English University Life in the Middle Ages

Alan Cobban
Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1999

Gwendolyn Morgan

Looking at my diploma, I see that my degree in medieval studies was granted "together with the rights, privileges, and honors appertaining thereto," and I nostalgically wonder what happened. The provision dates back to the high Middle Ages when the teaching faculties of universities did have exclusive rights, privileges, and honors--with the attendant respect and prestige--as revered members of the community. Whence have they flown?

Alan Cobban's new book deromanticizes that perception with a detailed study of English universities between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, from the perspectives of both faculty and students. The picture that emerges in its place is in many ways surprisingly familiar: high student drop-out rates, untenured lectureships, marginal economic rewards, and a goodly number of other "contemporary" frustrations. Yet, the picture's bleakness is not unmitigated; Cobban also discovers a climate of intellectual freedom and academic self-governance which would today make the average British (or American) professor's mouth water. Moreover, the tacit--and later overt--comparison between then running throughout makes his book of interest not only to medievalists but to the professorial community at large.

English University Life in the Middle Ages lives up to its promise, reviewing Oxford and Cambridge (the only British schools with so long a history) first from the undergraduate, then from the postgraduate perspectives. It also includes chapters on the relationship between academia and the ecclesiastic and lay communities; on finances; on day-to-day life and recreational activities; and on university governance. Cobban's wealth of statistics, if occasionally cumbersome, is fleshed out with specific examples and brief case studies where appropriate.

He takes pains to set his history in the context of other European universities. The continental schools proved to be more sophisticated during this period, most having been established prior to Oxford (late twelfth century) and Cambridge (early thirteenth), and to have been more vulnerable to student pressures in all areas of education and university life. Nonetheless, in terms of pedagogy and standard curricular fare, especially prior to specialization at the advanced levels, the English schools generally conformed to the mold.

Like their continental counterparts, Oxford and Cambridge had "inherited a remnant of the monastic ethos...much diluted in the eleventh and twelfth centuries" (2) which manifested itself not only in the tenets of communal living and denial of bodily pleasures, and in a general alignment with the secular clergy (whence their coveted clerical status), but also in the classical Greco-Roman curriculum of the first two years: rhetoric, grammar, Latin, logic, and Bible studies. Following this indoctrination, students at Cambridge progressed to Aristotle's natural philosophy and the subjects it governed, while those at Oxford concentrated on mathematics and the sciences. Degrees, when attained, led to careers in the Church, aristocratic and royal households, civic administration, and occasionally within the university system itself. Those who pursued graduate study chose theology or law, and these remained the primary degrees even after the humanist infiltration of the late fifteenth century.

Teaching strategies consisted of lectures, ordinary (drawing on standard texts) and extraordinary (on newer, older, or simply marginalized texts), a specific number of which, as today, were expected of each master, and disputations. The latter, designed to test students' knowledge and refine their rhetorical and logical skills, also came in two flavors: ordinary debates, which were public and highly formalized; and extraordinary, which provided more intensive practice and were without fixed agenda or even participants, very much after the Socratic model. At Oxford, extension teaching open to the greater community provided training in practical, non-academic skills and completed the range of university opportunities until it was phased out in the late Middle Ages.

In observing what a university master might expect of his students, Cobban intimates the first advantages the medieval professor may have had over his contemporary counterpart. Until the fifteenth century, undergraduates came mainly from the lesser gentry and middle classes, even from the wealthier yeomanry and peasantry (although an "unfree" status was something of a black mark), as well as from ecclesiastics and their "wards." In the earlier centuries, entering students, aged 12 to 17, frequently were unable to write fluently, although solid reading skills were expected. By the fourteenth century, however, thanks to the growth of the grammar school system, they reached university reading and writing Latin and trained at least to some degree in classical rhetoric and logic. These skills were reinforced, not only by lectures, but by the requirement that they had to speak Latin even in the colleges and halls.

Significantly, university education was valued in and of itself, whether or not a student actually received a degree (as approximately half did not); indeed, many entered with no such lofty ambition, seeking only edification from a year or two of higher learning. Moreover, dabbling or indecisiveness (General Studies?) was not long tolerated. Students were only considered serious scholars once they were committed to a master, with whom they actually contracted for a course of study. When those seeking degrees failed to attain them, it was for the perennial reasons: "a loss of commitment, lack of ability, insufficient self-discipline, illness, death...a career change,...[and] financial exigency" (25-6). Another difference between medieval and modern students, Cobban suggests, was that the former, however young, "were treated as adults who were capable of making the important choices governing their sojourn at university"--and accepted it (25). Overall, today's production-line degree was neither expected nor received.

Outside of academics, student life may look more familiar to us. Financially, students had much the same kinds of help available--sponsorship by private individual, public institution, or Church, and a variety of bursaries and institutional loans--though admittedly those offered the opportunity of higher education, or even grammar school, comprised a much lower percentage of the population. Nonetheless, the fact that sons of the nobility accounted for only a negligible number of students until the mid-fifteenth century should dispel any notions of the spoiled graduate student of Hamlet's ilk.

Students lived modestly, not opulently, and ever increasingly within colleges and halls, which not incidentally also took responsibility for their moral and behavioral standards. Unfortunately, despite strict rules of conduct and the threat of corporeal punishment or imprisonment to enforce them, problems existed with extracurricular student behavior. Activities ranged from sanctioned sports, minstrelsy, drama, chess, and carnivals to illicit drinking, gambling, whoring, poaching, brawls, and sometimes full-scale riots which required army intervention to set them down. In general, students had bad reputations among townspeople, who deeply resented the clerical status which allowed them to escape censure from city and state authorities. Cobban devotes all of chapter 6 to the relations between scholars and laymen and the serious problems which plagued them.

Medieval faculties faced in different guise some of the same frustrations as do their modern counterparts. Wages were proportionately lower than today, even after salaried lectureships arose in the early fourteenth century. Prior to that, masters depended upon student fees and had to compete for contracts, and even without current standardized student evaluation forms, lectures could become popularity contests. Cambridge, for example, permitted new students 15 days to sample faculty performances before committing to a particular master. As remains the case, those in the sciences and law commanded more money than their colleagues in the arts. The inadequate salaries produced predictable results in that few scholars chose to stay in academia, viewing a teaching position as merely a springboard to more a lucrative career. Consequently, universities struggled to maintain faculties in the early Middle Ages, frequently relying on ecclesiastics and requiring matriculated bachelors and graduate fellows to sign on for "necessary regencies" of (usually) five years. Professors thus tended to be young--in their early to mid-twenties. The problem lessened considerably, however, as salaried lectureships and tenure increased. As though to emphasize the point that university faculty deserved better than they received, Cobban devotes a later chapter to the economic benefits reaped by the community from the university, manifest in service industry employment, retail sales, building, lodging, and so forth.

Economics aside, medieval teaching masters had considerable leverage. Intellectual freedom was not seriously challenged; even John Wyclif taught his quasi-heretical views at Oxford for thirty years prior to his enforced withdrawal in 1381. And on this issue, Cobban's subtext rises to the surface:

Curricular and other professional concerns were generally settled by the self-regulation of the masters' guild. The academic regime and the examination criteria were internal matters that were not subject to external validation. The masters' guild did not experience the humiliation of having to produce banal and disingenuous mission statements or of having thrust upon it the inappropriate verbiage of a mercantile society to name only two of the albatrosses that so depress modern British universities. Regent masters were free to pursue lines of intellectual inquiry that were independent of the siren call of crude market forces. (64)

Such being the case, scholars did not reshape curricula to satisfy the job market or political bias, or to secure grant money. Moreover, freedom from outside attempts to define or measure the "value" of the various aspects of the academic's job meant that the distinction between teaching and research dominating many contemporary universities simply did not exist. Rather, exploration of non-standard lines of inquiry, and the formulation of new thought based thereon, was inextricably grounded in the pedagogy; the master's primary responsibility may have been instruction, but extraordinary lectures and disputations provided the basis for new scholarship.

Cobban's tacit justification of the teaching staff continues with what is almost a leitmotif of the opportunities for spiritual benefits universities offered the laity. By giving donations of disparate monetary value, from halls and colleges fully endowed by royal or aristocratic patrons, to scholarships and contributions to college loan chests, and down to donations of furniture and books, university supporters received regular prayers and memorial services and generally believed they accumulated spiritual credit for their generosity. Moreover, Cobban emphasizes, in tacit comparison with then contemporary practices of selling pardons and indulgences, the size of the gift did not matter: patrons received equal time for large and small gifts. While this subject rises time and again throughout English University Life in the Middle Ages, however, Cobban mentions only once in passing that academic standards may have been occasionally relaxed for noble students in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to secure such endowments. Such occasionally uneven treatment of his material emphasizes his political agenda and serves, unfortunately, to cast a slight shadow on what is otherwise a very fine study and a convincing manifesto.

Cobban illuminates other issues which, again, continue to plague modern institutions. Library resources were inadequate to poor in the early medieval period, and with books generally too expensive for a student (or master) to possess more than a few, students relied heavily on lectures to learn even basic material. By the fifteenth century, the university libraries were fully functional; before then, books purchased for or by specific halls and colleges and their fellows had to supplement the otherwise meager resources. The "honors appertaining thereto" were also hard to come by for scholars. With the possible exception of the clerical hierarchy, a position as a fellow or master did not open doors in aristocratic society, although the profession was respected. As for the general populace, resentment of the privileged legal position of those affiliated with the university more than outweighed any awe of learning. Moreover, the spiritual duties owed to patrons obliged masters and graduate fellows to spend considerable time performing and attending memorial services. Finally, masters, being at least partially responsible for their students' behavior outside the classroom, were saddled with supervisory and punitive duties related thereto.

Cobban ends with an examination of university governance, and here his argument against the current system reaches a crescendo. Being primarily privately financed through fees, rents, fines, and donations, Oxford and Cambridge maintained their freedom in curricular and administrative matters from lay authorities, and even episcopal jurisdiction over the universities, eliminated in the fourteenth century, was only nominally exercised. Unlike British and American universities today, both schools were governed by their faculties. The masters' guilds elected bedels, proctors, vice-chancellors, and chancellors from the ranks of the masters themselves, requiring all to have at least one graduate degree and considerable tenure on the teaching faculty. Collectively these officers attended to all administrative, legal, and financial as well as academic matters. Moreover, the highest court of appeal lay not in the chancellor's office but back in the hall of the masters' guild itself. Taking another shot at the contemporary system, Cobban observes,

That the government of the English universities should have rested in any hands other than those of the masters' guilds would have seemed a very singular proposition in the medieval period. Within this context, non-academic administrative staff might play a supportive role, but they were few in number and were assigned to a suitably subordinate position. (216)

All in all, Cobban's study, after a somewhat cumbersome start overburdened with statistics, is a lively and comprehensive account of what it meant to be affiliated with a medieval English university. At times, his less-than-covert agenda for academic and administrative freedom in contemporary institutions sometimes ironically leads him to romanticize certain problems which he initially sets out to illuminate. For example, that the categories of graduate fellow and master, layman and secular clergy frequently blurred, with senior students frequently serving as teachers and masters serving as priests, and that scholarly life was not necessarily distinct from public interaction or leisure activities may have caused some problems, but they also produced a comprehensiveness of academic experience and a collegiality rarely known in contemporary institutions. Similarly, the chronic economic and resource problems of the medieval and the modern professor are, for the former, allayed by the fact that he was at least free to pursue his scholarly interests. And the complete exclusion of women from Oxford and Cambridge did not prevent their significant involvement as powerful patrons (although as a female academic, I hardly find this compensation). Nonetheless, Cobban's argument strikes a chord to which none of us can remain deaf, and we must agree with him that

Where such amorphous and elusive subjects as education and scholarship are concerned, the value of money [sic] concept is rendered meaningless when translated crudely into rigidly defined objectives and targets. The only meaningful judgement is the general perception on the standing of a university on the part of those individuals and social groupings that have experienced its services, employed its graduates, and benefitted from its scholarship. (216)

And so English University Life in the Middle Ages is certainly worth reading for more than its professed subject. In elucidating the experience of medieval higher education, Cobban continually draws attention to contemporary problems, and his anger and frustration with them is patently clear. Yet the reader must be wary of Cobban's manifesto, for the incautious are likely to take a circle tour, returning, albeit on a different level, to our nostalgic yearning for the golden age of the university in a medieval past which we continue to invent for ourselves.

Contents | Home