Schools of Hard Knocks: Medieval and Renaissance Students Behaving Badly

The Medieval Classroom, by Dr Ben Parsons

In the late fifteenth century, a grammar master at Magdalen School compiled a collection of vulgaria, simple sentences for his pupils to translate into Latin. Among its colourful phrases is a striking reflection on a widespread staple of instruction: the text asks its reader to rework the sentence, “what meanys shall I use to lurne withoute betynge? for I fere the rodde as the swerde”. While this statement is really a piece of underhand ventriloquism, serving to acclimatise scholars to the necessity of “the rodde” as they go about their studies, the question it pretends to raise echoes throughout the history of education. After all, it is only comparatively recently that instruction “withoute betynge” has been accepted as a possibility: several countries, including Germany, the UK and Ireland, only proscribed the rod as recently as the 1980s and 1990s; others, such as China, France and parts of the US, still permit its implementation.

Given its long history and lingering presence, it might be assumed that physical coercion has always been an intrinsic aspect of instruction. But what is interesting is that the period in which the Magdalen schoolmaster was writing, and in which much of the fabric of modern education was laid down, had a highly vexed view of physical discipline. While medieval writers generally accepted the necessity of beating schoolchildren, with Folcuin of Lobbes breezily describing schooling as “ferulae tramitem” (“the way of the rod”), the issue was far from settled. This can be seen most clearly in various attempts to rationalise the practice during the Middle Ages. Thus in the twelfth century one author, possibly William of Conches, describes how a blow to a pupil’s left hand can dispel “tarditatem ingenii” (“sluggishness of intellect”), propelling the blood up the arm into the heart, and kick-starting their energy and attention. A little later John of Salisbury offers an alternative theory of why beating is needed during education, reasoning that the experience of pain kindles “consilium deliberationis” (“deliberative judgement”) in the student, causing them to weigh up which courses of action are advisable and which should be avoided. Such theories are only the tip of the iceberg: in the thirteenth century Boncompagno of Signa holds that pupils’ memories are strengthened by blows, since “the place where one stumbles or is hurt is committed to memory, but that place is easily forgotten where one received good service”, while his contemporary Bartholomew of England holds that the “carne molles” (“soft flesh”) of the adolescent anatomy requires beating to knock it into proper shape.

While such statements may seem comical or even disingenuous, they nonetheless pinpoint a clear unease about flogging. The very fact that medieval commentators were driven to explain the linkage between schooling and pain shows that it did not rest on a secure foundation of custom, but required explicit justification. Along similar lines, the fact that these explanations are so varied suggests that there was little consensus on what functions it was meant to carry out, and that its integration into education was therefore not total. Ultimately, while this debate does not take the same form as modern discussions, it highlights how the linkage between beating and teaching has not always been a habitual or even comfortable one.

Dr Ben Parsons is a Teaching Fellow in English Language at the University of Leicester.

Renaissance Universities by Dr Sarah Knight

If we move from medieval schools to Renaissance universities, it seems clear that academic authorities were still very keen to control student behaviour, although legislation seems to have been favoured over corporal punishment in these later institutions. In November 1595, Roger Goad, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, issued a set of instructions to university students informing them how to behave at disputations, telling them not to ‘wear any long or curled lockes, great Ruffes, velvet Pantables, velvet Breeches, coloured nether Stockes, or any other coloured apparel’, and mandating:

1.    That Batchelors, of Artes, & Inferior Students give place to yr: betters […]
2.    That no Scholler under any Tutor, shall at any time resort unto victualling Houses  & Taverns […]
3.    That no Scholer of any condition or degree, do use or resort to Bull baytings, Bearbaytings, common bowling places, nine Hoall, or such like unlawfull games.

Goad’s orders attempt to control every aspect of students’ lives – clothes, food and drink, sports–  and to reinforce social hierarchy, as explicit in the first command (‘That […] Inferior Students give place to yr: betters’). Representations of students gathered momentum during the Elizabethan period because they were rooted in a reality implied by regulations like these, and authored by university graduates who had recently lived under such rules.

Official complaints about student behaviour escalated during the later three decades of Elizabeth’s reign. For instance, the Earl of Leicester (Chancellor of Oxford from 1564 to 1588) wrote to university Convocation in 1583, warning that Oxford students were gaining a reputation for ‘excesse in apparel’, and for ‘Haunting of the Towne, [so] that the streets are every daye and all day longe more full of Schollers than Townsmen’. At Cambridge, a similar phenomenon was observed. A royal injunction was issued in 1570 that forbade the establishment within the university precincts of schools of fencing, fighting and dancing, along with staging of cock-fights or bear-baiting. In places dominated by a university, town/gown separation often occurs axiomatically, but, during the 1570s and 80s the university authorities worked particularly hard to cement this division.

Truancy rates were often high: in the Cambridge University Audit Book of 1572-4 a Junior Proctor records payment of 3 shillings and fourpence made to one ‘Baxter’ for seeking out errant students: ‘Item to mr baxter going to gogmagog hils at ye tyme of playes to looke for schollers’. In 1575, John Whitgift, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge wrote to Lord Burghley expressing concern about commercial entertainments creating ‘great occasion of moche disorder among ye youthe of ye uniuersitie and some danger in ye breache of peace’. Whitgift’s alarm was generally shared. Throughout these years, commercial entertainment outside the university walls is figured as riotous, infectious, and directly detrimental both to individual study and to civic order. Students were fined heavily for seeking extra-curricular diversion. Puritan anti-theatricalism was powerful at the Elizabethan universities, and as in contemporary London, the Puritan faction sought to emphasize moral degradation and misrule as the result of exposure to commercial entertainments, while lamenting the moral turpitude of the new student population. Many aspects of higher education still with us today began in the Renaissance – such as social mobility through academic training; concerns about employment post-graduation; independent and sometimes oppositional intellectual work – but while the modern campus with its cafés, concert venues and shops is a concertedly sociable space, the early modern university was more deliberately self-contained, college walls designed to keep academic inhabitants and sometimes visiting dignitaries in and all others firmly out.

Dr Sarah Knight is Senior Lecturer in Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature in at the School of English at the University of Leicester.

Sarah Knight and Ben Parsons will speak on ‘School of Hard Knocks: Medieval and Renaissance Students Behaving Badly’ at Literary Leicester, 9 November 2012 (1-2pm, Peter Williams Lecture Theatre, Fielding Johnson South).

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