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The Life of Medieval Students as Illustrated by their Letters

The Life of Medieval Students as Illustrated by their Letters

By Charles H. Haskins

The American Historical Review, Vol. 3:2 (1898)

Teaching at Paris, in a late 14th-century Grandes Chroniques de France

Introduction: The early history of universities is one of the most interesting and fruitful of the many questions of origins with which historical science has in recent years been occupied. Through the efforts of Denifle and of others such as Kaufmann, Fournier and Rashdall, the subject of medieval universities has been lifted out of the realm of myth and tradition and placed upon a solid basis of established fact, so that, while many perplexing problems still remain unsolved, we can now trace with measurable confidence the main outlines of their early development. As yet, investigation has centred chiefly about what may be called the anatomy of the medieval university – its privileges and organization, its relations to king and pope, and similar questions – while much less attention has been given to its inner life and history or to the daily life and occupations of its students, topics manifestly of the greatest importance if we are to form an accurate and comprehensive idea of what a university of the Middle Ages really was. The life of medieval students is, however, a large and complex subject, exhibiting wide differences at different times and in different places, and no treatment of it will be in any sense adequate which does not rest on the detailed study and comparison of the conditions at each centre of learning and the changes they underwent at different periods. Such an investigation demands the careful examination of a great variety of sources, literary, documentary and narrative, which are at present in large measure unpublished and whose value and interest for this purpose are by no means generally understood. The present article is designed to call attention to one class. of these sources, student letters, and to point out how far they throw light on the academic conditions of their time.

The intellectual life of the Middle Ages was not characterized by spontaneous or widely diffused power of literary expression. Few were able to write, still fewer could compose a letter, and the professional scribes and notaries on whom devolved the greater part of the labor of medieval correspondence fastened upon the letter-writing of the period the stereotyped formalism of a conventional rhetoric. Regular instruction in the composition of letters and official acts was given in the schools and chanceries, and numerous professors, called dictatores, went about from place to place teaching this valuable art – “often and exceeding necessary for the clergy, for monks suitable, and for laymen honorable,” as one rhetorician tells us. Beginning with the latter part of the eleventh century we find brief manuals of epistolography in which definite rules of composition are laid down and the order and form of the various parts of a letter fixed. According to the usual theory there should be five parts arranged in logical sequence. After the salutation – as to which the etiquette of the medieval scribe was very exacting, each class in society having its own terms of address and reply – came the exordium, consisting of some commonplace generality, a proverb, or a scriptural quotation, and designed to put the reader in the proper frame of mind for granting the request to follow. Then came the statement of the particular purpose of the letter (the narration), ending in a petition which commonly has the form of a deduction from the major and minor premises laid down in the exordium and narration, and finally the phrases of the conclusion.

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