Sunday 22 December 2013


In the 15th century, Antonino Pierozzi, Archbishop of Florence, listed these complaints about students:

  • They attend classes but make no effort to learn anything.
  • They defraud professors of their fees.
  • On Sundays they don’t go to church. Or if they do, it’s not to pray but to watch girls and swap stories.
  • They start fights.
  • They get into debt and sometimes withdraw from the university without paying up.
  • They spend the money they have from their parents or from churches on drinking, partying, gambling, and other unnecessary things, and return home broke and without knowledge.

German universities saw a sharp decline in graduations at the beginning of the 16th century. Their solution: lower the standards.

At the last graduation there were only ten graduates, one professor reports in The Letters of Obscure Men. When we held the exams my colleagues talked about rejecting certain candidates. Then I said: No way! If we reject anyone, no one will come forward for examination henceforth, or even study for the degree – they will all go to the poets. During one of the exams, he asked a candidate:
Tell me, why don’t you give me an answer? 
He replied: Because I am shy.
Hardly! I said, I think you are ignorant, not shy.
Then he said: By God, no, Herr Professor, I have great knowledge in my head, but it won’t come out.
So I passed him.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

In 1215 the University of Paris published a list of rules for its lecturers:
  • They must be at least 21 years old and have taken courses for six years. If you do the math, you’ll realize that students entered university at the age of 15 or earlier.
  • They must not be stained by infamy. I.e. no criminal record!
  • They shall not lecture on holidays, except on philosophy, rhetoric, grammar, and ethics – subjects that were apparently unimportant.
  • They shall wear a cloak, black and reaching to the ankles, at least while it is new. Not sure: does this last clause allow for shrinkage of the cloth or growth of the lecturer? No one shall wear shoes that are ornamented or with elongated pointed toes. I guess, no stilettos either.
  • If the lecturer died, he had the consolation of knowing that his funeral would be attended by half of his colleagues (the other half had to attend when the next lecturer died). And no one shall leave until the funeral is finished, unless he has reasonable cause. He couldn’t get off by saying he had to lecture because
  • On the day when a professor is buried, no one shall lecture. How sad.
  • The lecturer shall have jurisdiction over his students. This included monitoring their conduct and keeping notes on any misbehaviour. A student with a poor record of behaviour could be denied admission to the final exam.  By 1500, students apparently resented this kind of control.
One professor reported: I recently interrogated a student about his bad behaviour. He immediately turned on me and addressed me with “thou” (i.e. informally, as if the professor was a fellow-student). Then I said “I’ll remember that when you graduate,” hinting that he might be rejected. He answered: “Shit on you and your BA!” The professor blamed the poets, that is, the teachers of courses in the humanities, for this breakdown in student morals. You see what scandals there are, he said. I wish we all joined together and put an end to all those poets and humanists who ruin the universities.
(The quotations are from Lynne Thorndike, University Records and Life in the Middle Ages. The last paragraph comes from The Letters of Obscure Men.)

Sunday 15 December 2013


In the Middle Ages a career in the church was the best option for a young man without property. A degree in theology all but guaranteed him a well-paid job, but to get there he had to work his way through a prescribed curriculum and pass examinations based on logic and scholastic philosophy. Most students did not find those subjects appealing, and in the 1500s a revolution was on its way.  Theology was out, poetry was in. Unfortunately, poetry didn’t earn you a degree. Students don’t want to graduate, one professor complained.They all want to be poets.

In the good old timeshe said, there were four graduations of bachelors each year, and on each occasion there were fifty or sixty graduates.  The University was flourishing. When a student had been in residence for a year and a half, he was made BA, and after three years, MA. Therefore his parents were satisfied and gladly supplied money when they saw that their sons were on the way to respectable jobs. But today students feel they must attend lectures on the poet Virgil and the rest of the newfangled authors. What is more, they may listen to lectures for five years and never get a degree. And so, when they return home, their parents ask “So what are you now?” But they are nothing, because they have been studying poetry. And then the parents are displeased with the University and sorry they spent money on it. And they say to others: “Don’t send your sons to University. They’ll learn nothing and spend their nights in town, fooling around.”

The new passion for poetry and the humanities was bad news for the professors who taught the traditional courses required for the BA and MA. Their pay was proportional to the number of students registered in their classes. They also earned substantial fees for conducting the final examinations. In other words: no graduations, no fees for them.

I can’t make a living, one of the TAs lamented. Of twenty students hardly one or two intend to proceed to graduation. And if a professor gives a required course, he has no audience, whereas the poets have so many listeners that it's a miracle. This shift in interest from theology to the humanities left lecturers in traditional subjects impoverished. No wonder their sentiments were: Pray to God that all poets will die!

(Quotes are from the satire Letters of Obscure Men)

Thursday 12 December 2013

MAN GIVES BIRTH TO CHILD. Tabloid Stories, c. 1600

You thought tabloids were a modern invention? Read on.
The Fugger Newsletter of 26 May 1601 offers this racy item:

After seven years of marriage, Daniel Burghammer confessed to his wife that he was half man and half woman. Apparently this detail had escaped her notice  -- until he gave birth to a girl. OMG! How did this happen?  He slept only once with a Spaniard and became pregnant therefrom. A notary examined him and confirmed that he had the natural organs of a man for passing water and that he was able to suckle the child with his right breast but not on the left side, where he is a man. The child was baptized Elizabeth. The christening was attended by more than five hundred people, including soldiers from Burghammer’s regiment, as well as drummers, pipers and three trumpeters. Sad to say, the couple divorced soon afterwards.

Another item of interest to 16th century tabloid readers: A child was born covered with cat’s hair! It began to talk eight days after birth and to walk after a month. It is said that this is the Child of Perdition, the Antichrist.  A great deal more was said about the child, but our informant omitted it because it did not sound very credible (Newsletter, 14 April 1592).

For something more credible, let’s consider The Miracle of Weimar (Newsletter, 20 January 1589). A citizen of that town had a collection of antlers. In 1588 he was given a stag’s antlers with six points and stored it in the attic. A year later, he finally got around to mounting it. When he drilled a hole into the bone, it began to bleed, and neither water nor soda could remove the stains. God knows what this portends!

I say it portended the birth of the NRA.
Or else it foreshadowed the birth of The National Enquirer.

And now let’s hear it for The Wild Irish (Newsletter, 15 Sept. 1586). The Earl of Leicester had a troop of 1500 Irish. They were almost all naked. Some of them walked on stilts through castle moats and climbed walls. Handy for conquering fortresses, no?

Sunday 8 December 2013

THE MAFIA in 1592.

Marco Sciarra, a robber baron from the Abruzzi, was the Don Corleone of his time.
The historian Sir James Craufurd noted that Italy had been enjoying peace for some time, but “the bandits were worse than any enemy.” Sciarra wanted to be “King”, or maybe even Pope. When he captured some monks, he made them kneel on the ground and kiss his feet (an honour usually reserved for the pope). He went as far as appointing judges, issuing passports, and conducting wedding ceremonies in the areas he controlled.
In some sources Sciarra is depicted as a Robin Hood figure.  He collected taxes from the rich, but I’m not sure that he distributed them to the poor. When the town of Piceno refused to pay up, Sciarra’s men “killed most of the inhabitants and sacked the whole place, then pillaged several of the neighbouring villages, and had the burgomaster hanged in one of them” (Fugger Newsletter, 25 April 1592). By that time Sciarra commanded a well-armed troop of 600 bandits. Finally the Pope sent an army against them and managed to drive them out of the papal territory. At this point Sciarra decided to go legit. The Venetian state hired him and his troops to fight the pirates who endangered their shipping routes.

As you can see, bandits have their good uses, but Sciarra’s second career was brief. He was assassinated by a fellow bandit in 1593. The traitor was given a pardon by the grateful pope.

The Duke of Ferrara also found the bandits handy, at least those he caught. He used them to discourage poaching on his estate. According to Craufurd, “he hung up the banditos in the fields, some with partridges, some with pheasants, some with hares about their legs, the duke’s officers giving out that they were put to death for killing those animals.” There was a sharp decline in poaching after that.


Thursday 5 December 2013


Ippolito d’Este, the younger brother of the Duke of Ferrara, was destined for a career in the church. He started early – being appointed Archbishop of Milan at the age of nine. In 1536, the King of France invited him to join his court in Paris. You know what a hassle it is to pack for a two-week vacation? Can you imagine packing for an indefinite work/play assignment? Ippolito needed clothing suitable for crossing the Alps, for wearing at formal dinners, at masquerades, when hunting with the King, or playing tennis. Really, you say, he played tennis? Yes, as a matter of fact, he packed 2 pairs of tennis shoes.

For ordinary purposes, a gentleman of Ippolito’s standing wore a white linen shirt with pleated ruffs that showed at the neck and wrists. Over his shirt he wore a velvet doublet and a skirted jacket of damask with slashed sleeves (fur-lined in winter). Breeches and matching hose completed the outfit.

Of course Ippolito didn’t do his own packing. That was the responsibility of Antonio Mosto, Master of the Wardrobe. Mosto drew up a list of stuff to be shipped to Paris – hundreds of items. Among them:
  • 2 gold chains; several rings with diamonds, rubies, and turquoise, set in gold; a rosary made of lapis lazuli to be worn for decorative purposes; 275 ornaments of gold and enamel to stick on the brim of hats.
  • Speaking of hats, Mosto packed 29 for his master, not counting 4 bedcaps.
  • He also packed 7 embroidered linen shirts, 14 doublets, 11 pairs of breeches and hose, 11 jackets, 46 coats, 5 pairs of leather boots, 54 pairs of shoes.
  • And 611 shoelaces. You can never have enough shoelaces, right?
  • Or handkerchiefs (102).
  • Oh, and I almost forgot: 15 pairs of leather gloves, scented with ambergris and musk.

Most of Ippolito’s clothes were black because that was the fashion in Ferrara. Imagine his horror when he arrived at the French court and discovered that his wardrobe was completely wrong for the Paris scene. Black was out. Stripes – ugh. So provincial. Narrow sleeves – pullease! And those breeches – too short. Ippolito immediately gave orders for a new wardrobe: 7 doublets and 18 jackets in a range of reds, from dark orange to a luxurious burgundy, with wide sleeves.

The Master of the Wardrobe must have been pulling his hair. But you know what really got to him? Ippolito was a clean freak and insisted on changing his shirt every day – can you believe it?

Where do you find these shocking bits of info? In Mary Hollingsworth’ fabulous book, The Cardinal’s Hat.