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Michael H. Shank on Medieval Churches and Universities

Put succinctly, the medieval period gave birth to the university, which developed with the active support of the papacy. This unusual institution sprang up rather spontaneously around famous masters in towns like Bologna, Paris, and Oxford before 1200. By 1500, about sixty universities were scattered throughout Europe. What is the significance of this development for our myth? About 30 percent of the medieval university curriculum covered subjects and texts concerned with the natural world. This was not a trivial development. The proliferation of universities between 1200 and 1500 meant that hundreds of thousands of students — a quarter million in the German universities alone from 1350 on — were exposed to science in the Greco-Arabic tradition. As the universities matured, the curriculum came to include more works by Latin masters who developed this tradition along original lines.If the medieval church had intended to discourage or suppress science, it certainly made a colossal mistake in tolerating — to say nothing of supporting — the university. In this new institution, Greco-Arabic science and medicine for the first time found a permanent home, one that — with various ups and downs — science has retained to this day. Dozens of universities introduced large numbers of students to Euclidean geometry, optics, the problems of generation and reproduction, the rudiments of astronomy, and arguments for the sphericity of the earth.


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