Money speaks louder than knowledge in the thirteenth-century university

Worries that university learning is suffering because it’s not what you know but whether you can pay that counts go back to the medieval universities.Medieval teaching

When I was reading bits of Gautier de Coinci’s Miracles of Notre Dame earlier this year I came across this passage, which I thought it would be fun to share. I’ve given a loose, but hopefully in-the-spirit-of-things translation first, and then the original afterwards for those who are interested or who want to check my reading (comments welcome!). Where I’ve written ‘Beautiful People’, Gautier is referring to high-ranking (rich and often aristocratic) clerics, so I’m adapting for the twenty-first century…

Real students are real martyrs, who often eat at their desks; you can tell they have bought their learning dearly…. The Beautiful People are nasty and ill-mannered to those who come to study; if they come across them they say ‘who the hell are you? I’m sure I don’t know you’. A well-fed person who larges it up, has hard cash and a flaccid figure, gets the goods quicker on account of their wealth than a poor student who burns the midnight oil in their study ever will on account of their learning. This is why only silly people are amazed that the universities are going to the dogs.

NB: Gautier is writing about the university of Paris in the early thirteenth century, but it chimed oddly with my own undergraduate experience of being far more serious about learning than other students in my year, one of whom is now the second most important member of the UK Government and commands a large personal fortune. Something that does seem significantly to have changed since the Middle Ages is that wealthy aristocratic youths more often exhibit super-trim bodily fitness than the flaccidity they apparently sported in the Middle Ages.

Like Gautier, I’d be more in favour of a society that values what people know over what people have, but it’s interesting that writers have been of this opinion since pretty much the beginning of the universities.

Original text

1 Mir 11 of Miracles (see Tony Hunt, Miraculous Rhymes 2007, p.128).

Vrai martir sont vrai escolier

Qui sovent disne en leur solier

A leur vie puet bien savoir

Que chier achatent leur savoir… (lll.1073-6)

Trop sont prelat vilain et rude

A celz qui viennent de l’estude.

S’uns de celz vient qui estudïent

‘Ne te conois. Qui est tu?’ dïent.

Craissins qui dort sor les roissoles,

Qui borse a dure et giffes moles

A plus tost bien por son avoir

Que li las n’ait por son savoir

Qui au craisset toute nuit veille.

Por c’est il foz qui s’esmerveille

Se decheant vont les escoles. (ll.1089-99).

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