failure of universities began in the twelfth century

In twelfth-century Europe, the learned poet Hugh Primas and the ardently loving grammarian Serlo of Wilton were friends. Hugh teased Serlo with a grammatical epigram in the style of Serlo’s poem “A flower to the flower of flowers {Flos floris flori}.” Serlo responded wittily, perhaps insinuating about bestiality in Apuleius’s Metamorphoses in relation to Hugh’s poem “You’ve sent for a whore to come from the brothel, but until she’s prepared {Iussa lupanari meretrix exire, parari}”:

Primas to Serlo:
A scoundrel sends obscurities to a scoundrel.

Serlo in response:
No thanks be for your gift on account of “to a scoundrel.”
You who were once an ass to me, will always be an ass.

{ Primas Serloni:
Nebulo nebulas nebuloni.

Serlo e contra:
Null tui doni sit gratio pro ‘nebuloni’
Et michi, qui quondam, semper asellus eris. }[1]

Hugh didn’t complain to an assistant dean at Serlo’s university (probably Oxford or Paris) that Serlo had committed a micro-aggression against him. Perhaps Hugh wrote an even wittier or nastier epigram in response. Unfortunately, no such response has survived.

Serlo was unafraid of criticizing his peers. He chastised canons, learned men associated with cathedral schools:

Our canons owe their name to canon law,
for they serve well the caNOns, with NO attached.

{ Nostri canonici debent a canone dici,
Namque quod est canon bene servant, apposita non. }[2]

Serlo’s point was that canons should respect church canon law instead of violating it. Serlo, however, wasn’t seeking to invoke a formal penal apparatus like that which now predominately punishes persons with penises.

Serlo taught grammar, probably to persons about the age of those in high school today. He taught classic Latin hexameter verse, poetic quantities, and homonyms through earthy examples:

I love one from whose hook I’m never released.
{Unam semper amo, cuius non solvar ab hamo.}

Always avoid love, lest you lose yourself, my dear.
{Semper amore care, ne tu careas, mihi care.}

Often I say to my lady, “Say this to me: ‘Cling here to me at night.'”
{Dico frequenter here “michi dic: michi noctibus here.”}

You give me kisses full of honey; therefore I have bestowed my favors on you.
{Basia plena favi mihi das; ideo tibe favi.}

Even by constant prayer, I can’t be freed from the yoke of love.
{Expers esse iugi Veneris nequeo prece iugi.}

It’s pleasing to take my joy in such a way that my lover tastes my joy.
{Sic gaudere libet, ut amans mea gaudia libet.}

To die in love is to give oneself over to the rule of Venus.
{Est in amore mori Veneris se subdere mori.}

I say to my dear woman “stay” when I should arise in the morning.
{Care dico “mane,” cum debeo surgere mane.}

My sins make me sad, yet I deserve worse.
{Me mea merentem faciunt mala plura merentem.}

I recognize this about love: when it is recognized, I do not know myself.
{Hoc in amore noto, quod eo me nescio noto.}

You have beauty, Thais, to which I aspire more than anything else.
{Est tibi, Thay, nitor, in quem super omnia nitor.}

No one pleases a whore unless he satisfies her right hand with a gift.
{Scorto nemo placet nisi dextram munere placet.}

Serlo, like one unskilled, is taught how to take advantage of love.
{Serlo docetur uti, non doctus amoribus uti.}

The time is coming: come, my love! You will come. I have already come.
{En venit hora: veni, mea! Tu venies, ego veni.}

When you stumble after drinking wine, it’s not the wine’s fault, but yours.
{Cum post vina labes, non vini sed tua labes.}

We think it’s the sound of your foot, but it’s only you farting, you glutton.
{Credimus esse pedis strepitum, tu, turgide, pedis.}

Those turnips which you are devouring cause gas.
{Quas tu dente rapis, comes est inflacio rapis.}[3]

With such teaching, Serlo wouldn’t have survived a week within the repressive, intolerant environment of universities today.

masters meeting at the medieval university of Paris

Teaching institutions were changing significantly in twelfth-century Europe. General educations in cathedral schools and master-focused institutions gave way to large, professional universities. These universities were in major cities such as Bologna, Paris, and Oxford. Universities inculcated narrow, arcane ideology with little connection to ordinary speaking and understanding.[4] The ivory-tower intellectual provincialism of universities began in the twelfth century. Formerly canonical educational works for men such as Maximianus’s elegies, Claudian’s The Abduction of Proserpina {De raptu Proserpinae}, and Statius’s About Achilles {Achilleid} faded from teaching. Universities from the twelfth century began to contribute to the castration culture that tormented Peter Abelard and makes many men reluctant to attend universities today.

Serlo of Wilton knew the discomfort of a comfortable but personally barren environment. Settled probably in the coastal city Antibes in southern France, Serlo complained about his languishing creativity:

Just as it is bright in bright light and fine in fine air,
so human sense becomes leaden in leaden air.
A fatherland of sheep-like people disturbs my poems and me.
My work is weak, lacking in the weaving of Minerva.
Now far from Parnassus’s summit, instead of the Muses I’ve seen the Gorgon.
Having turned into stone, I make stony verses.
Now I contrive nothing as I once did. I banish my poems and myself,
so that if you were to unroll the verses, you would say mine aren’t equal to mine.
I conceal the name of the place that has given me such an omen.
I conceal it very zealously. “Why?” you ask. That I also conceal.
The issue by the signs is known, so that the state without a name is known.

{ Ut clarus clarum rarusque per aera rarum,
Sic hominis sensus denso fit in aere densus.
Patria vervecum turbat mea carmina mecum:
Est opus enerve, pinguis textura Minerve.
Jam procul a Nisa, pro Musis Gorgone visa,
In scilicem versus silicernos fabrico versus.
Nil ego sicut ego mediter, mea meque relego;
Nam metra si replices, non equa meis mea dices.
Celo loci nomen quo tale mihi datur omen.
Celo bono zelo; causam petis? Hanc quoque celo.
Rem per signa nota; sic res sine nomine nota. }[5]

Like for professors and students at a well-funded university, life was good and easy for Serlo in Antibes. He had good reasons to stay:

I delight in the leader, the people, and the land. You say “flee.” I refuse,
for having reached this pleasant place, I’ll leave only if compelled.
Fate may drive me away unwilling, but for nothing will that deed happen by my willing.
With no exceptions, no place is suitable for those who can’t be suited.
If I’m ever well-regarded, it’s here. If not here, than I’ll not be well-regarded anywhere.

{ Principe, gente, solo delector. Dic “Fuge”: nolo.
Namque locum nactus dulcem, discedo coactus:
Fors me nolentem pellet, res nulla volentem.
Nullis exceptis, locus omnis ineptus ineptis.
Non hic si nusquam, probus hic ero si probus usquam }

But the heart suffers for reasons that reason doesn’t understand:

Here however I suffer because the muse Clio doesn’t thrive here.
The poetic Muses, excluded, are not part of the custom here.

{ Hoc tamen excipio quia non viget hic ita Clio;
Excluse muse non sunt his partibus use. }

Serlo left that place. Poetic spirit is a terrible thing to waste.

Large, professionalized universities tend to crush creative, poetic spirits. That began to happen in the twelfth century. Writing then, the Archpoet, one of the greatest poets of all time, wasn’t a professor at a university. Universities excluded the critical gender grammar of Matheolus and supported other worldly abstractions like courtly love. Now universities have more stifling administrative bureaucracies and more rigidly impose oppressive ideological dogmas. The future of universities is grim unless they adapt to include masters like Serlo of Wilton and lively, earthy teaching of grammar.

If I’m pleasing to none, what could be dearer to anyone than nothing more?
This place is bounded: the end comes, so farewell.

{ Si placeo nulli, quis nullo carius ulli?
Hic locus est mete: venit explicit. Ergo valete. }[6]

University of Paris, Sorbonne, main entrance

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Serlo of Wilton 75 (Öberg number), “Verses of Primas {Versus Primatis},” Latin text from Rigg (1992) p. 72, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. and Solan (1973). These epigrams appear among the proverbs of Serlo in Oxford, Digby 53, fol. 15, col. 2. Friend (1954) p. 86.

The second line of Serlo’s response quotes the last line of the fable Avianus 5, “About the donkey who put on a lion’s skin {De asino pelle leonis induto}.”

[2] Serlo of Wilton 74, Latin text from Rigg (1992) p. 72, my English translation, benefiting from that of id. and Solan (1973). A poem attributed to Hugh Primas and alternately to Serlo of Wilton similarly criticizes authorities’ hypocrisy:

You, canon, who makes a canon, canonized me,
and you, canon, who makes not a canon, decanonized me.
It’s reprobate to reprove the upright, whom you reprove.
Thus, by reprobating the upright, you are proven to be reprobate.

{ Canonicum qui canonice me canonicastis,
Canonicum non canonice decanonicastis.
Est reprobum reprobare probum, quem vos reprobatis,
Sic reprobos, reprobando probos, vos esse probatis. }

Latin text from Werner (1905) p. 78 (number 163), my English translation. These verses, which appear in manuscripts after Serlo’s proverbs, suggest that “Hugh and Serlo are associated together in grammar texts probably designed for use in the schools.” Friend (1954) p. 57. On the instructional context of Serlo’s proverbs, Friend (1954).

[3] Serlo of Wilton 2, “Verses about differences {Versus de differenciis},” excerpts, Latin text from Hunt (1991) vol. 3, pp. 126-31, English translation (modified slightly) from Solan (1972). Hunt’s Latin text comes from MS. Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College 136, pp. 61-5. Such verses are also called “differentiated verses {versus differentiales}.”

Serlo’s poem provides early examples of versus differentiales. Such verses later become a well-recognized form in medieval grammar education. A variety of authorities, including Christian of Lilienfield and William of Corberon, wrote such verses. Solan (1973) p. 86. Here’s an online collection of over 500 medieval versus differentiales.

[4] On the depersonalization of teachers in the development of universities, Wei (2011). Twelfth-century critics of universities emphasized the unity of knowledge, sharing learning freely and willingly, and education’s broad purposes and moral vision. John of Salisbury, particularly with his Metalogicon, was a leading critic of the nascent universities and the “Cornificians” who dominated them. For an English translation of the Metalogicon, McGarry (1955). On twelfth-century critics of universities, Ferruolo (1985).

In the middle of the twelfth century, corrupt church authorities were illegally imposing financial burdens on teachers. In a letter to King Louis VII of France, Serlo complained about being illegally forced to pay for the “right to teach {licentia docendi}” at a cathedral school in Paris:

O king, a man more than a man, prevent the destruction of the schools.
O king, more a man than a king, take control of the weapons of Pallas Athena.
Here I hide that in this, Simon, your fury Erinys reigns,
nor do I say that I am ordered to pay to teach school.
We are miserably treated: we are forced to pay and to keep quiet.
I teach by this law: I pay and refuse to be paid.
Yet in the law is written: “Whosoever of you teach,
speak the truth. When that is done, that shall be sufficient.”
Therefore I tell you, highest king, I teach openly, and I pay secretly.
But the law forbids this. I ask that I not be asked to pay.
Heir of Jove, constrain the heir of Simon so that I would not pay.
Rule me, you who rule all in the name of the king.

{ Rex, homo plus homine, studii succurre ruine;
Rex, homo plus rege, Palladis arma rege.
Hoc celo quod in his, Simon, tua regnat Erynnis,
Nec loquor istud ego: doque scolasque rego.
Tractamur misere, dare cogimur atque tacere;
Hac ego lege lego, doque darique nego.
Ast in decretis legitur: “Quicumque docetis
Verum dicatis: hoc date sitque satis.”
Ergo tibi pando, rex summe palam lego, clam do
Sed decreta vetant: hoc peto ne qua petant.
Simonis heredem, Iovis heres, comprime ne dem;
Me rege qui regis nomine cuncta regis. } 26-37

Serlo of Wilton 16, “Serlo, the least of his subjects, to the King of the French {Regi Francorum minimus sic Serlo suorum}” / “Blessed Terpsichore, whose voice rings worthy of Jove’s mouth {Felix Tersicore, que digna sonat Iouis ore},” vv. 26-37, Latin text from Friend (1954) p. 109, my Latin translation, benefiting from that of Solan (1973). Simon refers to Simon the Magician of Acts 8:9-24. Serlo probably wrote this letter between 1150 and 1170.

[5] Serlo of Wilton 24, “About his exile {De exsilio suo}” / “Just as it is bright in bright light and fine in fine air {Ut clarus clarum rarusque per aera rarum},” vv. 1-11, Latin text from Friend (1954) pp. 96-7, benefiting from that of id. and Solan (1974). The subsequent two quotes above are similarly from “De exsilio suo,” vv. 42-6 (I delight in the leader, the people, and the land…) and vv. 48-9 (Here however I suffer…).

[6] Serlo of Wilton 2, “Verses about differences {Versus de differenciis},” vv. 9, 200 in the Latin text of Hunt (1991), but the concluding couplet in the critical edition of Öberg (1965); my English translation, benefiting from that of Solan (1973).

[images] (1) Masters meeting at the medieval university of Paris. Illumination made between 1512 and 1541 by Étienne Colaud. Preserved in Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, MS. Français 1537, folio 27v. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Modern entrance to the University of Paris, Sorbonne. Photograph made in 2007. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Ferruolo, Stephen C. 1985. The Origins of the University: the schools of Paris and their critics, 1100-1215. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Friend, A. C. 1954. “The Proverbs of Serlo of Wilton.” Mediaeval Studies. 16: 179-218.

Friend. A. C. 1954. “Serlo of Wilton: the early years.” Archivium Latinitatis Medii Aevii (ALMA). 24: 85–110. Alternate source.

Hunt, Tony. 1991. Teaching and Learning Latin in Thirteenth-Century England. Cambridge, UK: Brewer.

McGarry, Daniel D., trans. 1955. The Metalogicon of John of Salisbury: a twelfth-century defense of the verbal and logical arts of the trivium. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Öberg, Jan, ed. 1965. Serlon de Wilton: Poèmes Latins. Stockholm: Almqvist och Wiksell. Table of poems.

Rigg, A. G. 1992. A History of Anglo-Latin Literature, 1066-1422. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Solan, Edward William. 1973. A Study of the Life and Works of Serlo of Wilton. Ph.D. Thesis, Language and Literature, Indiana University.

Wei, Ian P. 2011. “From Twelfth-Century Schools to Thirteenth-Century Universities: The Disappearance of Biographical and Autobiographical Representations of Scholars.” Speculum. 86 (1): 42-78.

Werner, Jakob, ed. 1905. Beiträge zur Kunde der lateinischen Literatur des Mittelalters. Aarau: H.H. Sauerländer.

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