Episode #34: Gaudeamus Itigur–Universities and Academics


We’ve just spent the month of June watching innumerable students progress across the stage in their long gowns. Where does the tradition of wearing black robes, mortarboards, and stoles/hoods as academic regalia come from? Hint: it’s the Middle Ages! Join Em and Jesse as we discuss the origins of universities (and some of the oldest ones) and learn about some of the earliest women scholars and professors.

Annotations and Comments

1/ You can find out more about rules for academic dress at Oxford here and for Cambridge here–both still have several styles of academic gown that are worn for exams, ceremonies, concerts and presentations, festivals, and the like. You’ll note that the Cambridge version is so complex it requires a flow chart to help students determine which gown is most appropriate.

Academic hoods!

Also, you’ll notice that Hogwarts requires students to wear robes. Yes, this is because they’re wizards (although that style of dress is also based on medieval clothing), but it’s also because of English schools (the real ones, for Muggles).

2/ Spoiler alert: the whole Dr. Jill Biden thing pretty much died about two days later.

3/ “Why are (male) surgeons still addressed as Mr?” tl;dr: it’s because surgeons and physicians trained separately and only physicians were allowed to use “doctor.” This was a time when physicians were educated gentlemen and surgeons were people who cut off your arm if you needed it cut off.

4/ Plato’s Academy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy

Aristotle’s Lyceum: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyceum_(Classical) vs modern usage https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyceum

5/ As seen in the movies, the teachers at Hogwarts sit at the High Table. For more on the High Table tradition in academia in England, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_table

6/ Scholasticism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scholasticism

Trivium: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trivium

Quadrivium: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quadrivium

The Phantom Tollbooth (GREAT BOOK!) https://www.amazon.com/Phantom-Tollbooth-Norton-Juster/dp/0394820371

The Jane Austen novels that treat on university educations and the clergy most directly are Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey.

7/ Universities and Schooling in Medieval Society, edited by William Courtenay and Jürgen Miethke, with the assistance of David Priest (Leiden: Brill, 2000). https://www.amazon.com/Universities-Schooling-Medieval-Society-Studies/dp/9004113517

8/ Joan of Arc was in episode 9.

9/ Relevant: https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/faq-the-snake-fight-portion-of-your-thesis-defense

10/ True story about the two of us going to Italy in 2003(ish). I (Em) also threw up in a Cracker Barrel on this trip and have never been back to one. Uh. And then when we finally got to Italy, I think I lived on basically cappuccino and gelato. Somewhere I have a very small print of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, which was the painting that sticks out most in my mind of those we saw on the trip. Maybe that says a lot, because we also saw the Last Supper.

11/ Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andreas_Vesalius
De humani corporis fabrica https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_humani_corporis_fabrica

12/ Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646–1684) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elena_Cornaro_Piscopia

13/ Alessandro Macchiavelli (1693–1766) https://news.stanford.edu/pr/2015/pr-feminism-bologna-findlen-082415.html

For more on all of the women mentioned here (and the forging) see Paula Findlen, “Inventing the Middle Ages: An Early Modern Forger Hiding in Plain Sight,” in For the Sake of Learning: Essays in Honor of Anthony Grafton Vol. 1. edited by Ann Blair and Anja-Silvia Goeing (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 871–896.

Laura Bassi (1711–1778): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura_Bassi Actually, we say she lectured on “the liberal arts,” but specifically she was a physicist and mathematician! Specifically, she was super into Newtonian physics! And she married a (medical) doctor/fellow lecturer and had somewhere between eight and twelve children, five of whom lived to adulthood. She was the original working mom, is what I’m saying. #Goals

14/ Trotula https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trotula
For more, see The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine, edited and translated by Monica H. Green (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001). https://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/13496.html