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History explorer: Medieval universities

Dr Hannah Skoda and Daniel Cossins pay a visit to Merton College, Oxford, founded in 1264, to discover more about Britain's universities in the Middle Ages

Merton College, Oxford.
Published: May 21, 2015 at 6:23 pm
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This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine


What started with a quarrel over wine quickly spilled over into bloody carnage. On Tuesday 10 February 1355, two students at the University of Oxford complained about the quality of the wine at the Swindlestock Tavern. When the innkeeper responded with “stubborn and saucy language”, one of the students threw the wine vessel at his head. Locals rang the nearby church bell to muster the townsmen, who violently attacked another group of students. More bells pealed, this time from the university church, rousing students and scholars into the fray.

Tensions between town and gown had been simmering since scholars and students began to congregate in Oxford in the 12th century, fed by disputes over commercial rights and the special legal status of students. Finally, those tensions came to a head.

The following day townspeople and thousands flooding in from the surrounding countryside attacked students and scholars. They broke into academic halls, killing and maiming anyone they found. They plundered books and food and wine. They even disembowelled and scalped their victims. When the violence came to an end on the Thursday, more than 60 scholars and students were dead.

In terms of casualties, it was a victory for the town. But in every other way, the town was defeated and humiliated as King Edward III responded by increasing the power of the university, granting sovereignty over the town and its market. The mayor of Oxford was forced to swear an oath to uphold the privileges of the university and every year town officials were to attend a Mass to pray for the souls of the students slain on St Scholastica’s Day, and to pay reparations. In short, the skirmish had cemented the medieval university’s supremacy.

To foster learning

A short walk from the site of the Swindlestock Tavern, now home to a Santander bank, a heavy wooden door beneath ornate stone carvings marks the entrance to Merton College. Founded in 1264 by Walter de Merton, former and future lord chancellor, it was the university’s first fully self-governing college. It was endowed with lands and governed by statutes, which became characteristic of all later colleges, to provide an environment in which scholars could study and pass on their learning. “Right from the start this is about providing a very specific kind of community to foster learning in the service of God,” says Hannah Skoda, fellow and tutor in history at the University of Oxford.

Today, standing in the front quadrangle, one can see the lofty ambitions and status of England’s medieval universities embodied in the college’s buildings, many of which date from the 13th and 14th centuries. The quads, with buildings of honey-coloured stone on all four sides looking inwards to a baize-green lawn, speak of a community engaged in a common task. The great hall, too, where students and scholars dined together on long tables, as they still do today, was a place of communal activity. And then there is the magnificent chapel, illuminated by beautiful stained-glass windows, which reflects the idea that learning was a spiritual activity. “What’s really exciting here is the sense of continuity of purpose,” says Skoda. “Here we’re in a space that has been used for the same kinds of activities for over 750 years.”

England’s first university

It’s difficult to pinpoint a date for the establishment of the University of Oxford, England’s first university. “We know there were scholars here from the late 11th century, but over the course of the 12th century they arrived in increasing numbers,” says Skoda. “And I suppose there is a cumulative sense here: the more you have intellectuals and scholars studying in a particular place, the more others want to come. So in a sense the university seems to have grown organically.”

However, in 1167 Henry II banned Englishmen from travelling abroad to study, as a result of a quarrel with Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, which encouraged English masters and students to settle in Oxford. By 1201, scholars were headed by a magister scolarum Oxonie, who received the title of chancellor in 1214, and in 1231, the masters were recognised as a universitas or corporation.

Meanwhile, in 1209 an early conflict between town and gown had led to an exodus of some scholars and students, who founded another university, in Cambridge. The first Scottish universities were established later: St Andrews in 1413, Glasgow in 1451 and Aberdeen in 1495.

To start with, Oxford and Cambridge set out to produce learned theologians. Over the course of the period, though, they became increasingly occupied with training people in the administrative and legal needs of state. In Oxford, this prompted statements to the king about the university’s importance. “We’ve got a whole series of letters from the university to the king saying, ‘we really matter to you and what you’re trying to do, so you must give us lots of money’,” says Skoda. Indeed, All Souls College, Oxford, was founded in 1438 explicitly to provide “unarmed soldiery”.

Universities were granted special status. The colleges, with their imposing walls and formidable gates, embody the sense that they were set apart. In a more practical sense, the clerical status of the universities provided scholars and students with exemption from secular jurisdiction, meaning they were not subject to the same legal proceedings as ordinary people. “If a student is guilty of a crime, they go to a special court,” says Skoda. “They can’t get away with things with complete impunity, but they certainly look as if they’re set apart and rather special.” This was a major bone of contention, leading to all kinds of strife with townspeople – culminating in the bloodshed of 1355.

When you get to the top of the stairs in the Upper Library at Merton, built in the 1370s and now the oldest continuously functioning academic library in the western world, you get a glimpse into the lives of Oxford’s medieval scholars. Well-worn terracotta tiled passageways flanked by oak bookshelves extend in either direction. Above is an oak-panelled, barrel-vaulted ceiling, installed in 1502–03. The shelves surviving today, still stacked with tomes, were installed in the 16th century. But it was also here that Merton’s medieval masters and students pored over books that would have been kept under lock and key in great oak chests and chained to lecterns or desks.

“The first thing to say is that students in this period would all have been male,” says Skoda. “They had to do a Bachelor of Arts, which included grammar, rhetoric and logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Then they would do a master’s degree, which takes another three years. After that they could proceed to a higher degree in something like medicine, theology, or law. It’s an intensive and drawn-out process.”

Tuition was partly made up of lectures from 6am to 9am, where learning was based around exposition of and commentary on a text. Then there were the disputations. “This is an extremely combative form of learning,” says Skoda. “You take a particular question, such as the dissolution of the Templar order, which is a huge controversy in that period, and you argue it out. Then at the end it’s the job of masters to determine in exposition the way in which this argument should be resolved.” It was a kind of gladiatorial combat for intellectuals, and leading scholars revelled in the idea that they were knights of intellect.

Leisure activities were scarce. Authorities felt students should focus on worship and study, though that softened over the period. Inevitably students found time for extracurricular pursuits. In Cambridge, for example, they frequently swam in the river Cam. However, many of the records we have reveal illicit activities. “We know students liked bear baiting, dice and gambling, singing, and playing tennis in public [which was forbidden],” says Skoda. “There is a lot of activity between Oxford scholars and prostitutes, and that’s something the authorities are extremely concerned about.

“In colleges like Merton we have surviving discipline books, which give us insights into petty acts like smearing faeces on a master’s chair. At the other end of the spectrum we have really brutal violence. Students are frequently accused of parading through the town heavily armed, trying to depict themselves as knights.” And there seem to have been a lot of fights between students at rival colleges. “In 1459, for example, we know that John Smore of Gloucester College hit John Alden of Oriel College over the head with a stick.”

There is a danger that we overplay the misbehaviour, says Skoda, because such acts appear in the records, whereas the more mundane activities do not: “We’re probably talking about a noisy minority.” And, lest we forget, Oxford produced some of the most influential thinkers of the period, including John Wycliffe, a dissident theologian whose followers, known as the Lollards, fought for reform of the Catholic church.

Right from their creation, England’s universities held a special place in medieval society. They educated people in the service of God and, increasingly, produced the lawyers and administrators required to govern. Such elevated status often led to conflict with the towns, and universities were not immune to the upheavals wrought by conflicts such as the Wars of the Roses. But they grew in importance over the course of the Middle Ages and continued to be cherished by king and church, even if wider society was often suspicious of scholars.

“We might think about The Miller’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with the figure of Nicholas, an Oxford scholar sitting in his room looking at his astrolabe,” says Skoda. “It’s a lovely ambivalent view of the scholar. On the one hand, here’s somebody who is clever and funny, somebody who can outwit the other characters. But at the same time he is arrogant, full of tricks, and not to be trusted. In many ways that embodies the very ambivalent attitudes towards later medieval universities.”

Five more places to explore


St Edmund Hall, Oxford

Where some of the first students lived

Before the colleges were conceived, medieval students were usually housed and educated in halls of residence. St Edmund Hall is the only one to survive, named after St Edmund of Abingdon, former archbishop of Canterbury, who taught there in the 1190s.


St Andrews University, St Andrews

Where Scots built their own university

Scottish students had to go abroad to study – Paris, Oxford or Cambridge. In 1410 a school of higher learning was created in St Andrews, soon gaining a charter of incorporation and privileges from the bishop of St Andrews. In 1413, Pope Benedict XIII conferred university status with a series of papal bulls, one of which can be seen in the museum there.


All Souls College, Oxford

Unchanged in almost six centuries

All Souls College was founded in 1438 by Henry VI and Henry Chichele, a graduate of New College and later archbishop of Canterbury. Most of the facade dates from the 1440s and the front quad is pretty much unchanged. A graduate fellowship here is one of the highest academic honours in the country.


King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

Where the famous choir sings carols

Founded in 1441 by Henry VI, King’s is famous for its awe-inspiring chapel. It’s a superb example of late Gothic architecture, with the largest fan vault in the world and some of the finest medieval stained glass. Here the college’s famous choir performs the Christmas Eve carol service, broadcast worldwide.


Middle Temple, London

Where students studied English law

Established in the 14th century, the Inns of Court were devoted to the study of English law rather than the Roman law taught in the universities. Middle Temple, one of the four original Inns of Court, was originally used as residences but is now barristers’ offices. Middle Temple Hall with its dramatic double-hammer beam roof was completed in 1573.


Words: Daniel Cossins. Historical advisor: Hannah Skoda, fellow and tutor in history at the University of Oxford.


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