Students: raising hell since the Middle Ages

You might not think it, but students in the 14th and 15th century could teach today’s cohort a thing or two about tearing up the town, writes Matthew Reisz

July 8, 2015
Feature illustration (9 July 2015)

Anyone tempted to grumble about “students these days” should consider what they got up to in the Middle Ages.

That’s what I discovered when I interviewed Hannah Skoda, professor of medieval history at Oxford, for a feature in this week’s magazine.

She has followed up a more general book on violence in medieval France with a major research project looking at student violence in 14th- and 15th-century Heidelberg, Oxford and Paris.

Although students were then clerics and meant to behave accordingly, there are plenty of stories about fights over prostitutes, the theft of a huge rock known as the Devil’s Fart and even incidents of urinating out of chapel windows during the Feast of the 1,001 Virgins. It makes me nostalgic for my own student days.

I much enjoyed chatting to Skoda about what students got up to and what this tells us about the world they emerged from. What is known as “labelling theory”, she told me, is often used by sociologists to explore how certain groups are categorised as more likely to offend, get more police attention and so get disproportionately represented in the crime statistics.

It is all too easy to get trapped in other people’s assumptions about how one is going to behave. Medieval students were often stereotyped in rather contradictory ways, both mocked as “emasculated men of God” and feared as “uncontrolled sexual predators”. It is hardly surprising that they sometimes played up to and sometimes fought against these images, and that the results were often ugly.

Although she had no stories she wanted to share about pranks she or her own students had got up to, Skoda also had some interesting thoughts about parallels between then and now. In 1355, Oxford was convulsed by what is known as the St Scholastica’s Day Massacre, a vicious fight – almost certainly started by the students – over an issue of watered-down wine. By the end, gown had effectively defeated town and the university ruled the roost, generating immense resentment over the following centuries.

Some of this, Skoda suggested to me, remains resonant. A student misbehaving in central Oxford may get ticked off by the dean; someone doing the same thing in a council estate two miles down the road could well end up with an ASBO.

This is neatly confirmed in an amusing recent memoir by a friend of mine: Mark Glanville’s The Goldberg Variations. This charts his progress from teenage football hooligan to lawless Oxford Classicist, where “Television sets were half-inched from Junior Common Rooms; the contents of drinks cabinets from SCRs”. Oxford being Oxford, this proved no barrier to his going on to make a career as an opera singer.

Matthew Reisz is a writer for Times Higher Education. You can read his feature here.

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Reader's comments (1)

At least in those days they paid attention in lectures. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fc/Laurentius_de_Voltolina_001.jpg

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