The great minds of the medieval era were once where you are now. They were students on the cusp of educational enlightenment, beginning courses at religious vocational schools and what we would now call liberal arts or humanities colleges.
There is a rich history of students (mainly men) gaining insight into politics, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and sociology through higher education—and using this knowledge to better understand the world around them.
In documents recently rediscovered by Oxford historians, the life of medieval students is illuminated in their own words, through letters they wrote home to their parents.
Read on for a look back at college life in the Middle Ages.
The Tradition of Asking Parents for Money to Fund Education
Financial independence has been part of the student struggle for centuries. Writes an Oxford scholar in 1220, student life is “expensive and makes many demands.”
And a letter from two sons of noble parentage (addressed to “M. Matre, Knight, and his wife, M.”) ends with the same request as modern letters home often do:
“This is to inform you that, by divine mercy, we are living in good health in the City of Orléans, and are devoting ourselves wholly to study. [...]Wherefore lest production cease from lack of material, we beg your paternity to send us by the bearer, B., money for buying parchment, ink, a desk, and other things which we need, in sufficient amount that we may suffer no want on your account (God forbid!) but finish our studies and return home with honour.”
Justifying a Medieval Party Lifestyle with Social Science Education
In a letter from 1220, a student implores his father to understand how recreation (read: food, drink, and music) is a central part of student well-being. An excerpt:
“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.”
Bacchus, Roman God of Wine, is used in a medieval student’s description of his studies.
Graduates of social science education will note the strategic use of mythology. This is similarly expressed by Wolfgang of Altiach in a letter from 1112, wherein he details his enjoyment and asks to “serve longer in the camp of Pallus,” (aka Athena, goddess of wisdom and the arts).
Medieval parents seem fairly receptive to their children’s persuasions, but the collection of letters also features a few strongly-worded responses from fathers, including:
“To his son G. residing at Orleans […]
I have recently discovered that you live dissolutely and slothfully, preferring license of restraint and play to work and strumming a guitar while the others are at their studies. […] 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.”
Medieval Social Science School Problems
These letters also give historians evidence of particular troubles medieval students faced. Notable worries include everything from “exceptionally hard winters” to crop failure and even siege.
But the vast majority of student letters request to have their study terms extended, due to the enjoyment and fulfillment they’ve found in their social science courses.
Letters suggest medieval students enjoyed their reading as much as students of today.
Guido Faba, a student beckoned home to marry “a lady of many attractions” in 1060, was particularly determined to continue his studies: “For one may always get a wife, but science once lost can never be recovered.”
Read more in C.H. Haskins’ “The Life of Medieval Students” (1898), and make your mark on this rich history with your own social sciences college degree.