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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XV. English and Scottish Education. Universities and Public Schools to the Time of Colet

§ 3. Town and Gown

The first antagonists of the scholars were the townsmen. Grasping burgher householders demanded unconscionable rents or cheated the students in the sale of supplies; mayor and bailiffs asserted an eager jurisdiction over peccant clerks. The scholars had recourse to the ecclesiastical arm; and the legatine ordinance of 1214 marks their first decisive victory. In the taxors of hostels they obtained their tribunes against exaction, and, in the chancellor “or whomsoever the bishop of Lincoln shall depute to the office,” they secured a resident protector against arbitrary arrest.

The chancellor was, in 1214, apparently, not, as yet, a regularly appointed officer. Grosseteste, who, at a subsequent date, exercised the functions of the office, was, in style, merely rector scholarum. When the chancellor appears as the occupant of a permanent office, it is as the bishop’s officer. He was chosen, indeed, from amongst the masters; but it was the bishop who appointed. He was, in fact, an ecclesiastical official, who wielded the weapon of the church’s censure, whether for the needful discipline of the scholars or for their protection against the venom of the town.

Supported by king and bishop, the chancellor secured, step by step, his position in and against the town. By successive royal writs he obtained the confirmation of the system of conjoint taxation of lodgings; the expulsion of irregular clerks; and the use of the town prison and of the castle cells for the confinement of his domestic recalcitrants. By a series of charters he secured the limitation of the interest chargeable by Jews on the debts of scholars; his own right of jurisdiction in actions of debt in which one party was a clerk; and the right to take part in the assize of bread and beer. In 1255, he laid the foundation of a more extensive jurisdiction over laymen. In 1275, a royal writ gave him cognisance of all personal actions wherin either party was a scholar. When, in 1288, a royal bailiff engaged in altercation with the chancellor, the indiscreet layman lost his office. In 1290, the jurisdiction of the chancellor was defined by parliament as covering all crimes committed in Oxford when one of the parties was a scholar, except pleas of homicide and mayhem. The ranks of privileged persons included, with clerks proper, their attendants (familias), and all writers, parchment-makers, illuminators, stationers and other craftsmen who were employed exclusively by scholars.

In the struggles for these liberties the university employed the weapon forged by the Roman plebs of old. Between 1260 and 1264, seceding masters formed a studium at Northampton, and, at a later date (1334), a similar concourse at Stamford threatened the well-being of Oxford.

On St. Scholastica’s Day, 1354, a tavern brawl between inn-keeper and dissatisfied customers gave rise to a fierce three days’s “town and gown,” wherein countrymen from the outskirts reinforced the burghers. The chancellor was shot at; inns and halls were looted; scholars were slain; books were destroyed. The friars, coming forth in solemn procession to play the part of peacemakers, were maltreated. The scholars of Merton alone were able to resist a siege, thanks to the strength of their walls.

But the blood of scholars became the seed of fresh university privileges. The university declared a general suspension of studies, and the town was put under interdict. A royal commission made short work of its task. Mayor and bailiffs were imprisoned; the sheriff was dismissed; an annual penance was imposed on the burghers; and the chancellor’s prerogative was increased by the transfer to him of no inconsiderable share of the local government.

Yet once more, in 1405, the university, in amplification of a charter of Richard II, secured the right of trial before its own steward of a privileged person indicted for felony. The victory over the town was now complete.

At Cambridge, in like fashion, although without the accompaniment of serious bloodshed, the university developed its constitution; and a long series of royal writs and parliamentary enactments fortified the chancellor against the burghers. A great riot in 1318—the year of Tyler’s insurrection—when the townsmen sacked Bene’t College and burnt charters and title-deeds, was the Cambridge St. Scholastica’s Day. The privileges of the Cambridge chancellor, though ample and, to the town, sufficiently galling, fell short of the fulness of those of his Oxonian fellow-officials; and the Cambridge constitution differed in some details from the Oxford model.