Hurray! Can you hear me clapping and doing the happy dance? The hot summer weather has finally broken! The high for today is supposed to be 66 degrees. It’s cloudy and cool. Heavenly! Pretty soon I’ll be able to break out my ancient L.L. Bean flannel nightgown.
No kidding, this summer in North Carolina was brutal. Even the mountains had sustained temps in the 90s. The heat and humidity made it difficult for Thing 1 (age 6) and Thing 2 (age 12) who were out of school and stuck in the house. Their minder (me, alias Mimi) suggested watching educational shows on the computer. Documentaries on dinosaurs soon yielded to Tip and Oh, Teen Titans Go, Barbie and the Dreamhouse, and the Cray-Cray family by which time Mimi herself was cray-cray. We tried swimming but the pool in our apartment complex was as warm as bath water. It was too hot to walk in the parks. And there were only so many trips we could make to the indoor playground (alias adult Purgatory) or the indoor trampoline place (worse than Purgatory), before the money and fun ran out.
Needless to say, any attempt at writing was pointless. I turned to research, but even that was difficult. Sitting down was a personal invitation for the cat to jump on my lap, the dog to curl up at my feet, and Thing 2 to bring me Legos with a request to play. By the end of August, both kids and Mimi were ready for school.
I live in a town that is home to two state universities, a private historically black womens’ college, a private college founded by the Quakers, a private Methodist liberal arts college, and a law school. The students who attend these schools add a lot to the community, although I swear, they are getting younger every year.
Lots of students study at the coffee shop where I write. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that most of them are worried about money, not to mention crushing student loans.
Way back in the day when I was in college—back when dinosaurs roamed the earth— my parents sent me eight dollars a month for spending money. (Yes, I hear you gasping. Remember, this was waaaay back in the day.) The first item I bought with my spending money was a sweater, the first piece of clothing ever bought on my own without my mother’s approval (don’t judge, I led a sheltered life). I wore the heck out of that oatmeal-colored Celtic fisherman’s sweater even though I was allergic to wool. This was at the height of the folk music revival and I felt like I was the walking epitome of IT. However, it didn’t feel so good later in the month when I was low on funds. Money was always a problem, not eased until I got a job on campus.
So, imagine my surprise when my research for The Margaret Chronicles led me to letters written by university students in the Middle Ages. Written from Paris, Munich, London, and Oxford, the letters follow a formulaic five-part format.* I won’t bore you with details. Basically, they can be summed up this way: Dear Dad, send money.
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.
BTW, I’m using the masculine pronoun because in the 14th century most women were illiterate, and almost no universities admitted females. (In Book Two of The Margaret Chronicles, my protagonist Meg attempts to enter the University of Montpellier. Needless to say, it’s an uphill battle.)
In a twelfth-century letter from France, two brothers ask for money by kissing up to their parents and pushing all the right buttons:
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 . . . Wherefore lest production cease from lack of material, we beg your paternity to send us . . . 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 honour.
Some students ask for books and parchment, trousers, linen, and bedding from home. Others want thick lambs’ skins for winter clothing, boots, and good chalk. Still, despite the pitiful pleas, some fathers refused to send money. One refused because he had heard bad reports about his son’s behavior:
I have heard that you live dissolutely and slothfully, preferring . . . to play and strumming a guitar while the others are at their studies . . . I have decided to exhort you herewith to repent utterly of your dissolute and careless ways, that you may no longer be called a waster and your shame may be turned to good repute.
In one case we find a teacher writing to a father telling him that is son is a trifle wild and would benefit from judicious admonition. The master does not wish the student to know he has tattled, therefore the father says:
I have learned not from your master . . . but from a certain trustworthy source that you do not study in your room or act in the schools as a good student should but play and wander about, disobedient to your master and indulgent in sport and in certain dishonorable practices . . .
For the students who indulged in the medieval version of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll and who partied like it was 1399, jail might be their next destination. Their crimes often included drunk and disorderly behavior, singing ribald songs, or fighting. If they couldn’t borrow bail money from friends, they had to write home with the woeful details. One student wrote from the depths of prison that the bread was moldy, the water he drank was mixed with his tears, and the darkness so dense it could actually be felt. Another scholar relayed from jail that he slept on straw without shoes or a shirt. He wrote his married sister asking for money, two pairs of sheets, and ten ells of fine cloth. She complied but did so without her husband’s knowledge.
Of course, there can be an end to a father’s patience. One tired Italian father wrote, “A student’s first song is a demand for money and there will never be a letter which does not ask for cash.” Medieval fathers sound very much like their modern-day counterparts. One father nixed future partying by ordering his son to come home immediately but the student begged for a delay. Another father arranged his son’s marriage, but the unimpressed son reported that it was foolish to desert the cause of learning for a woman, "for one may always get a wife but science once lost can never be recovered." When a theology student complained to his father that the Scriptures were too hard for him to understand, his father promised to show him the delights of manual labor!
Above is a medieval classroom. I love the student in the blue robe who is sleeping it off.
The medieval letters are funny, manipulative, and full of exaggerations, much like an email message from a penniless freshman today. The 21st century student may listen to different music and sport different hairstyles and clothing, but scratch the surface and it’s all the same—there’s a kid out in the world trying to stand on his own two feet but not quite making it.
When The Margaret Chronicles trilogy is published (someday, fingers crossed) I hope readers will appreciate the extraordinary thread which unravels through the generations, a golden thread of human experience that we all have in common. We've lived, laughed, suffered, and endured. Only the external elements have changed. Otherwise we’re very much alike. The French have a saying which describes our commonality: “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Think of that if you get an email that says, Dear Mom and Dad, send money.
Have a good week, everyone. If you’re a writer, put your derriere in the chair. If you are a reader, thank you! And ya’ll take care.
*Charles Haskins, "The Life of Medieval Students as Illustrated By Their Letters", The American Historical Review, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Jan. 1898)pp. 203-209.