When cities first began to grow, medieval guilds emerged, in which an association of artisans or merchants grouped together to oversee a particular craft in a particular town. All of the barrel-makers would work together, for example, and make sure they were paid appropriately and always had work, similar to trade unions today.
Universities began in this manner, with associations of students and teachers grouping together- in Latin, these were called ‘universitas’.
However, the modern understanding of a university, as a formal institution of education, began as a medieval Christian tradition. For hundreds of years, monks and nuns taught classes in cathedral schools or monastic schools, a practice which dates back to the 6th century. It seems though, that few of these schools developed into modern universities.
In order to be considered a university, an institution required a set of established rules, including the freedom to study. The earliest universities were founded by the Latin Church, kings, municipal administrations, or developed from existing schools. So, where are they?
5. University of Cambridge, 1209
In 1209, two scholars of the University of Oxford were executed. This caused a group of students to leave and found their own university: The University of Cambridge.
British leavers that crossed the Atlantic to found the United States of America found inspiration in the university and named a city Cambridge, Massachusetts, and founded a university there. Cambridge, Massachusetts is now home to two of the best universities in the world, Harvard and MIT.
Cambridge continues to inspire and is often thought to be the best university in the world.
4. University of Salamanca, 1134
This was the first European institution to be granted the title of ‘University’ by the King of Castile and León, Alfonso X, and the Pope in 1254.
The university claims to have been founded by Alfonso IX of León in 1218, though James Trager’s People’s Chronology sets the date as 1134. Regardless, it is and remains the oldest university in operation in Spain.
3. University of Oxford, 1096
The oldest English-speaking university in the world, Oxford continues to also be considered one of the best.
It wasn’t until 1167 though, that Oxford became a true medieval university, in part influenced by Henry II banning English students from attending the University of Paris, thereby significantly increasing the number of students.
2. University of Bologna, 1088
The University of Bologna was the first place of study to use the term ‘universitas’ and continues to be one of the leading academic institutions in Italy.
Oftentimes, Bologna is seen at the top of these lists, as it is seen as the first university in the sense of a higher-learning, degree-awarding institute. It was also the first to be permitted some of the rights and privileges universities maintain to this day. There is a challenger to their ‘oldest’ or ‘first’ status though.
1. University of Karaouine, 859
Named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the ‘oldest existing and continually operating educational institution in the world’, the University of Karaouine, also known as the Al Quaraouyine University, is located in Fes, Morocco as a community mosque with an associated school.
The university currently offers courses in Islamic Studies, legal sciences, comparative jurisprudence and more.