Past and Present: the Turmoils of Student Life

Because I have been struggling with the stresses of student life this week, I thought I would take a stroll back through time to see how the students of the first universities, founded throughout the 13th-15th centuries, got on with their studies. My guides in this were the words of the chronicler Jacques de Vitry and the document establishing the University of St Andrews in 1413, both of whose observations suggest that things haven’t changed very much.

When exploring the reasons why so many young men came to study, Jaques remarks that “Some came merely to acquire knowledge, which is curiosity; others to acquire fame, which is vanity; others still for the sake of gain, which is cupidity and the vice of simony.” Clearly, the students of his times had diverse motivations, but the pursuit of employment was a powerful factor.

The Papal Bull of Benedict XIII, the document establishing my own university, that of St Andrews, dictates that the school be dedicated to “the study of divine and human law, of medicine, and of the liberal arts or faculties”. These skills were considered vital both to the secular administration and to the Church’s need for well-trained personnel, and Jacques’ students could expect prestigious government appointments when they graduated.

The cathedral in St Andrews created a demand for university graduates. In the picture, my good friend Sarah models the traditional red gown, designed to call attention to students, and encourage them to behave.

The close relationship between the church and the universities had other impacts. Because most universities were governed by canon, or Church law, local secular authorities often had little hold over students, who “impudently uttered all kinds of affronts and insults against one another” and “often came to blows” over disagreements, according to Jacques. The Bull for St Andrews promised that “delinquents…be punished with due correction” , but town-gown relations in practice often failed to discipline rowdy students.

It’s not only students that Jacques disapproved of–the scholars teaching at the university also came in for criticism. “They not only hated one another” he says, “but by their flatteries they enticed away the students of others; each one seeking his own glory, but caring not a whit about the welfare of souls.”

Clearly, office politics and academic rivalries were also alive and well

Note: The quotes from the above were taken from classroom translations of the texts.


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