives not from the king's will, but from the nature and scope of the office which God has conferred upon him."  With a clear voice and bright eyes, Eystein enumerates those things that a king may not do, because even a king is subject to the law of God, wherever he may be king.  A woman in the crowd, the daughter of a duke, listens intently.  This truth is for everyone.  A young Englishman named Thomas, Eystein's good friend, smiles with approval, even as he leans the woman's way — for Thomas is young, and his heart has not yet been pierced by holy love.

One Saint to Another

"My dear Thomas," writes Epstein — if you'll allow me the liberty of imagining the gist of letters he wrote to his old friend, now archbishop of Canterbury — "I applaud you in your course of action.  You must know that we are engaged in the same battle.  It is always the same.  Here the Duke Sverre has set himself against good King Magnus, and he has won a few priests to his side, though I fear that if he should ascend the throne of Norway, those priests would soon learn what beast they had thought to tame.  Then must the Church be compelled to duck and kiss the feet of the king, and take her orders from him rather than from God.  The people will learn how careful and merciful a mother the Church is, when they have instead to treat with ambitious and unscrupulous men."

King Henry II of England wanted to subject priests to the civil courts, rather than the ecclesiastical courts, and he expected that Thomas, the playfellow of his youth and his former chancellor, would use that great learning of his to support the cause.  But Thomas proved to be God's soldier first, fighting the encroachments of the court and the arbitrary taxes that Henry tried to levy.  Then followed many years of struggle.  The king by no means had his way, for the common people were not with him.  In those days, even the king knew he was a king only by the grace of God.  Henry and Thomas and Eystein dwelt in the same universe of meaning.

So one day, in exasperation, Henry cried, "Will no man rid me of this pestilent priest?" Some courtiers took him at his word; and Saint Eystein's friend Thomas was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, on December 29, 1170, while he was at vespers.  Eystein later went to England himself, bringing back to Norway inspiration for the cathedral he would build at Nidaros — modern Trondheim — and the veneration of the holy martyr Thomas Becket.

The Name Remains

That is a glimpse of the world of the first universities.  The grandest building in Paris was not a box for bureaucrats, or a glass tower of moneymaking.  It was a church; and she gathered her own to her haven, from every land and clime.  What was the University of Paris?  It and not the royal court was the heart of the most fruitful city in the world.  Let Saint Louis IX of France testify.  From Paris, wrote the king, "flow the most abundant waters of wholesome doctrine, so that they become a great river which after refreshing the city itself irrigates the Universal Church."

In 1793, the French revolutionaries, flush with the cruelty of the secular idea, shut the University of Paris down.  It remained shut for a hundred years.

The Western world still has what we call universities, but they bear little resemblance to their long-gone grandparents.  Degrees remain, and academic regalia, and the residue of an expected course of study.  Whether they bring forth wise men and women, even saints and martyrs, is another question.  Catholic universities ought to ask it.



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: Mother of Universities." Magnificat (September, 2016): 208-213.

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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