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The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 318-320

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Book Review

Parisian Scholars in the Early Fourteenth Century:
A Social Portrait

Parisian Scholars in the Early Fourteenth Century: A Social Portrait. By William J. Courtenay. [Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, Fourth Series, 41.] (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1999. Pp. xix, 284. $64.95.)

This is William J. Courtenay's third book on medieval universities, students, and masters. It is definitely his most unusual; in its mix of urban topography, prosopography, university financial records, and a criminal law case, it is even a path-breaking book.

The genesis of the book came about with Courtenay's recovery or re-discovery of a document from the University of Paris, a computus (financial record) from 1329-30. Written on the last quire of the oldest surviving register of the proctors of the English-German nation at Paris, it is a list of university faculty and students who contributed money for a special legal fund for the defense of a student accused of rape.

Part I consists of three chapters describing the computus (its text is contained in App. 1), how such collections were made, and the precipitating event: the rape of a woman named Symonette. The quire containing the computus had been folded incorrectly when it was inserted into its codex; by rearranging [End Page 318] it Courtenay could, for the first time, ascertain its meaning and significance. It is a document that lists students, faculty, and university associates residing near the university who contributed between December 29, 1329, and March, 1330, to a legal defense fund for the appeal of the case of Jean le Fourbeur. It begins with a street-by-street survey of the Latin quarter. As an individual contributed to the fund, his name and the amount of the donation were noted. Later sections of the document simply record names and amounts donated, with no location. Courtenay surmises these might be individuals missed during the house-to-house collection.

Symonette, a jongleuse (singer/entertainer), accused Jean le Fourbeur (John the Rascal) of raping her in the summer of 1329 somewhere in the diocese of Meaux, to the east of Paris. A student at Paris, Jean had since returned to Paris, where he was arrested and imprisoned by the Bishop of Paris, Hugh of Besançon, who released him into the custody of his master. Although Jean denied the charges, he was re-imprisoned until he could pay a substantial fine of 400 pounds.

After Jean paid the fine and was released, he pointed out that the fine was actually illegal because the university and its members enjoyed papal immunity from monetary fees. At a general meeting the university decided to pursue this matter. The collection of money listed in the computus was undertaken to pay for the costs of the pursuant legal action. The issue went to the papal court, where at first Pope John XXII ruled in favor of the bishop. After appeal, the pope reversed his decision a year later and made the bishop restore the fine of 400 pounds. However, it was not returned to Jean. Instead, it was split between two colleges. Throughout this legal battle Jean's guilt was not in question; rather, the fine had been illegal, given the papal privilege enjoyed by the university. As Courtenay puts it, "he went free in the end not because he was judged innocent but because he knew how to take advantage of the laws of the privileged institution to which he belonged" (p. 56). Nothing else is known about the victim, Symonette, but Courtenay points out that given her low professional status, "it is amazing that charges were ever brought against Jean and equally amazing that so substantial a fine was exacted by the bishop" (p. 55).

Part Two examines information about the university population gleaned from the computus. The neighborhoods most thickly populated by students and masters, the total number of students and the average number of students living together in a household, the financial status of students...


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