A university's memory is permanently impaired. With the exception of the deepest furrows—the UNC bonfire, or James B. Duke’s cigar—our meaningful past here never extends more than four years: As far as we seniors are concerned, Duke is as old as 2001, the date on which it must have dropped fully formed out of the sky. Everything before that is rumor and conjecture, and with every graduation, Duke’s birthdate creeps forward a year.
In this cycle of institutional forgetfulness, meaningful talk about Duke becomes nearly impossible. Where, after all, would we get our standard of comparison? We seem to think our social life has declined—but can any of us even begin to describe the typical Duke party from the ’80s? When we criticize the honor code, do we know how many of us cheated in the ’70s? Have we always been politically apathetic, or was there an exception in the ’60s? Because so much of our Duke talk has to do with evolution and change, and because our frame of reference is so constricted, we need to learn our history or shut up. I hope we choose the former.
So as a spur to action, and as an antidote to all the complaints we’ve been hearing about off-campus parties, I’d like to take you back 800 years, to the foundation of the University of Paris. Along with its counterpart in Bologna, the University of Paris was the first of its kind, the model for higher learning and the establishment to which Duke must ultimately trace its lineage. From its origin as a small universitas magistrorum et scholarium (guild of masters and scholars), the University grew into one of the most influential institutions in the medieval world.
Soon, according to Barbara W. Tuchman’s acclaimed history of the period, A Distant Mirror, “the University of Paris elevated the name of the French capital, surpassing all others in the fame of its masters and the prestige of its studies in theology and philosophy…. By virtue of the University, Paris was the ‘Athens of Europe’; the Goddess of Wisdom, it was said, after leaving Greece and then Rome, had made it her home.”
And what did 25,000 students of such an august body do all day? Surely they spent their time in earnest prayer, fasting and meditation.
Actually, no—if anything, they were mostly working on their resumes. “Almost all the students at Paris, foreigners and natives, did absolutely nothing,” writes Jacques de Vitry in his Historiae Occidentis. “Some studied merely to acquire knowledge, which is curiosity; others to acquire fame, which is vanity; others still for the sake of gain, which is cupidity and the vice of simony.” And when they weren’t practicing the vice of simony, they were struggling with incipient multiculturalism:
“They affirmed that the English were drunkards and had tails; the sons of France proud, effeminate and carefully adorned like women. They said that the Germans were furious and obscene at their feasts; the Normans, vain and boastful. The Burgundians they considered vulgar and stupid. The Bretons were reputed to be fickle and changeable, and were often reproached for the death of Arthur. The Lombards were called avaricious, vicious and cowardly; the Romans, seditious, turbulent and slanderous; the Sicilians, tyrannical and cruel; the inhabitants of Brabant, men of blood, incendiaries, brigands and ravishers; the Flemish, fickle, prodigal, gluttonous, yielding as butter and slothful. After such insults from words they often came to blows.”
And the dissipation extended into the classroom itself: Renowned historian Jacques Barzun cites a contemporary chronicler to the effect that “The rooms on one side were rented to students and on the other to whores. Under the same roof was a house of learning and of whoring.”
Of all the records we have of the University, perhaps the most compelling is a 1269 “Proclamation of the Official of the Episcopal Court of Paris against Clerks and Scholars Who Go about Paris Armed by Day and Night and Commit Crimes.”
As the church court put it, “A frequent and continual complaint has gone the rounds that there are in Paris some clerks and scholars, likewise their servants, trusting in the folly of the same clerks, unmindful of their salvation, not having God before their eyes, who, under pretense of leading the scholastic life, more and more often perpetrate unlawful and criminal acts, relying on their arms: Namely, that by day and night they atrociously wound or kill many persons, rape women, oppress virgins, and break into inns, also repeatedly committing robberies and many other enormities hateful to God.”
Unable to control the off-campus virgin-oppression scene, the Bishop instituted what appears to be a primitive version of the Community Standard: “We excommunicate all those who have known anything about the aforesaid, unless within seven days from the time of their information…they shall have revealed what they know to the said reverend bishop.” But it was little use: Students remained exempt from most civil and legal controls until the University of Paris was brought fully under royal jurisdiction around 1530.
What lessons can we learn from this too brief detour through the history of the university? I see four.
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If you think KY wrestling is disgraceful, a little perspective is recommended.
Whoring and learning are not incompatible. If the students of Paris could oppress virgins by night and be the Light of Christendom by day, so too, theoretically, can the students of Duke.
Duke’s administration has embarked on a prestige-building endowment-and-construction campaign at the same time it has exported much of the social life off campus, where it is less subject to university controls and therefore more debauched. This is not a coincidence, because
Whoring and learning are directly proportional. Even if we students don’t know our history, our administrators surely do. And they recognize that it was hardly an accident that our forbears at Paris created both the most influential and dissolute institution of their times. Scholarly prestige is inseparable from the righteous superiority that leads students, “under the pretense of leading the scholastic life,” to break into inns and stab townsfolk. And the harder students are pushed, the more debauchery becomes an academic necessity. So when you see something disgusting off East this weekend, and you surely will, don’t hang your head: Acknowledge it as of a piece with CIEMAS, the Campaign for Duke and the new Baldwin Scholarships—tokens, all, of our continued excellence.
Quod erat demonstrandum.
Rob Goodman is a Trinity senior. His column appears every Friday.