Medieval teachers complaining about their students

It is not too difficult to come across teachers talking about how bad their students are. However, even in medieval times there was a lot to complain about when it came to student performance.

Our favourite medieval complaint comes from Egbert of Liege, who was writing in the eleventh century. He explains that:


Scholarly effort is in decline everywhere as never before. Indeed, cleverness is shunned at home and abroad. What does reading offer to pupils except tears? It is rare, worthless when it is offered for sale, and devoid of wit. 

His words would be echoed again and again. The thirteenth-century bishop and theologian, Jacques de Vitry, said of the students in Paris:


Some studied merely to acquire knowledge, which is curiosity; others to quire fame, which is vanity; others still for the sake of gain, which is cupidity and the vice of simony. Very few studied for their own edification, or that of others. They wrangled and disputed not merely about the various sects or about some discussions; but the differences between the countries also caused dissensions, hatreds and virulent animosities among them and they impudently uttered all kinds of affronts and insults against one another.

Meanwhile, in the fourteenth century Álvaro Pelayo, who studied at the University of Bologna, bemoaned:

They attend classes but make no effort to learn anything….The expense money which they have from their parents or churches they spend in taverns, conviviality, games and other superfluities, and so they return home empty, without knowledge, conscience, or money.

Here is a letter written by a tenth-century Byzantine scholar to the father of some of his students:


I hesitated whether to write to you or not, but decided that I ought. Children naturally prefer play to study: fathers naturally train them to follow good courses, using persuasion or force. Your children, like their companions, neglected their work and were in need of correction. I resolved to punish them, and to inform their father. They returned to work and studied for some time. But they are now occupied with birds once again, and neglecting their studies. Their father, passing through the city, commented acidly on their conduct. Instead of coming to me, or to their uncles, they have run away to you or to Olympus. If they are with you, treat them mercifully as suppliants. Even if they have gone elsewhere, help them return to the fold. You will have my gratitude. 

A teacher beats a boy with birch twigs, as three pupils watch. From a 14th-century manuscript – British Library MS Royal 6 E. VI fol. 214r

When word of poor academic performance reached the parents’ ears, they might be the ones who would upbraid their children. In this letter from twelfth-century France, a father named Bescancon writes to his son, who was studying in Orleans:

It is written, ‘He also that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is also a great waster’. I have recently discovered that you lived dissolutely and slothfully, preferring license to restraint and play to work and strumming a guitar while the others are at their studies, whence it happens that you have read one volume of law while your more industrious companions have read several. Wherefore I have decided to extort you herewith to repent utterly of your dissolute and careless ways that you may no longer be called a waster and that your shame may be turned to good repute.


Apparently the old trick of going to the washroom to get away from class is a very old trick, according to his comment from an Oxford schoolmaster:

As soon as I come into the school, this fellow goeth to make water and he goeth out to the common draught [ie. privy].  Soon after another asketh licence that he may go drink. Another calleth upon me to have licence to go home. These and such other layeth my scholars for excuse often times, that they may be out of the way.

Maximilian Sforza Attending to His Lessons, Lombard, from ‘Donatus Grammatica’, 15th century – Biblioteca Trivulziana Ms 2167 fol. 13v

Even the medieval librarian would have cause to complain about students. For example, around the year 1345 Richard de Bury, who studied at Oxford, and was the tutor to the young Edward III, wrote Philobiblon, in which he offers these complaints about how students treat books:

You may happen to see some headstrong youth lazily lounging over his studies, and when the winter’s frost is sharp, his nose running from the nipping cold drips down, nor does he think of wiping it with his pocket-handkerchief until he has bedewed the book before him with the ugly moisture. Would that he had before him no book, but a cobbler’s apron!


His nails are with fetid filth as black as jet, with which he marks any passage that pleases him. He distributes a multitude of straws, which he inserts to stick out in different places, so that the halm [stalks] may remind him of what his memory cannot retain. These straws, because the book has no stomach to digest them, and no one takes them out, distend the book from its wanton closing, and at length, being carelessly abandoned to oblivion, go to decay.

He does not feat to eat fruit or cheese over an open book, or carelessly carry a cup to and from his mouth; and because he has no wallet at hand he drops into the books the fragments that are left. Continually chattering, he is never weary of disputing with his companions, and while he alleges a crowd of senseless arguments he wets the book lying half open in his lap with sputtering showers. Aye, and then hastily folding his arms he leans forward on the book, and by a brief spell of study invites a prolonged nap; and then, by way of mending the wrinkles, he folds back the margins of leaves, to the no small injury of the book.

Of course, students had their own views about teachers. Here is how one fifteenth-century English student talks about school life:

On Monday in the morning when I shall rise,
At six of the clock, it is the gise
To go to school without avise
I have lever to go twenty miles twice!
What availeth it me though I say, nay?

My master looketh as he were mad:
‘Where has thou be, thou sorry lad?’
‘Milked ducks, my mother bade.’
It was no marvel though I were sad!
What availeth it me though I say, nay?

My master peppered my arse with well good speed:
It was worse than finkle [fennel] seed
He would not leave till it did bleed –
Much sorrow have he for his deed!
What availeth it me though I say, nay?

I would my master were a hare,
And all his books hounds were,
And myself a jolly hunter:
To blow my horn I would not spare!
For if he were dead I would not care.
What availeth it me though I say, nay?

Further Readings:

Egbert of Leige, The Well-Laden Ship, translated by Robert Gart Babcock (Harvard University Press, 2013)

A Medieval Miscellany, selected by Judith Herrin (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999)

The Voice of the Middle Ages in Personal Letters, 1100-1500, edited by Catherine Moriarty (Peter Bedrick Books, 1989)

Fifteenth-century Attitudes, edited by Rosemary Horrox (Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Medieval Schools: Roman Britain to Renaissance England, by Nicholas Orme (Yale University Press, 2006)

The University in Medieval Life, 1179-1499, by Hunt Janin (McFarland, 2008)