History of Convocation

The origin of modern universities

Although a famous medical school existed in Salerno from the ninth century, the first true university was founded at Bologna in the 11th century. It became a widely respected school of canon and civil law. The first university in northern Europe came into existence between 1150 and 1170; the Université de Paris was particularly noted for instruction in theology and served as a model for many other schools, including Oxford, which was well established at the end of the 12th century. The purpose, organization, and system of internal governance of today’s universities can be traced back to these earliest institutions. Many of our university rituals reflect this rich heritage.

Academic degrees

The university was probably modelled on the medieval trade guilds. To be granted the master’s degree meant that one had attained the level of competence needed to become a member of the guild and could commence to do its work (hence the use of the term “commencement” to describe ceremonies at the end of the academic year). The work of the master of arts was to teach. The doctor was one who, having been accepted into the guild through attainment of mastership, had successfully completed the curriculum of one of the higher faculties (these being, in the Middle Ages, theology, medicine, and law) and was now qualified to teach in those faculties. “Doctor” is, in fact, the Latin for teacher. The term “bachelor,” which originally denoted the assistant to a small landowner, in the Middle Ages came to mean an apprentice as opposed to a master workman.  

The academic assembly

Convocation is the modern equivalent of the medieval magna congregatio of all faculties. The academic procession, which is such a colourful part of convocation, harks back to the procession of the guild of teachers. Today, as has been the practice for centuries, the faculties present to the chancellor the graduating students and indicate the degree of proficiency that the students have attained.