Student Power in the Middle Ages

Far from being a recent development, student control was a factor in the early growth of the university as an institution argues Alan B. Cobban.

Medieval manuscript showing a meeting of doctors at the University of Paris.Student power is virtually coeval with the emergence of the medieval universities. In southern Europe it became endemic, in one form or another, for about 200 years. The motives that gave rise to medieval student rebellion find a distant echo in the student scene of the 1960s and 1970s. But there are important dissimilarities and it would be unhistorical to press analogies too far. Medieval students had, for the most part, a highly utilitarian view of the university as an institution of direct community relevance that might well be regarded as too narrowly conceived by a large proportion of present-day students and staff. The priority of educational utility conditioned students into accepting innately conservative attitudes vis-a-vis the Establishment. Revolutionary student activity in the medieval situation was rarely directed against the prevailing order of things: it seems to have been either a defence mechanism or was channelled towards the winning of greater student participation in university structures.

For the majority of medieval undergraduates education was a severely practical business: there was simply not the surplus wealth available to support non-vocational courses on any scale. As the student was bereft of a state system of financial aid and as the rate of graduate production was often in excess of the rate of graduate absorption, the pressure on the average student was to seek, as rapidly as possible, a lucrative employment within the established order. As vehicles for community needs, the medieval universities were largely vocational schools training students in the mastery of areas of knowledge and analytical skills which could be utilised in the service of the State or Church, in teaching or in the secuIar professions of law and medicine. The movements of student protest in the Middle Ages were not the explosive outgrowth of pent-up anti-establishment feelings. Nowhere does it appear that direct student action within the universities was orientated towards the ultimate reformation of the wider community. To imagine that medieval students thought of the university as a microcosm of society would be anachronistic, Medieval student power did not embody this degree of self-conscious awareness.

Nor were student protest movements concerned with the content of university courses if by this is meant the selection of the ingredients of the syllabus or curriculum. The medieval undergraduate was not faced with the bewildering range of options that confront the modern student. There was an agreed core of studies in the medieval universities derived from a series of time-honoured texts and supplemented by the commentaries of contemporary academics. It would appear that medieval students acquiesced in current educational assumptions and none of their rebellions had, as its aim, the widening or modernisation of the syllabus.

The earliest European universities were not specifically founded but were spontaneous creations which evolved in the course of the twelfth century. They first emerged at Bologna and Paris and these were the archetypes which determined the twofold pattern of university organisation in the Middle Ages: the latter, Paris, gave rise to that of the masters' university; the former, Bologna, to that of the concept of the student-controlled university.

The first student power movement in European history had crystallised at the University of Bologna by the early thirteenth century. The idea of guilds of students directing the affairs of a university and keeping the teaching staff in a state of subservience has been alien to European thinking for about 600 years. But one of the two original universities was, shortly after it came into being, a student-dominated society and the prototype for a large family of universities either partially or mainly controlled by students.

The rise of the student university at Bologna has to be seen in relation to the prevailing concept of Italian citizenship, a possession of the utmost importance in a country fragmented by the spread of communes. The students who had converged on Bologna to study law from many parts of Europe were, in Bologna, non-citizens and, as such, aliens who were vulnerable in the face of city law. The teaching doctors should have been the natural protectors of their students: this is what had happened at Paris. But at Bologna the commune succeeded in drawing the doctors within its orbit and driving a wedge between the teachers and their students. Without their natural protectors the students had to take the initiative in the matter of organisational defence. By the beginning of the thirteenth century the pristine contractual arrangements that had operated between individual students and doctors had been superseded by a student guild powerful enough to exact the obedience of the doctors to its members.

It is important to stress that at first the student guild at Bologna was a mutual benefit society designed to give its members protection under city law and to provide a measure of defence against hostile parties. The student movement did not, from the start, set out to gain control over the university and its teaching staff. There was no blueprint plan as to how a university ought to be organised. Possibly the students never thought about this. But in order to survive they had to adopt a trade union attitude and carve out for themselves a position of strength within the university. Once this had been attained, the momentum of their power could not be stemmed. In the course of the thirteenth century the students moved from the defensive to the offensive and this resulted in their winning the initiative in university affairs: this was the first student take-over bid in European history.

Although the teaching doctors had to accept the reality of student power they never conceded its legality: that is to say, they contested the alleged right of the students to organise themselves into guilds with elected officers, statutes, and legal independence. It was argued that the students by themselves did not constitute a profession: students were merely the pupils of the doctors, the academic equivalents of trade apprentices and, as such, were devoid of professional status. But the reluctance to give a legal recognition to the student guild could not check student militancy and the teaching doctors were forced to acquiesce in a university situation wherein they were very obviously employed as the functionaries of the students.

It needs to be stated that a fair number of the Bologna law students were older than the majority of students in northern Europe. It has been reckoned that their average age lay between eighteen and twenty-five, and some were on the borders of thirty upon entry to the university. And it is established that a sizeable proportion held ecclesiastical benefices or offices upon their enrolment as law students, and that a significant number of them were laymen from easy social backgrounds. It is clear, then, that many of the Bologna law students were young men of substance with experience of the world and accustomed to administering responsible offices in society, all of which makes the fact of students controlling power in a university more intelligible.

Under the student governmental system at Bologna the teaching doctors were excluded from voting in the university assemblies, although they may have been allowed, as a concession, to attend as observers. Yet all lecturers had to obey the statutory wisdom emanating from these student congregations. The students seem to have elected their prospective teachers several months in advance of the beginning of the academic session in October. Upon election the successful doctors took an oath to submit to the student rector in all matters affecting the life of the university. Student controls over the lecturing system were impressive. The lecturer's life proceeded in an anxious atmosphere of impending fines. A lecturer was fined if he started his lecture a minute late or if he continued after the prescribed time: indeed, if the latter occurred the students were required to leave the room without delay. At the opening of the academic session the students and the teaching doctors elected by the students reached agreement on how the material of the lecture course was to be distributed over the year. The harassed lecturer had to reach stipulated points in the set texts by certain dates in the session. Failure to do so resulted in a heavy fine. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that lecturing performance in thirteenth-century Bologna was continuously assessed by the students on both a qualitative and quantitative basis. A doctor who glossed over a difficulty or who failed to assign an equal emphasis to all parts of the syllabus would incur financial penalties. As a surety for his lecturing performance the lecturer, at the beginning of the session, had to deposit a specified sum with a city banker, acting for the students. From this deposit, a student review court would authorise the deduction of fines incurred by the lecturer for infringements of the statutes. If the fines were of such an order of magnitude that the first deposit was used up, the lecturer was required to make a second deposit. Refusal to comply was pointless: no lecturer with fines outstanding was permitted to collect student fees for his teaching and thus his source of university income would be cut off. In any event, a recalcitrant doctor could be rendered less obstinate by means of the student boycotting machinery which was fundamental to the workings of the student-university. Even in normal circumstances a lecturer had to have an audience of at least five students at every ordinary lecture: if he failed to attract that number he himself was deemed to be absent and incurred the stipulated fine. This whole gamut of student controls was underpinned by a system of denunciations by secretly elected students who spied on the doctors. Controls extended even into private areas: for example, if a lecturer got married the students allowed him only one day and one night for his honeymoon.

Why were university teachers prepared to submit to this kind of student dominion? They rejected the legitimacy of the student university and yet they consented to serve as its acolytes. The main reason for the submission of the teaching doctors stems from the circumstance that in southern Europe student controls derived ultimately from the economic stranglehold the students had over their lecturers. Before the salaried lectureship became the established norm the majority of teachers depended for their university livelihood on teaching fees collected from the students. The threat of the boycotting of lectures hung like the sword of Damocles over the university teachers as a permanent reminder of where their main economic interests lay. Against the disadvantages of student controls, however, one has to balance the consideration that a successful lecturer in a populous university such as Bologna could expect to earn a good remuneration from student fees. Also, as a group, university teachers did not easily put down roots: many of them stayed in one university for only a year or two before migrating to another or beginning a spell of non-academic employment. The ease with which lecturers alternated between the academic and non-academic life may go some way towards explaining why teaching staff were prepared to endure the irritation of student controls for a limited period.

In Bologna and in the student-universities of the Bolognese type the exercise of power tended to be concentrated in the hands of a few long-tenured student officers. Even during the high-noon of student power at Bologna the theoretically democratic form of government was offset by the consideration that the executive student committees functioned as the hub of administrative government. The student population would he assembled to vote on issues of major importance, but the cumbersome nature of this procedure made the summoning of the sovereign body less frequent than might be expected. For the average Bolognese law student the mass meeting was a means by which he was kept informed on the governmental and educational life of the university: but while he could make his voice heard in these assemblies and record his secret vote in response to a limited agenda, most of the policy-making remained with the executive committees. The sovereign body must often have appeared a rather impotent one, a passive reflector of the decisions of executive government.

The Bologna students, at the dawn of the university movement, acted from the dictates of necessity and not according to an ideological view of the student role in university affairs. This came later, as a rationalisation of an achieved position of power. The student-university emerged as an attempt to solve empirical problems: it was not advanced as a visionary thesis of European university organisation. But at Padua student power in the early fourteenth century bore the stamp of a conscious imitation which embodied the assumptions on which the Bolognese system was based. The Paduan model expressed the belief that the form of university which had evolved at Bologna should serve as a prototype for university organisation in southern Europe. The planned adoption of the Bolognese structure helped to promote the idea that the core and essence of a university was the student guild. Teaching doctors were necessary adjuncts who were to be selected, continuously assessed, supervised and disciplined by the students. Respect was to be paid to their scholarship but within the university organisation they were to be in the nature of academic consultants who have a specialised commodity to sell and who were to be denied the exercise of power: this was the epitome of the student republic embodying the fundamental principle of direct accountability of teaching staff to the student mass.

In the event, the model of the student-university which evolved at Bologna and was refined at Padua proved too extreme for general adoption. Almost everywhere in Italy it was accepted that students might participate to some appropriate degree in university government: to that extent student aspirations were widely met. But the fully-fledged concept of the student-university was quickly overtaken by compromise and replaced by mixed constitutions whereby power was to be shared between staff and students and external bodies. From Italy the student-power movement spread to the universities of provincial France where, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it assumed varying degrees of student participation in university affairs. And here, in France, at universities such as Orleans, Angers and Montpellier, the students seem to have played a prominent role in the winning of university autonomy from diverse forms of ecclesiastical control. To a limited extent student power found an expression in some of the Spanish universities of the medieval period from whence it was exported to South America: and South America has kept alive into the twentieth century varieties of student participation which ultimately derive from the medieval University of Bologna.

The establishment of the salaried lectureship as the normal method of academic payment sounded the death knell of student power. In the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the bristling array of student controls was reduced to a set of hollow forms. The restoration of the authority of the teaching masters in European universities is associated with the mounting disquiet felt about the efficacy of student government. Apart from the belief that student power was an actual or potential menace to both academic and urban peace, there was the general complaint that the students had a bad to indifferent record in university administration. There were repeated allegations that student officers were men without capacity or integrity who were not above rigging their own re-elections or ruling in arbitrary fashion with cliques of drinking companions. But it cannot be supposed that irresponsibility was confined to the student body. There was a great deal of it among university teachers. We hear complaints of academic simony in the sense that university chairs were being disposed of to the highest bidder: there were even attempts, at one time, to make chairs hereditary at Bologna. And everywhere the students complained of the negligence or absence of their lecturers who discharged their functions by means of ill-qualified substitutes. In particular, there was much student resentment at the absence of teachers who involved themselves in business, civic or wider political affairs.

The extent of academic irresponsibility and corruption and how it was apportioned between the students and their lecturers in the Middle Ages cannot be assessed by any quantitative means. Nevertheless, west European establishments came to the conclusion that university government was to be the preserve of university teachers, with or without the aid of external bodies, and that the students were to be reduced to the ranks of the listeners and the learners. Student power had been tested for a respectable length of time by the fifteenth century and it had been found wanting. After about 200 years it had come to be regarded as a more or less permanently disruptive force in university and urban society. Rightly or wrongly, the collective European experience had judged that professional maturity was a more hopeful directing force of stable university development than the erratic uncertainties of youth.

Medieval student power was chiefly a phenomenon of southern Europe having its roots in Italy, parts of provincial France and, to some extent, in Spain. It was shaped and directed mainly by the relatively mature law students. In the northern universities of England, Scotland, Germany, Bohemia, the Low Countries and Scandinavia student power did not materialise as a serious challenge to the dominion of the teaching masters. In these universities of the medieval period the arts faculties loomed larger than in those of southern Europe, where they were often mere adjuncts to legal and medical studies. Consequently, a great deal of the university's effort in the north went into the training of young men, for the majority of whom the BA degree would be the academic ceiling. In terms of maturity and worldly expertise these adolescents were ill-equipped to organise and spearhead movements of student protest. The average northern student was less politically and legally sophisticated than his southern fellow. The product of a fairly humble background, he was likely to regard university as one of the few or even the sole means of social advancement. These considerations would make him predisposed to accept the hierarchical assumptions upon which the university was built and to acquiesce, albeit with the reluctance of youth, in the disciplinary code imposed by the masters' guilds. Moreover, in the northern universities the protectionist functions of the masters' guilds were extended to embrace the associated students. And this, along with the fact that the masters often took an effective lead in the struggle against hostile external parties, sheltered the students from many of the hazards to which their counterparts were exposed in southern Europe, thereby lessening the motivation for student power enterprise.

Medieval student power ultimately failed. The universities, overwhelmingly orientated towards the professional needs of society, became increasingly reflective of the establishments which they served. The unsettling nature of student power, with its weapons of the boycott and the migration, posed too great a threat to the more ordered, sedentary character that the universities were acquiring in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Society expected an adequate return for the investments sunk in the universities, investments in the form of endowed lectureships, colleges, permanent university buildings and so forth. That return was deemed to be put in jeopardy by the machinations of student politics. The indifferent student record in university administration provided the secular and ecclesiastical authorities with a more immediate reason for the phasing out of student participation as a vital force in west European universities. But looking back over the kaleidoscopic richness of all the diverse forms of student power in the medieval universities, it is clear that the modern phenomenon of student power is, by comparison, in its infancy. And an appreciation of the historical perspective of student power provides a necessary defence against those who would contrast present hierarchical university regimes with the supposedly open student democracies of the Middle Ages. Where student powers were most extensive the oligarchical rule of students by students often led to a brand of intolerance and a narrowing of democratic channels that ill accords with romantic or propagandist notions. While student power could be a creative movement in the struggle for university autonomy, as in the French provincial situation, it could also be a self-defeating and divisive force. After about two centuries the medieval universities reverted to the belief that the teaching masters were better conductors of their craft than their student apprentices.

Further Reading:

A.B. Cobban, The Medieval Universities: their development and organization , Methuen (London, 1975); 'Medieval Student Power', Past and Present , LIII, 1971, pp. 29-66; H.Rashdall, ed. F.M. Powicke and A.B. Emden, The Universities of Europe in the Middle-Ages , 3 vols, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 1936), especially vols I an II; P. Kibre, The Nations in the Medieval  Universities , Medieval Academy of America Publication 49 (Cambridge, Mass., 1948); Scholarly Privileges in the Middle Ages , Medieval Academy of America (London, 1961).      

  • Alan B. Cobban is Reader in History at Liverpool University.
Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week