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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XV. English and Scottish Education. Universities and Public Schools to the Time of Colet

§ 16. University Studies; The Higher Faculties

The studies of the medieval university were based upon the trivium and quadrivium. Martianus Capella, a Carthaginian, in an allegory de Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, written about 420 A.D., introduces us, with the persons and descriptions of the attendants of the earth-born bride of the god, to the seven liberal arts. Three of these, grammar, logic and rhetoric, constituted the trivium; which formed the course of study of the medieval undergraduate. The bachelor passed on to the quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy—his conquest of which was denoted by the licence or degree of master of arts. To these seven arts, the thirteenth century added the three philosophies, natural, moral and metaphysical.

An Oxford scheme of study of 1426 demands: one year’s reading of grammar, with Priscian as text-book; next, three terms’s study of rhetoric, with Aristotle, Boethius and Tully as teachers, reinforced by Ovid and Vergil; finally, three terms’s reading of logic with Boethius and Aristotle, Topica and Priora being expressly enjoined. Of the subjects of the quadrivium, arithmetic and music require each a year, while geometry and astronomy call each for two. The three philosophies need each three terms. Some of these courses were, seemingly, concurrent, the entire arts curriculum covering, in general, eight years of three terms each. The Cambridge requirements were, evidently, much the same. Sir Robert Rede, in 1518, bequeathed [char]12 per annum for the payment of three lecturers in logic, rhetoric and philosophy. Of these three, one, whose style as lector Terentii reveals his function, was assigned, by statute, to lecture to students of the first and second year on “books of humanity”; the second lecturer read logic to third year undergraduates; the third lectured to fourth year students and bechelors of arts on books of philosophy.

The educational methods pursued differed in no small degree from those at present in use. Of written examinations, the medieval student knew nothing; his progress was secured by compulsory reading of set books and enforced attendance on assigned lectures; by frequent “posing” and debate; and, lastly, by the necessity of himself delivering lectures after attaining the baccalaureate. He might, indeed, content himself with “inception in grammar,” when, on the strength of the delivery of certain discourses on Priscian and of the certificate of three posing masters of his minor art, he passed forth qualified to teach in an elementary school; but, if his ambition soared to higher flights, he might assume obligations to his university which represented labour continued during upwards of twenty years.

The complete arts course was, in general, the necessary prerequisite to the study of theology; but students possessed of the needful permission might pass directly from the trivium to the pursuit of civil, and then of canon, law. In Oxford, as in Paris, regents in arts asserted a claim to pre-eminence in the direction of university reading. In 1252, it was enacted that no scholar should receive the licence in theology, who had not previously been regent in arts.

The Cambridge Statuta Antiqua set out regulations which were in force about 1400 A.D. The five stages of the arts student’s career, therein indicated, were successively represented by: admission to the question, by which, in his fifth year at earliest, after previous attendance at scholastic discussion, he was introduced for formal university testing; determination, a far more serious ordeal, involving an active share in a long series of public disputations and the duty of summing up in approved fashion the results of debate; cursory lecturing on the Posterioria; inception, whereby the scholar acquired the licence of master and was regularly authorised to teach: and, lastly, regency, a period of active lecturing ordinarie, as officially appointed instructor, and of enforced attendance upon various public gatherings for university business and ceremonial.

No scholar might incept in arts in Cambridge in the fifteenth century unless: he had previously determined; had, for three years at least, continuously resided and studied in his proper faculty; had attended during three years the lectures of his own master on Aristotle’s philosophy, together with any such mathematical lectures as might be given in the schools; had publicly opposed and responded in his faculty in due form in the schools; and, finally, unless he was provided with certificates de scientia from five, and de credulitate vel scientia from other seven, masters of arts.

Should he proceed, as, if ambitious of promotion, he must, to the study of theology, of law or of medicine, the master of arts must pass afresh through certain clearly defined stages:

  • None shall be admitted to incept in theology, unless he shall have previously been regent in arts; unless, also, he shall have heard theological lectures for at least ten years in a university; item, he shall have heard lectures on the Bible biblice for two years before he incepts; he shall have lectured on or in some canonical book of the Bible for a year, for at least ten days in each term; nor shall it be permitted to any to “enter” the Bible before the second year after the completion of his lectures on the Sentences; and he shall have read all the books of the Sentences in that University, and shall have remained at least three years in an approved University, after the lecturing on the Sentences, before he shall be licenced. Furthermore, he shall have preached publicly ad clerum and shall have publicly in all the schools of his faculty opposed and responded after lecturing upon the Sentences, in such sort that he may be in very deed of known and approved progress, manners and learning according to the attestation de scientia by all the masters of that faculty in the manner aforesaid; and, finally, he shall be admitted when he has sworn that he has completed this set of requirements.
  • Similar detailed provisions guarded the doctorates of canon law, civil law and of medicine. The “grace,” which, in later times, became the necessary formality for proceeding to a degree, was, in origin, a privilegium of the masters dispensing with some special requirement in a particular case.