If you have a son or daughter attending university, most likely you will be getting a message from them asking for money. Apparently, this is part of a long tradition that goes back to the beginning of universities in the Middle Ages.
A Canadian poll once revealed that 51 percent of post-secondary students had asked their parents for additional financial support last year because they ran out of money. This news prompted experts to comment on how necessary it was to teach students “the importance of balancing a budget.” However, the idea that students were asking their parents for money is not a new phenomenon – it began soon after the emergence of universities in medieval Europe. As one medieval Italian father puts it, “a student’s first song is a demand for money, and there will never be a letter which does not ask for cash.”
Here is a typical example from the 1220s:
B. to his venerable master A., greeting This is to inform you that I am studying at Oxford with the greatest diligence, but the matter of money stands greatly in the way of my promotion, as it is now two months since I spent the last of what you sent me. The city is expensive and makes many demands; I have to rent lodgings, buy necessaries, and provide for many other things which I cannot now specify. Wherefore I respectfully beg your paternity that by the promptings of divine pity you may assist me, so that I may be able to complete what I have well begun. For you must know that without Ceres and Bacchus Apollo grows cold.
His last line is a pun based on an ancient quote – Ceres and Bacchus here means Food and Wine, while Apollo is our precious student. Our writer is already showing off his learning as he begs for money!
Some medieval students made sure to note how well they were doing at university before making their appeal for money. In this twelfth-century letter from France, two brothers lay it on thick:
To their very dear and respectable parents M. Matre, knight, and M. his wife, M. and S., their sons, send greetings and filial obedience.
This is to inform you that, by divine mercy, we are living in good health in the City of Orleans, an are devoting ourselves wholly to study, mindful of the words of Cato, ‘To know anything is praiseworthy.’ We occupy a good dwelling, next door but one to the schools and market-place, so that we can go to school every day without wetting our feet. We have also good companions in the house with us, well advanced in their studies and of excellent habit – an advantage which we well appreciate, for as the Psalmist says, ‘With an upright man thou wilt show thyself upright’. Wherefore lest production cease from lack of material, we beg your paternity to send us by the bearer, B., money for buying parchment, ink, a desk, and other things which we need, in sufficient amount that we may suffer no want on your account (God forbid!) but finish our studies and return home with honour. The bearer will also take charge of the shoes and stockings which you have to send us, and any news as well.
There are many examples of letters home with demands for support, along with a few replies in which the parents send money along with admonitions against spending it too quickly. Perhaps the best example of a medieval student asking a parent for money comes from the French writer Eustache Deschamps (1346-1406). In his youth he attended the University of Orleans before going on to work for the King of France. In the year 1400 Eustache penned this imaginary letter from a student to his father:
Well beloved father, I have not a penny, nor can I get any save through you, for all things at the University are so dear, nor can I study in my Code or my Digest [these are legal texts], for their leaves [pages] have the falling sickness. Moreover, I owe ten crowns to the Provost, and can find no man to lend them to me. I ask of you greetings and money.
The student has need of many things if he will profit here; his father and his kin must supply him freely so that he will not be compelled to pawn his book, but will have ready money in his purse, with gowns and furs and decent clothing; or he will be damned for a beggar; wherefore, that men may not take me for a beast, I ask of you greetings and money.
Wines are expensive, as are hostels and other good things; I owe in every street, and am hard put to free myself from such snares. Dear father, deign to help me! I fear being excommunicated; already I have been cited, and there is not even a dry bone in my larder. If I cannot find money before this feast of Easter, the church door will be shut in my face; wherefore grant my supplication. I ask of you greetings and money.
Well beloved father, to ease my debts contracted to the tavern, at the baker’s, with the professors and the beadles, and to pay my subscriptions to the laundress and the barber, I ask of you greetings and money.
You can read more about this topic in Charles H. Haskins’ article, “The Life of Medieval Students as Illustrated by their Letters” and the book The University in Medieval Life, 1179-1499, by Hunt Janin.