Category Archives: Oxford

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. 
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).

Students at war

During the Second Barons War some of the scholars of the University of Oxford took the side of Simon de Monfort and the baronial rebellion against Henry III. They travelled to Northampton where a new university had been recently founded by scholars fleeing violence between the nations at Cambridge. In 1264 Northampton was besieged by the royal host and during the defence of the walls the scholars fought valiantly and, according to the account of Walter of Guisborough, did a better job than the soldiers and other baronial supporters who defended Northampton:

The clerks of the university of Oxford, which had been transferred to that place at the command of the barons, inflicted more harm upon the men entering and climbing up than the rest of the barons did, with their slings, bows and catapults….[and] they had a standard of their own raised aloft against the king. Angered by this, the king swore that when he got into the city he would hang the lot of them… When peace had been restored to the city, the king gave orders to carry out the sentence he had sworn to execute upon the clerks. And they said to him ‘Heaven forbid you should do this, O King; for the sons of your magnates and other men of your realm have come here with the university. If you have them hanged or beheaded, even your own people, who are now loyal to you, will rise against you, and will not allow the blood of their sons or relatives to be shed if they can help it’. And the king was pacified and his anger against the clerks abated.[1]

What I think is most interesting about this little vignette is that not only should a bunch of supposedly peaceful and scholarly students be taking part in a war and fighting well but that they should have their own standard raised against the king. Battle standards, flags and banners were rare sights during protests and rebellions in England compared to the continent, and that the scholars had their own and fought under it offers the tantalising prospect that there was some level of, at least, quasi-official support for the baronial faction by the university of Oxford whose chancellor at the time of the rebellion, Thomas de Cantilupe, was a prominent figure in the rebellion, and some of the most respected teachers,such as the likes of Adam Marsh, were advisers to Simon de Monfort. 

Whether the section about the scholars telling the King that he dare not kill them was true, I cannot say…but it certainly would not be the most outrageous act committed by medieval students.


[1]From The Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough. Vol. 89, Camden  Series (London: Camden Society, 1957) p.190, translation found in Lawrence, C. H., ‘The University of Oxford and the Chronicle of the Barons’ Wars’, The English Historical Review, 95 pp. 99-113.

The earliest recorded case of football hooliganism in England?

In the run up to the Euro 2012 competition we have seen a number of news reports concerning racism and violence in both the Ukraine and Poland, the two host countries. This reminded me of a curious incident I found in the Oxford Coroners Rolls for the year 1303 which is perhaps the earliest incident of football hooliganism reported in England and features both English and Irish students, both nations represented at the Euro2012 competition. 

On the 25th of March 1303 a student of the university in Oxford named Thomas de Sarum found his brother Adam dying in the street. Adam had a wound that reached down the left side of face and neck and another on his shoulder on the same side. An inquest was held before the Coroner and the assembled jurors to ascertain what exactly had happened.  It transpired that the Adam had been playing football with some other English students after vespers in the High Street near to the East Gate. While they were playing they were assailed by Thomas de Keting, Walter de Whit and Willock the garcioof David de Bren all students who had come from Ireland to study in Oxford. William restrained Adam, while Walter de Whit beat him with his fists until Adam fell to the ground unconscious. When he tried to get up Thomas de Keting drew a long knife and struck the two fatal blows to Adams face and shoulder. Despite the severity of the wounds it took Adam almost twenty four hours to die.[1]   

Not long after this event football was banned in England by royal decree because of its disruptive potential. However this deadly altercation between English and Irish students at Oxford was perhaps less to do with football and more concerned with the deep rooted antagonism between the alliances of regional origination, the Nations, at Oxford.  By 1303  the Nations were already banned by the Chancellor for being the cause so much dissension between the scholars assembled in Oxford supposedly for the purpose of studying.  This incident was not the first, nor was it by any means the last, in a long line of violent and bloody conflicts between students of Oxford’s two Nations, the Australes and the Boreales.


[1] Salter, H. E. Records of Medieval Oxford, Coroners’ Inquests, the Walls of Oxford, etc. (Oxford: The Oxford Chronicle Company, 1912) p.11.
[2] Image of a football game infront of the Santa Maria Novella in Florence by Jan van der Straet c.1555

"War War War, Slay Slay Slay the Welsh Dogs!"

Following on from the First Post of this blog concerning the tensions in Paris between scholars of different geographic origins I thought I would bring things closer to (my) home and talk about Oxford. Oxford followed the Parisian model of dividing the Arts faculty into ‘nations’. The term nations should not be confused with the modern concept of the nation state which did not exist in the middle ages but should instead evoke a sense of community, or shared background/language. In Bologna there were as many as fourteen ‘Nations’, separate administrative units within the university which held feasts, looked after the sick and so forth whereas in Paris there were four. Oxford it seems may have had four too in the very beginning, but these quickly coalesced into two separate power blocks, the Australes and the Boreales. The former originating south of the Trent, and the most powerful of the two, and the latter those students from the north of England and Scotland. The Welsh were considered part of the more powerful Australes, among scholars from the Romance lands and the wealthier and more politically important south of England, far less peripheral than we might imagine.

Between the two parties of North and South there were bitter rivalries, so much so that even the Masters, the teachers within the university, would join in on these deadly battles. Today’s post is about one such incident, which took place on the 29th of April 1388.  A serious battle broke out between the northerners and the Welsh, who were according to the chronicler Henry Knighton semper inquieti (never quiet). During this battle, if you believe him, the chronicler Adam of Usk, who was studying at Oxford at the time, played a central role. Several scholars were killed and many northern students returned home and abandoned their studies because they feared they were no longer safe.

Such was the case with the violence in medieval Oxford reprisals were never far behind. The following year according to the gaol delivery roll, a large body of northern scholars rose up and having elected a leader, sought out the welsh and shot them in the street. They chanted as they went ‘war war war, slay, slay, slay the welsh dogs and he who helps or even looks out his window shall be dead’. The gang ransacked the homes of scholars, stealing from one poor chap two swords, a buckler (shield), two bows, twenty-six arrows, gauntlets and other diverse armour. Medieval scholars were sufficiently armed it seems to turn a minor tavern brawl into a real pitched battle! The mob then rounded up the remaining Welsh students who had not fled, or died, and marched them to the gate forcing them to urinate on the towns gates, then kiss the soiled gateposts, banged their heads against the gates until their noses bled and tears rose from their eyes.

In a testament to the unreliability of medieval chronicles, Knighton says that what actually happened was the Welsh and the northerners civilly agreed upon a time and a place to do battle, but the matter was settled by Thomas Woodstock without anyone being harmed and the Welsh agreed to leave the town peacefully, exchanging kisses of peace with the northerners as they did so.

I will let you decide who to believe….


Further reading:

Kibre, Pearl. The Nations in the Medieval Universities. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Medieval Academy of America, 1948) 

Knighton, Henry. Knighton’s Chronicle 1337-1396 edited by G.H Martin. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995)

The Chronicle of Adam of Usk ed. and trans. By C. Given-Wilson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997)

Oxfordshire Sessions of the Peace in the Reign of Richard IIed. by Elisabeth Kimball (Banbury: Cheney & Sons, 1983)