The first Western European institutions generally considered universities were established in the Kingdom of Italy (then part of the Holy Roman Empire), the Kingdom of England, the Kingdom of France, the Kingdom of Spain, and the Kingdom of Portugal between the 11th and 15th centuries for the study of the Arts and the higher disciplines of Theology, Law, and Medicine. These universities evolved from much older Christian cathedral schools and monastic schools, and it is difficult to define the exact date when they became true universities, though the lists of studia generalia for higher education in Europe held by the Vatican are a useful guide.
The word universitas originally applied only to the scholastic guilds—that is, the corporation of students and masters—within the studium, and it was always modified, as universitas magistrorum, universitas scholarium, or universitas magistrorum et scholarium. Eventually, however, probably in the late 14th century, the term began to appear by itself to exclusively mean a self-regulating community of teachers and scholars recognized and sanctioned by civil or ecclesiastical authority.
From the early modern period onwards, this Western-style organizational form gradually spread from the medieval Latin west across the globe, eventually replacing all other higher-learning institutions and becoming the preeminent model for higher education everywhere.
The university is generally regarded as a formal institution that has its origin in the Medieval Christian setting. Prior to the establishment of universities, 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.
With the increasing growth and urbanization of European society during the 12th and 13th centuries, a demand grew for professional clergy. Before the 12th century, the intellectual life of Western Europe had been largely relegated to monasteries, which were mostly concerned with performing the liturgy and prayer; relatively few monasteries could boast true intellectuals. Following the Gregorian Reform's emphasis on canon law and the study of the sacraments, bishops formed cathedral schools to train the clergy in Canon law, but also in the more secular aspects of religious administration, including logic and disputation for use in preaching and theological discussion, and accounting to more effectively control finances. Pope Gregory VII was critical in promoting and regulating the concept of modern university as his 1079 Papal Decree ordered the regulated establishment of cathedral schools that transformed themselves into the first European universities.