Sporting and Recreational Activities of Students in the Medieval Universities

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 Sporting and Recreational Activities of Students in the Medieval Universities

By Steven J. Overman

Facta Universitatis, Vol.6:1 (1999)

Abstract: The medieval universities of Europe were the prototypes for higher education throughout the Western world. The activities of students who attended these institutions provide historical insights into student life in an era before physical education and organized recreation became part of university education.

This expository study is based on material derived from the statutes and regulations of the medieval universities, and the few extant journals and diaries of medieval students, which chronicle their sporting and recreational activities. The regulatory attitude of the university masters regarding student sport and recreation is explored within the context of medieval conceptions of education and models of the scholarly life. The intent and success of university regulations is analyzed vis-a-vis the natural inclinations of students.

The study describes leisure time activities within an urban environment including holiday festivals and the Sabbath, and discusses unsavory influences such as gambling, drinking and violence which accompanied some forms of sport and recreation. The study concludes by placing student activities within the context of medieval scholasticism and anticipatory to renaissance humanism.




Introduction: Centuries before universities offered formal instruction in physical education or sponsored organized campus recreation, students participated in a wide variety of sports and recreational activities on their own initiative. Records from the medieval universities of Europe (late 12th through 15th centuries) document these forms of student recreation. While the universities attempted to proscribe and regulate many of these activities, some were tolerated and enforcement of rules was lax. Very few medieval educators actually promoted healthy forms of recreation.

Students in the medieval universities were – with rare exception – exclusively unmarried young men. The term “bachelor” which originally denoted a young scholar, came to imply unmarried status. Generally, these bachelors were somewhat younger than today’s college students, especially the arts students who were in their early teens. As a group, medieval students were both socially diverse and cosmopolitan. The universities drew students from every class of society, and most attracted large numbers of foreign students. The scholarly idiom of Latin provided a lingua franca that allowed students from different lands to communicate among themselves and their masters, while the local towns people would converse in the vernacular of the area. Notably, these diverse populations didn’t always live in harmony. Oxford University warned its students about engaging in odious comparisons of nations, faculties, and nobles to commoners. Foreign students often were resented by the local populace, and bloody “town and gown” riots were not infrequent.

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Sharan Newman