By Danièle Cybulskie
It’s back-to-school shopping time and the stationery stores and Ikeas of the world are full of university students gathering what they need to start this year’s journey of knowledge. In the Middle Ages, students entering university had to gather together materials, too, before they headed off to places sometimes very far from home like Oxford University, the University of Salerno, or the University of Paris. Here’s a list of five things that would be on a medieval back-to-school shopping list.
1. Wax Tablet
Because parchment was expensive, it wasn’t used for the type of hastily scribbled notes that would be taken by students during lectures. Instead, students would bring wooden tablets covered in wax, so that they could take notes by scratching into the wax with a wooden stylus. Erasing was as easy as scraping away the words and writing afresh. If the notes were particularly important, they could be transcribed onto parchment or into a book later. Because of the relatively small size of wax tablets, and the length of lectures, however, most of the information students received would have to be retained in their own heads. Interestingly, tablets and styluses (styli?) are once again on university students’ back-to-school lists, although the new ones are a bit more high-tech. (Here’s a rudimentary wax tablet I made at home.)
Because textbooks were even more expensive in the Middle Ages than they are today (hard as that may be to believe), books would be more of teachers’ back-to-school requirements than students, but if a student could afford a book, it would certainly be a worthwhile investment. Depending on the student’s subject of study the books required would (naturally) be different, but a student couldn’t really go wrong with buying a book by one of the church fathers, or a respected scholar or lecturer like Thomas Aquinas. A good book for a student would have ways to quickly find information, whether that was a table of contents, large illuminated letters (although that would have been terribly expensive), or other handy tags. Finally, a student or teacher would want a book with large margins for writing notes, questions, and references.
3. A Gown
In the Middle Ages, everyone’s station in life was meant to be recognizable immediately by what they were wearing. For medieval university students, that meant gowns. While most students would have had to buy or make their own gowns, sometimes wealthy patrons stepped in to help.
According to Berthe M. Marti, fourteenth-century students at the Spanish College, an “endowed residence” for Spanish students going to school in Bologna, were given
one new academic gown adequately furred with sheepskin, such as the students at Bologna are normally accustomed to wear and … another unfurred gown of cloth of the statutory colour, and a hood of the same colour, or suitable cloth[.]
Looking good, but not fashionable was important to medieval schools, and the same Spanish College statute goes on to say, “Their clothes shall be decent, and they shall not wear unsuitable robes and garments or shoes with pointed toes.” Wearing shoddy or too-fashionable clothing got you a fine. Students were there to work, not to be fashion plates, especially if (like most students), they were studying religious material.
4. Quills, Ink, and Parchment
While I mentioned that parchment was too expensive to take notes on, a student still needed some parchment for copying important information, or (perhaps more importantly) writing letters home. As with students now, medieval students spent a lot of time writing letters home – to ask for more money. In his look at medieval student letters (a worthwhile read), Charles H. Haskins provides this translation of an Oxford student’s letter home:
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.
One has to wonder what the things are that the student is not able to “specify”, but in any case, he puts parchment and words to good use getting funding, skills every student needs to learn.
5. A Good Knife
Medieval people regularly carried knives for eating, trimming (hair, nails, stubble), or for whittling, but students didn’t always put their knives to good use. Records from the Middle Ages are full of conflicts between “town and gown” when students got out of hand or townspeople got sick of students. Whether it was because students hid behind ecclesiastical privilege that protected them from harsh penalties or because they were giddy with the freedom of being away from home, students often got into fights or sometimes all-out rioting with each other or with townspeople.
Cambridge University, as their website affirms, was established in 1209 by “scholars taking refuge from hostile townsmen in Oxford”. According to British History Online, “The townsmen [of Oxford] hanged two clerks for a murder of which they were apparently innocent”.
Another stunningly violent town and gown clash in Oxford was the St. Scholastica’s Day Riot in 1355, during which 63 students were killed. While a sharp knife was always handy for cutting meat and bread, it was also something many students felt the need to keep with them, just in case.
While this list of medieval back-to-school items (mostly) looks like something out of a Harry Potter book, the fundamental needs of medieval students were not much different from those of modern students though the technology has changed. If you’re heading to university to learn or to teach this year, be proud to be taking part in an old, venerable, and fun tradition.
Danièle Cybulskie is the lead columnist of Medievalists.net and the host of The Medieval Podcast. She studied Cultural Studies and English at Trent University, earning her MA at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in medieval literature and Renaissance drama. You can follow her on Twitter/X @5MinMedievalist or visit her website, danielecybulskie.com.
Top Image: Bodleian Library MS. Laud Misc. 165 fol. 149v