Nowadays the worst part of being the youngest child is the hand-me-down clothes. But in the early Middle Ages, the youngest child couldn't inherit land and often faced a life of hard labor as a serf. As the population grew, these landless serfs began to look for a better life beyond crowded feudal estates. Many took to the road as merchants.
Beginning in the eleventh century, the burgeoning merchant class created a market for education that went beyond learning about Scripture. While theology remained the "queen of the sciences," merchants needed other skills: reading and writing, for communication with suppliers, and mathematics, for balancing books. As supply met demand, the university was born.
Universities became central to life in the Middle Ages. In addition to training and educating merchants, they also educated clergy, shaped public opinion on important theological issues, helped settle ecclesiastical disputes (including the Great Schism of the fourteenth century), and were alternately courted and threatened by power-seeking popes. Although largely unnoticed at the time, the universities also had a leveling influence in that they allowed poor men and youngest sons to gain power and status through education.
Medieval universities quickly gained popularity. By 1250, about 7,000 students attended the University of Paris. Oxford University, located in a much smaller city, boasted a very respectable 2,000 students. All told, 81 universities operated throughout Europe prior to the Reformation.
Western Europe's first schools were begun in the sixth century by Benedictine monks who wanted to teach young men to read and write. Because these schools were associated with monasteries, they tended to be in remote locations. ...