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Medieval University Life

L. Curtis Musgrave describes how willingness among medieval students to battle for their rights’ that, during the course of years, helped to shape the modern university system.

‘When Oxford draws knife,

England’s soon at strife’

As the old rhyme indicates, university riots are nothing new. In medieval times internecine disputes often spread far beyond the student community; and frequently the scholars banded together in bloody battles against the townspeople. In fact, ‘town and gown’ riots were an important factor in the gradual development of the early universities. Far from being formally founded, with rights and limitations clearly defined, these institutions grew up haphazard.

During the revival of learning known as ‘the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century’, which introduced Arabian arithmetic, texts of Roman law, and the works of ancient philosophers into Western Europe, groups of students gathered, usually at the site of a cathedral school, to hear lectures on the new subjects. For convenience and safety, the students and their teachers soon began to organize into unions, or guilds, called universitates; and it was purely by accident that the term came later to mean an accredited seat of higher learning.

At Bologna, the chief centre for the study of Roman law, the guilds exercised a degree of power that modern students might consider enviable. The Cismontane University - men from Italy - and the Transmontane University - men from outside Italy - acting together through two groups of deputies headed by a rector, made strict rules for their teachers, even limiting them to one day’s absence when they got married.

If a master failed to attract more than five listeners to a lecture, he was obliged to pay a fine; and other Southern European universities, such as the great medical schools at Salerno and Naples, used Bologna as a pattern.

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