Monday, 13 October 2014


At the workshop at the German Historical Institute last week, one of the participants asked me whether I'd been inspired to work on the topic of student violence by the issue of fees.  Being a total idiot, I misheard and thought he said 'feasts' - and given that I don't attend that many raucous feasts, the answer was no.

Anyway - when I realised what he'd actually said - I remembered some material from the archives in Dubrovnik on the subject of fees.  Medieval Dubrovnik seems to have been a city with a particular regard for education, and the importance not only of basic literacy, but of fairly widespread learning. Schooling here was quite widespread, literacy levels were high from a surprisingly early date (thirteenth century at least), and the quality of secondary education was fine.  But Dubrovnik (known at that stage as Ragusa) didn't have a university, so the city council sent promising young men abroad to study - to Paris or Padua in particular.

Detail of a master and scholars from Gautier de Metz 'L'image du monde', 1464.  source: (British Library, Catalog of Illuminated Manuscripts)

For example, in 1455, the council gave 60 hyperpers to the Dominican friar Donatus, in order that he could pursue his studies in Paris (Consilium maius vol. 10, fol. 152v).  In 1463, a patrician young man was given a grant to study in Italy (Consilium maius, vol. 12, fol. 138v).  Some families were obliged to make huge sacrifices to send their children to university: in 1463, a commoner was given permission to sell some of his lands in order to support the studies of his son (Consilium maius, vol. 12, fol. 183v).  Some young men seemed to see the promise of study as a good wheeze to extract money, because the council began to put in clauses to ensure that payment of the grant would only be forthcoming on completion of the degree (eg. Consilium Maius, vol. 13, vol 26r), or refuse to pay money until the student was actually on the boat to university (eg. Consilium Maius, vol. 13, fol. 147v).  

All this reminds us just how expensive university study was in the Middle Ages - and just how limiting such costs could be.  Why was the city government prepared to support young students financially? - presumably because it was felt that these young people would be able to give something back to the community, and certainly by the fifteenth century, it was felt that those with a university education could more effectively serve the growing bureaucratic needs of state.  In other words, I'm cynical enough to think that the number of financial grants to students rose because education could increasingly be given a price.

Set this beside the growing sense nowadays that university education is increasingly commodified - it's treated as a commodity with a commercial value, whose financial cost represents an investment for a greater return at some future point (an excellent article by Stefan Collini on this here) - and everything begins to look quite regressive.  The commodification of university learning is sad, intellectually constraining and misplaced in my view. But the Dubrovnik material gives a slightly more positive perspective in indicating how a fully-fledged sense of respect for the value of education can open up opportunities; more importantly, it introduces a sense of accountability and responsibility which hopefully means something more than just handing essays in on time!

On the Dubrovnik material, I recommend Krekic's 'The Miscellanea from the Cultural Life of Renaissance Dubrovnik' in his Dubrovnik: A Mediterranean Urban Society (1997)

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