The original Latin word “universitas” refers in general to “a number of persons associated into one body, a society, company, community, guild, corporation, etc.” At the time of the emergence of urban town life and medieval guilds, specialised “associations of students and teachers with collective legal rights usually guaranteed by charters issued by princes, prelates, or the towns in which they were located” came to be denominated by this general term. Like other guilds, they were self-regulating and determined the qualifications of their members. The original Latin word referred to degree-granting institutions of learning in Western and Central Europe, where this form of legal organisation was prevalent, and from where the institution spread around the world. For non-related educational institutions of antiquity which did not stand in the tradition of the university and to which the term is only loosely and retrospectively applied, see ancient higher-learning institutions.
An important idea in the definition of a university is the notion of academic freedom. The first documentary evidence of this comes from early in the life of the first university. The University of Bologna adopted an academic charter, the Constitutio Habita, in 1158 or 1155, which guaranteed the right of a traveling scholar to unhindered passage in the interests of education. Today this is claimed as the origin of “academic freedom”. This is now widely recognised internationally – on 18 September 1988 430 university rectors signed the Magna Charta Universitatum, marking the 900th anniversary of Bologna’s foundation. The number of universities signing the Magna Charta Universitatum continues to grow, drawing from all parts of the world.
European higher education took place for hundreds of years in Christian cathedral schools or monastic schools (Scholae monasticae), in which monks and nuns taught classes; evidence of these immediate forerunners of the later university at many places dates back to the 6th century AD. The earliest universities were developed under the aegis of the Latin Church, usually from cathedral schools or by papal bull as studia generalia (n.b. The development of cathedral schools into universities actually appears to be quite rare, with the University of Paris being an exception — see Leff, Paris and Oxford Universities), later they were also founded by Kings (University of Naples Federico II, Charles University in Prague, Jagiellonian University in Kraków) or municipal administrations (University of Cologne, University of Erfurt). In the early medieval period, most new universities were founded from pre-existing schools, usually when these schools were deemed to have become primarily sites of higher education. Many historians state that universities and cathedral schools were a continuation of the interest in learning promoted by monasteries.
The first universities in Europe with a form of corporate/guild structure were the University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (c. 1150, later associated with the Sorbonne), the University of Oxford (1167), the University of Palencia (1208), the University of Cambridge (1209), the University of Salamanca (1218), the University of Montpellier (1220), the University of Padua (1222), the University of Naples Federico II (1224), the University of Toulouse (1229), the University of Siena (1240).