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During the latter years of the first millenium, AD, intellectual activity was restricted to the protected confines of monasteries and cathedrals. The focus of activity was first and foremost on the preservation of Christian learning; namely, the study of the scriptures, theology, and canon law. Though education was primarily focused on meeting the needs of the church, some of the educated found positions in secular institutions.

Some centers of learning, especially monasteries, were also concerned to preserve the more secular texts of the the Greek and Roman past. Access to these materials and interest in their contents was facilitated by exposure to the Byzantine and to Arab traditions at many points around the Mediterranean.

European expansion, both military and commercial, after 1100 brought some stability and prosperity to cities throughout the Christian West. The growing prosperity was accompanied by an increasing need for learning of a more secular character. The study of Roman law, science, medicine, mathematics, and the philosophy of the ancient Greeks followed. Nonetheless, ecclesiastical authorities retained considerable control of the curriculum and of the faculty.

Already in the late 14th Century, ecclesiastical and temporal authorities recognized the growing demand for secular knowledge among more prosperous elements of the population. To meet that demand they organized the establishment of universities and contributed to the support of scholars who taught in them. University foundations were prompted not only by prestige associated with naming the university, but also by the growing needs of the bureaucratic and commercial elite for an educated posterity. Through the award (Stiftung) of privileges, the popes were able to exert a certain influence on academic instruction and appointments. In some cases (e.g., in Toulouse) the church also used the foundation of a university to secure Christian belief. Temporal authorities, monarchs and princes soon followed the example set by the church. Renewed religious impulses insured that theology remained central and vital to the curriculum.

As universities were established, scholars traveled in search of knowledge, students, and employment. Prospering cities with major cathedrals and their respective scriptoria (place where manuscripts could be stored and copied) constituted natural centers for scholarly activity. Moreover, well to do residents of cities could afford the education which made it possible to achieve high office and include themselves among the new urban elite.

During the Reformation both Protestant and Catholic authories wished to retain control of universities and to insure that the curriculum and faculty reflected their particular persuasion. The first half of 16th century marks the end of the "Golden Age" of wandering scholars as institutions stabilized and scholarly mobility was less relevant. This period also witnessed the rise of universities with a distinctly secular character. Padua, for example, was widely recognized as a center of medical study and its anatomists enjoyed considerable prestige and popularity.

During the 17th and 18th Centuries there was dissatisfaction with the university system. To meet the new instructional needs, Jesuits founded 'colleges' throughout the Catholic world. At the same time, scholars, especially those who were interested in science, were attracted to the new Academies (see module on this site devoted to Academies) founded the royal and aristocratic patronage.

A series of wars in the late 17th and early 18th centuries greatly restricted the mobility of scholars and students. In the late 17th century research was still prominent in academies, but as the neo-humanism movement gained strength it began to attract faculty back to the universities. An increase in commerce during late 17th century created a need for an educated merchant class, which created a renewed interest in the university and a shift in institution's aims.

In the 18th century foundations of universities were increasingly less dependent on religious factors. Secular motivations for research begin to return to the university during the early 18th century. In the late 18th century the Enlightenment movement gained popularity in Europe, making science and technology the leading sciences rather than religion. The foundations of two universities, Halle (1697) and Gļæ½ttinger (1737) would prove significant with the revival of universities in the early 19th century.