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The university culture developed differently in northern Europe than it did in the south, although the northern (primarily Germany, France and Great Britain) and southern universities (primarily Italy) did have many elements in common. Latin was the language of the university, used for all texts, lectures, disputations and examinations. Professors lectured on the books of Aristotle for logic, natural philosophy, and metaphysics; while Hippocrates, Galen, and Avicenna were used for medicine. Outside of these commonalities, great differences separated north and south, primarily in subject matter. Italian universities focused on law and medicine, while the northern universities focused on the arts and theology. There were distinct differences in the quality of instruction in these areas which were congruent with their focus, so scholars would travel north or south based on their interests and means. There was also a difference in the types of degrees awarded at these universities. English, French and German universities usually awarded bachelor’s degrees, with the exception of degrees in theology, for which the doctorate was more common. Italian universities awarded primarily doctorates. The distinction can be attributed to the intent of the degree holder after graduation – in the north the focus tended to be on acquiring teaching positions, while in the south students often went on to professional positions. The structure of northern universities tended to be modeled after the system of faculty governance developed at the University of Paris. Southern universities tended to be patterned after the student-controlled model begun at the University of Bologna.Among the southern universities, a further distinction has been noted between those of northern Italy, which followed the pattern of Bologna as a “self-regulating, independent corporation of scholars” and those of southern Italy and Iberia, which were “founded by royal and imperial charter to serve the needs of government.”

Their endowment by a prince or monarch and their role in training government officials made these Mediterranean universities similar to Islamic madrasas, although madrasas were generally smaller and individual teachers, rather than the madrasa itself, granted the license or degree. Scholars like Arnold H. Green and Hossein Nasr have argued that starting in the 10th century, some medieval Islamic madrasahs became universities.George Makdisi and others, however, argue that the European university has no parallel in the medieval Islamic world. Other scholars regard the university as uniquely European in origin and characteristics.

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