Power of the medieval purse

October 6, 2011

Further to Miri Rubin's analysis ("Sources of illumination", 29 September), medieval universities may have other lessons to teach us.

During its early development in the 12th and 13th centuries, the University of Bologna was run by its students, who hired and paid the professors.

To ensure that professors performed their duties, students were elected to spy on them. Financial penalties were levied on those who failed to cover the syllabus adequately and on time. If a professor started or finished a lecture late, students were obliged by the statutes to leave the lecture hall. Professorial absences during term-time had to be approved in advance by the student rector and his officials; academics had to deposit money as surety of their return by the agreed time.

This situation did not last. By 1300, the comune of Bologna had begun to pay salaried lectureships, and power shifted to it as a result.

The lesson of the Bolognese experience is that power over a university lies with the paymaster. As universities' incomes are based increasingly on tuition fees, it will be interesting to see if 21st-century students follow the example of their medieval forebears.

Jonathan Davies, Senior lecturer in history, University of Warwick

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