Tuesday, 7 October 2014


It's the third day of 0th week today ( strange Oxford nomenclature), and really nice to see familiar student faces returning and new students arriving.  We're all really looking forward to getting to know them all and to enjoying many lively discussions together!

I've just returned from a conference in Strasbourg, so I also have a 'back-to-school' kind of feeling, one sharpened by a long and tedious plane journey.

Interestingly, it was the journeys to university which seem most to have stimulated the imagination of poets and story-tellers interested in student life in the Middle Ages.  We have very few fictional accounts of life in the medieval university, but quite a lot of texts surviving describing the adventures befalling students on their way to study. 
Chaucer's Reeve -
image  anonymous (http://sunsite3.berkeley.edu/hehweb/EL26C9.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Famously, Chaucer's Reeve's tale tells of two students from the north of England, who study at Cambridge, and visit a nearby village to see the wheat being ground.  They trick the greedy Miller and sleep with his wife and daughter.  Chaucer probably got the story from an Old French version called, Le Meunier et les deux clercs’  which in turn seems to have come from an Old Dutch original; there's also a Middle High German version,  Students were quite notorious, and when they were on their way to or from university, they reputedly made their presence felt in pretty irritating ways. 

There's a whole genre of Middle High German stories known as Studentenabenteuer which tell of the mischievous shenanigans which students got up to on their way to university - the stories have lots of sex, quite a lot of violence, and are often very funny.  In Zeierlei Bettzeug by der Schweizer Anonymous, a travelling scholar tries to stay with a peasant en route, but the peasant just says: ‘ein grossen furz lies er do/ und sprach zuo dem schuler also;/ ‘schuloer, das ist das bette din’ (‘He let off a huge far and spoke thus to the student: ‘Scholar, that’s your bed’): the student, though, has the last laugh, as he leaves a huge pile of poo for his host to slip in the following morning.  Sophisticated stuff.  The moral of the tale is: ‘wer spottet, des sol man spotten’ – ‘he who mocks/ takes the mickey/laughs last, laughs longest’.  In Claus Spaun's, Funfzig Gulden Minnelohn, a young man travelling to university spends all the money his dad has given him on a night of passion with a woman in a town he is travelling through – idiotically, he tells the husband about this the following day, who surprisingly enough gives him back his money, chastises his wife, and tells the student ‘darumb bis nummermer so gech,/ wann willeicht es geriet dir nit also’ ‘ don’t be so stupid next term/ you might not be so lucky again’(364-5).

And in reality, journeys to university were potentially very dangerous.  In 1310, a certain Salomon le Breton claimed that he had been stripped and robbed on his way to the University of Paris, and violently abused.

So I'm glad that our students are all safely here!

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