The rise and fall of student guilds in the medieval university of Bologna.

The medieval student guilds at Bologna are described by Cobban (1971)1 this post is a summary of Cobban, A. B. (1971). Medieval Student Power. Past & Present, (53), 28–66. Retrieved from JSTOR. as “a by-product of the struggle for survival in a hostile environment”. Students in the 13th and 14th centuries did not come from aristocratic families and were usually dependent on a parent or other benefactor to support them, although they were not as young as most modern-day undergraduates. They were mostly training to enter a highly-paid profession, rather than seeking knowledge for its own sake – to become lawyers, doctors, teachers or clergymen 2 There was a much smaller group who pursued “knowledge” for its own sake – which was to be found in the field of theology. Science, as we understand it, was yet to develop. (The start of that could be taken as Copernicus in the mid 16th century)..

The students arrived in Bologna from all parts of Europe and formed into guilds mainly as a way of getting some legal protection, since they didn’t have local citizenship. Their teachers, by contrast, were made to promise the city of Bologna that they would not leave to go and teach somewhere else. The dynamic of how the “university” developed suggests that there was a clear conflict of interest and general lack of trust between the teachers and the students who directly paid them for their classes. In fact during this period the “universitas magistrorum” was a separate thing from the “universitas scholarium”.

The law students created their guild in order to increase their influence over the work of the law “doctors” or teachers. During the 13th century, the guilds of students became increasingly organised – with subsections for different languages 3 all teaching was done in Latin , their own elected officers and by-laws etc. This allowed them to replace the Bologna city authorities as the main management organ in charge of the teachers’ work. The university (or “studium” as it was called) was generally democratic, with each language/national subsection electing a rector. Students and teachers would meet at the start of the year to agree on the contents of courses, and the dates for completing each part of the set texts.

In the 14th century the situation gradually reversed. This happened because the teachers began to receive salaries from the city authorities in addition to what the students paid them. This in turn was due to competition between university cities trying to attract the most celebrated teachers.