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Letters home from medieval students: “Dad, I need money”

Students asking their parents for financial support is, at the very least, a tradition 8 centuries old


Working and studying at the same time is, for many, “our daily bread,” so to speak. For others, studying and working are mutually exclusive, as the demands, duties and requirements of Academia leave no time (or energy) left for any other kind of activities (ahem, ahem), especially job-related ones. Recent statistics show that a significant percentage of students who are in the last years of their careers have had to ask their parents for additional, off-budget, financial support, partly because of some unexpected expenses (let’s say, “rent is too d*mn high”), and partly due to lack of experience handling personal budgets.

Now, this is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, it is almost as old as universities themselves. This example, from 1220, speaks for itself:

  1. 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.

Some other students also wanted to make it clear to their parents that they were excelling in their studies, before daring to request any more money (rings any bells?). In this letter, also dated in the 12th century, two French brothers put the too-well-known tactic to good use:

To their very dear and respectable parents M. Matre, knight, and M. his wife, M. and S., their sons, send greetings and filial obedience.

This is to inform you that, by divine mercy, we are living in good health in the City of Orleans, an are devoting ourselves wholly to study, mindful of the words of Cato, ‘To know anything is praiseworthy.’ We occupy a good dwelling, next door but one to the schools and market-place, so that we can go to school every day without wetting our feet. We have also good companions in the house with us, well advanced in their studies and of excellent habit – an advantage which we well appreciate, for as the Psalmist says, ‘With an upright man thou wilt show thyself upright.’ Wherefore lest production cease from lack of material, we beg your paternity to send us by the bearer, B., money for buying parchment, ink, a desk, and other things which we need, in sufficient amount that we may suffer no want on your account (God forbid!) but finish our studies and return home with honor. The bearer will also take charge of the shoes and stockings which you have to send us, and any news as well.

You can read more on the subject by checking out this article by Charles M. Haskins on the life of medieval students.