Art as Evidence: Using Artwork to Understand Life in Medieval Universities

This article is the thirteenth of an ongoing series from EuroClio providing teachers with ideas and practical resources for teaching a range of topics in their classrooms. You can find a wealth of additional resources including units, source collections and eLearning activities on the Historiana website and you can read the other articles in the series here.

Medieval Universities
It was in the late medieval period that the first universities emerged, in Bologna, Paris, Oxford and then all across Europe. These new institutions both reflected and affected social and political shifts taking place across the continent. Medieval universities therefore present an interesting case study through which to explore this period. This could be useful both in units on medieval Europe and also as background for units focused on the Renaissance period. You can find a wealth of information and sources in our new source collection on Historiana, entitled Bologna and the Rise of Medieval Universities. These sources range from contemporary photographs to primary texts and medieval artworks.

Promoting Historical Thinking through Artistic Sources
Visual sources such as artworks can provide a way to evoke students’ curiosity and inquisitive skills, particularly in what is often a text-heavy subject. Artworks depicting historical period, events, and individuals can make great ‘starter’ activities to get students picturing and imagining the past. Thinking out loud procedures in which students are invited to ‘see, think, wonder’ or ‘think, feel, wonder about a stimulus artwork can spark interest, inquiry, and critical thought at the beginning of a lesson. Artworks can also be rich sources for students to analyse closely to glean information about the past as well as how people in the past chose to represent their world. Artworks can be used as a basis to formulate an answer to historical questions. It is important that, when using artworks as a historical source, students consider the particular usefulness they provide but also develop an awareness of the limitations of artistic sources.

Example eLearning Activity: Understanding Life in Medieval Universities through Art
The example eLearning Activity, What was life like in medieval universities?, aims to help students understand the past while thinking critically about their evidence. In this activity, students are invited to closely examine two medieval artworks depicting scenes in the University of Bologna and the University of Paris to identify commonalities in the medieval university experience. Students are then invited to describe what they believe medieval university life to be like based on this evidence alone.

Students are then invited to explore further information about medieval universities in the form of text (drawn from the source collection) and a short informative video. With this fuller picture of medieval university life in mind, students are asked to reflect on the value and limitations of artistic sources. Were the conclusions they drew from the artistic sources supported by the broader historical information? Was there anything that the artworks offered them that the text did not? What was particularly useful about the artworks? What are some limitations of these sources? The activity suggests that students discuss this with a partner and then with the whole class.


Historiana would not be possible without the efforts and generous contributions of historians and educators from Europe and beyondand the support of the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union.


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