‘Nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action,
but not the execution of any human design.’
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)

14 April 2011

The Mediaeval Rise of Free-Market Universities

Life in mediaeval universities has been an abiding interest, and so it was serendipity itself that a recent column by The Telegraph’s Simon Heffer extolled the virtues of a BBC Radio 4 programme ‘In Our Time’. Its host is the Labour peer Melvin Bragg who, along with a guest panel each week, discusses a variety of that would normally be categorised as ‘high culture’; in Heffer’s words, ‘it informs, educates and entertains.’

I scrolled through the comprehensive list of available episodes — which may prove material for future postings — and found one from a month ago, ‘The Medieval University’.

It was a fascinating account about the rise and consolidation of universities in what is considered the High Middle Ages, from the twelfth to thirteenth centuries: how they arose out of nowhere from the demands of churchmen and statesmen for educated assistants, becoming intellectual centres in the study of theology, law, and medicine.

The system of university education was so successful that it remains a powerful force to this day in the arts and sciences. In this broad category we owe the notion of the artes liberales — the ‘liberal arts’ — disciplines pursued not as means to an ulterior goal (the ‘servile arts’ or artes serviles) but as ends in their own right.

In our day, the term ‘liberal’ has come to have many meanings, oftentimes diametrically opposed to each other. Contemporaneously it has become synonymous with activist government promoting social welfare policies, a far contrast with its popular usage originating in the Enlightenment to mean less State interference and more personal freedom.

Yet listening to Lord Bragg and his guests these same impulses can be attributed to the rise of mediaeval universities, which ought to come as no surprise to anyone aware of the Austrian School of Economics and its efforts — successful to my mind — to rehabilitate the liberal, market advances that were pioneered during the Middle Ages. 1

The most noticeable free market characteristic of the rise of mediaeval universities is their ‘spontaneous order’ à la Friedrich von Hayek by ‘an invisible hand’ à la Adam Smith, without any originating central planning or oversight from either Church or State.

Universities in large urban centres, such as Paris, enjoyed an early advantage over smaller colleagues in less populated areas; as Adam Smith would describe in The Wealth of Nations:

As it is the power of exchanging that gives occasion to the division of labour, so the extent of this division must always be limited by the extent of that power, or, in other words, by the extent of the market. When the market is very small, no person can have any encouragement to dedicate himself entirely to one employment, for want of the power to exchange all that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men’s labour as he has occasion for (I.iii.1).2

Population size impacted the development and variety of business opportunities, with greater numbers influencing a greater selection of trades — one of which was education; at the university level, this meant that a greater number of students would seek a greater choice or ‘supply’ of subject-courses, necessitating the ‘demand’ for a greater diversity of teachers, and the die was cast in favour of innovation and specialisation.

Aspects of free trade were also in existence, as masters and students travelled from one university to another across the European continent and into the British Isles, searching for the ‘university product’ — whether it be salary, tuition costs, or programme of study, that met their needs — with Latin as the ‘gold standard’ of academic discourse. A standardised canon and licentiate also ensured that university graduates could offer their learning with credentials that were widely recognised and accepted.

Universities could not have arisen without the widespread use of money, as more primitive methods of exchange would have been unfeasible in this international enterprise. Private wealth itself was a contributing factor — although some Italian universities were financed by the towns in which they took root — as it was the bounty of the rich and their endowments that allowed the universities to take shape, and whose benevolence supported both their own offspring and the worthy poor. Voluntary charity and noblesse oblige, then, funded the great spread of universities in the high Middle Ages. This fact is borne out by the Oxbridge college system.

Competition, too, was the rule, not only within the university between masters and masters, students and students, and masters and students, but also between the universities themselves, in their rivalry to attract leading scholars and the best scholarship of the time so as to entice the best young students. Then, as now, a rising reputation translated into increased financial support and patronage.

Likewise, students were ‘sovereign consumers’ (in the terminology of Austrian economics), whose desire and demand for the teaching of specific subjects influenced the development of the curricula and the promotion or rejection of the teaching staff. What is taken to be a new marketing ploy of student-centred activities and outreach is rather very old indeed.

Throughout this free-market rise of universities, though, can be seen the ‘visible’ hand of ‘Tory’ interests; that is, the interventions of both Church and State in imposing order upon divergent, disparate action; the granting of charters and setting up the formal university structure, both in infrastructure and in the establishment of curricula and degrees: universitas is synonymous with the corporate guilds that help to define the Middle Ages.

‘Town-Gown’ conflicts and riots called forth the firm control the law. Unacceptable topics of scholastic debate, oftentimes in opposition to the powers that be, were suppressed by ecclesial and secular authorities.

In time, too, with the decline of organic Christendom and the development of the nation-state, universities grew less ‘free’ and more the instruments of national will, serving the interests of their local communities and of their royal patrons.

Factions also were to be found among the hallowed halls themselves; sometimes this was beneficial, as when a group of scholars decamped from the University of Oxford after such a dispute and took up residence in remote Cambridgeshire. Oftentimes the results were less inviting, as when academia became the instrument of stifling dissent. The trial of Joan of Arc, under partial supervision of faculty from the University of Paris, is one example. (In our own time, we can point to ‘political correctness’ and the pressures exerted against freedom of speech as trends against the animating spirit of the original universities.)

Here, too, is evidence of why universities slowly lost their predominance and influence in the later Middle Ages: an exhaustion with the curricula set in, aided in part by frustrations induced by the burgeoning internal bureaucracy and the demands of special ‘cloistered’ interests. Masters and students, unable to teach or to be taught as they pleased, escaped to cities where innovation was welcomed, authority less strict, and the new Humanism was taking hold of Renaissance minds.

Universities, of course, didn’t pass away, and their continuing relevance is witnessed by the liberal arts colleges that thrive in the United States. But their dominance has waned and been superseded in many respects by the ‘think-tank’ phenomenon and by private research organisations.

Yet universities may be the only significant institutions serving as repositories of Western civilisation, charged with the preservation and transmission of culture. While they may no longer assume the leading role in its creation, the university ideal of universality, of the artes liberales, is unique in to-day’s world of partisan and applied research.

Many may recoil from a free-market interpretation of universities, yet their mediaeval origins owe much to the free interplay of individuals and ideas implied by the free economy. By continued emphasis upon innovation and competition — by ensuring that they can be the best that they can be — can universities ensure their success for another millennium.


1. See, for instance,‘The Major Contributions of the Scholastics to Economics (Mises Daily, 3 December 2010)’ by Gerard N. Casey, ‘The School of Salamanca Saw This Coming (Mises Daily, 26 August 2009)’ by Jerzy Strzelecki, ‘The World of Salamanca (Mises Daily, 27 October 2009)’ by Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr., and volume 1 of Murray N. Rothbard’s history of economic thought, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, especially chapters 2-5 inclusive.

2. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner, eds. Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith. Vol. 2a. Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1981.

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