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Scottish Education - Schools and University
Chapter II - First Period to 1560. Universities Introductory


So far the condition of pre-reformation schools has been described with only an incidental reference to the universities. The origin, constitution, and management of the latter during the same period now fall to be considered. This necessitates more or less detailed reference to English and continental universities, whose foundation preceded those of Scotland, and with which Scotland had more or less intercourse. We have seen that as early as the 14th century Scottish students who sought for more advanced education than could be got at home, went in great numbers to England and the Continent, and returned to occupy important educational positions in their native land.

A Scots College was founded in Paris by a Bishop of Moray, and Scotsmen had a 'Nation' to themselves in the University of Padua [Prof. Malden, p. 13 ; Origin of Universities and Academical Degrees (London, 35)]. This intercourse with England and the Continent was doubtless accompanied by a widening of the intellectual horizon, and by degrees led to the establishment of universities at home. It is not necessary for the purpose of this work to treat of what is legendary and untrustworthy, or discuss the origin of the University of Salerno, of which nothing is known except that it was a famous medical school in the 9th century. Neither are we concerned with the probability, or rather the improbability, of the University of Paris having been founded by a Scotsman. All such institutions have been a gradual growth in response to human needs and the demands of Christian civilisation, and the earliest of them belong more to legend than to history. In the middle ages up to the time of the Reformation they were strictly ecclesiastical institutions, for the founding of which the sanction of the Pope was indispensable. Omitting the legendary, we go far enough back for our purpose by referring to Bologna and Paris, which existed in the 12th century, the specialty of the former being canon and civil law, and of the latter, scholastic philosophy. The Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, and Aberdeen were modelled on that of Paris, that of Glasgow mainly on that of Bologna.

In the 13th century Paris was the centre of intellectual activity in Europe, and thither Englishmen who aimed at a reputation for learning found their way. But Oxford and Cambridge were also well to the front, and there were similar large migrations of Paris students to these seats of learning.

Institutions for the promotion of higher learning were designated by the terms studium generale or universitas. These designations indicate not boundlessness in respect of the number of subjects taught, but in respect of local and territorial expansion. Originally universitas had no reference to the range of studies. Professor Malden in his Origin of the Universities says " In the language of the civil law all corporations were called universitates, as forming one whole out of many individuals. In the German jurisconsults universitas is the word for a corporate town. In Italy it was applied to the incorporated trades in the cities. In ecclesiastical language the term was sometimes applied to a number of churches united under the superintendence of one archdeacon [Rashdall, vol. ii, Part 1, p.,296.]."

It was not till towards the end of the 14th century that it came to mean a corporation of teachers and scholars. Such a corporation was in medieval times called a studium generale. "It is necessary however," says Mr Mullinger, "to bear in mind that universities, in the earlier times, had not infrequently a vigorous virtual existence long before they obtained legal recognition, and it is equally necessary to remember that hostels, halls, and colleges with complete courses of instruction in all the usual branches of learning, as well as degrees and examinations, were by no means essential features in the medieval conception of a university."

The customs of universities have undergone many changes between early times and the present day. At their commencement Oxford and Cambridge were scarcely different from what the Scottish and continental universities are now. The students were taught in the university, but lived where they pleased. By and by some colleges both in this country and abroad provided board for the undergraduate with a view to more strict supervision of life and conduct. This however has been departed from everywhere except in Oxford and Cambridge, but there too within comparatively recent years admission is given to unattached students, whose chief connection with the university is attendance at lectures and examinations. Roman Catholic theological students as a rule live together. They do so in Freiburg in Breisgau, and elsewhere, and call their house a `convict' or `seminar.'

In no respect is the conduct of the student so remarkable as in the stay-at-home habit of the modern when contrasted with the wandering life of the medieval student. As a rule, though there are exceptions, a Scottish student of the present day knows but one alma mater. Formerly he roamed about over England, France, Germany, and Italy, at his own sweet will, or in pursuit of the learning for which each university was most celebrated. Germans and Belgians generally attend more than one university if they are first-rate students. We are told by a monk of the 12th century, who had evidently no high opinion of medieval learning, that "the scholars are wont to roam around the world and visit all its cities till much learning makes them mad ; for in Paris they seek liberal arts, in Orleans authors, at Salerno gallipots, at Toledo demons, and in no place decent manners."

Migrations of students between Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris arose from very trifling causes. On the occasion of a sanguinary struggle in 1261 between the North and South factions in Cambridge, in which the townsmen took sides, a body of the students betook themselves to Northampton Within about seventy years afterwards a similar migration took place from Oxford to Stamford. Both migrations were temporary, and the result was that a statute was passed, forbidding the establishment of a university except in Cambridge and Oxford [Mullinger's Univ. of Cambridge, p. 135].

The large migrations of Scottish students to the English and foreign universities, and of French students to Oxford and Cambridge, are clear proofs of the cosmopolitan meaning attached to universitas. The number of Scottish students in Paris in the 14th century was so great as to attract the attention of the authorities. It is not strange that, in view of this and the inconvenience and expense of travelling, the establishment of a university at home was thought desirable.

Even in 1522 when John Vaus went to Paris to have his Grammar published, he tells us that his journey was attended "with the greatest risks by land and sea, and by dangers from wicked pirates." The description given of student life in Paris at this time, if furnished by a writer less trustworthy than Thurot or Denifle, would be thought incredible. Discipline seems to have been entirely disregarded. The students frequented cabarets and disreputable haunts, cheated the freshmen, associated with scoundrels, patrolled the streets at night in arms, defied the law, committed murders and robberies; festive occasions became orgies of drunkenness and debauchery, unoffending citizens were assaulted, and games of dice were played on church altars [Thurot, p. 40]. This lawless life was the almost legitimate outcome of the students' environment. Some lived in boarding houses attached to the colleges, others in private lodgings. In even the best of the former food was poor, and in some of the smaller colleges, both unwholesome and scanty. The accommodation was wretched, and suggested a search for enjoyment elsewhere than in the college. The case of those who lived in lodgings was still worse, for the lodgings generally were in slums inhabited by only the vicious or the unfortunate. But in Paris a student might quarter himself on any ordinary citizen, and even had the right, if his host pursued a noisy occupation, to force him to carry it on elsewhere.

The accounts we have of student life in England and Scotland are free from the absolute hooliganism ascribed by Thurot to the Parisian student, but our record is not immaculate. We must plead guilty to periodical outbreaks between town and gown, sometimes disgracefully riotous, and in a few cases accompanied by loss of life. Students have in all ages been credited with a certain amount of bohemianism and disregard of the conventions of social life, but it would be unfair to infer that the majority are bohemians. The escapades of a few of the more restless spirits bring them out into the open, but the peaceful plodding of the earnest student does not in any way challenge publicity. Hence the comparatively few give to the whole body a reputation which they do not deserve. We must also take into account the surroundings of the student in this early age. The modern youth, whether in England or Scotland, reaches his university comfortably in a few hours ; in the middle ages he took as many weeks. Much, and sometimes the whole, of the journey was done on foot. The roads were bad, the inns uncomfortable, the character of the country unsettled. It may be fairly inferred that many-probably the majority-were the sons of men below the middle class with badly-lined purses, which when empty they replenished by begging, to which no disgrace was attached. They were hospitably entertained in the religious and other houses on their way, which the fashion of the time taught them to regard as almost their right. This life curiously compounded of hardship and kindliness was doubtless useful in teaching them to face and overcome difficulties, but the freedom of it, and the self-reliance it fostered, almost necessarily created a habit of mind impatient of restraint and strict discipline, when they reached the precincts of the university.

One has only to glance at the rollicking and sometimes irreverent ditties, as translated by Mr J. A. Symonds, that were in the mouths of the wandering students-called Goliards [Who Golias was is not known. He was a person who was dignified with the titles of episcopus and archipoeta in whose name some of the poems were written.] - to understand how begging was enjoined as legitimate, and bohemian unrest aroused and fostered in the minds of all whose natural dispositions leaned that way by such verses as [J. A. Symonds' Wine, Women and Song (1884)]:

No one, none shall wander forth
Fasting from the table.
If thou'rt poor, from south to north
Beg as thou art able.

Dr Giles in his Undergraduate of the Middle Ages, to which most interesting sketch a general acknowledgment is due, says " One of the most curious things about the medieval student is his quotation, or rather his perversion, of Scripture on every occasion : so far is it from being true that the Bible was an unknown book prior to the Reformation." There is proof of both knowledge and irreverence in the Goliard's treatment of the advice given to the disciples " Take nothing for your journey, neither staves, nor scrip, neither bread, neither money ; neither have two coats apiece."

This our order doth forbid
Double clothes with loathing;
He whose nakedness is hid,
With one vest hath clothing.
..........................................

What I've said of upper clothes
To the nether reaches;
They who own a shirt, let those
Think no more of breeches;
If one boasts big boots to use,
Let him leave his gaiters;
They who this firm law refuse
Shall be counted traitors.

Or again as an encouragement to breach of discipline:

This our order hath decried
Matins with a warning,
For that certain phantoms glide
In the early morning.
Whereby pass into man's brain
Visions of vain folly,
Early risers are insane
Racked by melancholy.

From the following lines it is easy to understand how the student earned the reputation of drunkenness and generally dare-devil behaviour.

This our order doth prescribe
All the year round matins;
When they've left their beds, our tribe
In the tap sing latins;
There they call for wine for all,
Roasted fowl and chicken;
Hazard's threats no hearts appal
Though his strokes still thicken.

It is worthy of remark that the university student in his wanderings was a privileged person in the estimation of princes and potentates. The safe conducts they granted were valid, even when the journey was between two countries at enmity with each other. Dr Giles in the sketch already mentioned gives on the authority of Thorold Rogers' History of Agriculture and Prices an account, at once amusing and instructive, of a prolonged journey from Oxford to Northumberland and back by three Oxford dons. Like Dives they fared sumptuously everyday, except by eating fish on Fridays at an expense so ridiculously small as to be incredible, were it not attested by carefully kept accounts. "Even in their wildest extravagance at Ponteland [where a great festival was celebrated] it is something to know that a flagon of ale could be had for a penny, half an ox for four shillings, two carcases and a half of mutton for 2s. 6d. Four ducks cost 14d. They had also eight chickens which cost 21d. each, but other seven they got for 2d. each. For this festival they purchased bread to the amount of 2s. 4d. and wine to the amount of 4s. 1 1/2d. As they had also, we are told, 66 flagons (lagenae) of ale, they certainly verged upon Falstaff's half-pennyworth of bread to an intolerable deal of sack'." The same three dons spent Sunday at Northallerton, where bed and board for themselves, and hay and provender for their horses, cost them 9d. each.

We have seen that the master of the English grammar school in the 14th century was held in no estimation. What do we know of his pupils whose aim was a university career? Mr Anstey 1 thinks that a lad was sent to the university who seemed "fit for nothing else." He was supposed to have received a certain amount of training in Latin as a preliminary to entrance. It was imperative that he should place himself under the protection of a master. His age was probably from 14 to 15. His master might often be not much above 20. Poverty was no bar. If his funds were insufficient to meet the expense of board and lodging, he, so to speak, worked his passage by the performance of quasi-menial services as an equivalent, such as waiting at table, doing messages &c. Hence the origin of sizars in Cambridge and servitors at Oxford. If he required an advance of money, he had to place in the proctor's hand, as security for its repayment, some of his personal belongings. The universities were then poorly endowed, and exhibitions or money prizes were few. The student's dignity was not compromised by his engaging in manual labour during vacations. Gaps in the wardrobe were sometimes filled by his master's cast-off clothes. Further, when all else failed; and often before, to beg he was not ashamed. The way for this now discreditable mode of finding ways and means was paved by the habits of the mendicant friars. People had been taught to give, and regarded it as a religious duty to be charitable to university students, many of whom were presumably under training for service in the Church. The taste for this method of filling an empty purse grew, and it became necessary to check it by specific regulation. No student was allowed to beg publicly unless he had a certificate from the Chancellor of the University that his case was a deserving one. The student's dress was assumed by many who were not students; many who were undergraduates disguised themselves in the outfit of bachelors, and bachelors took the same liberty with the hoods of masters. With these the university authorities dealt severely by whipping or imprisonment in the stocks. It is evident from this that there was a large unsatisfactory element in English university life at this time. The existence of systematic and legalised mendicancy is inconsistent with, even for that age, a reasonably high moral tone, and can scarcely be accounted for, except on the supposition that the ecclesiastical leaders, conscious of the changes that were not far distant, were doing their utmost to hold their ground by filling up the universities without discrimination or selection. Nor was the conduct of the well-to-do students entirely satisfactory. Their tendency towards undue expenditure in dress and extravagance in other directions was checked by a distinct prohibition'.

Though the universities were in their origin, mainly if not entirely, intended for the education of the clergy, and for a long time had this as their principal aim, it must not be supposed that those educated under this system confined themselves to the discharge of ecclesiastical functions. Law and medicine were regularly studied by ecclesiastics. Some even threw aside their clerical character to act as ambassadors at foreign courts, and others took up the metier of soldiers, going forth to battle fully armed. Such readiness and capacity to follow pursuits so widely different seems to warrant the contention that the universities, though ostensibly ecclesiastical, were practically secular as well, and makes it difficult to decide which of the two -layman or churchman-was guilty of poaching on the preserves of the other.

Meanwhile though the battle of Bannockburn had secured the independence of Scotland and peace was established by the treaty of Northampton in 1328, there was no love lost between the English and Scottish people. Bannockburn was a bitter memory to the former, while success and security fostered a spirit of independence in the latter, and naturally suggested the question why they should not have a university of their own. But apart from any petty motive or feeling of rivalry, early in the 15th century the need for a university in Scotland was much felt. There was an abundant supply of students, the desire for learning was great, there was an undivided Church, and almost an enthusiasm for its maintenance and expansion. In some respects it was the day of small things. It is difficult to compare the value of money then and now, but we find doles of 4, 8 and 10 paid by command of the King by letters under the privy sea], for the expenses of sons of men of high rank while studying at Paris. But besides this, a strong motive for Scotland having a university of her own is to be found in the difference of opinion between Scotland and England as to which of the rival claimants to the pontificate should have their support. In the papal schism the Scottish and English ecclesiastics took different sides, the former regarding Clement VII, the latter, Urban as supreme Pontiff. In proof of this ill-feeling we find King Robert II requesting the Oxford authorities not to molest the Scots students though they were "damnable heretics" in supporting Clement as the true head of the church.

Whatever the obstacles, nearly a hundred years were to pass before a Scottish university was founded. In its absence and as a temporary measure, Professor Hume Brown tells us that in 1326 the Bishop of Moray founded the Scots College in Paris to meet the wants of students from his own diocese, though subsequently it was open to all students from Scotland. At the close of the 14th century the Scots appear to have been more numerous than ever. Out of a list of 21 supposts [A suppost is any member of the university] representing the English `nation' (which comprehended Germany, Scandinavia and the British Isles) 9 are Scots, all of whom were subsequently bishops in their own country.

Unfortunately at the French Revolution all the documents of the Scots College were either lost or destroyed. It is, however, rumoured that some have been recently rediscovered.


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