Medieval dread: student deviance and devilry

Even centuries ago, student misconduct and violence vexed townspeople and authorities. The behaviour, says one scholar, highlights negative stereotypes and socio-political tensions

July 9, 2015
Feature illustration (9 July 2015)

In 1451, Parisian students stole a huge stone known as Le Pet-au-Diable – “the Devil’s Fart” – from outside a tavern and lugged it down the road. A city official returned it to its home, but the students made off with it again and performed a mock “marriage”, joining it with another stone they nicknamed La Vesse (“the Bladder”). This led to a pitched battle with the authorities. Upon their defeat, the students complained to the royal parlement that they had been manhandled – and won their case. One of the greatest French medieval poets, François Villon, was involved in the incident and claimed to have written a poem about it, The Romance of the Devil’s Fart, although this is most likely a joke. Other poems attributed to him describe how he and his mates sometimes stole meat, fish, tripe, bread and wine.

Student pranks and conflicts between town and gown have always been with us, so it is easy to enjoy such stories purely for their human interest, as evidence that “boys will be boys” or that nothing much has changed. Yet a major research project comparing late 14th- and 15th-century Heidelberg, Oxford and Paris is demonstrating that student misbehaviour and violence are actually far more revealing and significant than that. It is a topic that has largely been neglected since a brief flurry of activity in the wake of the student protests of 1968.

The research is being carried out by Hannah Skoda, associate professor of medieval history at the University of Oxford, who in a paper at the 2010 International Medieval Congress in Leeds described her goals as to show that “student misbehaviour was not merely petty and meaningless” and that their “deviance was, in a sense, an expression of identity for them, and was shaped by the ways in which students were repeatedly labelled as deviant”. As stereotypes and administrative structures differed by time and place, she is also examining how these factors affected the types and (often horrendous) levels of violence perpetrated.

The project arises out of Skoda’s PhD and first monograph, Medieval Violence: Physical Brutality in Northern France, 1270-1330 (2013), which considers misbehaviour and affray by students alongside urban uprisings and domestic, street and tavern violence. The book has evoked a “really polarised reaction”, she says, because many historians tend to the view that violence was so all-pervasive in the Middle Ages that people became inured to it. She, by contrast, is “convinced that people were shocked by violence when it happened. They may have responded by laughing, but I am convinced that they did that because they were bothered by it, found it very problematic and worrying. They thought about it in quite a sophisticated way across the social spectrum.”

After this more general study, Skoda decided to home in on student violence, in part because of its intrinsic interest but also because there is so much evidence – summarised in one paper as “legal records, discipline books, chancellors’ registers, sermons, letters, poetry, visual sources, chronicles” – including some in Oxford still conveniently held by individual colleges.

There are accounts of attacks on German students in Paris, including occasions when they were trussed up, shoved to the ground and treated as pigs for the slaughter. We hear of students strutting around fully armed, vandalising inn signs or being rebuked for playing tennis in public. Others demonstrated their “aggressive masculinity” by smearing their masters’ chairs with faeces or urinating out of a chapel window during the Feast of the 1,001 Virgins. Initiation ceremonies included one at the University of Heidelberg in which each new recruit was “tamed” by kneeling down for mock horns to be shaved from his head.

Most dramatic of all are the times when quarrels or violence led to loss of life. One concerns a student, Noel Mercier, who flew into a rage when a prostitute he had slept with refused to give him the rosemary she carried in her bosom. His companions made an unsuccessful attempt to calm him, which led to a fight in which he was killed. Another incident described by Skoda tells of a certain Master Hugues Angot, who was subjected to insulting singing by fellow students gathered outside his window; he chased the perpetrators around Paris’ Latin Quarter and eventually killed one of them outside a tavern. Far more bloody were the many battles over several centuries for control of the recreation ground known as the Pré-aux-clercs, where the monks of Saint-Germain-des-Prés refused to accept the authority of the university.

In a lecture delivered to a Cambridge summer school, Skoda retells the story of Burnel the Ass, taken from a late 12th-century text known as the Speculum Stultorum (Mirror for Fools). After studying in universities across Europe, he “acquires much absolutely irrelevant knowledge, which he’s completely incapable of doing anything useful with – and really only learns to hang out with his chums, get drunk, spend money, and end up precisely as he started, only a bit stupider. When he finally leaves Paris after seven years, he can’t even remember the name of the university.”

We have all known students like that.

Soon to start two years’ leave funded by the Leverhulme Trust, Skoda is planning to pull her archival research together into a monograph on medieval student violence. This will be structured around the themes of student power; town versus gown; masculinity; peer groups; leisure and entertainment; and colleges and “nations” (into which Parisian students were divided by background). The underlying theme is the relationship between the way students were talked about and stereotyped by university authorities, townspeople and preachers and the way they behaved, often by playing up to or openly challenging the assumptions about them.

Feature illustration (9 July 2015)

Needless to say, Skoda “doesn’t want the book to be just an amusing list of students behaving badly”. But although she has no confessions that she wants to share about the pranks she or her students have got up to, the papers she has already written inevitably have resonances for today, not only at the anecdotal level, but also in terms of how universities constantly have to renegotiate their relationship with their surroundings and the state.

Medieval students were regularly stigmatised as a group for the behaviour of what was presumably a noisy minority. Yet even the negative images were rather contradictory. As Skoda describes in her Leeds paper, students were both feared as “uncontrolled sexual predators” and mocked as “emasculated men of God”. They were “anxious to contest both labels”, often through macho bravado or ghastly behaviour such as beating up prostitutes to prove their “morality”. Much of this, she believes, can be illuminated by what is known as “criminological labelling theory”, which is often used, for example, to analyse the lives of young black men today, but is seldom applied to the Middle Ages.

“If you repeatedly talk about people in a certain way,” Skoda suggests, “if you denigrate them and draw up all sorts of negative constructions about how they are supposed to behave, how far does that then shape the ways they actually behave? Certain groups get more police attention and are categorised as more likely to offend – which then has a role to play in the statistics that emerge on what they actually do.”

Across much of Europe in the 15th century, according to Skoda, universities were becoming less cosmopolitan and “more aligned with ‘state entities’”.

“The corollary of that”, she explains, “is that they are seen as increasingly ‘vocational’, so that going to university is training for being a good servant of the state. The study of law really takes off as state apparatuses expand.”

Some of the debates about the “intellectual watering-down” this was said to lead to remind her of current polemics about “the commodification of learning”, such as Stefan Collini’s What Are Universities For? (2012).

A more specific context in Oxford is the Lollard heresy, calling for reform of the Church, which was promoted by the theologian John Wycliffe until he was dismissed from the university in 1381.

“That led to much more censorship and control,” explains Skoda. “Lincoln College is founded in 1427 as a riposte, to make sure that orthodox teaching is developed in the university [and specifically so that the ‘mysteries of Scripture’ could be defended ‘against those ignorant laymen who profaned with swinish snouts its most holy pearls’]. The intellectual freedom that led to Wycliffe developing his problematic ideas is reined in.” One might see parallels in the concerns about threats to academic and other freedoms arising out of pressures on universities to do more to combat Islamic extremism.

Skoda has already written several times about the St Scholastica’s Day Massacre of 1355, when dozens of people were killed in clashes between scholars and townspeople. At the time, as she wrote in a 2014 paper for the German Historical Institute, Oxford “townspeople clearly felt themselves to be disenfranchised, economically marginalised by the restrictions on the market embodied by the close regulation and university control of the assize, and judicially disadvantaged by the injunction that all cases involving scholars, even if townsmen were also involved, were uniquely to be tried in the university chancellor’s court”. Simmering tensions led to a terrible outburst of violence, which even pro-university sources agreed was started by the students, over an issue of watered-down wine.

Once the dust had settled, Skoda’s paper goes on, “the terms of the peace effectively favoured the university to the utter disempowerment of the town” and “the academic vision of a social order for Oxford effectively prevailed”, leaving students in “a very powerful socio-economic position”.

Although there is obviously no direct causal link, Skoda points to the continuing “sense that students get special treatment. If a student mucks around in St Giles [one of the main roads in Oxford] at night and tips over a bin, they will be summoned before the dean of the college, and that will probably be it in most cases. But if someone of the same age in Blackbird Leys [a council estate], less than two miles away, runs amok in the middle of the night, shouting and knocking over a bin, they’d probably get an ASBO.”

And what about relations with the state? Fifteenth-century Oxford students, as Skoda describes in an unpublished chapter for a book about student revolts, often attempted to “engage with wider political and military circumstances through protest and brutality” as a way of demonstrating that they “cared about the wider polity [and were] not just youths messing about between lessons”. In 1423, for example, some of them attacked the entourage of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, a key figure in the factional jockeying for position that accompanied the minority reign of Henry VI. In doing so, Skoda writes, they were “responding to contemporary stereotypes, peddled by preachers, moralists and even literary figures like Chaucer, which tended to portray them either as disengaged drunkards or as unworldly pedants”.

The response of the Oxford university authorities to such acts of student violence, she goes on, was skilfully nuanced. Although careful to condemn excesses, they also knew that any signs that students were “a force to be reckoned with” could be useful to them in “ensuring royal protection and political prestige”. Throughout the period, she elaborates, we find “lots of letters to the king” or his representatives “claiming that the university was essential to the well-being of the kingdom. Sometimes they write because they are short of money; sometimes they are arguing for their political centrality, as not just esoteric ivory towers but essential organs of state – on the grounds that ‘A state without learning is like a ship without a rudder.’”

Just as today, 15th-century universities understood the value of demonstrating their “impact”.


Article originally published as: Of deviance and devilry or the students are revolting (9 July 2015)

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.