Emergence of the doctor’s and master’s degrees and the licentiate
The doctorate (Latin: doceo “I teach”) appeared in medieval Europe as a license to teach (Latin: licentia docendi) at a medieval university. Its roots can be traced to the early church when the term "doctor" referred to the Apostles, church fathers and other Christian authorities who taught and interpreted the Bible. The right to grant a licentia docendi was originally reserved to the church which required the applicant to pass a test, to take oath of allegiance and pay a fee. The Third Council of the Lateran of 1179 guaranteed the access – now largely free of charge – of all able applicants, who were, however, still tested for aptitude by the ecclesiastic scholastic. This right remained a bone of contention between the church authorities and the slowly emancipating universities, but was granted by the Pope to the University of Paris in 1231 where it became a universal license to teach (licentia ubique docendi). However, while the licentia continued to hold a higher prestige than the bachelor's degree (Baccalaureus), it was ultimately reduced to an intermediate step to the Magister and doctorate, both of which now became the exclusive qualification for teaching.
At the University, doctoral training was a form of apprenticeship to a guild. The traditional term of study before new teachers were admitted to the guild of "Master of Arts", seven years, was the same as the term of apprenticeship for other occupations. Originally the terms "master" and "doctor" were synonymous, but over time the doctorate came to be regarded as a higher qualification than the master degree.
Today the terms "master", "Doctor" (from the Latin – meaning literally: "teacher") and "Professor" signify different levels of academic achievement, but in the Medieval university they were equivalent terms, the use of them in the degree name being a matter of custom at a university. (Most universities conferred the Master of Arts, although the highest degree was often termed Master of Theology/Divinity or Doctor of Theology/Divinity depending on the place).
The earliest doctoral degrees (theology – Divinitatis Doctor (D.D.), law – Legum Doctor (LL.D., later D.C.L.) and medicine – Medicinæ Doctor (M.D., D.M.)) reflected the historical separation of all higher University study into these three fields. Over time, the D.D. has gradually become less common outside theology and is now mostly used for honorary degrees, with the title "Doctor of Theology" being used more often for earned degrees. Studies outside theology, law and medicine were then called "philosophy", due to the Renaissance conviction that real knowledge could be derived from empirical observation. The degree title of Doctor of Philosophy is a much later time and was not introduced in England before 1900. Studies in what once was called philosophy are now classified as sciences and humanities.
The University of Bologna in Italy, regarded as the oldest university in Europe, was the first institution to confer the degree of Doctor in Civil Law in the late 12th century; it also conferred similar degrees in other subjects, including medicine.
The University of Paris used the term "master" for its graduates, a practice adopted by the English universities of Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the ancient Scottish universities of St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh.
Emergence of the bachelor's degree
In the medieval European universities, candidates who had completed three or four years of study in the prescribed texts of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music), together known as the Liberal Arts and who had successfully passed examinations held by their master, would be admitted to the degree of Bachelor of Arts, from the Latin baccalaureus, a term previously used of a squire (i.e., apprentice) to a knight. Further study and in particular successful participation in and then moderating of disputations would earn one the Master of Arts degree, from the Latin magister, "master" (typically indicating a teacher), entitling one to teach these subjects. Masters of Arts were eligible to enter study under the "higher faculties" of Law, Medicine or Theology and earn first a bachelor's and then master or doctor's degrees in these subjects. Thus a degree was only a step on the way to becoming a fully qualified master – hence the English word "graduate", which is based on the Latin gradus ("step").
The evolution of the terminology of degrees
The naming of degrees eventually became linked with the subjects studied. Scholars in the faculties of arts or grammar became known as "master", but those in theology, medicine and law were known as "doctor". As study in the arts or in grammar was a necessary prerequisite to study in subjects such as theology, medicine and law, the degree of doctor assumed a higher status than the master degree. This led to the modern hierarchy in which the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), which in its present form as a degree based on research and dissertation is a development from 18th- and 19th-century German universities, is a more advanced degree than the Master of Arts (M.A.). The practice of using the term doctor for PhDs developed within German universities and spread across the academic world.
The French terminology is tied closely to the original meanings of the terms. The baccalauréat (cf. "bachelor") is conferred upon French students who have successfully completed their secondary education and admits the student to university. When students graduate from university, they are awarded licence, much as the medieval teaching guilds would have done and they are qualified to teach in secondary schools or proceed to higher-level studies. Spain had a similar structure: the term "Bachiller" was used for those who finished the secondary or high-school level education, known as "Bachillerato". The standard Spanish university 5-years degree was "Licenciado", (although there were a few 3-years associate degrees called "diplomaturas", from where the "diplomados" could move to study a related licenciatura). The highest level was "Doctor".
Degrees awarded by institutions other than universities
In the past, degrees have also been directly issued by authority of the monarch or by a bishop, rather than any educational institution. This practice has mostly died out. In Great Britain, Lambeth Degrees are still awarded by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop of Canterbury's right to grant degrees is derived from Peter's Pence Act of 1533 which empowered the Archbishop to grant dispensations previously granted by the Pope.
Among educational institutions, St David's College, Lampeter was granted limited degree awarding powers by royal charter in the nineteenth century, despite not being a university. University College North Staffordshire was also granted degree awarding powers on its foundation in 1949, despite not becoming a university (as the University of Keele) until 1962. Following the Education Reform Act 1988, many educational institutions other than universities have been granted degree awarding powers, including higher education colleges and colleges of the University of London (many of which are now effectively universities in their own right).
In most countries, gaining an academic degree entitles the holder to assume distinctive academic dress particular to the awarding institution, identifying the status of the individual wearing them.