The history of student loans goes back to the Middle Ages

Superb piece by Jenny Adams, Associate Professor of English at University of Massachusetts Amherst.

He points how people could take student loans bu givings books as collateral:

Prompted by my own anxiety about educational debt, an anxiety that intensified several years ago with the birth of my own prospective college students, I have been researching the long history of educational loans in order to get a better context for the current student debt crisis. With student loan growth rates spiraling out of control, it behooves us to think through the ways other time periods and cultures have monetized, funded or not funded student labor. 

The history of student loans starts with the establishment of institutions of higher learning in medieval Europe from the late 11th century.

The University of Bologna, considered the first official university, was quickly followed by the University of Paris, Oxford University and Cambridge University. All of these places offered degrees to young men, training them for positions in the Catholic Church and, later, in government.

At first, scholars who needed money did not differ from other borrowers: everyone took loans from the same lenders. But in 1240, Robert Grosseteste, the bishop of Lincoln, used Oxford University money to launch the first documented student loan system. He named it St. Frideswide’s Chest.

St. Frideswide’s Chest was literally a chest. Bound by two different locks, with each key held by a different college magister, or faculty member, it resided at St. Frideswide’s Priory, a religious house in central Oxford, amid the city’s colleges, academic halls and student apartments.

To get a loan from St. Frideswide’s, a borrower had to be a scholar of modest means – and likely took an oath for proving so. He also had to have something of value to deposit in the chest as collateral. From the pledge notes I’ve seen in roughly 100 manuscripts and descriptions of manuscripts, it’s clear that scholars hocked everything from silver spoons to gold plates.

But the most commonly collateralized items were books. Not fancy, illuminated books. Just textbooks. In the late Middle Ages, this included works by Aristotle, the Bible, law codes and medical tracts. Here’s a link to a manuscript at Balliol College that was used as collateral. The lines on the final page record two loans taken out by a scholar, Thomas Chace, in 1423 and 1424. The Merton College manuscript (pictured) contains eight pledge notes from the same century.

Then advent of printing machine made books cheaper and books no more worked as collateral.

Overtime loans were given on future incomes and not collaterals:

Yet even before this, the loan system had started to decline. Although the arrival of the printing press in the late 15th century didn’t have an immediate effect on manuscript production, it would eventually make books cheap and thus no longer worth collateralizing. Even in the chests’ final century of use, the use of gold plate and jewelry was increasing and by 1500 had surpassed the use of books.

Around the same time, bankers began to make loans on the premise of future returns rather than in exchange for real property. The shift toward anticipated future earnings soon came with the England’s 1624 legalization of interest-bearing loans, which pushed even more people into this model of lending.

With their loan chests gone, students again became just like other borrowers. And just like other borrowers, they, too, could end up the notorious debtors’ prisons that began to swell with inmates as early as the 17th century.

Student loans arrived in the United States in the mid-19th century. Like the medieval loan chests at Oxford, these loans started through a singular university, in this case Harvard, which administered them.  This localized system changed in the mid-20th century with the creation by the Department of Education in 1965 of federally guaranteed student loans made by private lenders and available to students across the country.

Students were once again put into a special category. But in this case, this meant they could now collateralize their estimated future incomes (without even knowing what those incomes might be) in order to obtain a degree.

No one is suggesting to go back to middle ages. But we should think why educ has become so expensive? Moreover educ is jeopardizing the very future it is expected to brighten:

I would never advocate a return to the Middle Ages. Yet as we consider the current morass of educational debt, we need to think harder about historical precedent.

True, medieval universities excluded many groups – religious minorities, feudal villeins (a commoner legally tied to a feudal lord in the Middle Ages) and women were barred from entry. Yet poor young men with talent had a chance. Fees were not high. Patrons helped out. And if one needed money, one might be able to pledge a book – not a future.

Fascinating.

India was once the hub of education for not just scholars in India but outside as well. How were students financed back then? I am sure some form of student loan existed even back then. It could be pretty thriving one as well..

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