University Students During the Middle Ages

Universities during the Middle Ages could grow quite large. Some estimates put universities with populations of up to 30,000. However, this number includes not only students but also faculty, staff, administration, and even servants of students. Naturally, with such a large population of people and primarily young people, there were going to be challenges with student behavior.


It was common for university students to be boys between the ages of 12-15. In order to enroll, a young person had to bring with them a letter that attests to their character, similar to a letter of recommendation. In addition, they also needed to indicate what the planned to study, which we would call declaring a major today. If students were disruptive enough they would be whipped and sent home.

Many of these young students were sponsored by the church to serve as clergy in the future. However, it was common and even okay for young scholars to beg in order to support their studies. The idea of the starving students is much older then many of us knew.

Even though many students were essentially pre-teens the older students began to organize into groups based on the country or region they were from and make demands of the school and local government. Among the demands were the following.

  • Inner autonomy-Students wanted the right to judge local problems among themselves within their country or region group
  • Determine who can join the group
  • Protection from foreign powers-This makes sense given the propensity for war among countries during the Middle Ages. To be in the wrong place during war could be deadly.
  • Immunity from public service and taxes-Essentially, nobody likes to pay taxes throughout human history.

TO achieve these means, students would shift their loyalty to whoever supported them whether it was Pope, King or Emperor. Generally, everyone wanted the support of the students for political and or economic reasons. The Pope and Emperor want the political backing of students in order to have greater influence. The King wanted the students support because universities boosted the local economy.

Town-Gown Riots

Despite the best efforts of universities, students still found ways to get into considerable trouble. An example of this is taken from the 13th century at the University of Paris and is one of many instances of what were called “Town-Gown Riots” with town representing the community and gown representing the students.

In this particular instance, a servant of the archdeacon of the university goes to a tavern to get wine for their master. While the servant is at the tavern, he gets into an argument, is beaten, and the master’s flask (bottle) is broken. The archdeacon was English and this led to English students beating the tavern-keeper in revenge for the injury to their countrymen (remember that students live in communities by country).

To avenge the beating of their Parisian brother, the Parisian citizens attack the English boarding house and kill several students including the archdeacon. The university teachers responded by going to the king and complain about the death of the archdeacon who was their peer. Of course, they were also a little concerned about the dead students.

King was afraid of losing the university so he punished the leader of the city and gave the university more autonomy by giving it all freedom from civic authority. However, a second riot happened a few years later and led to many teachers and students leaving Paris to return to England and this contributed to the founding of both Oxford and Cambridge.

One reason for this chaos was that many universities did not own any buildings. Classes and living arrangements were chaotic and spread all over. This lack of centralization made it easy for such violence to take place.


Student life has always been full of challenges. For ages, students have made demands and caused trouble. Perhaps for the stressed administrator, it is reassuring that these problems are not new.

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