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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: January 2020

58 - Monks and the Universities, c. 1200–1500

from Part IV - Forms of Monasticism in the Late Middle Ages


When at the end of the twelfth century the universities first emerged in Italy, Spain, and France, the culture of monastic learning was already centuries-old and clearly defined. Indeed, it was the monasteries’ lively discourse on the place and purpose of study in the years after the Gregorian reform that gave form and focus to the emerging intellectual program of the new, secular schools. Europe’s monasteries did not react to the rise of the universities; rather, they were active in their evolution, shaping their learned culture with a mature syllabus of their own. Secular masters fashioned an image which was set self-consciously in opposition to the professed path of humility. Yet as a corporate, and later collegiate, body, these masters found much inspiration in the monastery, from its cloister, a purpose-built study space, to its morning schedule of teaching and its seasonal circulation of books. In their turn, the schools extended the intellectual horizons of the monks and equipped them to participate in the clerical culture of the institutional Church. It was no easy exchange. The secular university struck out frequently at a source of such obvious cultural influence and immutable institutional strength. For their part, in almost every generation after Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), monks questioned the priorities of their mental opus, and struggled to reconcile traditional ascetic and modish academic impulses.