[BACK]          [Blueprint]         [NEXT]


From The Rise of Universities, by Charles Homer Haskins; Henry Holt and Company, New York; 1923; pp. 79-126.



“A UNIVERSITY,” it has more than once been remarked by professors,” would be a very comfortable place were it not for the students.” So far we have been considering universities from the point of view of professors; it is now the turn of the students, for whether these be regarded as a necessary evil or as the main reason for the university’s existence, they certainly cannot be ignored. A mediaeval university was no regiment of colonels but “a society of masters and scholars,” and to this second and more numerous element we must now direct our attention.

The mediaeval student is a more elusive figure than his teachers, for he is individually less conspicuous and must generally be seen in the mass. Moreover 80 the mass is much diversified in time and space, so that generalization is difficult, what is true of one age and one university being quite untrue of other times and places. Even within the briefer span of American universities there are wide differences among the students of, let us say, Harvard in the seventeenth century, William and Mary in the eighteenth century, California in the nineteenth century, and Columbia in the twentieth century; and it would be impossible to make a true picture out of elements drawn indiscriminately from such disparate sources. Until the conditions at each university of the Middle Ages shall have been studied chronologically, no sound account of student life in general can be written, and this preliminary labor has nowhere been systematically attempted. At present we can do no more than indicate the principal sources of our information and the kind of light they throw upon student life.

Fortunately, out of the scattered remains of mediaeval times, there has come 81 down to us a considerable body of material which deals, more or less directly, with student affairs. There are, for one thing, the records of the courts of law, which, amid the monotonous detail of petty disorders and oft-repeated offences, preserve now and then a vivid bit of mediaeval life — like the case of the Bolognese student who was attacked with a cutlass in a class-room, to the great damage and loss of those assembled to hear the lecture of a noble and egregious doctor of laws; or the student in 1289 who was set upon in the street in front of a lecture-room by a certain scribe, “who wounded him on the head with a stone, so that much blood gushed forth,” while two companions gave aid and counsel, saying, “Give it to him, hit him,” and when the offence had been committed ran away. So the coroners’ rolls of Oxford record many a fatal issue of town and gown riots, while a recently published register of 1265 and 1266 shows the students of Bologna actively engaged in 82 raising money by loans and by the sale of text-books. There are of course the university and college statutes, with their prohibitions and fines, regulating the subjects of conversation, the shape and color of caps and gowns, that academic dress which looks to us so mediaeval and is, especially in its American form, so very modern; careful also of the weightier matters of the law, like the enactment of New College against throwing stones in chapel, or the graded penalties at Leipzig for him who picks up a missile to throw at a professor, him who throws and misses, and him who accomplishes his fell purpose to the master’s hurt. The chroniclers, too, sometimes interrupt their narrative of the affairs of kings and princes to tell of students and their doings, although their attention, like that of their modern successors, the newspapers, is apt to be caught by outbreaks of student lawlessness rather than by the wholesome routine of academic life.

Then we have the preachers of the time, 83 many of them also professors, whose sermons contain frequent allusions to student customs; indeed if further evidence were needed to dispel the illusion that the mediaeval university was devoted to biblical study and religious nurture, the Paris preachers of the period would offer sufficient proof. “The student’s heart is in the mire,” says one of them, “fixed on prebends and things temporal and how to satisfy his desires.” “They are so litigious and quarrelsome that there is no peace with them; wherever they go, be it Paris or Orleans, they disturb the country, their associates, even the whole university.” Many of them go about the streets armed, attacking the citizens, breaking into houses, and abusing women. They quarrel among themselves over dogs, women, or what-not, slashing off one another’s fingers with their swords, or, with only knives in their hands and nothing to protect their tonsured pates, rush into conflicts from which armed knights would hold back. Their compatriots 84 come to their aid, and soon whole nations of students may be involved in the fray. These Paris preachers take us into the very atmosphere of the Latin quarter and show us much of its varied activity. We hear the cries and songs of the streets —

Li tens s’ en veit,
Et je n’ ei riens fait;
Li tens revient,
Et je ne fais riens —

the students’ tambourines and guitars, their “light and scurrilous words,” their hisses and handclappings and loud shouts of applause at sermons and disputations. We watch them as they mock a neighbor for her false hair or stick out their tongues and make faces at the passers-by. We see the student studying by his window, talking over his future with his roommate, receiving visits from his parents, nursed by friends when he is ill, singing psalms at a student’s funeral, or visiting a fellow-student and asking him to visit 85 him — “I have been to see you, now come to our hospice.”

All types are represented. There is the poor student, with no friend but St. Nicholas, seeking such charity as he can find or earning a pittance by carrying holy water or copying for others, in a fair but none too accurate hand, sometimes too poor to buy books, or afford the expense of a course in theology, yet usually surpassing his more prosperous fellows who have an abundance of books at which they never look. There is the well-to-do student, who besides his books and desk will be sure to have a candle in his room and a comfortable bed with a soft mattress and luxurious coverings, and will be tempted to indulge the mediaeval fondness for fine raiment beyond the gown and hood and simple wardrobe prescribed by the statutes. Then there are the idle and aimless, drifting about from master to master and from school to school, and never hearing full courses or regular lectures. Some, who care only 86 for the name of scholar and the income which they receive while attending the university, go to class but once or twice a week, choosing by preference the lectures on canon law, which leave them plenty of time for sleep in the morning. Many eat cakes when they ought to be at study, or go to sleep in the class-rooms, spending the rest of their time drinking in taverns or building castles in Spain (castella in Hispania); and when it is time to leave Paris, in order to make some show of learning such students get together huge volumes of calfskin, with wide margins and fine bindings, and so with wise sack and empty mind they go back to their parents. “What knowledge is this,” asks the preacher, “which thieves may steal, mice or moths eat up, fire or water destroy?” and he cites an instance where the student’s horse fell into a river, carrying all his books with him. Some never go home, but continue to enjoy in idleness the fruits of their benefices. Even in vacation time, when 87 the rich ride off with their servants and the poor trudge home under the burning sun, many idlers remain in Paris to their own and the city’s harm. Mediaeval Paris, we should remember, was not only the incomparable “parent of the sciences,” but also a place of good cheer and good fellowship and varied delights, a favorite resort not only of the studious but of country priests on a holiday; and it would not be strange if sometimes scholars prolonged their stay unduly and lamented their departure in phrases which are something more than rhetorical commonplace.

Then the student is not unknown to the poets of the period, among whom Rutebeuf gives a picture of thirteenth-century Paris not unlike that of the sermonizers, while in the preceding century Jean de Hauteville shows the misery of the poor and diligent scholar falling asleep over his books, and Nigel “Wireker” satirizes the English students at Paris in the person of an ass, Brunellus, — “Daun Burnell” in Chaucer — who 88 studies there seven years without learning a word, braying at the end as at the beginning of his course, and leaving at last with the resolve to become a monk or a bishop. Best of all is Chaucer’s incomparable portrait of the clerk of Oxenford, hollow, threadbare, unworldly —

For him was lever have at his beddes heed
Twenty bokes, clad in blak or reed,
Of Aristotle and his philosophye,
Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrye.
     ·       ·       ·       ·       ·       ·       ·       ·       ·       ·
Souninge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.

But after all, no one knows so much about student life as the students themselves, and it is particularly from what was written by and for them, the student literature of the Middle Ages, that I wish to draw more at length. Such remains of the academic past fall into three chief classes: student manuals, student letters, and student poetry. Let us consider them in this order.


The manuals of general advice and counsel addressed to the mediaeval scholar do not call for extended consideration. Formal treatises on the whole duty of students are characteristic of the didactic habit of mind of the Middle Ages, but the advice which they contain is apt to be of a very general sort, applicable to one age as well as another and lacking in those concrete illustrations which enliven the sermons of the period into useful sources for university life.

A more interesting type of student manual, the student dictionary, owes its existence to the position of Latin as the universal language of mediaeval education. Text-books were in Latin, lectures were in Latin, and, what is more, the use of Latin was compulsory in all forms of student intercourse. This rule may have been designed as a check on conversation, as well as an incentive to learning, but it was enforced by penalties and informers (called wolves), and the freshman, or 90 yellow-beak, as he was termed in mediaeval parlance, might find himself but ill equipped for making himself understood in his new community. For his convenience a master in the University of Paris in the thirteenth century, John of Garlande, prepared a descriptive vocabulary, topically arranged and devoting a large amount of space to the objects to be seen in the course of a walk through the streets of Paris. The reader is conducted from quarter to quarter and from trade to trade, from the book-stalls of the Parvis Notre-Dame and the fowl-market of the adjoining Rue Neuve to the money-changers’ tables and goldsmiths’ shops on the Grand-Pont and the bow-makers of the Porte S.-Lazare, not omitting the classes of ouvrières whose acquaintance the student was most likely to make. Saddlers and glovers, furriers, cobblers, and apothecaries, the clerk might have use for the wares of all of them, as well as the desk and candle and writing-materials which were the special 91 tools of his calling; but his most frequent relations were with the purveyors of food and drink, whose agents plied their trade vigorously through the streets and lanes of the Latin quarter and worked off their poorer goods on scholars and their servants. There were the hawkers of wine, crying their samples of different qualities from the taverns; the fruit-sellers, deceiving clerks with lettuce and cress, cherries, pears, and green apples; and at night the vendors of light pastry, with their carefully covered baskets of wafers, waffles, and rissoles — a frequent stake at the games of dice among students, who had a custom of hanging from their windows the baskets gained by lucky throws of the six. The pâtissiers had also more substantial wares suited to the clerical taste, tarts filled with eggs and cheese and well-peppered pies of pork, chicken, and eels. To the rôtissiers scholars’ servants resorted, not only for the pigeons, geese, and other fowl roasted on their spits, but also for uncooked beef, pork, 92 and mutton, seasoned with garlic and other strong sauces. Such fare, however, was not for the poorer students, whose slender purses limited them to tripe and various kinds of sausage, over which a quarrel might easily arise and “the butchers be themselves butchered by angry scholars.”

A dictionary of this sort easily passes into another type of treatise, the manual of conversation. This method of studying foreign languages is old, as survivals from ancient Egypt testify, and it still spreads its snares for the unwary traveller who prepares to conquer Europe à la Ollendorff. To the writers of the later Middle Ages it seemed to offer an exceptional opportunity for combining Instruction in Latin with sound academic discipline, and from both school and university it left its monuments for our perusal. The most interesting of these handbooks is entitled a “Manual of Scholars who propose to attend universities of students and to profit therein,” 93 and while in its most common form it is designed for the students of Heidelberg about the year 1480, it could be adapted with slight changes to any of the German universities. “Rollo at Heidelberg,” we might call it. Its eighteen chapters conduct the student from his matriculation to his degree, and inform him by the way on many subjects quite unnecessary for either. When the young man arrives he registers from Ulm; his parents are in moderate circumstances; he has come to study. He is then duly hazed after the German fashion, which treats the candidate as an unclean beast with horns and tusks which must be removed by officious fellow-students, who also hear his confession of sin and fix as the penance a good dinner for the crowd. He begins his studies by attending three lectures a day, and learns to champion nominalism against realism and the comedies of Terence against the law, and to discuss the advantages of various universities and the price of food and the quality of 94 the beer in university towns. Then we find him and his room-mate quarrelling over a mislaid book; rushing at the first sound of the bell to dinner, where they debate the relative merits of veal and beans; or walking in the fields beyond the Neckar, perhaps by the famous Philosophers’ Road which has charmed so many generations of Heidelberg youth, and exchanging Latin remarks on the birds and fish as they go. Then there are shorter dialogues: the scholar breaks the statutes; he borrows money, and gets it back; he falls in love and recovers; he goes to hear a fat Italian monk preach or to see the jugglers and the jousting in the market-place; he knows the dog-days are coming — he can feel them in his head! Finally our student is told by his parents that it is high time for him to take his degree and come home. At this he is much disturbed; he has gone to few lectures, and he will have to swear that he has attended regularly; he has not worked much and has incurred the enmity 95 of many professors; his master discourages him from trying the examination; he fears the disgrace of failure. But his interlocutor reassures him by a pertinent quotation from Ovid and suggests that a judicious distribution of gifts may do much — a few florins will win him the favor of all. Let him write home for more money and give a great feast for his professors; if he treats them well, he need not fear the outcome. This advice throws a curious light upon the educational standards of the time; it appears to have been followed, for the manual closes with a set of forms inviting the masters to the banquet and the free bath by which it was preceded.

If university students had need of such elementary compends of morals and manners, there was obviously plenty of room for them in the lower schools as well, where they were apt to take the form of Latin couplets which could be readily impressed upon the pupil’s memory. Such statuta vel precepta scolarium seem 96 to have been especially popular in the later fifteenth century in those city schools of Germany whose importance has been so clearly brought out by recent historians of secondary education. Wandering often from town to town, like the roving scholars of an earlier age, these German boys had good need to observe the moral maxims thus purveyed. The beginning of wisdom was to remember God and obey the master, but the student had also to watch his behavior in church and lift up his voice in the choir — compulsory attendance at church and singing in the choir being a regular feature of these schools — keep his books clean, and pay his school bills promptly. Face and hands should be washed in the morning, but the baths should not be visited without permission, nor should boys run on the ice or throw snowballs. Sunday was the day for play, but this could be only in the churchyard, where boys must be careful not to play with dice or break stones from the wall or throw anything over the 97 church. And whether at play or at home, Latin should always be spoken.

More systematic is a manual of the fifteenth century preserved in a manuscript of the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris.1 “Since by reason of imbecility youths cannot advance to a knowledge of the Latin tongue by theory alone,” the author has for their assistance prepared a set of forms which contain the expressions most frequently employed by clerks. Beginning with the courtesies of school life, for obedience and due reverence for the master are the beginning of wisdom, the boy learns how to greet his master and to take leave, how to excuse himself for wrong-doing, how to invite the master to dine or sup with his parents — there are half a dozen forms for this! He is also taught how to give proper answers to those who seek to test his knowledge, “that he may not appear an idiot in the sight of his parents.” “If the master asks, ‘Where have you been so long?’” he 98 must be ready, not only to plead the inevitable headache or failure to wake up, but also to express the causes of delay well known to any village boy. He had to look after the house or feed the cattle or water the horse; he was detained by a wedding, by picking grapes, or making out bills, or — for these were German boys — by helping with the brew, fetching beer, or serving drink to guests.

In school after the “spiritual refection” of the morning singing-lesson comes refection of the body, which is placed after study hours because “the imaginative virtue is generally impeded in those who are freshly sated.” In their talk at luncheon or on the playground “clerks are apt to fall from the Latin idiom into the mother tongue,” and for him who speaks German the discretion of the master has invented a dunce’s symbol called an ass, which the holder tries hard to pass on to another. “Wer wel ein Griffel kousse[n]?” “Ich wel ein Griffel kouffen.” “Tecum sit asinus.” “Ach, 99 quam falsus es tu!” Sometimes the victim offers to meet his deceiver after vespers, with the usual schoolboy brag on both sides. As it is forbidden to come to blows in school, the boys are taught to work off their enmities and formulate their complaints in Latin dialogue. “You were outside the town after dark. You played with laymen Sunday. You went swimming Monday. You stayed away from matins. You slept through mass.” “Reverend master, he has soiled my book, he shouts after me wherever I go, he calls me names.” Besides the formal disputations the scholars discuss such current events as a street fight, a cousin’s wedding, the coming war with the duke of Saxony, or the means of getting to Erfurt, whither one of them is going when he is sixteen to study at the university. The great ordeal of the day was the master’s quiz on Latin grammar, when every one was questioned in turn (auditio circuli). The pupils rehearse their declensions and conjugations and the idle begin 100 to tremble as the hour draws near. There is some hope that the master may not come. “He has guests.” “But they will leave in time,” “He may go to the baths.” “But it is not yet a whole week since he was there last.” “There he comes. Name the wolf, and he forthwith appears.” Finally the shaky scholar falls back on his only hope, a place near one who promises to prompt him.

“When the recitation is over the lesson given out, rejoicing begins among the youth at the approach of the hour for going home,” and they indulge in much idle talk “which is here omitted, lest it furnish the means of offending.” Joy is, however, tempered by the contest which precedes dismissal, “ a serious and furious disputation for the palmiterium,” until one secures the prize and another has the asinus to keep till next day.

After school the boys go to play in the churchyard, the sports mentioned being hoops, marbles (apparently), ball (during Lent), and a kind of counting 101 game. The author distinguishes hoops for throwing and for rolling, spheres of wood and of stone, but the subject soon becomes too deep for his Latin, and in the midst of this topic the treatise comes to an abrupt conclusion.

In some of its forms the student manual touches on territory already occupied by another type of mediaeval handbook, the manual of manners, which under such titles as “The Book of Urbanity,” “The Courtesies of the Table,” etc., enjoyed much popularity from the thirteenth century onward. Such manuals have, however, none of the polish of Castiglione’s Courtier or the elaborateness of the modern book of etiquette. Those who have not mastered the use of knife and fork have little use for the finer points of social intercourse, and the readers of the mediaeval manuals were still at their a b c’s in the matter of behavior. Wash your hands in the morning, and, if you have time, your face; use your napkin and handkerchief; eat with three 102 fingers, and don’t gorge; don’t be boisterous or quarrelsome at table; don’t stare at your neighbor or his plate; don’t criticise the food; don’t pick your teeth with your knife — such, with others still more elementary, are the maxims which meet us in this period, in Latin and French, in English, German, and Italian, but regularly in verse. Now and then there is a further touch of the age; scrape bones with your knife but don’t gnaw them; when you have done with them, put them in a bowl or on the floor!

If the correspondence of mediaeval students were preserved for us in casual and unaffected detail, nothing could give a more vivid picture of university conditions. Unfortunately in some respects for us, the Middle Ages were a period of forms and types in letter-writing as in other things; and for most men the writing of a letter was less an expression of individual feeling and experience than it was the laborious copying of a letter of 103 some one else, altered where necessary to suit the new conditions. And if something fresh or individual was produced, there was small chance of preserving it, since it was on that account all the less likely to be useful to a future letter-writer — “so careful of the type, so careless of the single” letter, history seems. The result is that the hundreds of student letters which have reached us in the manuscripts of the Middle Ages have come down through the medium of collections of forms or complete letter-writers, shorn of most of their individuality but for that very reason reflecting the more faithfully the fundamental and universal phases of university life.

By far the largest element in the correspondence of mediaeval students consists of requests for money; “a student’s first song is a demand for money,” says a weary father in an Italian letter-writer, “and there will never be a letter which does not ask for cash.” How to secure this fundamental necessity of student 104 life was doubtless one of the most important problems that confronted the mediaeval scholar, and many were the models which the rhetoricians placed before him in proof of the practical advantages of their art. The letters are generally addressed to parents, sometimes to brothers, uncles, or ecclesiastical patrons; a much copied exercise contained twenty-two different methods of approaching an archdeacon on this ever-delicate subject. Commonly the student announces that he is at such and such a centre of learning, well and happy but in desperate need of money for books and other necessary expenses. Here is a specimen from Oxford, somewhat more individual than the average and written in uncommonly bad Latin:

“B. to his venerable master A., greeting. This is to inform you that I am studying at Oxford with the greatest diligence, but the matter of money stands greatly in the way of my promotion, as it is now two months since I spent the last 105 of what you sent me. The city is expensive and makes many demands; I have to rent lodgings, buy necessaries, and provide for many other things which I cannot now specify. Wherefore I respectfully beg your paternity that by the promptings of divine pity you may assist me, so that I may be able to complete what I have well begun. For you must know that without Ceres and Bacchus Apollo grows cold.”

If the father was close-fisted, there were special reasons to be urged: the town was dear — as university towns always are! — the price of living was exceptionally high owing to a hard winter, a siege, a failure of crops, or an unusual number of scholars; the last messenger had been robbed or had absconded with the money; the son could borrow no more of his fellows or of the Jews; and so on. The student’s woes are depicted in moving language, with many appeals to paternal vanity and affection. At Bologna we hear of the terrible mud through 106 which the youth must beg his way from door to door, crying, “O good masters,” and coming home empty-handed. In an Austrian formulary a scholar writes from the lowest depths of prison, where the bread is hard and moldy, the drink water mixed with tears, the darkness so dense that it can actually be felt. Another lies on straw with no covering, goes without shoes or shirt, and eats he will not say what — a tale designed to be addressed to a sister and to bring in response a hundred sous tournois, two pairs of sheets, and ten ells of fine cloth, all sent without her husband’s knowledge. “We have made little glosses, we owe money,” is the terse summary of two students at Chartres.

To such requests the proper answer was, of course, an affectionate letter, commending the young man’s industry and studious habits and remitting the desired amount. Sometimes the student is cautioned to moderate his expenses — he might have got on longer with what he had, he should remember the needs of his 107 sisters, he ought to be supporting his parents instead of trying to extort money from them, etc. One father — who quotes Horace! — excuses himself because of the failure of his vineyards. It often happened, too, that the father or uncle has heard bad reports of the student, who must then be prepared to deny indignantly all such aspersions as the unfounded fabrications of his enemies. Here is an example of paternal reproof taken from an interesting collection relating to Franche-Comté:

“To his son G. residing at Orleans P. of Besançon sends greetings with paternal zeal. It is written, ‘He also that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster.’ I have recently discovered that you live dissolutely and slothfully, preferring license to restraint and play to work and strumming a guitar while the others are at their studies, whence it happens that you have read but one volume of law while your more industrious companions have read several. 108 Wherefore I have decided to exhort you herewith to repent utterly of your dissolute and careless ways, that you may no longer be called a waster and your shame may be turned to good repute.”

In the models of Ponce de Provence we find a teacher writing to a student’s father that while the young man is doing well in his studies, he is just a trifle wild and would be helped by judicious admonition. Naturally the master does not wish it known that the information came through him, so the father writes his son:

“I have learned — not from your master, although he ought not to hide such things from me, but from a certain trustworthy source — that you do not study in your room or act in the schools as a good student should, but play and wander about, disobedient to your master and indulging in sport and in certain other dishonorable practices which I do not now care to explain by letter.” Then follow the customary exhortations to reform.


Two boys at Orleans thus describe their arrival at this centre of learning:

“To their dear and respected parents M. Martre, knight, and M. his wife, M. and S. their sons send greeting and filial obedience. This is to inform you that, by divine mercy, we are living in good health in the city of Orleans and are devoting ourselves wholly to study, mindful of the words of Cato, ‘To know anything is praiseworthy.’ We occupy a good dwelling, next door but one to the schools and market-place, so that we can go to school every day without wetting our feet. We have also good companions in the house with us, well advanced in their studies and of excellent habits — an advantage which we well appreciate, for as the Psalmist says, ‘With an upright man thou wilt show thyself upright.’ ”

Such youths were slow to quit academic life. Again and again they ask permission to have their term of study extended; war might break out, parents or brothers die, an inheritance have to be divided, 110 but the student pleads always for delay. He desires to “serve longer in the camp of Pallas”; in any event he cannot leave before Easter, as his masters have just begun important courses of lectures. A scholar is called home from Siena to marry a lady of many attractions; he answered that he deems it foolish to desert the cause of learning for the sake of a woman, “for one may always get a wife, but science once lost can never be recovered.”

The time to leave, however, must come at last, and then the great problem is money for the expenses of commencement, or, as it was then called, inception. Thus a student at Paris asks a friend to explain to his father, “since the simplicity of the lay mind does not understand such things,” how at length after much study nothing but lack of money for the inception banquet stands in the way of his graduation. From Orleans D. Boterel writes to his dear relatives at Tours that he is laboring over his last volume of law 111 and on its completion will be able to pass to his licentiate provided they send him a hundred livres for the necessary expenses. An account of the inception at Bologna was quoted in the preceding chapter.2

Unlike the student letters, which range over the whole of the later Middle Ages, mediaeval student poetry, or rather the best of it, is limited to a comparatively short period comprised roughly within the years 1125 and 1225, and is closely connected with the classical phase of the twelfth-century renaissance. It is largely the work of the wandering clerks of the period — students, ex-students, professors even — moving from town to town in search of learning and still more of adventure, nominally clerks but leading often very unclerical lives. “Far from their homes,” says Symonds, “without responsibilities, light of purse and light of heart, careless and pleasure-seeking, they 112 ran a free, disreputable course.” “They are wont,” writes a monk of the twelfth century, “to roam about the world and visit all its cities, till much learning makes them mad; for in Paris they seek liberal arts, in Orleans classics, at Salerno medicine, at Toledo magic, but nowhere manners and morals.” Their chief habitat, however, was northern France, the center of the new literary renaissance.

Possibly from some obscure allusion to Goliath the Philistine, these wandering clerks took the name Goliardi and their verse is generally known as Goliardic poetry. This literature is for the most part anonymous, though recent research has individualized certain writers of the group, notably a Master Hugh, canon of Orleans, ca. 1142, styled the Primate, and the so-called Archpoet. The Primate, mordant, diabolically clever, thoroughly disreputable, became famous for generations as “an admirable improviser, who if he had but turned his heart to the love of God would have had a great place in divine 113 letters and have proved most useful to God’s church.” The Archpoet is found chiefly in Italy from 1161 to 1165, going “on his own” in spring and summer but when autumn comes on turning to beg shirt and cloak from his patron, the archbishop of Cologne. Ordered to compose an epic for the emperor in a week, he replies he cannot write on an empty stomach — the quality of his verse depends on the quality of his wine:

Tales versus facio quale vinum bibo.

Good wine he must at times have found, for he composed the masterpiece of the whole school, the Confession of a Goliard, that unforgettable description of the burning temptations of Pavia which contains the famous glorification of the joys of the tavern:

In the public house to die
     Is my resolution;
Let wine to my lips be nigh
     At life’s dissolution; 114
That will make the angels cry,
     With glad elocution,
“Grant this toper, God on high,
     Grace and absolution!”

Though written in Latin, the Goliardic verse has abandoned the ancient metrical system for the rhyme and accent of modern poetry, but even the best of modern versions, such as those of John Addington Symonds, from which I am quoting, fail to render the swing, the lilt, the rhythmical flow of the original. Its authors are familiar with classical mythology and especially with the writings of Ovid, whose precepts, copied even in severe Cluny, were freely followed. Most of all is this poetry classical in its frankly pagan view of life. Its gods are Venus and Bacchus, also Decius, the god of dice. Love and wine and spring, life on the open road and under the blue sky, these are the common subjects; the spirit is that of an intense delight in the world that is, a joy in mere living, such as one finds 115 in the Greek and Roman poets or in that sonorous song of a later age which the academic world still cherishes,

Gaudeamus igitur iuvenes dum sumus.

In general the Goliardic poetry is of an impersonal sort, giving us few details from any particular place, but reflecting the gayer, more jovial, less reputable side of the life of mediaeval clerks. The worshipful order of vagrants is described, open to men of every condition and every clime, with its rules which are no rules, late-risers, gamesters, roysterers, proud that none of its members has more than one coat to his back, begging their way from town to town with requests for money which sound like students’ letters in verse:

I, a wandering scholar lad,
     Born for toil and sadness,
Oftentimes am driven by
     Poverty to madness.

Literature and knowledge I
     Fain would still be earning,
Were it not that want of pelf
     Makes me cease from learning.

These torn clothes that cover me
     Are too thin and rotten;
Oft I have to suffer cold,
     By the warmth forgotten.

Scarce I can attend at church,
     Sing God’s praises duly;
Mass and vespers both I miss,
     Though I love them truly.

Oh, thou pride of N——,
     By thy worth I pray thee
Give the suppliant help in need,
     Heaven will sure repay thee.

Take a mind unto thee now
     Like unto St. Martin;
Clothe the pilgrim’s nakedness,
     Wish him well at parting.

So may God translate your soul
     Into peace eternal,
And the bliss of saints be yours
     In His realm supernal.

The brethren greet each other at wayside taverns with songs like this:

We in our wandering,
Blighesome and squandering,
     Tara, tantara, teino!

Eat to satiety,
Drink with propriety;
     Tara, tantara, teino!

Laugh till our sides we split,
Rags on our hides we fit;
     Tara, tantara, teino!

Jesting eternally,
Quaffing infernally:
     Tara, tantara, teino!

The assembled topers are described in another poem:

Some are gaming, some are drinking,
Some are living without thinking;
And of those who make the racket,
Some are stripped of coat and jacket;
Some get clothes of finer feather,
Some are cleaned out altogether;
No one there dreads death’s invasion,
But all drink in emulation.


Then they sacrilegiously drink once for all prisoners and captives, three times for the living, a fourth time for the whole body of Christians, a fifth for those departed in the faith, and so on to the thirteenth for those who travel by land or water, and a final and unlimited potation for king and Pope. Such poetry is plainly the expression of a ‘wet’ age.

Often bibulous and erotic, the Goliardic verse contains a large amount of parody and satire. Appealing to a public familiar with scripture and liturgy, its authors parody anything — the Bible, hymns to the Virgin, the canon of the mass, as in the “Drinkers’ Mass” and the “Office for Gamblers.” One of the best-known pieces is a satire on the Papacy under the caption of “The Gospel according to Mark-s of silver.” This is only one of many bitter attacks on Rome, while the pride, hardness, and greed of the higher clergy are portrayed in “Golias the Bishop.” The point of view in general is that of the lower clergy, especially 119 the looser, wandering, undisciplined element which frequented the schools and the roads, the jongleurs of the clerical world, familiar subjects of ecclesiastical legislation since the ninth century.

Poetry of this sort is so contrary to conventional conceptions of the Middle Ages that some writers have denied its mediaeval character. “It is,” says one, mediaeval only in the chronological sense,” while others find in it close affinities with the spirit of the Renaissance or of the Reformation. It would be more consonant with the spirit of history to enlarge our ideas of the Middle Ages so as to correspond to the facts of mediaeval life. The Goliardi were neither humanists before the Renaissance nor reformers before the Reformation; they were simply men of the Middle Ages who wrote for their own time. If the writings of these northern and chiefly French clerks seem to anticipate the Italian Renaissance, it may be that the Renaissance began earlier and was less specifically Italian than has 120 been supposed. If the authors are more secular, even more earthy, than we should expect clerks to be, we must learn to expect something different. In lyric poetry, as in the epic and the drama, we are now learning more of the close interpenetration of the lay and ecclesiastical worlds, no longer separated by the air-tight partitions which the imagination of a later day interposed. And whether their spirit was lay or ecclesiastical, the Goliardi were certainly human; they saw and felt life keenly, and they wrote of what they knew.

It is time to redress the balance with a word about a less obtrusive element, the good student. “The life of the virtuous student,” says Dean Rashdall, “has no annals,”3 and in all ages he has been less conspicuous than his more dashing fellows. Thus the ideal scholar of the sermons is a bit colorless but obedient, respectful, eager to learn, assiduous at lectures, and bold in debate, pondering his 121 lessons even during his evening promenades by the river. The ideal student of the manuals is he who practices their precepts. The typical student of the letters has already described himself as devoted wholly to study, though somewhat short of money. The good student of the poems — there is no such person! Student poetry was “not all bacchic or erotic or profane,”4 but much of it was, and we must not look here for the more serious side of academic life. Jean de Hauteville’s account of the poor and industrious scholar is representative of a large class of students but not of a large body of poetry. The good student’s occupations are best reflected in the course of study, his assiduity best seen in his note-books and disputations. The documents which concern the educational side of the university are also a source for student life! It has been observed that the alumni reunions of our own day are often more prolific in recollections of student escapades than of 122 the daily performance of the allotted task. The studious lad of today never breaks into the headlines as such, and no one has seen fit to produce a play or a film “featuring the good student.” Yet everyone familiar with contemporary universities knows that the serious student exists in large numbers, and it has been shown conclusively that the distinction he there achieves reflects itself in his later life. So it was in the Middle Ages. The law students of Bologna insisted on their money’s worth of teaching from their professors. The examinations described by Robert de Sorbon required serious preparation. Not only was the vocational motive a strong incentive to study in the mediaeval university, but there was much enthusiasm for knowledge and much discussion of intellectual subjects. The greater universities, at least, were intellectually very much alive, with something of that ‘religion of learning’ which had earlier called Abelard’s pupils into the wilderness, 123 there to build themselves huts that they might feed upon his words. The books of the age were in large measure written by its professors, and the students had the advantage of seeing them in the making and thus drinking of learning at its fountain-head. Then as now, the moral quality of a university depended on the intensity and seriousness of its intellectual life.

If we consider the body of student literature as a whole, its most striking, and its most disappointing, characteristic is its lack of individuality. The Manuale Scholarium is written for the use of all scholars who propose to attend universities of students. The letters are made as general as possible in order to fit the need of any student who wants money, clothes, or books. Even the poems, where we have some right to expect personal expression of feeling, have the generic character of most mediaeval poetry; they are for the most part the voice of a class, not of individuals.


At the same time it must be remembered that this characteristic of the student productions, if it robs them of something of their interest, increases their historical value. The historian deals with the general rather than the particular, and his knowledge must be built up by a painful collection and comparison of individual facts, which are often too few or too unlike to admit of sound generalization. In the case of these student records, however, that labor has already been performed for him; in the form in which they come down to us they have lost, at the hands of the students themselves, what is local and peculiar and exceptional, and have become, what in view of the nature of our information no historian could hope to make them, the generalized experience of centuries of student life.

It is this broadly human quality that gives the productions of the mediaeval student a special interest for the world of today. In substance, though not in 125 form, many of them are almost as representative of modern Harvard or Yale as of mediaeval Oxford or Paris. The Latin dialogue and disputation, the mud of Bologna, and the money-changers of the Grand-Pont, belong plainly in the Middle Ages and not in our time; but money and clothing, rooms, teachers, and books, good cheer and good fellowship, have been subjects of interest at all times and all places. A professor of history once said that the greatest difficulty of historical teaching lay in convincing pupils that the events of the past did not all happen in the moon. The Middle Ages are very far away, farther from us in some respects than is classical antiquity, and it is very hard to realize that men and women, then and now, are after all much the same human beings. We need constantly to be reminded that the fundamental factors in man’s development remain much the same from age to age and must so remain as long as human nature and physical environment continue 126 what they have been. In his relations to life and learning the mediaeval student resembled his modern successor far more than is often supposed. If his environment was different, his problems were much the same; if his morals were perhaps worse, his ambition was as active, his rivalries as intense, his desire for learning quite as keen. And for him as for us, intellectual achievement meant membership in that city of letters not made with hands, “the ancient and universal company of scholars.”


1  MS. Lat. n. a. 619, ff. 28-35.

2  Supra, p. 67.

3  Universities, II, p. 692.

4  Ib., II, p. 686, note.


[BACK]          [Blueprint]         [NEXT]

Valid CSS!