Golden Age Learning in Scotland

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Golden Age of Learning in Scotland

Anyone who studies the Wars of Independence can be forgiven for thinking that Scotland was populated only by bloodthirsty warriors who liked nothing better than taking on the English in battle.

In fact, the 14th century marked the beginning of a golden age of learning which marked the start of the Scots' reputation as one of the most civilised and well read peoples in Europe - a reputation which persists to this day.

This was the time when education began to be prized, and when the country's two most ancient universities - St Andrews and Glasgow - were first founded.

Incredibly, however, the students who were lucky enough to get places in these institutions - many of whom were priests - were so rowdy that they would put today's lager-swilling, denim-clad undergraduates to shame.

They almost certainly drank huge amounts, smashed up the pubs fairly regularly, and played noisy games which infuriated locals such as kicking a pig's bladder down the street.

Dr Michael Brown, a lecturer in Scottish history at St Andrews University, explains: "It was a pretty hard drinking society, and student life would have been pretty raucous at the time.

"The first university in Europe was probably in Paris. There were quite a lot of incidents there involving violence between different nationalities of student, or between the townspeople and the university students.

"They'd drink too much, they'd bust up the pubs and they wouldn't pay their rent. Even the priests who were studying there would have been involved. They may have been churchmen, but they were also the products of a seriously violent society."

Those who set up Scottish universities must have known the social risks involved, but they were determined that bright clergymen and youngsters should have the chance to be educated at home rather than going abroad to receive their education.

Until the early 15th century, Scots who did want to gain university degrees had to travel abroad to European centres of learning such as Paris, Orleans or Bologna in Italy to do it.

They could also have gone to Oxford University - founded in the 13th century - but Scotland and England were still constantly fighting each other during this time and any Scots student who risked studying there would probably have had a pretty tough time of it.

Why were universities set up at this time? As usual, the battles with the auld enemy played a major part. Robert the Stewart had succeeded the disastrous King David II as king of Scots in 1371, but he was old and infirm when he took the throne and was not really powerful enough to stamp his authority or influence on the running of the country. The crippled Robert III followed him in 1390 and was equally feeble, dying in 1406.

During this time, the by now normal clashes with the English continued unabated, though not as fiercely as they had under Wallace or Robert the Bruce. The English Richard II burned Edinburgh, Perth, Dundee and Melrose in 1385, though the Scots won the Battle of Otterburn three years later. When James I became king in 1406, he was almost immediately seized by the English and held as a prisoner for 18 years.

It was hardly any surprise, then, that the Scots decided it would make sense to educate their cleverest people at home, rather than risk them being torn limb from limb in England or making the dangerous journey abroad.

The first Scottish university to be established was at St Andrews. It is first mentioned in records of 1410, though the date of its birth is usually given as 1412, when its founder, Bishop Henry Wardlaw, received its charter.

Michael Brown explains that St Andrews was a leading centre of the Scottish church and was initially set up to provide clergymen with a high-level education. "It would have been for aspiring clerics who wanted to get to the top of the church. They would be careerists who perhaps wanted to become bishops.

"There wouldn't have been many of them to start with - perhaps 30 to 40 students a year - and they would have been educated in a range of liberal arts subjects such as logic, rhetoric and geometry as well as theology."

One of the reasons for the establishment of the university was because of a bizarre mix-up over Popes at the time. Two separate Pontiffs - Benedict XIII and Martin V - were both claiming the title and each had different supporters.

The Scots, typically, decided to back Benedict because the English supported Martin. The French also supported Benedict, but they then changed their tune and as a result Scots students became unwelcome there. So it made sense for Scotland to have its own higher education institution.

St Andrews was the obvious place because it was the seat of the country's major bishopric at the time. It already had a tradition of clerical learning because of its cathedral. "There would have been great pride in the town and in the church when the university was established", says Dr Brown.

Gaining a Master of Arts degree at the university - the only qualification on offer at the time - would have taken up to seven years, but it would have opened all sorts of doors for clergymen. It would have put them in the top five per cent of priests and allowed them to win lucrative jobs in rich parishes or else to go into teaching themselves.

Learning would be through lecture sessions - this, remember, was before the days of mass printing of books - and students would have to get through examinations, which would usually be spoken rather than written. "But there would have been much less of a pass or fail culture than today", Michael Brown says. "Serving your time and completing the course would have been the most important thing."

Another big advantage of establishing St Andrews was that money to educate students could be spent here at home rather than being drained off abroad. However, the new university wasn't a popular choice with bright people living in the west of Scotland at the time, as it was a very long way away and regional parochialism in Scotland was much stronger then than it is now.

For this reason, Bishop William Turnbull of Glasgow saw the sense in setting up another university attached to his own cathedral. He received backing from the king for the idea - by this time it was James II, as James I had been murdered in 1437 - and established his new institution in 1451.

Dr John Durkan, senior research fellow in Scottish history at Glasgow University and the author of a book on the foundation of the university, said the university would have taught subjects such as arts and civil and canon law as well as theology. "Arts would almost exclusively be philosophy, and the students would probably have had to qualify in arts before they moved on to a law degree, All in all, they would probably have studied for seven or eight years."

At Glasgow - where the proportion of priests to other students was not as high as at St Andrews - undergraduates would probably have started their studies at about the age of 16. After qualifying, they could well have achieved good jobs as lawyers or become masters at the university themselves.

As at other universities of the time, however, there is evidence that the students could be pretty unruly. "Some of them really didn't behave at all well", Dr Durkan says. "There was a case in the Papal Court, for instance, of a student who lost his sight. He'd been hit in the eye when someone threw a cabbage at him."

Meanwhile...

  • 1377 Playing cards are introduced in Germany
  • 1414 The Medici of Florence become the bankers to the Papacy
  • 1416 Dutch fishermen become the first to use drag nets
  • 1420 Florence cathedral is completed
  • 1420 Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor of Spain, is born
  • 1450 Mocha in Arabia becomes the main port for the export of coffee
  • 1451 Christopher Columbus is born
  • 1453 Gutenburg prints the "Mazarin" bible
  • 1453 The Turks convert the St. Sophia Basilica in Constantinople into a mosque

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