It is the year 1230, I am a student and I am hungry

Some might think that the student in search of funding opportunities is the product of the modern world. One will be surprised to learn that the same pecuniary insecurity touched the medieval student at a time when the university had just emerged as an institution. In the 13th century, the Italian, French and then English schools drew on the urban system of corporation and guilds to establish themselves as academic enclaves, both dependent and independent but certainly proud of the culture that was being constructed around them. In such an environment, the student, freshly arrived in town (much early recruitment was village-based), found it hard to support himself (no girls were allowed entry as it was a male institution toiling under the direct patronage of the Pope). Money was not easy to come by, especially in the absence of funding trusts, AHRCs, etc. To make things short, any money was to be provided from private… pouches. Most students found providential patronage from rich relatives or masters of whom they became, upon their matriculation at the university, the equivalent of the guild apprentice. It’s the origin of the tutor most undergraduates today need to sign up with at the beginning of the academic year. It was from such a master that an anonymous student left us a letter and with it a glimpse into the griefs and challenges of medieval studentship when money was concerned.

“B. to his venerable master A., greeting. This is to inform you that I am studying at Oxford with the greatest diligence, but the matter of money stands greatly in the way of my promotion, as it is now two months since I spent the last of what you sent me. The city is expensive and makes many demands; I have to rent lodgings, buy necessaries, and provide for many other things which I cannot now specify. Wherefore I respectfully beg your paternity that by the promptings of divine pity you may assist me, so that I may be able to complete what I have well begun. For you must know that without Ceres and Bacchus Apollo grows cold”

Written around 1220.

Now, how many students today would not claim solidarity with our poor Oxonian? I fear that given the current state of the academic world, it is more a question of Bacchus keeping students warm at night that Ceres providing for their thrumming stomach, although she and her sisters sow their wild oats, most plentifully.

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