Medieval Paris,  Paris,  Podcast

PGB 8: Back To School At The Medieval University Of Paris!

If you were ready to leave your provincial village, see the world and maybe party a bit, what options did you have? Then, as now, you went to college! Join us as we go back to school at the medieval University of Paris! 

*Small correction: The Bishops of Cluny were actually the Abbots of Cluny. 🤦🏻‍♀️

In honor of La Rentrée in France—that magical time of year when everyone has to go back to school and work after the long, lazy summer vacation—we are exploring what it was like to go to a medieval university!

Université de Paris: A Timeline

Well, actually a timeline for the events of the episode. If I did a full timeline, we would be here for 800 years! Let’s take a look at the key events mentioned in the podcast:

12th Century • Cathedral Schools Start Spreading the Word

In the 1100s, the budding intellectual community in Paris formed around the cathedral schools of Notre Dame, at the abbey cathedrals of Ste. Genevieve and St. Victor, and others. Unlike now, education in the medieval period was tied to the church. To the medieval Catholic European, knowledge was believed to come from God directly. This meant that to dedicate yourself to the pursuit of knowledge was to dedicate yourself in service to God.

This connection with le bon Dieu would influence every aspect of education, from who could teach to who could issue diplomas and licenses to what authority the students and masters answered to. And this would remain true in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and, in most places, until the Enlightenment and/or Revolution changed things.

1190 – 1215 • Phillipe Auguste II Builds A Wall

Before heading out on crusade with frenemy King Richard I (aka “The Lionheart”), King Phillipe Auguste II wanted to protect Paris with a new city wall. Tellingly, he prioritized the northern (right bank) wall over the southern wall in anticipation of English skullduggery. Paris and what qualified as France at the time was much smaller than the English Angevin/Plantagenet empire under Richard I and his father Henry II. Phillipe, though, would take advantage of Richard’s absence after being captured on his way home from crusade by taking over some of the Lionheart’s lands. And then he would seal the deal with huge land grabs when “Bad” King John became King of England after Richard’s death. Phillipe was the master of playing the Plantagenets to his advantage!

While largely destroyed, some parts of the wall can still be found in Paris. Finding them is a fun scavenger hunt. Oliver Gee at the Earful Tower has taken it on as hobby and has it all mapped out for us!

Reconstructed map of Phillipe Auguste’s Wall, with the approximate site of the future Collège de Sorbonne.
Side note: “Terres en Culture” means cultivated land and “vignes” is vines. Imagine a Paris with that much open space!

1200-1215 • Phillipe & The Church Support The University

In 1200, Philippe Auguste declared that the members of the university (students and masters) were members of the clergy, which made them separate from regular citizens and protected them from civil law authorities. It also set them apart from the existing ecclesiastical education structure of the cathedral schools, instead referring them to the power of the pope. This was a huge win for the members of the university, but set up a lot of strife between between all of the involved parties.

In 1215, these advantages were further cemented by the statutes created by cardinal and papal legate Robert de Courson. Outlined here (in French), they confirmed the relative independence of the university and their association with the pope. It also gave some structure to the curriculum. The University of Paris was really coming into its own!

The 1215 Statutes. They did things in style, didn’t they?
©Bibliothèque Numérique de la Sorbonne

1229 – 1231 • Wine Riot & Fall Out

Ok, it is not officially known as the Wine Riot. 😁 It is actually known by the more boring “1229 University of Paris Strike.” But this is one of the major student unrest events in the early years of the university. It exemplifies the complicated place that institutions of higher learning have in our society. They are often at the crossroads of intellectual, political, governmental, and cultural power struggles.

Things came to a head just before Lent 1229, with a kerfuffle between students and a barkeep that started over the price of wine. The (drunken) students thought they were being overcharged, the barkeeper disagreed. The barkeep and his neighbors then roughed up the students. The next day, the students came back and roughed up the barkeep and his friends. The barkeep appealed to the regent, who sent soldiers to punish the students.

It got out of hand, some students were killed, and the school shut down for two years while the regent (Blanche of Castile), the pope, and the school tried to sort the whole thing out. Finally, Pope Gregory IX pulled rank and issued a papal bull resolving the issue in favor the university and the papacy.

Pope Gregory IX, alumnus of the University of Paris.

1257 • King St. Louis IX Recognizes Collège de Sorbonne

Fast forward a few decades. The University of Paris is doing well for itself but there are problems. Housing is expensive and so is access to the university. So, not much has really changed.

To solve this problem, those with means including wealthy individuals, religious houses, and even the royal family started founding collèges, which offered room and board, fraternal identity, and more on a scholarship basis. Some of the collèges also offer paid services, including the most famous one of them all.

The Collège de Sorbonne was founded by Robert de Sorbon, who as a poor student at the University of Paris had to beg to cover his costs. It quickly became the most famous and popular of all of the collèges and synonymous with the university itself!

The whole project began with land donations and buying opportunities from the royal family, who also happened to be Robert’s boss. He swapped properties around, finally setting up shop in 1253 (or 1254 or some point between 1253-1257; sources vary). Then, the one date we can all agree on: in 1257 King St. Louis IX officially donated funds to the Collège de Sorbonne. The collège was now on the map!

Other 13th Century Collèges

The Sorbonne is an example of a private foundation—it wasn’t associated with a religious order. Founded less than a decade before the Sorbonne, the Collège des Bernardins was part of the Cistercian order. The Cistercians were one of the wealthiest monastic orders in Europe at the time and it shows in their sprawling complex. Check out this 3D recreation of what it looked like!

The audio is only in French with French captions. The captions do help a bit but you can follow along regardless!

14th Century • Sorbonne Takes Off

By the end of the 1200s, the Collège de Sorbonne was well established and a lot of other colleges were coming up with it. This includes the Collège de Cluny, which was associated with Abbots of Cluny, whose (future) home would become the Musée de Cluny. See how close they all were around 1300!

Reconstructed map from the reign of Phillipe le Bel, 1285-1314.
1. Future home of the Hotel de Cluny. 2. The Collège de Sorbonne (still in that spot and then some) 3. Collège de Cluny, future home of tasty cookies at Pret a Manger.

1629-1643 • Cardinal Richelieu Builds the Sorbonne

Cardinal Richelieu had his hands in pretty much everything, Musketeers not withstanding. I am forever fascinated by people like Richelieu and Cardinal Wolsey. They ran major countries, sometimes ran wars, managed their royal employers, were important political players, oversaw building projects, and were basically the absolute masters of their domains. Of course, they had an army of administrators and clerks working for them, but it is still most impressive. And all of this before they had access to coffee or tea!

An alumnus of the Sorbonne, Richelieu became headmaster of the collège in 1622. In 1629, he began a large scale building project that created some of the first formal educational spaces for the collège and university. The project also replaced the old medieval buildings that were well past their prime.

Unfortunately, much of what Richelieu built was later replaced. But his Chappelle de la Sorbonne is still standing and available for pre-booked group tours (includes other parts of the Sorbonne as well).

Richelieu’s Sorbonne

Your Curriculum

If you were attending a medieval university, you basically had two levels of education.  And these levels were broken up into 4 groups called faculties.  The lower level had only one faculty or department: the faculty of Arts.  It was at this level where you earned your baccalaureate degree, aka your Bachelor of Arts. 

At the Arts level, you studied seven topics broken into 2 groups: 

  • The Trivium with Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic
  • The Quadrivium with Arithmetic, Astronomy, Geometry, and Music

You had to go through this level first before you could move on to the next the level, which was the Master’s level. Here, you had 3 faculties to choose from:  Medicine, Law, or Theology.  Of course Theology was the most prestigious because of that whole “in service to God” thing.  Then came Law and then Medicine.  In Paris, you could only study canon or church law.  Civil law wasn’t permitted, so you would have to go to another school if you wanted to be a high-powered lawyer to the rich and noble!

Who Were The Students?

The students could come from all over Europe and from all economic backgrounds (if they were lucky). However, universally they were male. Women were privately educated at home by tutors or in convents.

This follows the segregation of the church culture in general, in which women were usually cloistered into female-only convents. Women could go far within the convent system, even becoming abbesses who held great political and cultural power. But they could never reach the same heights as the men.

This separation of the sexes also helped the men committed to the church remain true to their vow of chastity. But you can guess how well that went, people being people after all!

One of the most notorious cases of a private tutor teaching a female student is probably the Héloïse and Abelard story.  Basically Abelard was a famous theologian hired to tutor to a canon’s niece, Héloïse.  The lessons became intimate, she became pregnant, they were busted, he lost his reputation and some valuable body parts, and she went on to become an abbess. This is, of course, an over-simplification but you can see why this was an imperfect system at best.

Héloïse & Abelard “studying”

Experience The Medieval University

For a nice afternoon’s walk, check out this route in the Latin Quarter and Ile de la Cite. Pret a Manger and Shakespeare & Co optional but recommended!

For the locations:

  • Musee de Cluny. One of my favorites! If it’s medieval, I’m there…
  • Church of Saint Julien le Pauvre. This early medieval church is now a functioning Greek Orthodox (Eastern Catholic Melkite) church, so be courteous of any worshippers/services in the very small space.
  • Collège de Bernardins. The nave is available for free. If you want a guided tour of the full building (for a fee), scroll to the bottom of their info page. The paid tours will resume Sept. 21 on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 4 p.m. Reserve day-of only.

Hitting The Books

If you are now in the academic mood, here are some of the more interesting resources I found in my research. It’s a mix of academic papers and books, all of them free but they may require a login.

“Graduating in Paradise” Robert of Sorbon and the Importance of Universities in the Middle Ages” by Jean-Luc Solère. Academic article, translated from the French. It has some really interesting quotes from Robert de Sorbon—he sounds like he was a great speaker! You can read an abstract here and the full (English) article here (be careful with this website!).

“Sameness and Difference: The University of Paris in its Spatial Context” by Rebecca Yuste-Golob. Academic article. If you want to go deep into the relationship of the university within the context of the physical city of Paris, this one is for you!

“La constitution de l’espace universitaire parisien (XIIIe – XVIIIe siècle) : jalons pour la redécouverte d’un patrimoine.” by Christian Hottin. Academic article (in French). Don’t be intimidated by the French, Google Translate will lend a helping hand. It also has lots of pictures and goes deeper into the extant examples of the medieval university than I could here.

The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages Vol. 1 by Hastings Rashdall. Book. From 1895 and a bit biased toward the English universities (he is an English author), but an interesting deep dive into the topic! Caveat: Always take Victorian-era history books with a grain of salt, academic integrity wasn’t quite the same as it is now!

After Class

What do you think of medieval university life? Is it all that different from going to university now? Let us know below!

For me, there are big differences but I think in many ways they are outweighed by the similarities. The format of the curriculum, the financial burden of education, the intellectual vitality and volatility of having a university in your community are all still with us. However, as a woman, I’m very grateful that I am allowed to attend university and seek my own education!

And now back to the books…

À bientôt! 


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Image Credits

Header Image: Detail of a miniature of a lecture from Royal 17 E III, f 36, titled: De proprietatibus rerum (Livre des proprietez des choses). Manuscript at the British Library. 15th Century France.
Extract from Reconstructed Map of the Phillipe August Wall: From the Histoire Generale de Paris. Atlas des Anciens Plans de Paris. Reproduction en Fac-simile des Originaux… Collection of David Rumsey. Drawn by A. Lenoir. Published 1900. Click on link for full map.
1215 Statutes: Robert de Courcon (1160?-1218?) and Innocent III (pope; 1160-1216) , “Statutes of the University of Paris, promulgated in August 1215 by Robert de Courçon mandated by Pope Innocent III“, Bibliothèque Numérique de la Sorbonne , accessed September 4, 2022,
Pope Gregory IX: From medieval manuscript M III 97, 122rb at Universitätsbibliothek Salzburg, ca. 1270. Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by GDK.
Extract from Reconstructed Map of the Reign of Phillipe le Bel: From the Histoire Generale de Paris. Atlas des Anciens Plans de Paris. Reproduction en Fac-simile des Originaux… Collection of David Rumsey. Drawn by A. Lenoir. Published 1900. Click on link for full map.
17th Century Sorbonne:Veüe et Perspective de la chapelle et Maison de Sorbonne, du costé de la cour faict par Monsieur le Mercier Architecte du Roy” by Silvestre Israël, 17th Century. Held by the musée Condé, Chantilly.
Héloïse & Abelard: Taken from Eleanor Fortesque Brickdale’s Golden Book of Famous Women by Eleanor Fortesque Brickdale, 1919. Image 30.

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