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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

§ 8. Poor Students

How was the throng of medieval scholars maintained? Many of the students could and did support themselves. The lecturers were for generations maintained by the collectae of their auditors. The fees levied for graces, the dues collected from the principals of halls and keepers of acts and various academic contributions and fines, all predicate a paying clientéle. Not infrequently, as it would seem, a wealthy scholar defrayed the charges of a more needy companion. When the colleges began to admit pensioners, these paid highly for their accommodation, and in proportion to their rank. Henry Beaufort at Peterhouse, in 1388–9, paid the sum of twenty shillings as pensio camerae, while a humbler contemporary paid 6s. 8d. There were scholars in both universities who ruffled it after the manner of courtiers; who affected lovelocks, red hosen and long shoes; who wore rings “for vain glorying and jettyng, pernicious example and scandal of others”; and otherwise in their attire came within the compass of the sumptuary provincial constitution issued by archbishop Stratford in 1342. But Chaucer’s typical clerk was of another mould. The bulk of the students who thronged the streets of the medieval university were, undoubtedly, poor. Many were reduced to strange shifts for daily bread. The bursar’s accounts of Peterhouse in the early fifteenth century show poor scholars engaged in digging the foundations of buildings, in carrying earth and bricks and in other unskilled labour. The sizars of the following and many succeeding centuries were regularly employed in menial tasks. Favourite medieval stories introduce us to poor students begging on the highways or singing from door to door. The relief of such was always ranked as a peculiarly meritorious field for medieval philanthropy. Noble personages and prelates supported poor scholars in the universities. Edward II maintained 32 boys under their master at Cambridge; and his example was followed by his successor, who erected for his pensioners a special hall of residence, the King’s Hall. Wealthy religious houses defrayed the charges of selected students of their orders. Benefactors, even before the college era, endowed loan-chests from which temporary advances could be made on security to hard-pressed scholars. Yet more deserving of university gratitude were the founders of “exhibitions.”

William de Kilkenny, ninth bishop of Ely, dying in 1256–7, bequeathed 200 marks to the priory of Barnwell in trust for the payment of 10 marks annually to two priests studying divinity in Cambridge. This was the earliest foundation of the type in the junior university. William of Durham, archbishop-elect of Rouen, had, seven years earlier, bequeathed to the university of Oxford 310 marks, to be invested for the maintenance of ten or more masters of arts studying theology.

An all-important step forward was taken by Walter de Merton. Scholars not belonging to any religious order had hitherto, necessarily, either lodged with townsmen or in some specially hired hostel or inn. Of these last, there were many in both universities. Fuller records the names of thirty-four in Cambridge, several of which were still standing in his day, although with an altered character. Oxford claims a far larger number. These halls were managed by principals recognised by, and usually, though not necessarily, masters of, the university. Some of them were connected with special faculties, as law, divinity, or the arts. But they were mere residential inns, neither chartered nor endowed.