I’ve got this idea for a sort of late medieval/early modern fantasy with a protagonist who’s the first in his family of peasant farmers and rural craftsmen to study hard enough and save up enough money to attend a university, ostensibly to fulfill his father’s dying wish that he could never achieve himself. There’s a lot more that happens after that, otherwise we wouldn’t have much of a story, but the primary question I need to get out of the way is “at what point in time could this have even been possible in a setting mostly analogous to real-life Europe?”

Most of us are aware that education was severely limited among the lower and middle classes throughout most of the Middle Ages, and that the folks in charge often conspired to make it so that serfs and peasants had very few opportunities to rise above the stations they were born into. But this obviously didn’t last forever, and I’d really like to get a good idea of when the change occurred. Was it during the Renaissance? Later? Much later? Was it the Victorian era (and I honestly hope it wasn’t because the Victorian era gets way too much exposure in fiction as it is)? I just need to get a good idea of when this shift started to occur in real life so I can adjust the technology levels and social climate of the setting to reflect that era.

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    $\begingroup$ This sounds like a question about real-world historical facts, which is off topic as per the Help center. Consider asking this instead on History. You can flag this question for moderator attention and request migration if you want it transferred to there. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jun 13 '18 at 5:32
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    $\begingroup$ Should definitely ask this over at the HistorySE like Michael recommended, while this can be answered here, the HistorySE is way better suited to answer this question and you will get way better answers over there. Think the following: On WBSE you ask questions to resolve problems you hit when doing your worldbuilding, on other SE sites you ask mostly research questions so you can find new problems to share here. $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Jun 13 '18 at 6:07
  • $\begingroup$ I feel like the best solution for your situation would be to choose the time period you want it to be in. You can make your main character stand out and catch the eye of a nearby noble or king who then decides to repay his debt through education of some sort. E.g. He takes a arrow for the king from a would be assassin, the king wants to repay and he asks to be educated. $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Jun 13 '18 at 6:34
  • $\begingroup$ With the foundation of that godless institution in Gower Street, 1826. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jun 13 '18 at 7:23
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    $\begingroup$ Hey, this is Worldbuilding! Your university can be like the one in The Name of the Wind. While tuition is steep, talented students can get a discount, and make enough money while studying to pay it off. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jun 13 '18 at 7:47

I think this could, narrowly as it is, divert from real world enough to make it the basis for worldbuilding.

lemme explain: In RL Europe, during middle ages, the institution who took care of the knowledge and preserve it was the Church. Schools and libraries depended from the monasteries, and instruction was a self-referential process not to be taught outside the holy grounds. Even Kings and emperors were rarely schooled enough to go beyond read and write.

No conspiration, here: The nobility was trained to fight, defend their territories, since they were kids. They didn't learn the ways of the pen, but of the sword. It was their responsibility to lead armies, not observe nature.

As for the rest of the population, the school was an option for the youngsters but only if you wanted to enter a church. Otherwise, your time, your life, was for the fields, the animals, the family, nothing else. Yes, Church kept doing Mass in Latin so that they kept control over the superstitious, unschooled masses, but that would later start to change when Gutenberg printed the first bible in common language.

But back to the topic! In a fantasy world similar to our Dark-Age Europe, there could be a rival order to the Church, a laical institution, similar to a private foundation, maintained by a King who doesn't really like the interference of the Church in people's right to learn more and live better.

At first, this institution would have to struggle against a system that lives off better treating the peasants as workforce and cannon fodder for its petty wars...But soon, as knowledge takes roots, evolves, the feuds where instructed people live learn to make better use of the lands, produce more advanced chemical substances, perfection entertainment that can sell better...

So our hero could belong to one of these new laical guilds, with the purpose of doing something great for the world (youngsters are so ambitious!^^)

  • $\begingroup$ You are painting a picture of medieval Europe that is a bit dark - in reality, early universities were independent from the Church. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jun 13 '18 at 7:43
  • $\begingroup$ True. Unfortunately it's not easy to pinpoint a date when they became independent, but these universities were still an estension of the monastic and christian schools, there used to be a strong influence from the Vatican. $\endgroup$ – Valerio Pastore Jun 13 '18 at 7:58

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