What’s in the name? Master of Arts

Master of Arts: what is in the name?

“But the master is so called as thrice great, set above others in mental capacity, reasoning power and moral conduct, of which if he lacks one he is not a good master.” (Commendation of the Clerk)

Richard of Wallingford, Abbot of St. Albans, mathematician and inventor of a mechanical astronomical clock. He is shown seated at his desk measuring with a pair of compasses
Richard of Wallingford, Abbot of St. Albans, mathematician and inventor of a mechanical astronomical clock – seated at his desk with a pair of compasses
(British Library; c3919-08; Cotton Claudius E. IV; f.201; 14th c.)

I. A person or thing having control or authority; II. a teacher, a person qualified to teach. (OED)


As the general definition has it, master refers to those who have control over others, be it in education or elsewhere. But there’s more to it; the term also encodes a high level of ability and skill – or professionalism – in a given field. Hence masters are often found not only in a position of power but also in highly valued manual professions. Next to leaders, commanders, and overseers who employ others, masters are also experts, models of excellence (compare maestro), and skilled craftsmen ‘qualified by training and experience to teach apprentice’ (OED).


In the early ages, when Latin is still considered the divine language of instruction, masters are naturally referred to by their Latin names. Early teachers are usually called māgisters (magister scholae / magister scolarum), and from the 13th c. on as (school)masters (scọ̄le-maisters), assisted by sub- or undermasters (ostiarius, and from the 15th c. on: usher). Other Latin terms, such as scolasticus, didascalus, grammaticus, monitor or pedagogus, also hint as to the nature of the profession. Educators would include females in their ranks, too, much infrequent as they were. And even though the most popular ME rule for medieval nuns, “Ancrene Wise,” advises the incluses against turning their House into a childrene schole (cf. Tolkien 1962: 217), textual evidence still yields a modest number of skolmaystres, as well (Lat. magistra scolarum, doctris puellarum).

The solidification of universities in the English landscape brings forth the emergence of vernacular names for educators. SKEAT derives the predecessor of master, the anglicized OE māgister, from the Latin base mag– ‘great,’ and TOE equates it with wita ‘a mentor, master and guru,’ on par with tǣcend ‘a guide’ (which started to mean teacher only at the end of the 14th century). And the 15th c. finally yields master, an orthographically simplified form used next to the reintroduced old term, which had already been well nested into the academic jargon.

In a purely academic sense, as a degree that awards the right to teach at a university, our master is first used on a mural monument of a certain Ingram de Ketenis, a graduate of Paris University, expecting to die in 1380 (hence the inscribed date) in Tealing, Scotland:

Heyr lyis Ingram of Kethenys prist maystr in arit [Master of Art].
(1380, Proc. Soc. Antiquaries Scotl. 30 (1896), p. 42)

(from http://angusfolklore.blogspot.com/2017/05/)

Master Ingram de Ketenis had to go back home early and left France before his graduation, but he still had a long and successful career as a learned archdeacon of Dunkeld, in his native Scotland. Interestingly, he failed as the foreteller of his own demise. Even though he proactively had his monument erected, foreseeing his death in 1380, in the end he lived long enough to see the next century and passed away almost three decades later, in 1408, as a very old and, likely, wise man.


Speaking of wisdom, school masters were bilingual or, at some point, trilingual, having mastered Latin as their language of instruction and Anglo-Norman as the language of authorities; next to their (usually) native English. They were expected to be familiar with seven liberal arts understood as trivium [grammar, rhetoric, logic] and quadrivium [arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy]. Those who pursued further education delved into advanced studies: theology vel divinity, medicine, or law, to obtain their master’s degree. The sine qua non to become a Master of Arts was a seven-year-long course of study ending with examinations, and a two-year-long regency at the university.

Political turmoils and plagues, which decimated and impoverished society, eventually deteriorated the quality of the teacher’s profession. In time, the requirements were alleviated to fit the reality; the 14th c. scholars, for instance, would only need to go through the first four years to obtain a newly created degree, Bachelor of Arts. Some schools would require their masters just to specialize in grammar, hence the new “master in grammar,” a 14th–16th c. qualification licensed by Oxford without any detailed requirements and by Cambridge as a formal degree after regency and a period of lecturing.

While grammar and song schools were slowly slumping into the hands of men of lower station and lesser earnings (Orme 2006: 165), who’d reduce Latin to a minimum and focus on singing, reading, and grammar, instead, prestigious teaching was taken over by the schools of higher order. Nowadays, the representatives of higher education, i.e. masters, doctors, and professors, constitute the intellectual elites of each country embodying mental capacity, reasoning power, and moral conduct.

MASTERS & Æ Academic

We are glad to collaborate with true masters both in their craft and art & science – the masters of book industry (behind the scenes) and our masters of academia (at the forefront), whom we proudly represent. The former work with us in Europe, Australia, Great Britain and the US, the latter include scholars from the US (Stanford, Boston, MIT, UT) and Europe (Amiens, France; Bergen, Norway; Brussels, Belgium; Bucharest, Romania; Győr, Hungary; Jerusalem, Israel; Kiev, Ukraine; Kraków, Poland, La Valetta, Malta; Lviv, Ukraine; Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium; Munich, Germany; Opava, Czechia; Oxford, UK; Paris, France; Pavia, Rome, Italy; Poznań, Poland; Salzburg, Austria; Stavanger, Norway; Verona, Italy; Wrocław, Poland). In the nearest future, we look forward to working alongside the Sapienza University of Rome, and the Polish Academy of Sciences with branches in Poland and in Italy.

Our publications:
Warsaw Studies in English Historical Linguistics, a series for the University of Warsaw.
Beyond Language, a series for the University of Wrocław, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, and the Polish Academy of Sciences, Wrocław Branch.
Cross-Cultural Perspectives in Literature and Language, a publication for Siedlce University of Natural Sciences and Humanities.

Further reading:

Haskins, Charles Homer ([1923] 1957) The Rise of Universities. Ithaka/London: Cornell University Press.
Orme, Nicholas (1975) English Schools in the Middle Ages. London: Methuen.
Orme, Nicholas (2006) Medieval Schools from Roman Britain to Renaissance England. New Haven, MA|London, UK: Yale University Press.
Rashdall, Hastings (1895) The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages. Vol. 1. Salerno–Bologna–Paris. Oxford, GB: Clarendon Press.
SKEAT, Walter William (1888) An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. [SKEAT]
Thorndike, Lynn (trans.) (1975) University Records and Life in the Middle Ages. New York, NY: Norton.