What is the oldest university in the world?

Universities and colleges generally present themselves as large, established institutions, existing on a continuum dating back to the likes of Plato and Pythagoras. But the truth is that most of them are relatively young and can barely erase a few centuries from the history books.

But that makes sense, right? After all, as everyone knows, people in the past were super stupid and believed in things like witchcraft and zombies over, say, the importance of washing your hands. Of course they had no universities!

Well, actually that’s not true at all. The oldest universities go way back – like, “before Europeans reached North America,” way back, and we’re talking about the Vikings, not Columbus.

But who was first?

The very first universities

Universities, as we understand them today, are almost entirely a European invention, developing primarily in the Middle Ages. There are a lot of reasons why this is so: much of it may well be due to the Islamic Golden Age, from which a flood of newly translated works from across the known world was suddenly made available to European scholars.

Equally important, however, was the (possibly entirely accidental) rediscovery around 1070 CE of a collection of 500-year-old legal manuscripts. Called the Corpus juris civilisor Body of civil law, it contained a large number of laws and edicts dating back to the reign of Justinian – and it was like catnip to the people of medieval Europe. What Justinian said was correct – and Justinian, it turned out, was a supporter of the right to establish or form bodies such as guilds.

Without that right, universities as we know them would probably not have gotten off to as good a start as they are today. The first universities – then known as universitiesthe Latin term for a company or business – were not so much ‘formally established’ as ‘eventually noticed’, and in fact only appeared after enough students and masters had gathered in one place for so long that it had become too inconvenient not to have a university there.

“There is no ‘official founding document’” for one of the world’s oldest universities, explains historian Cait Stevenson, author of How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages and host of the podcast Whose Dark Ages?

“[That’s] a common medieval situation,” she added. ‘Clearly the universities were evolutions from existing practice.”

But this leaves us with a problem. If there are no clear or official start dates for the first universities, how can we know which one got there first?

The oldest university in the English-speaking world

There are traditionally three universities that claim to be the oldest in the world – and it just so happens that one of them is in the Anglosphere. That makes it very easy to guess where it should be, because in the Middle Ages there was only one place in the world that spoke English: England.

So which English university has been around longer than any other? It’s a famous one: the University of Oxford, whose history dates back to 1096 CE. At over 900 years old, could this be the oldest university in the world?

Well, almost certainly not. “Oxford’s claim is actually the most suspect,” Stevenson wrote. “Oxford was not exactly a backwater in the 11th century, but it was not an intellectual center either.”

In fact, the earliest reference to education at Oxford comes from one Theobald of Étampes, a medieval scholar and quite scandalously pro-sex theologian. Almost everything we know about this man comes from six letters he wrote to various people during his lifetime – and in one of them, dating from “around 1100”, Stevenson explains, he calls himself a “master at Oxford”.

“No form of formal, established school,” she emphasizes. “Just a master who had students.”

Over the next century, records of more and more teachers at Oxford emerge, but it was not until 1231 that they were formally recognized as a universities. It was even later that things like halls of residence or the famous collegiate system were introduced – despite Oxford having considerable claim to fame An of the oldest universities in the world, this is almost certainly not the case the eldest.

The oldest university in the world

So bearing in mind what we’ve just seen – that facts from long ago are generally a bit, well, vague – who takes the cake? Well, Oxford may not have been first, but it wasn’t far off. In fact, only two universities can match their longevity claims: Paris and Bologna.

The situation is just as difficult for Paris as it is in Oxford. Like its English counterpart, the University of Paris existed long before it received formal recognition in 1200: “when Philip Augustus gave the new academic guild his royal assent, it was already in a state of vigorous activity,” according to the Oxford historian George Charles Brodrick. in 1886.

In any case, the French capital was a much more obvious choice for a rising intelligentsia than a recently plundered town halfway between London and Wales. As a cultural, economic, religious and royal centre, it had everything a young learning center needed – including, importantly, a number of previously established schools, dating back to at least the 10th century.

It was one of these schools – specifically the Cathedral School of Notre Dame – that would eventually transform into the University of Paris. In any case, we know that Peter Abelard studied there under William of Champeaux some time before 1108, and in the following decades other medieval legends such as Peter Lombard brought the city’s collection of masters and students to enough fame to justify its eventual incorporation into something of a make it a special event. foregone conclusion.

But unfortunately for Paris, there is one small technical character means that it cannot claim the title of the longest existing university: it… no longer exists. Primarily closed during the French Revolution – not entirely surprising, as the revolutionaries were so radical that they overhauled the concept of time itself – the university was then re-established in 1896, only to be dissolved again in 1970 .

Congratulations, Paris; tu as joué toi-même.

The oldest university in the world

Then we stay at Bologna. Go to that city’s university website and you’ll see a founding date advertised as 1088 – a venerable age for an institution by any measure. But as with Oxford and Paris, this supposed founding year is virtually a fiction: ‘It was agreed that the studio’“The 800th anniversary of the Renaissance in 1888 happened out of convenience, not because of any specific documentary evidence,” said David Lines, professor of Renaissance philosophy and intellectual history at the Center for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick.

However, Bologna’s claim is not pure nonsense. “Before the second half of the 11th century, we know of several lay and ecclesiastical schools in Bologna that taught subjects such as liberal arts, notarial art and theology,” Lines explains. ‘There was also a law school, and a letter-writing school […] where students gathered around certain masters.”

We at least have evidence that law was studied in Bologna at the time Corpus juris civilis was first taught, first by Pepo and then by Irnerius (you can see how far back we have gone as this was literally before Italians had surnames). And although the official charter, as for Paris and Oxford, came a little later, the country still easily beats its rivals on this point. Authentic habitat – the formal document establishing the rights and responsibilities of students and teachers in Bologna, issued by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa – in 1158.

The university is older than the oldest university in the world

So, is that it? Bologna reigns as the oldest university in the world? Well yes – and no. Depending on how you look at it, there are a few universities that have been around longer, but are still strictly speaking no older than Bologna.

According to UNESCO, the oldest university in the world is not Bologna, but the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco. On paper, the claim also seems quite clear-cut: it was founded by Fatima al-Fihri in the late 850s and beat all three European contenders by more than two centuries. So why doesn’t it count?

For some people that is even the case. Guinness World Records, for example, awards al-Qarawiyyin first place, demoting Bologna to “oldest in Europe”; The Encyclopedia Britannica also says that the university ‘in 859 AD. was founded’.

But this view is far from universal. Al-Qarawiyyin was not founded as a university, or even as a formal educational institution, critics point out. It was originally a mosque that eventually became a madrasa. The earliest evidence for teaching at al-Qarawiyyin may date from the 1120s – by which time all three European contenders had begun their work.

This also applied to the al-Azhar madrasa in Cairo, which was built around 970 AD.

Here’s the problem: Although both institutions are known as universities today, they originally were not – and many scholars would point out that a madrasa is simply a university. not the same as a university. In fact, the very laws and traditions that made the latter possible in Europe – in particular the concept of corporations existing as legal entities – were “alien to classical Islamic law,” noted Burhan Fındıklı, then a PhD candidate at the University of To put away. Department of Management and Organization Theory.

“The understanding of the madrasa as one community with his own interests was probably not the case,” Fındıklı points out, while many of the hallmarks of a university education – degrees, examinations and even a formal curriculum – were generally lacking in madrasas.

And that’s why, despite being universities – and despite being undoubtedly older than anyone else other university – neither al-Qarawiyyin nor al-Azhar can call themselves the oldest university in the world. Which just goes to show: no matter how smart you are, you can always be disqualified due to a technical problem.

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