What’s in the name? University

University: what is in the name?

Many associate university, this ancient studium generale, with universal knowledge ― Hastings Rashdall, a historian of universities writing at the turn of the 20th c., debunks this stereotype. What university has certainly always been is universally accessible and generally open to folks from all around.

Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, Italy – home to the University of Bologna (f. 1088), the oldest university in the Western world

UNIVERSITY In the Middle Ages: A body of teachers and students engaged in giving and receiving instruction in the higher branches of study (cf. trivium, quadrivium); an organized body of schools. [Later:] An institution offering degree courses and research facilities, typically providing some accommodation and other amenities for its students. (OED, cf. also Skeat)


‘The whole, entire number, sum of things, universe,’ ‘corporate body of people, community’ (Lat), ‘corporation,’ ‘totality,’ ‘body of masters and scholars engaged in giving and receiving instruction’/ ‘institution of higher education,’ and ‘the whole of creation’ (OF/MF) ― all those meanings and more are encoded within the term in question.

Having borrowed the term from Latin ūniversitās via Anglo-Norman univercyté and Old/ Middle French université, the 13th c. England also began referring to her body of masters and academic scholars as a ūniversitẹ̄ (MED), at the beginning only attributively, in phrases like University of Scholars, University of Masters and Scholars, University of Study, and later also in absolute contexts (Rashdall 1895: 7).

The term appears in English soon after the first universities were founded in England, as an immediate effect of the 12th c. Renaissance and the influx of fresh knowledge in Europe, which “burst the bonds of the cathedral and monastery schools and created the learned professions” (Haskins 1957: 5). In a popular 13th/14th c. text, The Early South-English Legendary, we read of Edmund Rich of Abingdon, archbishop of Canterbury, who in his life’s journeys happens to arrive at Oxford (as well as Paris), a noble institution of scholars, clerks, and masters, where he lectures on mathematics and theology. St. Edmund’s legend contains the first attestation of the word university officially registered in writing by dictionaries (OED and MED):

So þat he bigan at Oxenford of diuinite,
So noble alosed þer nas non in al þe vniuersite.
Of redinge he hadde so gode grace : þat meni on to him drouȝ;
his scolers þat ihurde of him : gode men were ynouȝ.
(c1300, MS Hrl 2277, l. 247–250, D’Evelyn & Mill 1956)

He bigan so deope desputi of þe Trinite
Þat gret wonder me hadde þurf al þe vniuersite.
Þat þe gretteste clerkes þat were : in Oxenforde þo
Ne þoȝte þat eni vrþlich man : so furforþ miȝte go
Ne wite so moche of godes stat : bote hit [an] angel were;
Þer nere none maystres in Oxenford : þat in gret wonder þerof nere
(c1300, MS Hrl 2277, l. 269–274, D’Evelyn & Mill 1956)

How accurate that it is St. Edmund’s life story which showcases one of the first uses of the word in English texts. St. Edmund (†1240), after all, was one of the first Masters of Art at English universities, widely recognized for his eloquent lectures and extensive studies.


As mentioned above, for a long time, the term university would refer to an abstract body of people. Those medieval universitas vestra encapsulated a universe of persons, grouped in a similar manner to a guild, or a corporation, and they also functioned in the same way – equivalent to communities or colleges. As Haskins (1957: 9–10) has it, the first student universities in Bologna emerged to fight for their rights against townsfolk (who’d raise rents and food prices) and… professors, obliged to provide worth for the students’ money (punctuality, worthy lectures attracting an audience minimum, and systematicity were a sine qua non, written into the statutes).

An actual institution where they’d work, study, and aggregate was referred to as studium generale, i.e. a place which gathered folk from all over, in other words: the general population, regardless of class, kind, or nationality (cf. general in MW). Usually established by a Papal, Imperial or Sovereign’s Bull, a Studium Generale was then a reputable school of higher education (teaching at least one of the three higher faculties, i.e. theology, law or medicine), admitting students from all over the world, and maintaining a considerable university of renowned masters. By the 15th c., it finally became more or less synonymous with universitas as we understand it nowadays.

Those two notions, ‘universal’ and ‘general,’ have combined to shape the nature of the modern-day UNIVERSITY. Today our universities gain their reputation in world rankings, based on the quality of education they provide for the general population, while their scholars travel all over on visiting engagements just as the medieval masters would, exchanging experiences and advancing knowledge through the university circles and beyond.


We have the immense pleasure to collaborate with academics from all corners of the academic world. They include scholars from Europe (Amiens, France; Bergen, Norway; Brussels, Belgium; Bucharest, Romania; Győr, Hungary; Jerusalem, Israel; Kiev, Ukraine; La Valetta, Malta; Lviv, Ukraine; Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium; Munich, Germany; Opava, Czechia; Oxford, UK; Paris, France; Pavia, Rome, Italy; Salzburg, Austria; Stavanger, Norway; Verona, Italy) and the US (Stanford Uni, Boston Uni, MIT, UniT). We have published for the University of Warsaw, University of Wrocław, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Jagiellonian University in Kraków; and we’re looking forward to work alongside the Sapienza University of Rome, and the Polish Academy of Sciences with branches in Poland and in Italy. Their history reflects the meaning of the term university to the fullest, with regard to both their research and the context in which education and the pursuit of knowledge have always thrived in Europe and the world.

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.
Rashdall, Hastings (1895) The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages. Vol. 1. Salerno–Bologna–Paris. Oxford, GB: Clarendon Press.