The first universities in Europe began as private corporations of teachers and their pupils. Bologna vied with Paris for the honor of being the first European university. The traditional account states that sometime in the late eleventh century students began to gather at the feet of lawyers who looked to Roman law as the guide to creating legal principles for society. A number of men began to teach civil and canon law at Bologna, attracting a growing number of foreign (non-Bolognese) students to the city. Since these masters and students had no legal existence away from their homes, they began to associate themselves (universitas). Masters and students realized they needed protection against local city authorities. They petitioned secular power for privileges.

Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Hohenstaufen (ruled 1152-1190) issued his constitution “Authentica Habita” in 1155 when he first came to Italy to receive the crown. In May 1155, near Bologna, he met the masters and students of the School of Law. According to the anonymous author of the Carmen de gestis Frederici I, the scholars asked him to forbid the exercise of the right of reprisal(s) against foreign scholars (seizure of person or property to satisfy debts incurred by their compatriots) and to grant them freedom of movement “so that all men minded to study be free to come and go and dwell in security” [ut nemo studium exercere volentes impediat stantes nec euntes nec redeuntes].

Frederick I Barbarossa immediately issued the celebrated Constitution, in which he affirmed the pre-eminent value of scientific knowledge, and recognized as deserving protection all persons who were obliged to live far from their country in pursuit of higher learning. He granted professors of civil law and students the same rights already enjoyed by canon law students (who as clerics enjoyed a number of privileges ipso facto). No one should dare harm or wrong scholars, or try to recover debts contracted by fellow countrymen. Furthermore, any scholar summoned to appear in court should choose to be tried by his own masters or by the bishop’s courts (see Stelzer, 1978, pp. 123-165).

The constitution Habita was inserted in Justinian’s Codex, lib. 4, tit. 13, Ne filius pro patre, showing Frederick’s wish to revive Roman law and his desire to incorporate the new constitution in the legal system of the Holy Roman Empire. This particularly suited the masters of Civil and Roman law of Bologna as teachers and interpreters of Justinian’s laws. The constitution of Frederick I Habita is referred to in the standard books on medieval universities as one of the great landmarks in the development of the medieval studia generalia.