Who Was a Typical Oxford Student in the 14th Century?

Laura Burgazzi

4 mins

05 Feb 2019

The University of Oxford was the third university to develop during the Middle Ages. It does not have a specific foundation date, as the institution developed gradually over time. Some have claimed that a form of teaching was happening as early as 1096.

By the 14th century, the University of Oxford was firmly established, as was the type of scholar who studied there.

Gender

In the 14th century, all students at Oxford, and every other medieval university, were men. In fact, women were not allowed to become full members of the university until 1920.

Illustration from a 14th-century manuscript showing a meeting of doctors at the University of Paris. Like Oxford, all students at the University of Paris were men.

Religion

Only baptised Christians were allowed to be students at the university of Oxford during the medieval period; non-Christians were banned from attending.

Almost all of Oxford’s scholars were clerks, meaning that they held some form of position within the Christian Church, which they could use to help pay for their studies and living costs.

Those who had converted from Judaism to Christianity were allowed to attend the university. A Jewish convert was even employed to teach (Hebrew and Greek) at Oxford in 1321.

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Age

Students were supposed to be 16 before they could be allowed to study the Seven Liberal Arts at Oxford – this was a much higher age requirement than at the University of Toulouse, where students could begin at 10.

Once at Oxford, students were required to study for between 5 and 6 years and then take an examination. The examination was only required if the students wished to gain their bachelor’s degree however, and many were content merely to study and did not want to gain an official degree.

A twelfth century illustration depicting the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, and logic (the trivium) and geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy (the quadrivium).

Mobility

94% of students at Oxford were English. This resulted in Oxford students being separated into only 2 regional groups, known as nations. In contrast, there were 4 nations at the University of Paris, and, by the 15th century, the University of Bologna had 25.

At Oxford, these nations were northerners (which included Scottish students) and southerners (which included Welsh and Irish students).

Relations between the nations were often bad and violent, and a committee of 5 students had to be established at the end of the thirteenth century to keep the peace – these poor relations may explain the North-South divide still held by some in England today.

Medieval students were not bound to attend only one institution, as the majority of students do today, but were free to study at any number of different universities across Europe.

Medieval students were actually actively encouraged to pursue study at different institutions, to make sure that they were taught by the best.

Therefore, it could be that 94% of those who took their examinations at Oxford were English, but a more diverse selection had studied there for a period.

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Wealth

Oxford students came from a wide range of social backgrounds, but the majority of students were what we now know as “middle-class”.

Most medieval students were required to pay their teachers, known as “masters”, for their instruction, and so they had to be able to afford this sum – in 1333, a student only had to pay 30 pence a year for lectures in logic and physics, which would be £77 today.

Students also had to pay for the supplies that they needed, such as books, clothing, and food. As a result, many students wrote letters home to their parents or wealthy family members asking for money – as many students often do today!

Many of Oxford’s colleges were originally designed to house exclusively ‘poor’ students, which means that poor students must also have been attending the university.

Some students were extremely wealthy, and the university was very proud of its connections to the English nobility, and royalty.

A map of medieval European universities.

Language

All students were expected to be able to read and understand Latin. All lectures were delivered in Latin and academic debates (known as disputations) also occurred in Latin. Similarly, all announcements by administrative officials were supposed to be read in Latin.

However, these officials also complained that they had to speak to students in a number of languages, suggesting that Latin may only have been the “official” language of the university.

Trouble-making

Oxford students caused the most violent skirmish between “town” and “gown” in history, with ‘homicide, looting, arson, offences and other crimes’, according to Kind Edward III.

On 10 February 1355 (St Scholastica’s Day), two Oxford students argued with a pub landlord about the quality of wine that he had served them.

The plaque commemorating the place of the Swindlestock Tavern, where the altercation between the students and landlord occurred on 10 February 1355. Credit: Tony Holding / Commons.

This dispute rapidly escalated and turned violent, and it soon began a riot which lasted two days and resulted in the deaths of almost 100 students and townspeople.

Although not all of Oxford’s students were involved in the St Scholastica’s Day riot of 1355, those events have come to characterise the students of medieval Oxford.