The students at Oxford and Cambridge Universities were an integral part of the society that developed around these two medieval universities. Both Oxford and Cambridge Universities catered for scholars who could continue and build on research – but they were also major centres for student learning. The development of both universities can be seen as one of the most important developments in Medieval England.

We know a great deal about the students at Oxford and Cambridge as many documents have survived from the era. We know that most students were taught by men from the church and that Theology was a commonly studied subject – as one would expect. We also know a great deal about student disorder. Documents relate to “a student who attacked his professor with a sword” resulting in great damage being done to a lecture room – and to the lecturer himself. Documents also relate the many street fights that took place in both Oxford and Cambridge between students and the people of the towns. The documents intimate that the students were almost invariably well armed in such clashes as they were armed with swords. Students also fought students. These clashes usually happened after a debate got too heated and spilled over into a fight – and more would join in. The relationship between town dwellers and students in Oxford was such that Walter de Merton, the founder of Merton College, set-up a new college at Cambridge as he feared that the clashes between the two groups was such that students would leave Oxford for their own safety.

Medieval Surnames

Not all the students who went to Oxford and Cambridge were from well-off families. Written records show that some students ate tripe and whatever cheap cuts of meat they could get. Those who attended Oxford and Cambridge and came from a richer background ate “well peppered pies of pork, chicken and eels….pigeons, geese and other fowl roasted on a spit.”  But such eating habits cost money and even rich sons wrote home for more:

“B. to his venerable father…….studying at Oxford with great diligence….the matter of money stands greatly in my way for promotion.”

Records also show that students may have been able to buy their way to success in their exams. Parents could insist that a son take his exams, if only to see something for the investment they had made on his behalf. If a student had been to few lectures

“the examiner would reassure him by a pertinent quotation from Ovid and suggest that a judicious distribution of gifts may do much – a few florins will favour him of all.”

There are no hard statistics for the number of students at either Oxford or Cambridge. However, a document dating from 1298 stated that there were 3,000 ‘clerks’ (students) at Oxford who fought with the townsfolk there. However, this is likely to be an exaggeration.

If students broke their colleges statutes they could be sent to prison or even be excommunicated. In Medieval times, there was officially no corporal punishment for students – though this changed by the end of the 15th Century when a student could be beaten for selling his books without permission.

At Oxford, no meals were provided for the students before 10.00. The time between 06.00 and 10.00 was taken up with lectures. Between 10.00 and 11.00, dinner was taken. Lectures started again at 12.00 and finished at 17.00. The evenings were for the students. The colleges allowed gambling, chess and the playing of musical instruments. All university statutes forbade jousting, hunting and hawking as these were seen as signs of wealth that would be divisive within a college.

Students were given few holidays. However, they did get church holidays as rest days. Oxford especially celebrated two church days for St John the Baptist and for St Peter. Sundays could be used as days of worship or for lectures.

Student accommodation was basic. No college at Oxford allowed fires in their rooms – even in rooms where lectures were given. The only warmth during the winter came from the straw that was spread around the floor. Records show that no college had glass in their windows before 1300.

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