Student Life in the Medieval University: The Swedish Experience

What was it like to attend a university in the Middle Ages? A recent book tracked students from Sweden who attended the University of Leipzig – who enrolled, what did they study, and what happened to them. It also reveals the challenges to earning a degree in medieval times.

Medieval student life –
MS The Hague, MMW, 10 A 13 fol. 1r

Swedish Students at the University of Leipzig in the Middle Ages: Careers, Books, and Teaching, is edited by Olle Ferm and Sara Risberg. The book details the education and careers of over 200 students that came from Sweden to study at the University of Leipzig in northern Germany. In the first chapter, Olle Ferm makes use of the university’s records to give more details about the daily lives of university students in the Later Middle Ages. Here are fifteen things he learned:

1. The University of Leipzig was officially founded on December 2, 1409. Most of the 367 students who started that first year had actually come from the University of Prague, and had decided to leave that city because of political and religious turmoil. About ten of those students came originally from Sweden.

2. Between 1409 and 1520, about 200 to 230 Swedes enrolled at the University of Leipzig. The largest share – 74 students – came from the region of Uppsala.

3. After arriving at Leipzig, new students needed to be enrolled and placed into a bursa – a type of student housing. “The bursa was a religious community, where fixed routines regulated daily life, built around meals, religious devotions and teaching. Standards existed for dress and deportment, with Latin as the only permissible language… Life in the bursa was designed to educate the student in the basics of academic studies, which included speaking and writing good Latin, and being able to debate using all the finesses of the art.”

4. Fees were paid for both the winter and summer terms, and varied depending on how wealthy the student was. The highest fees were 10 ½ groschen, and the lowest was two groschen, but even then students that were considered “poor” were exempted from paying any fee.

5. At least 28 of the Swedish students had their own version of ‘scholarship’ money in the form of religious benefices. These were paid from Cathedral Chapters or from a local parish.

6. The university maintained minimum ages that one had to be in order to be awarded a degree – 17 for a Bachelor of Arts and 21 for a Master of Arts. Most students began their education in their late teens or early 20s.

7. “Everyday life was formally structured. The day’s schedule began at 5 am, but the end of the day came early, already at 9 pm. In addition to the classes at the bursa, several activities were obligatory, such as participation in public lectures, exercises and disputations. Limits were placed on these activities. Students were not allowed to attend more than two lectures per day…Some leisure time was allowed. Besides life at the bursa, which was not always agreeable – parodic songs were written about the bad food – the Saxon nation apparently had a lot to offer, such as celebrations of saints’ days and the like.”

8. Among the things that students were forbidden from doing included fighting, spending time with prostitutes, gambling in taverns, or walking around the city during night. If you got caught, you could be fined or spend a couple of days in prison. Theft and murder would result in expulsion.

9. To earn a degree: “Required for the Bachelor’s degree were nine ‘books’ or themes, presented through nine lecture series – 13 lecture series after 1436/7, since some books were added. The Master’s degree required another 15 ‘books’ and as many lecture series. Additionally, a student would have attended severn ‘exercises’ and participated in a large number of disputations for each of these degrees before he could apply to the Dean to enroll for the degree examination.

10. Most Swedes who attended the University of Leipzig never graduated. Of the 212 Swedish students, 102 earned a Bachelor’s degree. Thirty-seven of these continued on to receive a Master’s degree. Ferm adds that Swedish students performed somewhat better than the average student – the graduation rate as a whole for a Bachelor’s was 32%, while only 5% of students who started at Leipzig would go on to achieve a Master’s degree.

11. On average, it took a student 31 months (2.7 years) to earn a Bachelor’s degree, and another 29 months (2.4 years) to finish the Master’s degree.

12. Between 75 and 80 Swedes also taught at Leipzig during the period 1409 to 1520. During this time, four Swedish teachers served as Rector, the highest position within the university – they each served terms of six months.

13. “Of 212 Swedish students in Leipzig, 136 can be identified in Sweden after their studies. Most, at least 95, can be linked to their Cathedral. Twelve became bishops and 84 became members of a Cathedral Chapter. At least 71 of the 95 had completed an academic degree.

14. Among the other students who attended Leipzig, 30 would go on to become vicars, 2 would enter a monastery, and 6 became knights (none of the knights had actually gained a degree).

15. A few of the graduates went on to produce more scholarly works – for example, Kristoffer Larsson, who became an Archdeacon, spent his time translating Latin works into Swedish and writing on theological matters.

Swedish Students at the University of Leipzig in the Middle Ages: Careers, Books, and Teaching, edited by Olle Ferm and Sara Risberg, was published by the Centre for Medieval Studies, Stockholm University, in 2014.

See also: Dear Dad, Send Money – Letters from Students in the Middle Ages

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