1200 years ago, a young man sat in a small room and meticulously copied and translated an
ancient text of philosophy. Putting aside his writing implement, he drank from a nearby cup,
content in his realization that his work was done for the day. Standing, he stretched his legs and
walked to the window, where he looked across at the lush tropical forests of Bihar. Or, is he in
fact viewing the gardens of the German city of Aachen? Perhaps, in actuality, he is staring out
into the great river that runs through the heart of Baghdad? In truth, he could be in any of these
varied locations, as during the medieval ages, these three cities all housed a renaissance of
education and knowledge. In part III of A History of Education, we examine small slices of life
from each of these three cultures of learning to provide a more general understanding of the
context of medieval education.
Most of the information we have about medieval Indian education comes from the accounts of
Chinese travellers, in particular that of Xuanzang. A monk from the city of Chang’an, he traveled
across the silk road and down into the heart of India, driven by his thirst for traditional Buddhist
teachings. In his 20 year journey, he visited a number of Indian universities and monastaries,
including the famous sites of Mathura and Taksashila (though the latter was a ruinous shell of its
former self by the time Xuangzang visited in 630, as it had been pillaged by a Hunnic invasion a
century prior). However, we know the most by far about his time at the institution of Nalanda,
where he spent more than 5 years studying under experts in his field.
Nalanda was supported largely by the patronage of the Gupta Empire in its prime. Financial
endowments were made by emperors, which helped construct a series of impressive buildings,
large and adorned by richly decorated towers and turrets. According to Xuanzang, there was a
lofty wall all around the grounds and a big gate, which opened into the university with a big
main hall from which separated eight other halls. He describes that the upper rooms towered
above the clouds and from their windows, one could see the wind and clouds producing new
forms, and from the soaring eaves (overhang from the roof), splendid sunsets and moonlit glories
could be seen. He wrote in his memoirs:
“All the outside courts in which are the priests’ chambers are of four stages. The stages have
dragon projections, and coloured eaves, pearl-red pillars carved and ornamented, richly
adorned balustrades, while the roofs are covered with tiles that reflect the light in a thousand
Nalanda was not just a beautiful sight to behold, but it was also a university that students flocked
to from near and far, some coming all the way from Tibet and Korea (Xuangzang himself was of
course from North China). It was not easy to gain admission into Nalanda University.
According to Xuanzang, only about a fifth of the students who applied got through the
entrance examination, but there was a network of schools that helped students to prepare
for getting into Nalanda, which to modern high school students will sound all too familiar
to the university prepatory courses they’re currently attending! Regardless of its strict
entrance policies, the university was said to have as many as 8000 students and a 1000 teachers
at its peak.
A wide range of subjects were taught in Nalanda; sacred and secular, philosophical and
practical, sciences and arts; it was the most complete education available at that time, says
Xuanzang. He studied Yoga shastra under the highest authority
of the time – Silabhadra. He also studied Nyaya (one of the 6 orthodox schools of Hindiuism,
know today mainly for contributions to methodology and epistemology), Hetuvidya (a system of
Buddhist logic), Shabdavidya (Sanskrit grammar and linguistics).
From the fields of North India, we travel across the world to where a young warrior-king is busy
waging war in the forests of modern France. But war was not the only thing on the mind of
Charlemagne, King of the Franks and future Holy Roman Emperor, for surprisingly enough,
education had no stronger ally than him. When he arrived on the Frankish throne in 768, he was
angered to find poor standards of Latin prevailing even among the religious class, and he thus
ordered that the clergy be educated severely. A strident christian, Charlemagne believed that in
order to properly interpret the holy texts he revered so highly, one must have a command of
correct language and a fluent knowledge of Latin; he later commanded, “In each bishopric and in
each monastery let the psalms, the notes, the chant, calculation and grammar be taught and
carefully corrected books be available”.
With the king’s approval and support, the opportunity of providing young clerics and a few
laymen with more advanced academic training came to fruition. It was to meet this requirement
that a school grew up within the grounds of the emperor’s palace. In order to develop and staff
other centres of culture and learning, Charlemagne imported considerable foreign talent. Thanks
to these foreigners, who represented those parts of Europe where a Classical intellectual culture
had been maintained in the 6th and 8th centuries (such as Italy and Spain), the court of
Charlemagne itself became an approximation of a university. There the emperor, his heirs, and
his friends discussed various subjects—“the existence or nonexistence of the underworld and of
nothingness; the eclipse of the sun; the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and so on.
Recognizing the importance of manuscripts in the cultural revival, Charlemagne formed a library
(the catalog of which can still be viewed), had texts and books copied and recopied, and bade
every school to maintain a section for the sole purpose of copying and translation.
If the king’s attention to education allowed a minority of aristocrats a more rounded and
advanced moral and religious philosophy, the majority of his kingdom remained largely illiterate
and preferred apprenticeships to higher education. “He who has remained in school up to
twelve years without mounting a horse is no longer good for anything but the priesthood,”
wrote a German poet. However, though the changes of the Carolingian renaissance did not have
much of an impact on the lower classes, Charlemagne’s promotion of ecclesiastical and
educational reform bore fruit in a generation of churchmen whose morals and whose education
were of a higher standard than before.
We leave the court of the great Charlemagne for now, and we fly back east to a culture that is not
struggling to rebuild the glories of its past, but rather flourishing in the middle of a golden age of
science, art and literature. While the Carolingian renaissance was pushing for moderate
improvements in literacy, the city of Baghdad was smack dab in the middle of a golden age,
where scholars were arguing great philosophical truths on every street corner, and mathematical
treatises were worth their weight in gold. It was in the context of this educational high point that
the renowned House of Wisdom came into being as a library, translation institute and academy of
scholars from across the empire. Beginning as a project to protect knowledge, including
philosophy, astronomy, science, mathematics and literature, it quickly became, and is still
considered today, a symbol of the merging and expansion of intellectual traditions from across
different cultures and nations. The library grew to become the flower of the Islamic Golden Age,
a period between the 7th and 13th centuries of great intellectual growth and discovery in the
The main purpose of the House of Wisdom was in the collection and translation of works from
Ancient Greece, which would go on to have a huge impact on Islamic and Arab philosophy.
These Greek works included authors such as Plato, Aristotle and Euclid, and were usually
imported from Western libraries such as the one at Constantinople, and then subsequently
translated in Baghdad. In time, this thirst for knowledge would become a dominant feature of
mainstream Islamic society, and attract a wide variety of philosophers and scholars from across
Europe and the Middle East and from all creeds and classes. Part of the reason for this
educational migration was that scholarly work was very lucrative, with some scholars reported to
have been earning the book’s weight in jewels for the work of translation.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and the year 1258 AD saw the end of the
great majesty of the House of Wisdom, and with it, the Islamic Golden Age as we know it today.
It was in this year that, under the command of a descendant of Genghis Khan, Baghdad was
pillaged and ransacked. Most of the beautiful mosques, homes, gardens, hospitals and libraries of
the circular city were incinerated in great fires, and the entire collection of manuscripts of the
House of Wisdom were tossed into the Tigris River that ran through the city.
“It is said that for days afterwards the river ran black with the ink of books and red with
the blood of scholars.”
It was a tragic ending for one of the most advanced, diverse and progressive cities of the age, and
a mortal blow from which it can be argued that Baghdad still has yet to fully recover.
In the medieval world, just like it is today, education was a matter of life and death, a way of
lifting yourself up from nothing into something. Similar again to modern life, people like
Xuangzang spent years away from their homes and loved ones to get the best education they
could find, while others like Charlemagne invested huge amounts of wealth and effort into
raising the intellectual standards of their people. And unfortunately, even today, we can also find
those that would destroy in days what took centuries of work and knowledge to build. Thus, if
there is one lesson to take away from the three case studies in this article, it is that great
institutions of education are incredibly valuable, intensely difficult to build, and immensely
fragile. Put another way: never take our access to learning for granted. In the next part of the
ongoing History of Education series, we participate in a revolution, set sail for undiscovered
lands, and witness the birth of the modern world.