What was life like as a student in the Middle Ages?

Newcomers to the bustling cities of the twelfthe century, the students divide their time between learning, community life and conflicts with the king’s sergeants.

The figure of the student emerges in the effervescence of the Renaissance of the XIIe century and the dynamism of the culture and knowledge of the time. Housing, food, access to books are all dilemmas faced by these newcomers when they arrive in schools and universities in the heart of cities. Immersed in the heart of the urban frenzy of this century, they learn to live together and share their daily lives between studies and community life.

The daily life of the student in the Middle Ages

The students are mobile young men from diverse social backgrounds. If the majority of the students come from noble families, some of them come from families of modest lords and nothing prevents, in theory, a peasant from following the teaching of a master. When they decide to continue their studies, these students have to move to reach Paris or Boulogne and the heart of urban education in cities undergoing complete restructuring. These uprooted young people must then find something to live on and meet their needs. Student life is expensive: the student at Middle Ages must support itself. For this, he does odd jobs: assistant in a bookstore or student secretary of a canon. His income allows him to provide his meals. His day is generally punctuated by two meals which are mainly composed of bread and wine or beer. Then, the newcomer must find a place to stay in a context of high student concentration, rising rents and housing shortages. While students who are members of a religious order or come from wealthy families have no trouble finding accommodation, the reality is quite different for more modest students who do not benefit from any local solidarity network.

The appearance of colleges from the end of the twelfthe century, the best known of which is the Collège de Sorbon (today the Collège de la Sorbonne) provides a partial response to this problem. Indeed, these colleges are initially made to welcome and house the poorest students. This integration into the urban fabric of colleges and universities confirms the appearance of new student districts, the most famous of which is most certainly the Latin Quarter of Paris.

The student must also buy all the material necessary for his studies: manuscripts, scrolls, candles. Finally, he must pay for his studies. Indeed, it is the student who pays his master directly. From the XIIIe century, he must also pay for university registration. For the anecdote, you also have to pay to be able to sit in the front row during a lesson. Student life is expensive, it is also at this time that the image of the “poor student” was born.

This new student community which settles in the heart of cities learns to live together and to study together. She is loud, unstable and feisty. Altercations with the king’s soldiers are frequent and can have political consequences. In 1200, a brawl between Parisian students and sergeants of Philippe Auguste provoked a strong reaction from the church and the promulgation of a charter which confirms the legal existence of the student community and prefigures the birth of the University of Paris in 1215.

Learning and studies in the Middle Ages

Once established, the student can fully devote himself to his studies. Pupil of a master to whom he was attached throughout his studies, he evolved within a school (XIIe century) then within a university from the 13the century. He learned the liberal arts inherited from Antiquity with a predilection, in the Middle Ages, for grammar and rhetoric which were supplemented by logic and epistolary science.

The teaching provided by the master is organized around highly codified exercises. The first of these exercises is the lectio, i.e. the reading followed. This fundamental exercise of medieval teaching has as its object the commentary, paragraph by paragraph, of a text given by the master. Going against the tide of received ideas about the Middle Ages, these young people in full learning study the great classical authors like Virgil and Aristotle. The second of these exercises is the argument which imposes itself in the XIIIe century as the benchmark exercise. It is an exchange between the master and his students around a question asked by the master. This exercise is a real intellectual spectacle, a high-level verbal contest.

From the XIIIe century, studies are sanctioned by diplomas. These validate the course within the university which can last more than 15 years. The student begins his studies around 18 years old within the Faculty of Arts where he obtains the status of bachelor around 20 years old then his license around 22 years old. He can then join the Faculty of Theology where he studies for 13 years in order to become a Doctor and Master in turn around his 35th birthday.

To be a student in the Middle Ages was to adopt an urban, communal and precarious way of life. However, the student participates in the incredible intellectual effervescence of his century, in the circulation of knowledge, in the recomposition of cities and in the institutionalization of schools with the emergence of the university.


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