Episode 95: Old School and New School

The 12th and 13th Centuries saw the rise of new institutions of higher learning called “universities.” In this episode, we look at the changing educational system in Western Europe and the rise of Oxford and Cambridge.  We also explore the etymology of words associated with Medieval education and universities.


28 thoughts on “Episode 95: Old School and New School

  1. Your discussion of heart=symbol of love reminded me of a series of prints published by the Jesuits, namely: ‘Christ cleansing the Christian Heart’ Wierix, 1585 (there are other earlier examples, I just can’t find them in my notes) which is a combination of text and image. This type of imagery became a common trope on Catholic broadsheets.
    This makes me wonder if/ how this connection was made in other vulgar languages. The Jesuits began in what is now Spain, so did the heart=love idea spring up from this heart=Christian soul concept? It’s church guys who were reading the Greek, so maybe originating at these early universities?
    Long time listener, I love the way you can see cultures link together through language. Great podcast.

    • Hi Margaret. Thanks for the comments. I don’t really know the answer to your question. I only know that the first known depiction of a man giving his heart to his lover occurred around the current point in the story. That discussion fit in well with the overall discussion about the phrase “learn by heart.” I haven’t researched the overall history of the heart/love connection, but it is an intriguing concept, and I thought it was worth mentioning in the podcast. Maybe someone else can give you a better answer.

  2. So this means that dictator and teacher are essentially the same word? They are the same word that has been transformed for the same purpose just in a different way and have just been assigned a different meaning (although similar).

    • Yes, “dictator” and “teacher” are indeed cognate. (I had a few teachers that could be fairly described with either term.) Both words share a common Indo-European root (*deik). “Teacher” is a Germanic word and “dictator” is a Latin word, so the connection is remote but it does apparently exist.

  3. I have not listened to this episode yet. Im just delighted to find another episode. When I speak to people, Kevin Stroud is a way for me to emphazise “learned”. I am so impressed by this podcast I struggle to put it into words. All the best. And thank you.

  4. Also, does anyone remember which episode that was about the last alliterated verse in english? I remember being so touched by it. How it was an endearing combination of heroic and pathetic. But i cant find it 🙁

    • Hi Klas,

      I am not sure which passage you are referencing. Alliterative verse continued into Middle English, and actually experienced a bit of a revival in Middle English. If you can give me a little more detail, I will try to track down the episode.

    • I don’t know if this is what you are looking for, but I would suggest Episode 37: Seafarers, Poets and Traveling Minstrels. The alliterative verse part begins around 33 minutes.

  5. Hi Kevin,

    Another great episode. Really very interesting learning about the genesis of the university system in Europe/Britain!

    I just had one question though: as an Oxford alumnus, we were always told that the university’s foundation dated back to the 1090s. At least, there is evidence of some sort of organisation of students existing then. But you placed it in the 1160s/1170s, with a connection Paris. So, now I’m curious what your research turned up. The connection with Paris seems reasonable, but equally it looks likely a university existed beforehand, at least in some sort — perhaps it was more of an influx from Paris that contributed to the university’s growth around then. Obviously, founding dates is something universities are quite proud of, but it seems the exact dates of all the oldest ones are quite murky.

    Incidentally, I presume you’re taking the view that the Pandidakterion of Constantinople wasn’t enough like a modern university to be called one? I know some scholars like to call this the first university, pushing back the date of the first to 425 AD… I know little about it, in truth.

    • Hi Alex,

      In my research, the ultimate origins of Oxford were routinely described as “obscure.” One of my primary sources for the discussion about Oxford was “The University of Oxford: A New History” by G.R. Evans. With respect to the status of the school in the 11th century, he writes, “Theobald of Etampes (c.1060-c.1125) is one of the earliest scholars to describe himself as a ‘Master’ at Oxford… There is no evidence yet of a continuous history or an institutionalized school, however.” So I think it is fair to say that Oxford had occasional scholars prior to the mid-1100s, and it was probably the presence of those scholars that attracted the masters who returned from Paris in the late 1100s. But most researchers suggest that it wasn’t really a “university” until the late 1100s.

      With respect to Pandidakterion, it did not come up in any of my research. Virtually all of my resources cite Bologna as the first university in the 11th century.

      • Hi Kevin,

        Thanks for the info. That sounds reasonably fair to me. I guess the origins of several other old universities are quite obscure too. 1167 seems like a good conventional founding date though! It was definitely predated by Bologna even if we accept earlier dates, however, and most likely by Paris too. That said, Paris hasn’t continually operated, and is broken up into a number of universities these days, so I guess that makes it the 2nd oldest in continuous existence? 🙂

        I’m surprised nothing came up about the Pandidakterion… personally I wasn’t sure if it was just a Western European bias, or the fact it really didn’t resemble the university system, but probably both played a rule, I suppose.

        As it happens, I was recently at the University of Bologna. It’s international prestige may not be what it once was, but still a very impressive university, situated in a lovely city. It has quite a unique culture from what I can tell. Ironically one of the most liberal universities in Europe!

        • I don’t really know anything about the Pandidakterion. As I noted, it didn’t come up in my research. Obviously, there were lots of older educational institutions, including the ancient Greek Academy. But my understanding is that they didn’t really fit the traditional model of the university. The university was modeled after the Medieval trade guilds, and I suppose historians are reluctant to include those earlier institutions since they pre-date this particular model.

  6. An odd request, perhaps – can you tell me where you sourced the info at around 8:20, about the “learning-child” and “learning-man”? Or at the very least, can you confirm the spelling of each in Old English? I’m thinking of getting some T-shirts made for staff… 😉

  7. I wanted to point out that the quadrivium was a bit more sophisticated than you suggest, at least if the students studied Euclid’s Elements and Ptolemy, presumably in Latin versions. If they did not, it was probably more from lack of access to texts than to the primitive state of knowledge as you seem to be saying. The Greeks and Romans knowledge of geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy still remains foundational today, and it’s value can be seen in the curriculum of Saint John’s College (Annapolis and Santa Fe) where the seven liberal arts are still taught.

  8. It’s incorrect to state so baldly and unequivocably that a dictionary is “designed to teach people the proper meaning of words.” That is how an awful lot of people use them, but it’s not what they’re meant for – not all of them, anyway. There are different ways to understand dictionaries: as prescriptive, or descriptive texts. A dictionary that is compiled expressly to instruct speakers about “correct” speech is a “prescriptive” text – it prescribes what you are to say. The dictionary of an organism like Spain’s Real Academia is as example, or tend to be anyway – the Academy sees its role as that of stewarding the development of the Spanish language and its dictionary as a way of directing speech into channels it approves of. Other dictionaries, and the Oxford is a good example, are instead “descriptive”: they let you know what range of meanings people have been using for a particular word, they tell you about changes over time, and while they often indicate which usages grammarians deem to be proper they aren’t authoritarian about it. Indeed by telling you expressly that words evolve in their meanings, they show why a truly prescriptive dictionary – one “”designed to teach people the proper meaning of words” – would be a foolish enterprise. There isn’t a “proper” way of speaking, at least not one that can be accounted for by dictionaries, with their massive lag times in documenting change.

    This is why you get into arguments with your grandparents or parents or some insufferable savant your own age about words that have acquired new meanings over time (let’s say, when you describe something you really like as “sick” or “clean”); it’s why they run for some decades-old text and brandish it at you in a sincere effort to convince you that your perfectly understandable words are somehow “wrong.” It’s a category mistake: your words aren’t wrong, they just represent a later stage of linguistic development than that which is – ahem – “described” in the text they’re holding. To treat that description as a prescription, as if language can be halted in its tracks by print, is a really foolish take on what books are actually for, and what they do.

    • I think you may have read too much into my statement. I made the statement that ‘dictionaries are designed to teach people the meaning of words’ as a way of setting up the etymological link between the words “teach” and “dictionary.” As I noted, those two words are actually cognate. That was all. The statement wasn’t intended as an authoritative analysis of the role of dictionaries in modern societies. I would be surprised if anyone who listens to the podcast on a regular basis has the impression that I am a strict prescriptivist.

  9. In Canada, the words college and university haven’t fallen together they way they did in the US. A college basically is a junior college or community college; any bachelor’s granting school, no matter how small, is called a university. People didn’t understand it when my daughter went to Williams College, a high prestige school that even gives advanced degrees (I am not sure if you can get a PhD there.

    It just happened that I chaired a guild initiation ceremony, aka a PhD thesis defense, that ended about a 1/2 hour before I listened to this episode.

    • In the UK, college refers either to a constituent college of a collegiate college like Oxford or Cambridge (most universities aren’t collegiate) or else a tertiary education institution that doesn’t have a charter to award degrees. We wouldn’t talk about “going to college” if it’s actually a university (even a collegiate one). We also, incidentally, don’t refer to either as “school”.

  10. You mentioned that there was an old English word “lecha” (sp?) for doctor. I wonder if you know the PIE root of that. I ask because in Russian the verb “lechit'” means to heal and “lekar'” is an old Russian word for doctor. The modern Russian word “lekarstvo” means medicine. I assume there is a connection between these Russian words and the old English word.

  11. The Greek word “logos” was rather more complex than just meaning “word”. It had two distinct meanings (though probably ultimately related) – one was something spoken, and the other was order or organisation. The second is really the meaning behind logic and the -logy words – the organisation of thought or of the subject matter.

    This is also behind the Biblical use. Logos had become a standard term in Greek philosophy for the aspect or emanation of the divine that preserves order against chaos. This is the sense that John uses it, which is mistranslated into English as “the Word”.

  12. Kevin, you said that vulgar meant “of the people” – so is it cognate with the German word “volk” (people)? There’s certainly a similarity in sound. Thanks.

    • “Volk” and “vulgar” do not appear to be related. “Vulgar” is a Latin word, and its etymology is uncertain beyond that. “Volk” is the German version of the English word “folk.” The original Proto-Germanic version of that word apparently had an ‘f’ sound like the Modern English form of the word.

  13. Hi! I liked the fact that you didn’t assume that something was good, i.e., donnybrooks signal that something isn’t necessarily good. Usually, the podcast is like so England conquered Ireland– implicitly a good thing, albeit not good for a lot of people in Ireland over a period of 100s of years), with no pros and cons, etc. Maybe a cheap shot but whatever.

    • You might want to check out Episode 158. While I appreciate the feedback, I prefer to be judged by things I actually say in the podcast, rather than things I didn’t say but are presumably ‘implied.’ Based on occasional messages I have received over the years, I’m always amazed at all of the things I have ‘implied’ without actually saying.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.