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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: May 2012

29 - The Bible in medieval universities

from Part III - The Bible Interpreted


The emergence of universities in the thirteenth century had a significant impact on the study of the Bible. Preparatory changes had already taken place in the twelfth century at cathedral schools, such as Laon, Chartres and Paris, and at houses of newly founded canonical orders, such as St Victor in Paris. Yet the principal setting for biblical study in the early Middle Ages, namely monasteries, remained an important context, particularly those of the Cistercian order. What was new in the thirteenth century was the emergence of a different institutional setting, universities, some of which possessed a faculty of theology with a corporation of masters responsible for teaching that included biblical instruction. The university structure brought together independent secular clerics who were teaching theology, such as Peter the Cantor, Peter of Poitiers, Simon of Tournai and Stephen Langton, into one corporate body, soon to be joined by members of a new type of religious order, the mendicant friars. These new orders, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, and later the Augustinian Hermits and Carmelites, ostensibly supported their mission of preaching and care of souls through begging (thus the term mendicant); they saw universities, particularly Paris, as an ideal location for training their most talented members in theology and biblical studies. For the first time the study of the Bible no longer simply served the liturgical, homiletical and spiritual needs of individuals and communities; it became an academic discipline.

Throughout the thirteenth century faculties of theology were limited to certain universities, principally Paris, Oxford and Cambridge, with Paris the most important of that group. Eventually degree-granting theological faculties were created at Toulouse, Bologna, Prague, Vienna, Cologne, Louvain and elsewhere, but the faculty of theology at Paris continued to dominate throughout the late Middle Ages. Equally important, however, were the schools (studia) of the mendicant orders, which paralleled university programmes and were partially integrated with them. Secular clerics and mendicant friars shared a common goal for biblical study: preparation for preaching, even as the content of the Bible provided material for the study of doctrine, speculative theology and ethical teaching. And the speculative aspect of theological study, in turn, had a shaping effect on the study of the Bible.

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