The medieval student might be of any age. He might be a curate, a prior, an abbot, a merchant, a married man; he might be a lad of thirteen, troubled with the sudden dignity of his years. He went to Bologna, Orléans, or Montpellier to become a lawyer or a physician; to other universities he went in some cases to prepare for governmental service, usually to make a career in the Church. He encountered no entrance examinations; the only requirements were a knowledge of Latin, and ability to pay a modest fee to each master whose course he took. If he was poor he might be helped by a scholarship, or by his village, his friends, his church, or his bishop. There were thousands of such cases.60 Abbot Samson, hero of Jocelyn’s Chronicle and Carlyle’s Past and Present, owed his education to a poor priest who sold holy water to keep Samson in fees.61 A student traveling to or from a university usually received free transportation, and free food and lodging at monasteries on the way.62

Arriving at Oxford, Paris, or Bologna, he would find himself one of a large crowd of happy, embarrassed, and eager students riding on a wave of intellectual enthusiasm that made philosophy—with a dash of heresy—as exciting as war, and a debate as fascinating as a tournament. At Paris he would have found, in 1300, some 7000 students, at Bologna 6000, at Oxford 3000;* in general the universities of Paris, Oxford, and Bologna had more students in the thirteenth century than later, probably because they had less competition. The newcomer would be received by his “nation,” and might be guided into living quarters—perhaps with some poor family; if he had the right connections he might get a bed and share a room in one of the hospicia or residence halls, where his expenses would be light. In 1374 a student at Oxford paid 104 shillings ($1040) a year for bed and board, twenty ($200) for tuition, forty for clothes.65

No specific academic dress was enjoined upon him; however, he was requested to button his robe and not go shoeless unless his robe reached to his heels.66 For distinction masters wore a cappa—a red or purple cope with miniver border and hood; sometimes they covered the head with a square biretta, topped with a tuft instead of a tassel. The student at Paris had the status and ecclesiastical immunities of a cleric: he was exempt from military service, state taxation, or secular trial; he was expected—not always compelled—to take the tonsure; if he married he could continue as a student, but he lost his clerical privileges, and could not take a degree. A judicious promiscuity, however, involved no such penalties. The monk Jacques de Vitry, about 1230, described the Parisian students as

more dissolute than the people. They counted fornication no sin. Prostitutes dragged passing clerics to brothels almost by force, and openly through the streets; if the clerics refused to enter, the whores called them sodomites…. That abominable vice [sodomy] so filled the city that it was held a sign of honor if a man kept one or more concubines. In one and the same house there were classrooms above and a brothel beneath; upstairs masters lectured, downstairs courtesans carried on their base services; in the same house the debates of philosophers could be heard with the quarrels of courtesans and pimps.67

This has all the earmarks of righteous exaggeration; we may only conclude that at Paris cleric and saint were not synonyms.* Jacques goes on to tell how each national group among the students had favorite adjectives for the other groups: the English were heavy drinkers and had tails; the French were proud and effeminate; the Germans were furibundi (blusterers) and “obscene in their cups”; the Flemish were fat and greedy and “soft as butter”; and all of them, “through such backbiting, often passed from words to blows.”69At Paris the students were crowded at first into the island holding Notre Dame; this was the original Latin. Quarter, so called because the students were required to speak Latin even in non-scholastic converse—a rule often breached. Even when thequartier latin was extended to include the west end of the suburb south of the Seine, the students were too numerous to be easily policed. Altercations were frequent between student and student, student and master, student and townsman, secular and monk. At Oxford the bell of St. Mary’s summoned the students, and the bell of St. Martin’s called the burghers, to do battle in an intermittent war between gown and town. One riot in Oxford (1298) cost, £3,000 ($150,000) in damage to property.70 A Paris official (1269) issued a proclamation against scholars who “by day and night atrociously wound and slay many, carry off women, ravish virgins, break into houses,” and commit “over and over again robberies and many other enormities.”71 Oxford boys may have been less given to lechery than the pupils of Paris, but homicides were frequent there, and executions were rare. If the murderer left town he was seldom pursued; and an Oxford man considered it sufficient punishment for an Oxford murderer to be compelled to go to Cambridge.72

As water was hardly safe to drink, and neither tea nor coffee nor tobacco had yet reached Europe, the students reconciled themselves with wine and beer to Aristotle and heatless rooms. One of the main reasons for organizing a “university” of students was to celebrate religious or academic festivals with conspicuously virile drinking. Every step in the scholastic year was a “jocund advent” to be graced with wine. Students in many cases provided such refreshments for their examiners; and the “nations” usually consumed in the taverns whatever remained in their treasuries at the end of the scholastic year. Dicing was an added solace; some students earned excommunication by playing dice on the altars of Notre Dame.73 In their more orderly moments the students amused themselves with dogs, hawks, music, dancing, chess, telling stories, and hazing newcomers. Such fledglings were styled bejauni—yellow-bills; they were bullied and hoaxed, and were made to provide a feast for their lords of a year’s advantage. Discipline relied largely on rules established by each hall of residence; violations were punished with fines or by “sconces”—whereby an offending student was mulcted in gallons of wine, to be corporately consumed. Flogging, though frequent in grammar schools, is not mentioned in university discipline till the fifteenth century. For the rest the university authorities required every student at the beginning of each year to take a solemn oath to obey all regulations. Among the required oaths at Paris was one pledging the student not to take vengeance on examiners who failed to pass him.74 The students swore in haste and sinned at leisure. Perjury was prevalent; hell had no terrors for young theologians.

Nevertheless the students found time for lectures. There were sluggards among them; some who preferred leisure to fame favored the courses in canon law, whose sessions began at the third hour and allowed them to complete their sleep.75 As the third hour was nine A. M., it is apparent that most classes met soon after dawn, probably at seven. At the beginning of the thirteenth century the school season lasted eleven months; by the end of the fourteenth century the “long vacation,” originating in the need for youthful hands at harvest time, ran from June 28 to August 25 or September 15. At Oxford and Paris only a few days were left free at Christmas and Easter; at Bologna, whose students were of greater age and means, and perhaps more distant provenance, ten days were allowed at Christmas, fourteen at Easter, twenty-one for the carnival preceding Lent.

There were seemingly no examinations during the scholastic course. There were recitations and disputations, and incompetent students might be weeded out en route. Toward the middle of the thirteenth century the custom arose of requiring the student, after five years of resident study, to pass a preliminary examination by a committee of his nation. This involved first a private test—a responsio to questions; second, a public disputation in which the candidate defended one or more theses against challengers, and concluded with a summation of the results (determinatio). Those who passed these preliminary trials were called baccalarii, bachelors, and were allowed to serve a master as assistant teacher or “cursory” lecturer. The bachelor might continue his resident studies for three years more; then, if his master thought him fit for the ordeal, he was presented to examiners appointed by the chancellor. Masters were expected not to present clearly unprepared candidates unless these were rich in money or dignity; in such cases the public examination was adjusted to the candidate’s capacity, or it might be dispensed with altogether.76 Qualities of character were included as subjects for examination; moral offenses committed during his four or seven years at the university might then block the candidate’s access to a degree, for the degree attested moral fitness as well as intellectual preparation. Of seventeen failures at the examination of forty-three candidates in Vienna in 1449, all were for moral, none for intellectual, deficiency.

If the student passed this public and final examination he became a master or “doctor,” and automatically received an ecclesiastically sanctioned license to teach anywhere in Christendom. As a bachelor he had taught with uncovered head; now he was crowned with a biretta, received a kiss and a blessing from his master, and, seated in the magisterial chair, gave an inaugural lecture or held an inaugural disputation; this was his inceptio—called at Cambridge his “commencement” as a master. It was essential to such graduation that he should entertain all or a large number of the masters of the university at a banquet, and make presents to them. By these and other ceremonies he was received into the magisterial guild.

It is comforting to observe that medieval education had defects as troublesome as the educational systems of today. Only a small proportion of matriculants survived the five years required for the baccalaureate. The assumption of all the defined doctrines of the Church as binding on belief put the mind to rest instead of to work. The search for arguments to prove these beliefs, the citing of scriptural or patristic support for them, the interpretation of Aristotle to harmonize with them, trained intellectual subtlety rather thanintellectual conscience. We may forgive these faults more readily if we consider that any way of life develops a similar dogmatism about the assumptions on which it rests. So today we leave men free to question the religious, but not the political, faith of their fathers; and political heresy is punished by social ostracism as theological heresy was punished by excommunication in the Age of Faith; now that the policeman labors to take the place of God, it becomes more dangerous to question the state than to doubt the Church. No system smiles upon the challenging of its axioms.

The transmission of knowledge and the training of appreciation are obviously more widespread, and seem more abundant, than in the Middle Ages; but we should not readily say the same for the education of character. Practical ability was not lacking in the medieval graduate; the universities sent forth a considerable number of able administrators, lawyers who made the French monarchy, philosophers who led Christianity out upon the high seas of reason, popes who dared to think in European terms. The universities sharpened the intellect of Western man, created a language for philosophy, made learning respectable, and ended the mental adolescence of the triumphant barbarians.

While so many other achievements of the Middle Ages crumble before the juggernaut of time, the universities, bequeathed to us by the Age of Faith in all the elements of their organization, adjust themselves to inescapable change, moult their old skins to live new lives, and wait for us to wed them to government.

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