Student Privileges in the Medieval Universities

From the lecture series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William and Mary

Would it have been better to be a student in the medieval times? Why was student life raucous in the High Middle Ages? What were the reasons for such rambunctious behavior by the university students? Why did they feel free to go on a rampage, and how did they evade prosecution? Read on to find the answers.

Painting of students in an open area, studying astronomy and geometry with the help of some instruments.
University students had a bad reputation in the medieval society. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

As the university, students got their first taste of independence by living away from home. They, thus, indulged in partying and other pastimes, which earned them a bad reputation in the medieval society. It was not as if these students were merely seen as partying troublemakers, but they were considered as dangerous criminal elements within the society. However, this reputation was not unfounded, and there were specific reasons for such rambunctious behavior; the broad ones being that these students enjoyed a number of privileges and student power prevailed in all universities, though in varying degrees.

Learn more about the first universities.

Clerical Status Granted to University Students

The university students were granted the legal status of clerics, which allowed them to enjoy all the privileges permitted to the clergy. The students also sported a tonsure, which was a physical sign of their elite clerical status. The status didn’t mean that the students were clerics, and hence these university students were free to marry as long as they did not hold a benefice from the Church. Nevertheless, the status was a very important one that provided the students with legal impunity.

Big Backward Step for Medieval Women

Women in Christian monastic schools.
Women had no access to the institutions that were the gateways for professional advancement.
(Image: John Everett Millais / Public domain)

The clerical status granted to the university students had an unintended but major consequence for European history. The legality of granting the clerical status to the university students led to a peculiar complication. Women in the high medieval period received the same education as men within monasteries and monastic schools. Though they were allowed to lead a monastic life, the women could only be members of regular clergy and not secular clergy. This meant that they could only become nuns but not priests who preached to common people. Since women were not given the legal status of clerics, it implied that they could not enroll themselves to universities. Thus, women had no access to the institutions that were the gateways for professional advancement, and this act of disallowing womenfolk to universities proved to be detrimental to the intellectual advancement of women in the High Middle Ages.

Learn more about women in medieval society.

Frequent Brawls with the Townspeople

The most important legal privilege enjoyed by the university students was that of physical protection. The students were immune to physical assaults, and the citizens were forbidden from physically touching members of the clergy. If the citizens defied the instructions, they were debarred from the Church, and the only way to lift the expulsion was to approach the Pope. This was a pretty difficult task unless one enjoyed good connections at the papal court.

The university students often picked up fights with the townspeople, and sometimes these brawls turned violent. One such notorious brawl happened at the University of Paris when students went on a rampage and many of them were killed. Despite the fact that the students started the whole affair, the University demanded that the town officials, who were merely trying to keep order, be punished.

Painting showing the St Scholastica Day riot.
The various privileges and liberties made the university students raucous, leading to violent confrontations with the townspeople at times. (Image: Howard Davie (1868-1943)/Public domain)

The townspeople were also intimidated by the threat of strikes if they failed to comply with the wishes of the students. And these were not merely threats; these sorts of strikes were quite common in the high middle ages. Thus, when the town officials were less than willing to penalize the townspeople, the University of Paris went on strike in 1229 AD and did not return for two years until 1231 AD.

During the strikes, both professors and students just packed their suitcases and left to a neighboring town, sometimes for years at a stretch. Leaving towns was an effective way to achieve their demands as such acts deprived entire towns of the revenue earned from the university. Such migrations were frequent due to the relative ease of mobility for lack of university buildings, libraries, or any such institutional property that would limit movement.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Exclusive Church Court Trials for University Students

The university students of the medieval period had the right to be tried only in Church courts for their crimes. As clerics were exempt from trial in secular law courts, irrespective of their crimes, students were also given the same privilege. This was a valuable privilege because the Church courts were more sympathetic to the offender than the secular courts due to his clerical status. An added advantage was that the Church courts did not enforce physical punishments, such as chopping off someone’s hand for a theft. The worst forms of punishments imposed were limited to either the student undergoing atonement or being excommunicated from the Church.

Yet, there was no guarantee that the students would enjoy complete impunity from punishment. The common citizens of the town were eager to control the students, and sometimes they did succeed in convincing the local university authorities to strip a student of his clerical status. Once the student was stripped of his clerical status, the secular courts would take over and proceed against the student. These were rare occasions as the universities were usually unwilling to let the secular courts prosecute any of their students.

All these privileges and liberties made student life quite raucous in the High Middle Ages, and student behavior was unruly by all means.

Common Questions about Student Privileges in the Medieval Universities

Q: What was a tonsure that university students of the medieval era sported?

The tonsure was a bald spot shaved on the top of one’s head, leaving just a fringe of hair around the bald spot. It was an indication that the person wearing such a haircut was a cleric in the medieval era.

Q: What was the importance of universities in the High Middle Ages?

Students and teachers in Europe desired more bargaining power to shield themselves from local laws, higher rents, and other prejudices in a foreign land. The universities in High Middle Ages, while providing them with these privileges, also enhanced learning and skill sets among the students.

Q: Did girls go to school in the High Middle Ages?

Very few girls went to school in the High Middle Ages, but university was almost out of bounds for the women. Girls from noble families were either taught at home or went to another nobleman’s house for learning.

Keep Reading
Education in the Renaissance
Heresy in the High Middle Ages
The Status of Women in Medieval Europe