Life on Campus

A MEDIEVAL STUDENT’S DAY usually began at 4 or 5 in the morning, when the watchman’s horn resounded throughout the city. After attending Mass from 5 to 6, the student attended classes until 10. Then came lunch, a paltry meal consisting of some beef and thick soup of beef gravy and oatmeal.

Classes continued after lunch until about 5, followed by an evening meal. Then students studied their notes by candlelight until they went to bed at 9 or 10.

This routine was broken by the observance of saints’ days and religious festivals, when the university was closed. On those days students could travel throughout the city, play games, and even exercise in areas beyond the city walls.

For various reasons, roughly two-thirds of students never completed the six years of study necessary to become a teacher. Some succumbed to the distractions present in a city far from home. Paris, for example, had a population over 50,000 and featured numerous taverns, where students passed their days drinking and gambling. Prostitutes found many customers near universities, too.

Boys left home for universities as early as age 12, and they didn’t always find a healthy environment in which to learn adult behavior. Jacques de Vitry observed in the thirteenth century that University of Paris students from different lands were obnoxious and frequently at odds with one another and the surrounding community.

He wrote, for example, that “the English were drunkards . . . the sons of France proud, effeminate and carefully adorned like women . . . the Germans were furious and obscene at their feasts . . . the Poitevins, traitors and always adventurers. The Burgundians they considered vulgar and stupid.”

By Matt Donnelly

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #73 in 2002]

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