As Thomas E. Woods, Jr., explained in his book How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization the Church's development of the university should put to rest the claim that the culture of the Middle Ages was anti-intellectual and superstitious (the Dark Ages):
It was, after all, in the High Middle Ages that the university came into existence. The university, which developed and matured at the height of Catholic Europe, was a new phenomenon in European history. Nothing like it had existed in ancient Greece or Rome. The institution that we recognize today, with its faculties, courses of study, examinations, and degrees, as well as the familiar distinction between undergraduate and graduate study, comes to us directly from the medieval world. And it is no surprise that the Church should have done so much to foster the nascent university system since, according to historian Lowrie Daly, it was "the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge."
The precise origins of the very first universities are lost in obscurity, though the picture becomes ever clearer as we move into the thirteenth century. We cannot give exact dates for the appearance of universities at Paris and Bologna, Oxford and Cambridge, since they evolved over a period of time — the former beginning as cathedral schools, and the latter as informal gatherings of masters and students. But we may safely say that the process occurred during the latter half of the twelfth century.
In order to identify a particular medieval school as a university, we look for certain characteristic features. For one thing, a university possessed a core of required texts, on which professors would lecture and to which they would add their own insights. A university was also characterized by well-defined academic programs lasting a more or less fixed number of years, as well as by the granting of degrees. The granting of a degree, since it entitled the recipient to be called master, amounted to admitting new people to the teaching guild. Although the universities often struggled with outside authorities for self-government, they generally attained it. They also desired and received legal recognition as a corporation. . . .
The university and the intellectual life it fostered played an indispensable role in Western civilization. Christopher Dawson observed that from the days of the earliest universities "the higher studies were dominated by the technique of logical discussion — the quaestio and the public disputation which so largely determined the form of medieval philosophy even in its greatest representatives. "Nothing," says Robert of Sorbonne, "is known perfectly which has not been masticated by the teeth of disputation," and the tendency to submit every question, from the most obvious to the most abstruse, to this process of mastication not only encouraged readiness of wit and exactness of thought but above all developed that spirit of criticism and methodic doubt to which Western culture and science have owed so much."
According to historian of science Edward Grant, the creation of the university, the commitment to reason and rational argument, and the overall spirit of inquiry that characterized medieval intellectual life amounted to "a gift from the Latin Middle Ages to the modern world…though it is a gift that may never be acknowledged. Perhaps it will always retain the status it has had for the past four centuries as the best-kept secret of Western civilization."
In his Historical Sketches, Blessed John Henry Newman traced the history of the development of the university from the Academy of Athens, through the Schools of Charlemagne, to Paris and Oxford. He wrote The Rise and Progress of the Universities while working on the Catholic University of Ireland. In the chapter on the collegiate system of Oxford he provided some details of the room and board provided during the Middle Ages: