Town and Gown

I have always been an admirer of fantasy novels, and two years ago I was lucky enough to stumble upon a new series that’s carved a place in my heart – The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss. Like most of my favorite series, it had a vaguely medieval setting – but unlike the other series I have looked at, a large part of the first book is centered around the exploits of the main character as he attends university.

This was the first time I had ever even thought of the words ‘medieval’ and ‘university’ together, much less considered whether ‘medieval universities’ actually existed. After doing some research, I found that universities as we know them first started to appear around 1200 [1], and that the politics, drama, and fistfights that occurred in Rothfuss’s text were not unfounded.

The vast majority of the tensions surrounding universities came from the fact that students and masters of these institutions were often afforded special privileges, setting them apart from commoners in a variety of different ways. In her book on the subject, titled Scholarly Privileges in the Middle Ages, Pearl Kibre gives a detailed breakdown of exactly what privileges were afforded to scholars at universities in Bologna, Paris, Padua and Oxford – and how those privileges impacted those around them [2].

This is not to say that scholars were always treated as superior to those who lived around them – in fact,one of the main reasons why scholars were granted special privileges is that at first, they lacked any kind of legal protections. Many scholars traveled in order to study at universities, meaning that they were not citizens of the cities where they studied; As Kibre puts it, “They could expect no protection from the local laws or magistrates, since… they had left behind them their legal protectors…” [3]. In fact, one of the driving forces behind the initial formation of the universities was “obtaining for the masters and their students freedoms and privileges which would protect them from the judicial and financial demands” of the authorities that attempted to control and use them [4]. Unfortunately, granting these special rights rarely solved the problems, and often served to make them worse.

For an example of these escalating tensions let us look to the University of Oxford. One of the largest instigating incidents occurred in 1209 when a scholar accidentally killed a woman [5]. In retaliation, several scholars were arrested, and some were executed by officials of Oxford, leading to a closing of the university until King John all but ordered the city to agree to the demands of the scholars, which included a number of stipulations both trivial and important. To name just a few, the citizens were required to swear that they would not take “unfair advantage of the scholars”, “sell food and other necessities at a just and reasonable price”, set up a system by which the masters of the university had some control in setting the rent of their own property, and most importantly, the city had to swear to “uphold the traditional clerical or scholarly immunity from lay justice” including the immediate surrender of any who were currently arrested [5]. As one can see, most of their demands were quite reasonable, and served only to protect the scholars from being taken advantage of. However, the problems were not solved that easily.

The scholars, despite having a say in setting the reasonable price for rents, complained to the King,who intervened with the city on their behalf yet again. This set of circumstances repeated itself over and over again – the scholars would complain to the current king, who would intervene on their behalf, granting the scholars more and more immunity from the magistrates of the city. Before long, the king granted the Chancellor of the university jurisdiction over any and all cases where one of the parties was a scholar – this included rental of houses, the sale of moveable articles in or around the city, and more [6]. As one might expect, this kind of unilateral power did not go unabused, according to the leaders of the city [7]. The Chancellor was accused of letting clerks who committed robberies, homicides, trespasses and other crimes roam free on the streets of Oxford, acting as they wished [8]. Even in cases where the perpetrators were arrested, the city claimed that they were often let go very quickly, or had very light punishments; meanwhile, a layperson who so much as laid a hand on a clerk could be all but assured a 40-day stint in the local prison.

It should be quite clear how these sorts of rulings and tensions might create the kind of tension displayed so proudly in a fantasy novel. While that is not to say that one should read The Name of the Wind and expect to study magic at the University of Oxford, it would not be entirely remiss to think of some of the events that transpire in the book as plausible,if not likely.

[1] Verger, Jaques. “The Universities and Scholasticism.” In The New Cambridge Medieval History, 256-76. Vol. 4. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[2] Kibre, Pearl. Scholarly Privileges in the Middle Ages; the Rights, Privileges, and Immunities of Scholars and Univerities at Bolgna, Padua, Paris, and Oxford. Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1962.

[3] Kibre, Scholarly Privileges, 8.

[4] Verger, New Cambridge, 259.

[5] Kibre, Scholarly Privileges, 269.

[6] Kibre, Scholarly Privileges, 272-273

[7] Kibre, Scholarly Privileges, 279

[8] Kibre, Scholarly Privileges, 281