Explore the early roots of the university system from medieval monastic schools to a European vehicle of higher education. By Robert A. Selig
Universitas is derived from the Latin noun ūni-versus (turned into one), a composite of ūni-(one) and versus (turned), and translates as “the whole, the total, the universe, the world” turned or assembled into, a single entity. That “whole”, that Universitas—as in “universe”—is defined as all of time and space including all its contents such as planets, galaxies, stars, and all other forms of matter and energy, turned into one. Pray tell, you may now say, what does that have to do with this feature about the medieval roots and early history of universities? The answer lies in the second meaning of Universitas (university). In Roman law, the law of the Roman Empire codified under Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD, which formed the basis of much of medieval law of the Christian occident, Universitas denotes a society or corporation, an entity composed of one or more units, that is treated as an indivisible whole under the law. It exists independent of the person or persons governing it at any given time, it exists in and by itself. The term “university” as we use it today as opposed to “universe” is derived from this definition as a legal construct, a corporation with clearly defined goals and purposes. But what are the legal and organizational characteristics of a Universitas, its roots, purpose, the raison d’être, of that corporation that appears in the historical record south of the Alps in the 11th century as a society of teachers and learners, but almost 300 years later in central Europe in its more or less finished manifestation first in 1347/8 in Prague and forty years later in 1386 in Heidelberg.