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When student protests weren’t dominated by ‘snowflakes’
How violent were medieval universities? Extremely
One of the common complaints made about today’s students is not that they’re wild and out of control, as with previous generations, but that they’re excessively timid and neurotic. How would these pathetic wretches have handled life in the trenches, some low-status Twitter account will ask, no doubt written by someone who grew up during the dark and difficult days of glam rock.
From a wider historical perspective, of course, students in the 21st century really are pathetic saps — a shadow of their forebears. As testimony to this decline, today is the anniversary of the biggest student unrest in English history; not 1968 but 1355, the day of the St Scholastica Day Riot in Oxford, which began when two students were served ‘indifferent wine’ in a tavern and fell into an argument with the innkeeper. By the time that the authorities restored order, more than ninety people were dead.
It’s illustrative of the violence of medieval life, but also the fact that the violence was not at all concentrated — as now — among the poor and uneducated. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest it was more common at the top of the social hierarchy, partly because the aristocracy were just so much better armed. But even scholars might resort to violence in a way which today seems unthinkable, knowing that not only were murderers very rarely caught, but as clerics in minor orders they could plead ‘Benefit of Clergy’ and escape with a far lighter sentence.
Universities had evolved out of scholarly communities in the 11th century, the start of the High Middle Ages, a period marked by the decline of ‘feudal anarchy’, the start of the Church’s peace movement — which drastically reduced the endemic violence of early medieval life — the separation of Church and state, and rapidly rising population caused by the unusually mild weather and agricultural technology.
The period also saw a huge rise in literacy, spurred by the growth of monasteries. Communities of monks had been vital in keeping European civilisation alive at its weakest moments following the collapse of Rome, and by now the continent had reached take off, with religious communities at the centre of this renaissance. Some communities of scholars had also begun to gather around Church-run schools, and out of these the three oldest universities, Bologna, Paris and Oxford, emerged in the late 11th and 12th centuries.
Medieval university life was austere, to say the least. It was also extremely violent, and featured a number of large-scale brawls which resulted in multiple fatalities.
One notorious incident took place in Paris in 1200, beginning with a group of German students smashing up a tavern. In response the city magistrate, or prévôt, raised a militia to attack the hostel where the Germans lived. He managed to kill quite a few in the ensuing fight, although there were numerous Parisian casualties, too.
Unfortunately, and showing the timeless power of global elites, the German scholars threatened to leave and so King Philip Augustus not only issued the university with its first charter, but also made the prévôt endure trial by ordeal of cold water — tied up and thrown in the river, and judged to be innocent if he sank, guilty if he floated. Luckily, he survived, although he had to go into exile and that was the end of his career.
In 1229 there was another outbreak of violence between students and locals — and this time as many as 320 people were killed, their bodies thrown into the Seine, although we might be sceptical about these numbers.
Oxford had similar problems. Altogether there were some 200 incidents of murder or serious violence at the university between 1209 and 1399, according to Professor Andrew Larsen of Marquette University.
In 1209 a riot broke out after a student was accused of murdering a local woman. Because the locals couldn’t find the guilty man, the mayor just arrested three students and had them hanged instead. As a result of the incident, many scholars left the city altogether and moved 90 miles east to the river Cam.
A few years after the 1209 incident the mayor of Oxford, ‘at the Instance and Complaint of the Chancellor and Masters’, ordered all ‘Lewd Women then in Gaol’ to be expelled from town. The problem, apparently, was the ‘French students whose infamous Lust had engag'd them in their Quarrels, and by haunting Stewes and Brothels, had contracted the foul Diseases’. Of course it was the French.
According to John Ayliffe’s 17th century history, the papal representative then went to the town ‘hither to reform the Corruptions of the Place’. But when the students went to him to complain, they were rudely brushed off his porter ‘in his loud Italian voice’. This they found so insuffferable that they then forced their way into the building, a fight broke out and a cook threw boiling water over the students before being killed.
Another riot broke out on St Matthias Day, February 24, 1298, when some students attacked the city bailiff — who was apparently armed with a mace — and the following day ‘took all the lay-folk they could find, beat them and wickedly trampled on them’, killing one and wounding many others by a church altar.
But the St Scholastica Day riot of 1355 was the most extreme. It began with an argument between two students and an innkeeper, by the end of which 30 locals and 63 students were dead. It was a period of unusual stress, following the plague epidemic which had killed over a third of the English population in 1348-1349. Europe had seen outbreaks of collective flagellation and anti-Jewish pogroms, and everywhere there was an upsurge in violence and other forms of impulsive behaviour.
The row started, according to a chronicler, when some students were served ‘indifferent wine’ in the town’s Swyndlestock Tavern. The two student-clerics, Walter de Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chesterfield, had objected to the quality of this wine served by one John de Croydon, the landlord. After asking for something better, they were refused and ‘several snappish words passed’ before Croydon gave them ‘stubborn and saucy language’.
One of the students then threw the wine in his face, and the brawl went out into the street where locals rang the church bells and huge numbers on both sides joined in. The town folk attacked the students ‘some with bows and arrows, others with divers weapons’.
The fighting then broke out again the following morning, and all the scholars fled after ‘some innocent wretches’ were killed and ‘scornfully cast into the house of easement’ – that is, the toilet — a deed the chronicler says was done by ‘diabolical imps’. Those who were injured limped away ‘carrying their entrails in their hands in a most lamentable manner’. As you would.
A petition by the city authorities to Parliament said the students ‘threw the said wine in the face of John Croidon, taverner, and then with the said quart pot beat the said John’. But, again, the government blamed the city authorities for the riot, and so as a result every day on February 10, Oxford’s mayor and councillors had to walk through the streets bareheaded and pay the university 63 pennies, one for each student killed. This procession went on until 1825, at which point the mayor refused to take part, reasoning that after 500-odd years the university had milked it enough,
The city and university formally made amends in 1955, the mayor given an honorary degree and the vice-chancellor made a freeman of the city. It only took six centuries.
Cambridge also had numerous brawls, including major incidents in 1261, 1381 and 1417, when the scholars ‘armed in a warlike manner, caused great terror to the mayor, by laying in wait to kill him and his officers’.
The violence might feature students fighting townies but there were also riots between northern and southern scholars. On one occasion there was fighting in Oxford between ‘Northern English and the Welsh’ on the one hand and the 'Southern English’, each side flying banners, in which ‘divers on both sides [were] slain and pitifully wounded’.
The last big Oxford university brawl was in 1389 and was fought between English and Welsh scholars, the former shouting ‘War, war, sle, sle, sle, the Welsh doggys and her whelps and ho so looketh out of his howese, he shall in good sorte be dead.’
From the late 14th century these university fights might also be provoked by religion, between supporters and opponents of Lollardy, the heresy began by Oxford’s John Wycliffe. But they were becoming much rarer, in line with the long decline in violence achieved by the Church and the legal system.
Tribal fights were also common in Paris, many brawls involving students from different countries, since the university attracted a number of foreign students, up to a third of them being from England. This, as much as the Norman invasion, contributed to the huge amount of French loan words entering English, the peak of this adoption occurring in the 14th century, long after England’s union with Normandy ended.
France and French had enormous cultural pull, the obvious analogy being Americanisation today. So if you were a very bright young Englishman of the 13th century you might study in Paris and come back speaking lots of fancy new words like curtain, wardrobe, harness, tournament, gown and robe. At which point someone would throw wine in your face or stab you so badly it left you holding your entrails in a lamentable manner. But then, medieval universities were no place for snowflakes.