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Early Modern Student Debauchery

Woodcut featuring two drunk men

By Drew Thomas |

The life of a 21st-century student might seem vastly different from their mediaeval and early modern counterparts, but in many ways, student life remains the same. While the modern student relies on laptops, chai lattes, and dating apps, they have many things in common with students of ages past: especially went it comes to money and debauchery.

As long as there have been students, there have been students writing home for money. In 1220 a student at the University of Oxford wrote home pleading with his father to send more money, as the city was “expensive and makes many demands; I have to rent lodgings, buy necessaries, and provide for many other things which I cannot now specify.” I imagine a parent’s reaction to funding “things which I cannot now specify” hasn’t changed much over the centuries.

Students’ desires for a night out have long affected “town and gown” relations. The red academic gowns worn by students at the University of St Andrews, our home institution, helped discourage students from anti-social behaviour, as they were immediately recognisable and helped staff identify students sneaking off for a drink at the pub. In the early modern Dutch Republic, students even had a waiver from the local tax on beer and wine.

Stummel's Comoedia de vita studiosorum
Studentes; comoedia de vita studiosorum, University College, Dublin, 17.J.2. USTC 694761.

Such stereotypes of students were common in the early modern period. One of the most memorable examples is Christoph Stummel’s Studentes; comoedia de vita studiosorum … eiusdem carmen de indicio Paridis (USTC 694768). Written when Stummel was only 19 years old, the play is a comedy satirizing the debauchery of student life. As a German preacher and professor, he would later become a Superintendent in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland). But it was for his comedy that he is best known. The play deals with the gender roles between men and women and the difficult relationship between students and townspeople. In many scenes students stage fights with workers, city guards and townspeople after drunken nights out. Such nights can be summarized with the following quote:

“Yesterday, we drank vigorously until the early hours and now […] we are all so drunk that we can hardly stand.” – Act II, scene 5

First published in 1549 in his hometown of Frankfurt an der Oder, it became one of the most widely read plays of the sixteenth century. Over the next fifty years, it was reprinted in at least 22 editions, published in Antwerp, Cologne, Erfurt, Frankfurt an der Oder, Leipzig, Magdeburg, and Strasbourg. The University College Dublin Library, one of our Preserving the World’s Rarest Books partners, possesses a 1554 edition, the only known copy outside of Germany (17.J.2; USTC 694761). It was printed by Johann Eichorn, the publisher of the first edition in Frankfurt an der Oder.

University life and the debauchery therein is a staple among Hollywood comedies due to its popularity with audiences. Considering the success of Stummel’s comedy in the sixteenth century, I’d say not much has changed.

 

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Drew Thomas is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant for Preserving the World’s Rarest Books. He received his PhD from the University of St Andrews, focusing on the rise of the Wittenberg printing industry during Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. He is currently the Technical Editor for Pubs & Publications and the Project Manager of the Caroline Minuscule Mapping Project hosted by the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrewBThomas or on Academia.edu.

 

Cover Image from Johann Dryander, Der gantzen artzenei gemeyner inhalt, wes einem artzt bede in der theoric und practic zousteht (Frankfurt am Main: Christian I Egenolff, 1542). USTC 633377. Image available from the Wellcome Collection under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence.

Title page image used with the permission the University College Dublin Libraries.