While many ancient cultures had institutions of higher learning the earliest such establishment in Europe is generally taken to be that of Constantinople, which dated from the fifth century. Salerno in Italy was the second, but it was the flowering of European learning in the 12th century that saw the first universities or 'stadium generale' to grant degrees, at Bologna and Paris, which were both the first and the most famous of the many that followed. University study was only available to the wealthy, and life for the students became increasingly governed by a growing list of rules and procedures which the university was able to enforce with fines, beatings and imprisonment amongst other penalties. Many of these were concerned with the morals of the students and how they behaved, and that included their appearance.
Whether religious or secular a university expected both students and masters to dress in sombre clerical dress, but in the early years this was left to the discretion of each individual as no uniform was enforced. By the middle of the 13th century however there was a growing movement to have students (and masters) dressed in a particular manner, and some even created their own livery for the purpose. Suitable garb was generally seen as a scapular, which was a kind of tabard that was associated with clerics and was based on a working garment (like a large apron). Later some went further and adopted other clerical-like garments such as making masters wear the cope and biretta, which became symbols of graduation just as the mortar board is today.
Turning now to the figures in this set, the first three on the top row are adult men all wearing the scapular (without a hood) and in the case of the first two round caps. By being bearded, holding a stick and carrying a book the first is clearly meant to be a master, and indeed he looks very dignified and learned. The other two look younger, and could pass for either master or student as again they are appropriately dressed. The first two figures in the second row are clearly adolescent and therefore students. Both also wear the scapular, this time with a hood, but are bare-headed. As we have said dress varied but these are a very reasonable representation of students, particularly as both are holding books (?) to make them look more scholarly.
Now we come to the more problematic parts of this set. No woman ever tutored or studied at a medieval university, and many colleges had rules severely restricting contact with women and often did not permit them within their gates for any reason. One even stipulated that while a woman could be contracted to do laundry she had to be old and unattractive! It is very hard therefore to see what purpose the woman in this set serves. She wears a hood with a liripipe over a surprisingly close-fitting sleeveless gown that reaches below the ankles (as modesty demanded) which itself covers another which has tight sleeves. If as seems likely this is meant to depict later medieval dress (when fashions were for more fitted clothing) then it should still have had evidence of pleats or folds in the skirt but these are almost entirely plain, which is a pity.
If the woman is impossible to place in a medieval university then so too are the young children. Then as now universities were no place for young children, not least because they had to have a good grasp of Latin just to understand the lectures. In this set we find a young girl wearing a cap and similar garments to the woman, which is appropriate as generally children were simply dressed as miniature adults. The small boy wears a hood with liripipe and a rather large surcoat or habit with wide sleeves giving him the appearance of a tiny monk. Valdemar point out that children might receive an education at a monastery, although for girls to receive this would be extremely exceptional. Therefore it seems that the title of this set should be taken to mean more loosely medieval education rather than simply university.
If we ignore the 'university' tag for a moment then these figures are a perfectly reasonable selection of better off medieval citizens (which is to say those that did not need to work the land). Apart from our comments on the female gowns all the rest of the costume looks fine, as do the poses. Clearly no one is doing very much here, which makes a change for these pages, but they merely have the dignity that the educational theme might suggest. The sculpting is first class, with faces that are full of character and clothes that (apart from the ladies) have all the realistic folds and shape that you could want. There is even some undercutting which is all to the good, and we defy anyone to find any flash or even a trace of a mould line.
If you are prepared to think of this set beyond the university setting then we have a very fine collection of medieval figures here that are a credit to the art of making plastic figures. Accuracy points were dropped because women were not part of university, and because of our reservations on the cut of the gowns (which could be resolved with a paint job). We were also disappointed that the figures are much too tall for medieval civilians. However these are still excellent figures, and it is pleasant indeed to report on that most rare of beasts - a set of historic civilians.