Category Archives: clerk

The good, or ‘true’, scholar

It has been a while in the coming, and I do apologise for my tardiness.

My PhD thesis concerns the badly behaved scholars of medieval Europe. Lately though I have been thinking a lot about the other side of the coin. I get so caught up in all the grotesque and bellicose actions of medieval university students that I forget that these students simply could not have been the norm in medieval Oxford or Bologna.

From the literature another image of medieval students arises…that of the good, or ‘true’ student (the ‘True’ and ‘False’ student dichotomy will be explained in the next blog post).  The ‘true’ student wasn’t just your average or able adolescent: The ‘True’ student was a veritable saint, and as a result seems as completely unbelievable as the picture painted of the more ribald and rowdy scholars. Here is Chaucer’s depiction of an Oxford scholar from the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:

A clerk ther was of Oxenford also,
That unto logyk hadde longe ygo.
As leene was his hors as is a rake,
And he nas nat right fat, I undertake,
But looked holwe, and thereto soberly.
Ful thredbare was his overeste courtepy,
For he hadde geten hym yet no benefice,
Ne was so worldy for to have office.
For hym was levere have at his beddes heed
Twenty bookes, clad in black or reed,
Of Aristotle and his philosophie
Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie.
But al be that he was a philosophre,
Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre;
But al that he myghte of his freendes hente,
On books and on lernynge he it spente,
And bisily gan for the soules preye
Of hem that yaf hym wherwith to scoleye.
Of studie took he moost cure and moost heede.
Noght o word spak he moore than was neede,
And that was seyd in forme and reverence,
                                                                                 And short and quyk and ful of hy sentence;
                                                                                 Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,
                                                                                And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.

This wasn’t the only student represented in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Next time…Absalon, Chamberdeacons and the ‘false’ scholar. 
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For those who struggle with the old English, try sounding the word out…that usually helps, but failing that here is something of a glossary:
right – very
undertake – affirm, declare
howle – emaciated
soberly – grave, serious
overeste – uppermost
courtepy – short coat
benefice – ecclesiastical living
office – secular employment
hym was levere: he would rather
fithele: fiddle
gay sautrie – elegant psaltry (a harp like instrument)
al be that – even though 
philosophre: philosopher, alchemist
myghte of his freendes hente – could get from his friends
gan…preye….did pray, prayed
scoleye – attend schoool of the university
cure – care
o – one
neede – necessary
in form and reverence – with due formatlity and respect
quyk – vivid, lively 
hy sentence – elevated content
Sownynge – consonant with
Quote taken from Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer, edited by Larry D. Benson. Third Edition. (Boston: Houghton Mufflin, 1987).