Life at a medieval university for clerics was in many regards similar to our present day college experience. When college was in session, life was basically split into two categories; life in the books, and life outside the books if you will. Scholars needed to focus their attention to the tasks at hand during learning hours. As we know today, the more time you spend studying, the better grades you’ll achieve. On the other hand, scholars needed a release from the daily grind of constant academic involvement.
This may have included some popular pastimes such as drinking, gambling, and wreaking havoc downtown (nothing a modern student would do). The scholars experienced many of the problems that modern day collegians deal with as well. Some of these issues included finding the college that fits you best, shortages of funds, arguments with local residents, feuds with fellow clerics, and finding the path that would be fulfilling to them in their lives. There were only a few major differences being a life centered on religion and discussions based on theology, the fact that only males were accepted to study and the clothing that scholars wore.
All in all, being at a university was for the betterment of the individual. Students back then had a similar motivation to go to school. By completing university study, you would achieve a higher status in society and live a better life. Another was to get out of a home town to see what else the world had to offer. College is the best time to explore because you’re housing and food are all accounted for. Wandering scholars took best advantage of this by traveling to different universities and getting a diverse education.
One reason not many people went to school was because most were not privileged at this time (the literacy rate was very poor). Academic life was structured fairly well. Rules and rights were clearly laid out by the institution itself. Students were protected from harm by any member of the faculty, as they should be. In the “Royal Privileges Granted to the University of Paris by the King of France,” it is stated that “…neither our provost nor our judges shall lay hands on a student for any offence whatever; nor shall they place him in our prison, unless such a crime is committed by the student that he ought be arrested.
” The article goes on to talk about how under the circumstances that the scholar is found to have committed a crime, he be handed over to an actual judge for further investigation. This shows that the university has governing powers within itself to a certain extent. If an encroachment can be resolved without going to the local or state government authorities, the scholar’s image can be protected. Even today we have University Police on campus who held regulate behavior on campuses, but do not have jurisdiction outside of the college campus.
Clothing was another major aspect of scholarly life. Clerics wore long cloaks with nothing fancy that would make them stand out. Master teachers wore cloaks with the addition of a white stole. The stole was used to show status and authority over the rest of the student body. This seems to hint to the fact that all the scholars were on a level field of play, and it distinguished them from the rest of society. Typically our graduates of today’s colleges and universities adorn the traditional gowns when they receive their diploma.
On a side note, I attended a private religious elementary school which enforced a policy of uniforms (shirt and tie for the guys, skirts for the girls). I believe that by wearing the same clothing as fellow students, people aren’t so concerned with what each other is wearing, and focus on learning. Religion played a major factor in medieval universities. As in my elementary experience of mass being part of the weekly routine, medieval universities had a major emphasis on religion. Robert de Sorbon tells us in his regulations that religious holidays will be followed strictly in the academic life.
No meat would be allowed to be consumed on Advent and other days designated by the church. If you were at a university at this time, you would follow the religious standards, just as I could never get out of going to Friday mass at HGA. Nowadays, religion is a touchy topic. It is left to the discretion of the individual whether or not he or she wants to follow the practices and how closely. Church and state are now separated as to avoid major conflicts. Peter Abelard questions the theological teachings of medieval universities and is criticized for it. He says “Is God one, or no?
” At this time scriptures were not to be questioned and were considered to be true. As we know now, science has become a major source of answers in society. Anyway, Abelard brings a whole new dimension to the table when he questions god’s existence and some of the things that the church stands for. The whole basis is to use logic and reason to ponder things in a philosophical fashion. This faith vs. reason debate involved Abelard and others who felt that god was in a persons being, or heart. Academia took up most of the students daily and weekly lives.
Scholars took full advantage of down time to relax and enjoy themselves. Social life was the second major aspect of a cleric’s university experience. As we know, the student body greatly impacts the surrounding town’s economy; however social issues arise as well. When students and townspeople are in the same atmosphere, and drinking, fights are bound to break lose. These battles came to be known as “town and gown” ordeals. These were actually small wars where people would be killed! As many as three thousand students armed with weapons would flood the streets and begin fighting with townspeople, also armed with weapons.
Students were also held fairly high in terms of their rights. This is what fueled most of the battles. The fact that a scholar was in progress of obtaining a degree made many seem untouchable, after all, they were going to make the world a better place with their elevated knowledge. Students were warned ahead of time by their proctors that there was a tension between the people of the town and the student body. Heavy drinking and gambling occurred frequently and poems were written as evidence. This served as a social release where students could let lose for awhile.
Even today student go to the bars downtown and mix with the locals. There are rarely any incidents of deaths or injuries because of it though. The money generated by pizza shops, bars, taxi services and businesses due to the student influx is what keeps them afloat. On a lighter note, clerics needed some of the same things that modern students need. Money was a big necessity among students as it is today. In a letter home one student tells his sponsor that he is working very hard in school, and studying often, but he needs some money to pay for food, rent and other “unspecified” things (possibly beer money?).
The way he words his letter makes it sound like he will not be able to go on learning without the timely delivery of some funds. The sponsor’s response shows that he knows the truth behind what the student has said. It humors me how students today do the same thing through emails and phone calls home. “I’m working so very hard in school, but the weekend is coming… ” Its all part of growing up and learning responsibility. In the end, life at a medieval university was not that much different from today’s experience.
The focus on religion was very important, but reason came into play as well. Scholars were taught to question everything in order to get to the roots of a topic. Over time, there was a major shift from the theological answers to the scientific explanations of today. We test things in science with facts to find if they are true instead of looking toward God and scripture. As in life, there is a time for work and a time for play. We go to college because we know it is good for us, plus it gives us a little extra time in our lives to figure out what we want to be.