The medieval power struggles that helped forge today’s universities

Alteractions between town and gown go back a long way. Giles Gasper

As universities prepare for a new regime of regulation aimed at monitoring the quality of their teaching, they may find some comfort in the 900-year-old history of debates around autonomy, governance, who can award qualifications and even the relationships between students and their teachers. Who held power over universities and their pursuit of intellectual inquiry was hotly contested in the Middle Ages. Universities were beholden to popes and kings, but also, in some cases to students.

Medieval towns and cities could be rough places for their inhabitants – and relations between city and university populations were no exception. Turbulent and violent exchanges between “town” and “gown” were not uncommon.

Attempts to regulate such behaviour feature in early university legislation. Pope Gregory IX in his instructions to the University of Paris in 1231, for example, prohibited students from “carrying weapons in the city”. The university was further prohibited from protecting those “who disturb peace and study”.

Many such altercations were sparked off in drinking establishments, as two famous examples – one in Oxford and one in Paris – illustrate.

Riots and revenge

On February 10 1355, Walter de Springheuse, Roger de Chesterfield and their companions from Oxford University walked into the Swindlestock Tavern. A disagreement over the quality of the wine resulted in an argument. The university men angered by the “stubborn and saucy language” of the wine-seller, threw the wine and its container at his head. The wine-seller expressed his anger to his friends and family, who armed themselves with bows and arrows and shot at the scholars and the chancellor who arrived to calm the situation down.

The following day, hostilities recommenced with serious results: 20 inns or halls were ransacked and several scholars were wounded, some killed. As the chancellor set out for nearby Woodstock to see the king, the violence in town continued. More university halls were broken into, more scholars were killed and maimed. This was the St Scholastica’s day riot.

About 150 years earlier, in 1200, the first recorded town/gown riot in Paris had followed a similar pattern. The servant of a German student was set upon in a tavern. His compatriots, in defending him, badly beat up the publican. In response, a large body of citizens assaulted a university hall and its students, some of whom were killed. This included the master of the servant whose mistreatment had provoked the whole episode. The masters appealed to the king, Philip IV Augustus, for justice.

In both cases, the aftermath was striking. In Paris, the king punished those citizens involved and required their leaders to acknowledge and respect the privileges of the scholars. In Oxford, the town was placed under interdict for a year, meaning no church services could be held, including burials. Substantial fines were to be paid to the university, and the townsfolk forced to make an annual penance of a mass and a monetary offering of 63 pennies, in perpetuity. This lasted until 1825.

Yet, the differences in the two cases are also instructive. The University of Paris in 1200 had limited institutional identity. No university officers or organisational structures are mentioned apart from the group of masters who appealed to the king. By 1355, Oxford was a far more complex organisation and one with considerable power at court.

Two models of governance emerge

Over time, medieval universities were gradually established as corporations, involving legal recognition of their status, their privileges (for example to grant degrees and regulate academic progress) and their governance.

The process of corporation developed in different ways in different places. Although the origins of the first universities are obscure, three commonly accepted as the oldest are Paris, Oxford and Bologna – all actively were teaching in the 12th century.

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All also developed mythologies: Bologna of its foundation by the Emperor Theodosius (r. 379-395), Paris by Charlemagne, and Oxford by King Alfred. While Oxford and Paris became corporations of masters, grouping themselves together to protect their livelihoods, matters were slightly different in northern Italy.

In Paris, it was the papacy, as well as the king, who provided protection for the new corporation against the attempts to stifle it by the chancellor and bishop of Paris in the first decades of the 13th century. In Oxford, the chancellor was given privileges by the king which made him independent of the bishop of Lincoln (in whose diocese Oxford was in the Middle Ages) whose officer he was in theory. In Bologna, at least for studies in law, it was the students who combined to organise contacts with the masters.

As university education expanded and more institutions were founded from the end of the 13th century, the influence of these two models – master-led or student-led – continued to be felt.

Control of knowledge

At issue in all these cases was what university education was for, by whom it was best delivered and by whom it should be regulated. Control of the classroom, including oversight of the curriculum was a vital issue. How masters were appointed, and how their qualifications were examined and tested, were keenly debated.

Medieval universities were multi-faceted, and their reputations among contemporaries were as wide and diverse as their equivalents in the modern day. Divisions were common within universities. Different ways of organising learning and student experience evolved, too, including colleges, nations (groupings of students from similar regions), and faculties (Arts, Law, Medicine, Theology). All had competing jurisdictions.

The notion of corporation, however, held the medieval university together, offering a sense of identity, common purpose, and collaborative regulation of the delivery and definition of learning. The hard won nature of that corporate identity, and the strength of purpose it gave to students and masters alike is worth recalling in light of the many changes and challenges currently facing the higher education sector.

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