Students and their lives have changed very little over the centuries. In the fourteenth century, as now, student debt was a problem. Students could only afford to attend university if they had a patron to give or lend them the necessary funds, and their future employment was never certain. Students lived in dark and cold lodgings. In Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale two Oxford students lodge with a carpenter. Students were generally known for their violence and dissipation, both demonstrated by Chaucer’s students, one of whom cuckolds his landlord and causes him to break his arm. Students were often involved in fights – with one another and with the people of the town in which the university was located. One thing that was very different then, however, was the time of the lectures. They started early in the morning, usually before dawn.
The universities had a reputation for being repressive, which was one of the reasons why the students often felt the need to do outrageous things outside of the university in the town that housed it.
A university was made up of the guild of teachers and the first universities were in Paris and Bologna. The latter was famous for law and the former for theology. Other universities were formed when teachers left these universities, usually after quarrelling with the town authorities. In Spain and Portugal the universities were royal foundations. Many universities were founded specifically to provide men for the medieval equivalent of the Civil Service.
Teachers were paid by their students, but most academics could not afford to do nothing other than teach. The had to combine study with a career, unless they were a friar. The friars needed well-trained theologians, so enabled clever men to remain in the universities to continue their education. At Oxford in the early fourteenth century there were ninety Dominicans and eighty-four Franciscans. The Dominicans had taught at the university first. The General Chapter of the Dominicans (their ruling body) had decreed in the thirteenth century that every community in the Order should have a friar in charge of theological study. His duties included arranging discussions and directing the reading of the friars in his house. None of them was permitted to preach in pubic until they had studied for three years and each province (a Dominican administrative area) was supposed to support three students in a university at any one time.
Students were clerics and wore the tonsure. They needed a benefice (a salaried ecclesiastical position, usually that of a rector or vicar) when they finished their studies in order to get started on their career. At the beginning of the fourteenth century in England there were many more clergy than there were benefices.
Medieval universities were ecclesiastical establishments. They were the means by which sons of commoners or peasants could rise to eminence. Most teachers were under thirty. The students were usually between fourteen and nineteen years old, but could be older, since some took 20 years to finish their degree.
Lectures at universities were given in Latin, which had to be learned before a man could become a student at a university. Latin was taught in schools, which any boy could attend if his parents could afford the fee and, if he was a villein, he had the permission of his lord of the manor. This could usually be obtained by paying a fine to the lord. In fourteenth century Paris the teachers began to lecture in the vernacular, but many years passed before other universities did the same. Teaching was mostly oral due to the cost of books, and students were expected to learn by discussing and debating with their teachers and with one another.
The curriculum was designed to create men who could administer the church and the state. The curriculum was the Quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Students also studied the Trivium: rhetoric, grammar and logic. By the fourteenth century the Quadrivium were the four most important subjects. Universities were mainly training men for the church, so theology originally predominated. Medicine and law were also taught. Theology and law were higher degrees. Theology included the study of the world created by God. Most of Edward III’s bishops had legal training. By the mid-fourteenth century there were more graduates in law than in anything else. Legally trained clerks from the universities were in demand as administrators and bureaucrats.
Rather surprisingly, the universities did not concern themselves with the spiritual condition of their students until the end of the fourteenth century. Equally surprisingly, given that many of the students went on to serve kings and popes, they did not bother teaching them how to behave.
The gate to New College, Oxford. New College was founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham, Chancellor under both Edward III and Richard II, to enable poorer students to attend university. He also founded Winchester College in order to provide educated students for it.
The oldest university in England is Oxford. It was probably founded some time between 1164 and 1169. It was founded when students and teachers left Paris after a conflict with the Parisian authorities. Cambridge University was founded in 1209 when teachers at Oxford argued with the town authorities and left. There were around 1,500 to 2,000 students in Oxford at the beginning of the fourteenth century.