This is an edited version of the presentation I gave at the Montreal Student Movement Convention on June 21, 2014, which was a comparison between medieval youth abbeys and contemporary student organizations. It is divided in three parts for my blog. This is part three, which discusses how youth groups could reinforce the established order. Part two described how it could subvert it, while part one described youth in general terms. The video of my original talk is available on Youtube.
Youth Abbey and Government Authorities
The second part of this series focused on the ways in which youth associations — medieval and modern —, or the festivity associated with them, could have challenged the established order. This would be a partial view. No one wanted to give shape to popular dissent by creating or supporting such institutions. If youth abbeys only existed to allow the expression of dissent, local authorities would not have encouraged their creation — which they often did, even in the case of Turin (Barbero, 1990) described in the last part. These events surrounding the Abbey of Fools were exceptional even in its own history : under other leaders, the Abbey was completely tame and obedient.
One of the fundamental functions of youth abbeys was control of juvenile violence, in which they acted as an instrument of city government (Rossiaud, 1976). Violence was an important aspect of medieval social relations. It was even more easily forgiven of young men because of the destructive force attributed to them. As such, violence was an important part of the sociability of young men, who had to defend their honour and masculinity in public. Some would assemble in informal groups and attempt various violent feats, from group rapes to ambushes against city guards. By assembling all young men in organizations, the city elders could interact directly with their official leader in order to limit juvenile violence. As one imagines, it is easier to strike a deal with the local Abbey of Youth than with various informal groups of young men. In exchange, youth abbeys received the right to collect various dues related to their role in supervising marriage and festivities : for example, in addition to the fines they collected through charivari, in some cities, youth abbeys could perceive certain sums on every marriage, or they could have the right to collect fines for infractions committed during holidays.
But collaboration could go even further, as we will see with Lausanne’s Abbaye des Nobles Enfants, or Abbey of Noble Children, studied by Ilaria Taddei (1991) for the first half of the 16th century. The Nobles Enfants were indeed noble for the most part, and they came from the same families as the city councilors — many Nobles Enfants would themselves later take part in city government. Here, the Abbey was, in some ways, the marching wing of the city council. In a first period, the city of Lausanne was trying to obtain its political autonomy from the bishop. As a consequence, we see the Nobles Enfants take part in various acts of violence against the local clergy. Despite the bishop’s protests, the Nobles Enfants are backed by the city council. In 1536, Lausanne raises an army, and the two leaders of this army are members of the Noble Enfants. This didn’t end well, as the city was then conquered by Protestant Bern, which leads to a second period : now, the city council wants to moderate the application of Protestant ethics forced upon them by their new overlord. The Abbey of Noble Children are now revealed as fervent catholics, fighting the austerity forced on them by coerced Reformation. In 1541, they attack a preacher who had denounced the city’s morals. Later, when Lausanne’s consistory tried to prosecute two prostitutes, the Abbey called on the population, just as the Stolti did in Turin, and freed them both. Despite orders from Bern, the city council did nothing to punish its young men. Bern had to intervene itself and basically wiped out the Abbey in 1544, which was an important step for implementing the Protestant faith in the city. Quickly after the Abbey’s dissolution, the city council was as zealously Protestant as it was Catholic just before — and the punished Nobles Enfants were part of it. In Lausanne, the Abbey again had a protest role, but that was subordinated to the will of the elite and the city government.
The Venetian compagnie della calza, give us an even better example of the extreme collaboration between government and youth associations (Trottier-Gascon, 2014). Once again, youth associations were strongly identified with the elite, here a strongly defined political caste: all members of these youth organizations were noble young men. Collaboration between government and youth associations was strong. On the one hand, the Republic would allow young men to use state property for their activities, including chambers in the Palace, the doge’s ceremonial galley, and even various vessels from the naval Arsenal. On the other hand, youth companies played an auxiliary role in the government’s political projects. This was most obvious during the Italian Wars in the early 1500s, when they accepted mercenaries and foreign princes in their ranks to strengthen these foreigners’ relationships with the Venetian Republic. By following their elders’ orders, they would simultaneously further their city’s projects, guarantee access to more resources for their company and show their personal loyalty to the state.
Student Associations and Campus Politics
In a way, and perhaps paradoxically, the same dynamic can apply to student leaders on the local level. This is something I’ve experienced directly as a student representative on my department’s assembly for the last two years. To give some background, in the UdeM history department, we have separate associations for undergraduate and graduate students. Our undergrad students are for the most part planning to go on to graduate school in the department, and have a clear advantage to maintain good relationships both with faculty and the department in general. This is especially true of senior students, who have a lot of authority in the association — in the past years, the Secretary general was always a finishing student. In my two years sitting on the departmental assembly, there were few occasions when someone other than the Secretary General spoke for the undergraduate association. This is compounded with the fact that, as frequent interlocutors with faculty, the association and its representative tend to aspire to good relationships with the department heads. As such, student representation on the departmental level was done by individuals with a personal advantage to maintaining sunny relationships and in a process of acculturation into academic culture, which can create a conflict of interests. As far as I know, it never caused any problem in my association, but I may be biased and wouldn’t put myself above this.
At the level of student federations, the same can apply: as frequent interlocutors of College executives, student representatives have good reasons to seek good relationships with them. To give a somewhat more concrete example, at the University of Montreal, there has been much discontent at the local Federation’s application of the mandate it received to fight for rector Guy Breton’s resignation. Its official position as interlocutor made the Federation less radical than its base.
Obviously, I’m not enough of a pessimist to belive student leader systematically betray those who elected them, yet the institutionalized student movement may not always be the best vehicle for a radical student critique of what happens on campus and in academia.
Youth association as political training
In fact, practical collaboration is only part of the picture : youth organizations often function with reference to mature or general modes of political associations, and they are thought as a propedeutic to adult political life. Basically, the organizations are understood as if they are (or should be) a miniature version of the state itself and a preparation to mature political life. As such, it is seen as important that they be comparable in practice to state government.
This is clearest in Venice (Trottier-Gascon, 2014). Youth companies were thought as exactly what I said: miniature versions of the Republic. In effect, the companies themselves modeled their way of functioning of the Venetian State. Decisions were taken collectively, with voting balls, as in the Venetian government. Like the Venetian nobility, the group itself is increasingly exclusive and closed, through cooptation at entry and heavy penalties for exit. Power is shared at different levels between general assemblies, a single Prior and a series of elected officers, and the relationship between them resembles the balance of power in the state. For example the relationship Prior and officers resembles that of the Venetian doges and the various institutions limiting his powers: the Prior is valourised by the right to a distinctive, superior dress, but cannot act alone without approval from his officers. This reflects the way in which the Venetian government functioned in practice, but also it repeats the Venetian ideology of the mixed state. This myth argued that Venice had the perfect government because it incorporated perfectly all of Aristotle’s types of government: popular government, aristocracy and monarchy.
Functioning just like a smaller Republic was convenient in some ways. Although young nobles could participate in the Great Council, the central council of the Venetian system, at a relatively young, their rights on it were limited until 30 and they would only occupy very minor and undesirable positions until they were much older. Through youth companies, they learned in some basic ways how their own system worked and partook in the state’s ideology without actually participating in the central political processes, monopolized by their elders.
The contemporary student movement is quite different, and not only in terms of underlying ideology. Obviously, modern Western societies don’t have a clearly defined political caste as Venice, so there is no mandatory generational passing of relays between those who take part in youth organizations and political leaders. It is also true that students follow a number of paths after graduation, unlike Venetian patricians who often had to do politics in some way or other. However, social fluidity has its limits: students are mostly from the upper-middle class, just as politicians. And although students have various futures, there is clearly a link between student involvement and politics. At the very least, it is seen as a pertinent experience for prospective politicians. Many major student leaders « jump » into politics at some point, as was obvious in Quebec with 2012 student leaders Martine Desjardins and Léo Bureau-Blouin, or with former May 68 leader Daniel Cohn-Benditt, now sitting on the European Parliament.
Another difference is that student associations and state do not proceed from the same ideology and practice of power. Today, Western democratic states use an understanding of representative democracy where the participation of all citizens through general elections is valourised. In my experience at the University of Montreal, many associations work under a mode of direct democracy, where decisions are taken by the members present at general assemblies. The central difference between both understandings is, on the one hand, the choice of everyone, even if they are uninformed or indifferent, and, on the other hand, the choice of those who are informed through the assembly and care enough to come, even if they are a small number.
I don’t want this to devolve into an argument about which understanding is best, but what is interesting is the mismatch between the understanding of democracy effected by the state and that which is followed by some student associations. To the eyes of many outside the student movement, including journalists, this undermines the legitimacy and democratic character of decisions taken by student associations because they do not follow the understanding of democracy legitimized by state practices. In fact, the model of the sovereign general assembly is rather common in other non-profit organizations, and reaching even a low quorum can still be an issue for them. Yet I’ve seen no one go out of their way to say that they are undemocratic. To me, this points to the fact that, even if they don’t follow the rules of state ideology, students associations are understood with reference to them. The question people outside the movement ask is: do they or don’t they come up to the standards of “democracy”, in the normative understanding? This is, I think, specific to students associations, because, as youth organizations, they are given the imperative to prepare young people to adult politics. As a consequence, they are judged negatively if they fail to achieve these standards, even if they proceed, in fact, from a completely different model of democracy. It’s as if they really were “miniature states” or propedeutic governments for the benefit of young people.
Barbero, Alessandro (1990). “La violenza organizzata: L’abbazia degli Stolti a Torino fra Quattro e Cinquecento”, Bollettino Storico-Bibliografico 88, p. 387-453.
Rossiaud, Jacques (1976). “Fraternités de jeunesse et niveaux de culture dans les villes du Sud-Est à la fin du Moyen Âge”, Cahiers d’histoire 21, p. 67-106.
Taddei, Ilaria (1991). Fête, jeunesse et pouvoirs : L’abbaye des Nobles Enfants de Lausanne, Lausanne, Cahiers lausannois d’histoire médiévale.
Trottier-Gascon, Caroline M (2014). “Les compagnie della calza : fête, patriciat et jeunesse à Venise”, Le Verger 6 (awaiting publication).