Students heading back to college this fall have much in common with their medieval ancestors.
The university of the Middle Ages was not unlike our modern institutions, in that its goal was to train the next generation of young minds for a career; in this case, the church. Much as in the modern world, the goal for attending school was social mobility, as those who tended to enter the clergy were those who would otherwise not inherit much in the way of worldly power, such as the younger sons of the nobility and increasingly, of the growing middle class.
Social life at a medieval university was, however, quite different than today. To begin with, it was all male. It was also explicitly moralistic: medieval rules regulated against gambling, flamboyant dress, staying up late, and association with loose women. Chronicles and other primary sources are rife with accounts of fights, riots, and other disturbances breaking out among the students and citizens of the university town.
Yet, certain things have remained the same. An early 14th-century letter from a father to his student son, for instance, advised him to keep a long, heavy stick “like a sword” in his room, with which to exercise, so as not to gain the proverbial "Freshman 15". And as much as modern-day professors may complain, students who stay up late drinking in pubs and talking to “loose women” are doing no more than following the tradition of their forebears. These often led to fights, riots, and other disturbances.
Ironically, this lawlessness led to the development of the University. In 1215, Pope Innocent III (himself a graduate) insured the establishment and autonomy of the University of Paris, by confirming the corporation of universitas et studentium (university and students) as autonomous from local and Church authorities in their power of self-governance. Matriculated students were now subject to ecclesiastical, not civil law, save for in criminal matters. In one extreme case, the Prevôt (mayor) of Paris was forced to apologize to two students he had had hanged for murder, by kissing the corpses’ lips.
A medieval university’s curriculum was generally broken down into the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and the quadrivium of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. This division of the liberal arts was focused mainly on the philosophical and theological implications of the subjects. Grammar, rhetoric, and logic were related to the discipline of reading and writing Latin, the common language of the Middle Ages. Arithmetic could be used for accounting; music was an integral part of church services; astronomy could predict eclipses and other heavenly signs; and geometry was a means of showing transcendental truths via the various laws that governed angles and lines.
The study of trivium and quadrivium enjoyed prominence at the three great northern universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and in Paris. In Italy, Spain, and the south of France, where the curriculum was more career-oriented, study centered more on law and medicine.
The first degree awarded by a university was the baccalaureate, the equivalent of the modern bachelor’s degree. This took several years to earn, varying both by school and the student’s ability. After this, the new “bachelor” could, assuming other circumstances to be favorable, attempt to procure a license to teach. This licentia docendi was issued by the scholasticus, the local bishop’s dean in charge of the school. The new teacher was then admitted into the circle with the title of magister, and the new “master” was then given his academic robes.
Today, universities still aim to cultivate the naïve student into the learned adult, with much of the same liberal arts curriculum that was practiced in the 13th century. Of course, unlike their medieval predecessors, after graduation, modern students readily seek financial stability rather than religious piety. Even so, modern college life, with all its rituals, remains a living legacy from the Middle Ages.
A jouster and fencing master, Ken Mondschein is a professor of medieval history and the author of many books, including Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War, The Art of the Two-Handed Sword, The Art of the Rapier, and The Knightly Art of Battle. For more info, check out kenmondschein.com. This article was originally published in Renaissance Magazine issue #19.