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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

§ 7. The Fall of the Friars

It was not their studies but their ambition which lost to the mendicants the favour of the medieval universities. Starting as assailants of the abuses of the older orders, within a very few years they furnished to the world a still more striking spectacle of moral degradation; and the barefooted friars rivalled the Cistercians as pure epicureans.

  • I fond there freres, Alle the foure ordres
  • Prechynge the peple, For profit of hemselves;
  • Glosed the gospel, As hem good liked;
  • For covertise of copes, Construwed it as thei wolde.
  • So Piers the Plowman, voicing the experience of the nation at large. In the universities, whilst claiming the rights, the friars strove to shirk the duties, of the non-professed scholar. “It was their object to create an imperium in imperio, and, while availing themselves of these centres as fields of propagandism, they were really intent on the creation of a rival if not of a hostile authority.” A fierce struggle ensued. Already, in 1300, the chancellor of Cambridge, Stephen de Haselfield, as the outcome of a brawl, excommunicated the friars, two of whom were expelled from the university. On an appeal to the pope, the friars secured the honours of the field; but the university authorities returned to the fray. In 1336, a university statute forbade the friars to admit into their orders any scholar under 18. Two years later, a similar statute was passed in Oxford. In 1359, the Cambridge houses enacted that two members of the same convent of mendicants should not incept in the same year. An appeal to parliament went in their favour, and, in 1375, the friars actually obtained a papal bull dispensing, in their case, with the statutory requirement of actual regency in arts before the assumption of the degree of D.D. The mendicants in both universities had outstayed their welcome a full century before Chaucer launched at them the shafts of his humour, the Piers Plowman poems lashed them with invective, or Wyclif, himself a distinguished schoolman, poured forth on them the vials of his vituperation. In the foundations of both Walter de Merton and Hugo de Balsham, admission into a religious order was expressly declared incompatible with membership of a college society. With these two names and with the rise of colleges we reach a new stage in English university history.