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Medieval Sourcebook:
Jacques de Vitry: Life of the Students at Paris


[University of Pennsylvania T and R Introduction] The testimony is unanimous as to the evil life of a large proportion of the students. It was inevitable that young men-in many cases, mere boys living under practically no restraint and not subject to the full penalties of the law, should have been boisterous and obstreperous. Many of the so-called students resorted to the universities simply for enjoyment and with no idea of study. Conflicts between the' different nations were every day occurrences. Town and gown rows were frequent. But the citizens as a whole seem to have been favorably disposed toward the students.

In the Chartularium of Paris there are many proofs of the evil lives led a part of students, (see Vol. 1, Nos. 60, 197, 425, etc.). But Jacques de Vitry is preferred here because of his account of the jealousies among the different nations. The first part of his description is very characteristic, but cannot be quoted.

Almost all the students at Paris, foreigners and natives, did absolutely nothing except learn or hear- something new. 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.

They affirmed that the English were drunkards and had tails; the sons of France proud, effeminate and carefully adorned like women. They said that the Germans were furious and obscene at their feasts; the Normans, vain and boastful; the Poitevins, traitors and always adventurers. The Burgundians they considered vulgar and stupid. The Bretons were reputed to be fickle and changeable, and were often reproached for the death of Arthur. The Lombards were called avaricious, vicious and cowardly; the Romans, seditious, turbulent and slanderous; the Sicilians, tyrannical and cruel; the inhabitants of Brabant, men of blood, incendiaries, brigands and ravishers; the Flemish, fickle, prodigal, gluttonous, yielding as butter, and slothful. After such insults from words they often came to blows.

I will not speak of those logicians before whose eves flitted constantly "the lice of Egypt," that -is to say, all the sophistical subtleties, so that no one could comprehend their eloquent discourses in which, as says Isaiah, "there is no wisdom." As to the doctors of theology, " seated, in Moses' seat," they were swollen with learning, but their charity was not edifying. Teaching and not practicing, they have "become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal," or like a canal of stone, always dry, which ought to carry water to "the bed of spices." They not only hated one another, but by their flatteries they enticed away the students of others; each one seeking his own glory, but caring not a whit about the welfare of souls.

Having listened intently to these words of the Apostle, " If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work," they kept multiplying the prebends, and seeking after the offices; and yet they sought the work decidedly less than the preeminence, and they desired above all to have " the uppermost rooms at feasts and the chief seats in the synagogue, and greetings in the market." Although the Apostle James said, " My brethren, be not many masters," they on the contrary were in such haste to become masters that most of them were not able to have any students except by entreaties and payments.. Now it is safer to listen than to teach, and a humble listener is better than an ignorant and presumptuous doctor. In short, the Lord had resereved for Himself among them all only a few honorable and timorous men who had not stood "in the way of sinners," nor had sat down with the others in the euvenomed seat.

from Jacobus de Vitriaco: Hist. occid. Bk.II, Ch.VII. Latin., trans in University of Pennsylvania. Dept. of History: Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European history, published for the Dept. of History of the University of Pennsylvania., Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press [1897?-1907?].Vol II:3, , pp. 19-20


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(c)Paul Halsall Feb 1996
halsall@murray.fordham.edu