Student Violence at the University of Oxford

Session: “I just don’t want to die without a few scars”: Medieval Fight Clubs Masculine Identity, and Public (Dis)order

Medieval Violence -  "The amount of violence in medieval universities would be shocking by modern standards."

Medieval Violence -
“The amount of violence in medieval universities would be shocking by modern standards.”

Student Violence at the University of Oxford

Andrew E. Larsen (Marquette University)

My first foray of KZOO 2013 couldn’t have been off to a better start with, “I just don’t want to die without a few scars”: Medieval Fight Clubs, Masculine Identity, and Public (Dis)order. There were only two papers in this session and both were riveting. I felt like I couldn’t type fast enough to get it all in!  The first paper was given by Professor Andrew Larsen of Marquette University. While studying academic condemnation, Larsen discovered university violence was relatively neglected with no more than a page or two being devoted to the topic in most books. This paper focused on his research into the study of violence at Oxford University. Professor Larsen published a book on high and late medieval student violence and the Saint Scholastica’s Day Riot at Oxford.

Professor Larsen began with the case of a stabbing at Oxford University. In late May 1307, John son of Milos, fled to the East gate of the city when he was struck down, taken home, and later died. His attackers were fellow students at Oxford The cause of the deadly quarrel was unclear, but could’ve been part of a sporting rivalry. It was a widely known fact that medieval universities were violent places. Larsen’s research uncovered that between 1209 – 1399, two-hundred incidents of violence and homicide occurred at Oxford. The amount of violence in medieval universities would be shocking by modern standards. He uncovered four main categories of student violence at medieval universities: Personal Conflict, Town and Gown Violence, Northern-Southern Violence, and Faculty Quarrels.

Personal Conflict — This type of violence was often between two or three individuals and resulted in aggression due to reasons like insult or spur of the moment disagreements. The motives for this type of violence are often foggy at best.

Town and Gown Violence — This kind of violence occured between students against townsmen and administrators. For example, in 1298, a Leatherworker ran into four Irish Clerks and one stabbed him for no apparent reason. At other times, these conflicts erupted into full on riots, like the St. Scholastica’s Day riot in 1355.

Northern-Southern Violence — Students were divided from each other by nation. At Oxford, there were two nations, Northern and Southern. Northern: Scotland, Northern England and Midlands. Southern: Ireland, London and Wales. According to Larsen,“Fights between nations were a regular feature of Oxford”. Some Northern-Southern violence also resulted in riots. University students felt a strong sense of loyalty to their nation much like the loyalty espoused in modern day fraternities. There was comparatively little evidence of people fighting within their nation, for example, two Irish students fighting and killing each other. There was an instance of this but for the most part, students didn’t appear to bring their political problems from home to the university setting.

Faculty Quarrels — encompassed disagreements such as the election of a new chancellor. In 1382, there were fights between Lollards and secular students and a crowd of armed secular students barged threateningly into a classroom.

Students fought for person reasons, against rival nations, against townsmen they felt were cheating them, and against university politics but the question remained: Why did they resort to violence to address their grievances? One of the main reasons was basic demography. The age group at most universities was between 14-21, the most prone to committing homicide or violence regardless of the century or region being studied. The students were living away from their family and while theoretically they were supposed to be studying, they were out drinking, cavorting with prostitutes, and fighting. It was fairly easy for students to get their hands on weapons. Coroners rolls can attest to that fact because they were full of homicides perpetrated with swords. Surprisingly, in the thirteenth century, less than 10% of murderers were executed. Since many students were clerics, they knew their chances of being executed or severely punished were small. The worst that could happen was being exiled and expelled from the university. Scholar Ruth Mazo Karras looked the status of men versus their status as clergy. She found that the threat of clerical celibacy combined with heterosexual sexual aggression fostered violence as the clerical norm of their peer group. Sexual aggression was a form of resistance to the clerical model and also eased the students into their new celibate role. The clerical status reduced their masculinity so the violence between students and townsmen reinforced their masculinity. Many older clergy regarded their days of student violence as simply, the folly of youth.

Karras also discovered that at Oxford women were rarely the target of student aggression. Larsen found only one charge of rape in the late thirteenth century and only one record of a woman being killed. In 1261 a few scholars were accused of wounding women; in 1297 a serving woman named Matilda attempted to intervene in a burglary, was struck on the head and died. One rape and six murdered women was all that was uncovered. While coroners rolls provide enormous detail on what occurred during theses violent events — they deal with cases of murder, not with cases of rape and assault. Other rolls, and Royal Letters will reference an incident but not provide much detail.

Another curious question was: Why were so few women victims of murder? Was it random chance? It seems strange since Barbara Hanawalt found that 18% of women in the thirteenth century were murdered, however, these were usually women killed by their husbands, not random attacks by students. There were relatively few serving women in student residence because it was not permitted. Students also had easy access to prostitutes and because they could easily obtain their services, students did not need to attack townswomen for sexual gratification. The next obvious question: Was there a similar culture of violence in other universities? Yes, medieval universities were violent places. There was a lot of evidence of university violence. Surprisingly, not much research has been done on this topic and Professor Larsen’s work is still at a preliminary stage as he sifts through many hundreds of cases.

This paper was a great way to get Day 1 of the Medieval Congress underway. It was an fascinating topic, well presented and produced a lot of thought provoking questions and commentary.

~Sandra Alvarez

medievalverse magazine