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Ch. 2: The Early Students


Oxford, some one says, "is bitterly historical." It is difficult to escape the fanaticism of Antony Wood, and of "our antiquary," Bryan Twyne, when one deals with the obscure past of the University. Indeed, it is impossible to understand the strange blending of new and old at Oxford--the old names with the new meanings--if we avert our eyes from what is "bitterly historical." For example, there is in most, perhaps in all, colleges a custom called "collections." On the last days of term undergraduates are called into the Hall, where the Master and the Dean of the Chapel sit in solemn state. Examination papers are set, but no one heeds them very much. The real ordeal is the awful interview with the Master and the Dean. The former regards you with the eyes of a judge, while the Dean says, "Master, I am pleased to say that Mr. Brown's PAPERS are very fair, very fair. But in the matters of CHAPELS and of CATECHETICS, Mr. Brown sets--for a SCHOLAR--a very bad example to the other undergraduates. He has only once attended divine service on Sunday morning, and on that occasion, Master, his dress consisted exclusively of a long great-coat and a pair of boots." After this accusation the Master will turn to the culprit and observe, with emphasis ill represented by italics, "Mr. Brown, the COLLEGE cannot hear with pleasure of such behaviour on the part of a SCHOLAR. You are GATED, Mr. Brown, for the first fortnight of next term." Now why should this tribunal of the Master and the Dean, and this dread examination, be called collections? Because (Munimenta Academica, Oxon., i. 129) in 1331 a statute was passed to the effect that "every scholar shall pay at least twelve pence a-year for lectures in logic, and for physics eighteenpence a-year," and that "all Masters of Arts except persons of royal or noble family, shall be obliged to COLLECT their salary from the scholars." This collection would be made at the end of term; and the name survives, attached to the solemn day of doom we have described, though the college dues are now collected by the bursar at the beginning of each term.

By this trivial example the perversions of old customs at Oxford are illustrated. To appreciate the life of the place, then, we must glance for a moment at the growth of the University. As to its origin, we know absolutely nothing. That Master Puleyn began to lecture there in 1133 we have seen, and it is not likely that he would have chosen Oxford if Oxford had possessed no schools. About these schools, however, we have no information. They may have grown up out of the seminary which, perhaps, was connected with St. Frideswyde's, just as Paris University may have had some connection with "the School of the Palace." Certainly to Paris University the academic corporation of Oxford, the Universitas, owed many of her regulations; while, again, the founder of the college system, Walter de Merton (who visited Paris in company with Henry III.), may have compared ideas with Robert de Sorbonne, the founder of the college of that name. In the early Oxford, however, of the twelfth and most of the thirteenth centuries, colleges with their statutes were unknown. The University was the only corporation of the learned, and she struggled into existence after hard fights with the town, the Jews, the Friars, the Papal courts. The history of the University begins with the thirteenth century. She may be said to have come into being as soon as she possessed common funds and rents, as soon as fines were assigned, or benefactions contributed to the maintenance of scholars. Now the first recorded fine is the payment of fifty-two shillings by the townsmen of Oxford as part of the compensation for the hanging of certain clerks. In the year 1214 the Papal Legate, in a letter to his "beloved sons in Christ, the burgesses of Oxford," bade them excuse the "scholars studying in Oxford" half the rent of their halls, or hospitia, for the space of ten years. The burghers were also to do penance, and to feast the poorer students once a year; but the important point is, that they had to pay that large yearly fine "propter suspendium clericorum"--all for the hanging of the clerks. Twenty-six years after this decision of the Legate, Robert Grossteste, the great Bishop of Lincoln, organised the payment and distribution of the fine, and founded the first of the CHESTS, the chest of St. Frideswyde. These chests were a kind of Mont de Piete, and to found them was at first the favourite form of benefaction. Money was left in this or that chest, from which students and masters would borrow, on the security of pledges, which were generally books, cups, daggers, and so forth.

Now, in this affair of 1214 we have a strange passage of history, which happily illustrates the growth of the University. The beginning of the whole affair was the quarrel with the town, which, in 1209, had hanged two clerks, "in contempt of clerical liberty." The matter was taken up by the Legate--in those bad years of King John the Pope's viceroy in England--and out of the humiliation of the town the University gained money, privileges, and halls at low rental. These were precisely the things that the University wanted. About these matters there was a constant strife, in which the Kings, as a rule, took part with the University. The University possessed the legal knowledge, which the monarchs liked to have on their side, and was therefore favoured by them. Thus, in 1231 (Wood, Annals, i. 205), "the King sent out his Breve to the Mayor and Burghers commanding them not to overrate their houses"; and thus gradually the University got the command of the police, obtained privileges which enslaved the city, and became masters where they had once been despised, starveling scholars. The process was always the same. On the feast of St. Scholastica, for example, in 1354, Walter de Springheuse, Roger de Chesterfield, and other clerks, swaggered into the Swyndlestock tavern in Carfax, began to speak ill of John de Croydon's wine, and ended by pitching the tankard at the head of that vintner. In ten minutes the town bell at St. Martin's was rung, and the most terrible of all Town-and-Gown rows began. The Chancellor could do no less than bid St. Mary's bell reply to St. Martin's, and shooting commenced. The Gown held their own very well at first, and "defended themselves till Vespertide," when the citizens called in their neighbours, the rustics of Cowley, Headington, and Hincksey. The results have been precisely described in anticipation by Homer:

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Which is as much as to say, "The townsfolk call for help to their neighbours, the yokels, that were more numerous than they, and better men in battle . . . so when the sun turned to the time of the loosing of oxen the Town drave in the ranks of the Gown, and won the victory." They were strong, the townsmen, but not merciful. "The crowns of some chaplains, viz. all the skin so far as the tonsure went, these diabolical imps flayed off in scorn of their clergy," and "some poor innocents these confounded sons of Satan knocked down, beat, and most cruelly wounded." The result, in the long run, was that the University received from Edward III. "a most large charter, containing many liberties, some that they had before, and OTHERS THAT HE HAD TAKEN AWAY FROM THE TOWN." Thus Edward granted to the University "the custody of the assize of bread, wine, and ale," the supervising of measures and weights, the sole power of clearing the streets of the town and suburbs. Moreover, the Mayor and the chief Burghers were condemned yearly to a sort of public penance and humiliation on St. Scholastica's Day. Thus, by the middle of the fourteenth century, the strife of Town and Gown had ended in the complete victory of the latter.

Though the University owed its success to its clerkly character, and though the Legate backed it with all the power of Rome, yet the scholars were Englishmen and Liberals first, Catholics next. Thus they had all English sympathy with them when they quarrelled with the Legate in 1238, and shot his cook (who, indeed, had thrown hot broth at them); and thus, in later days, the undergraduates were with Simon de Montfort against King Henry, and aided the barons with a useful body of archers. The University, too, constantly withstood the Friars, who had settled in Oxford on pretence of wishing to convert the Jews, and had attempted to get education into their hands. "The Preaching Friars, who had lately obtained from the Pope divers privileges, particularly an exemption, as they pretended, from being subject to the jurisdiction of the University, began to behave themselves very insolent against the Chancellors and Masters." (Wood, Annals, i. 399.) The conduct of the Friars caused endless appeals to Rome, and in this matter, too, Oxford was stoutly national, and resisted the Pope, as it had, on occasions, defied the King. The King's Jews, too, the University kept in pretty good order, and when, in 1268, a certain Hebrew snatched the crucifix from the hand of the Chancellor and trod it under foot, his tribesmen were compelled to raise "a fair and stately cross of marble, very curiously wrought," on the scene of the sacrilege.

The growth in power and importance of academic corporations having now been sketched, let us try to see what the outer aspect of the town was like in these rude times, and what manner of life the undergraduates led. For this purpose we may be allowed to draw a rude, but not unfaithful, picture of a day in a student's life. No incident will be introduced for which there is not authority, in Wood, or in Mr. Anstey's invaluable documents, the Munimenta Academica, published in the collection of the Master of the Rolls. Some latitude as to dates must be allowed, it is true, and we are not of course to suppose that any one day of life was ever so gloriously crowded as that of our undergraduate.

The time is the end of the fourteenth century. The forest and the moor stretch to the east gate of the city. Magdalen bridge is not yet built, nor of course the tower of Magdalen, which M. Brunet- Debaines has sketched from Christ Church walks. Not till about 1473 was the tower built, and years would pass after that before choristers saluted with their fresh voices from its battlements the dawn of the first of May, or sermons were preached from the beautiful stone pulpit in the open air. When our undergraduate, Walter de Stoke, or, more briefly, Stoke, was at Oxford, the spires of the city were few. Where Magdalen stands now, the old Hospital of St. John then stood--a foundation of Henry III.--but the Jews were no longer allowed to bury their dead in the close, which is now the "Physic Garden." "In 1289," as Wood says, "the Jews were banished from England for various enormities and crimes committed by them." The Great and Little Jewries--those dim, populous streets behind the modern Post Office--had been sacked and gutted. No clerk would ever again risk his soul for a fair Jewess's sake, nor lose his life for his love at the hands of that eminent theologian, Fulke de Breaute. The beautiful tower of Merton was still almost fresh, and the spires of St. Mary's, of old All Saints, of St. Frideswyde, and the strong tower of New College on the city wall, were the most prominent features in a bird's-eye view of the town. But though part of Merton, certainly the chapel tower as we have seen, the odd muniment- room with the steep stone roof, and, perhaps, the Library, existed; though New was built; and though Balliol and University owned some halls, on, or near, the site of the present colleges, Oxford was still an university of poor scholars, who lived in town's-people's dwellings.

Thus, in the great quarrel with the Legate in 1238, John Currey, of Scotland, boarded with Will Maynard, while Hugh le Verner abode in the house of Osmund the Miller, with Raynold the Irishman and seven of his fellows. John Mortimer and Rob Norensis lodged with Augustine Gosse, and Adam de Wolton lodged in Cat Street, where you can still see the curious arched doorway of Catte's, or St. Catherine's Hall. By the time of my hero, Walter Stoke, the King had not yet decreed that all scholars of years of discretion should live in the house of some sufficient principal (1421); so let him lodge at Catte Hall, at the corner of the street that leads to New College out of the modern Broad Street, which was then the City Ditch. It is six o'clock on a summer morning, and the bells waken Stoke, who is sleeping on a flock bed, in his little camera. His room, though he is not one of the luxurious clerks whom the University scolds in various statutes, is pretty well furnished. His bed alone is worth not less than fifteenpence; he has a "cofer" valued at twopence (we have plenty of those old valuations), and in his cofer are his black coat, which no one would think dear at fourpence, his tunic, cheap at tenpence, "a roll of the seven Psalms," and twelve books only "at his beddes heed." Stoke has not

"Twenty bookes, clothed in blak and reed,
Of Aristotil and of his philosophie,"

like Chaucer's Undergraduate, who must have been a bibliophile. There are not many records of "as many as twenty bookes" in the old valuations. The great ornament of the room is a neat trophy of buckler, bow, arrows, and two daggers, all hanging conveniently on the wall. Stoke opens his eyes, yawns, looks round for his clothes, and sees, with no surprise, that his laundress has not sent home his clean linen. No; Christina, of the parish of St. Martin, who used to be Stoke's lotrix, has been detected at last. "Under pretence of washing for scholars, multa mala perpetrata fuerunt," she has committed all manner of crimes, and is now in the Spinning House, carcerata fuit. Stoke wastes a malediction on the laundress, and, dressing as well as he may, runs down to Parson's Pleasure, I hope, and has a swim, for I find no tub in his room, or, indeed, in the camera of any other scholar. It is now time to go, not to chapel-- for Catte's has no chapel--but to parish Church, and Stoke goes very devoutly to St. Peter's, where we shall find him again, later in the day, in another mood. About eight o'clock he "commonises" with a Paris man, Henricus de Bourges, who has an admirable mode of cooking omelettes, which makes his company much sought after at breakfast- time. The University, in old times, was full of French students, as Paris was thronged by Englishmen. Lectures begin at nine, and first there is lecture in the hall by the principal of Catte's. That scholar receives his pupils in a bare room, where it is very doubtful whether the students are allowed to sit down. From the curious old seal of the University of St. Andrews, however, it appears that the luxury of forms was permitted, in Scotland, to all but the servitors, who held the lecturer's candles. The principal of Catte's is in academic dress, and wears a black cape, boots, and a hood. The undergraduates have no distinguishing costume. After an hour or two of viva voce exercises in the grammar of Priscian, preparatory lecture is over, and a reading man will hurry off to the "schools," a set of low-roofed buildings between St. Mary's and Brasenose. There he will find the Divinity "school" or lecture-room in the place of honour, with Medicine on one hand and Law on the other; the lecture- rooms for grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy, for metaphysics, ethics, and "the tongues," stretching down School Street on either side. Here the Praelectors are holding forth, and all newly made Masters of Arts are bound to teach their subject regere scholas, whether they like it or not. Our friend, Master Stoke, however, is on pleasure bent, and means to pay his fine of two-pence for omitting lecture, and go off to the festival of his nation (he is of the Southern nation, and hates Scotch, Welsh, and Irish) in the parish Church. He stops in the Flower Market and at a barber's shop on his way to St. Peter's, and comes forth a wonderful pagan figure with a Bacchic mask covering his honest countenance, with horns protruding through a wig of tow, with vine-leaves twisted in and out of the horns, and roses stuck wherever there is room for roses. Henricus de Bourges, and half a dozen Picardy men, with some merry souls from the Southern side of the Thames, are jigging down the High, playing bag-pipes and guitars. To these Stoke joins himself, and they waltz joyously into the church, and in and out of the gateways of the different halls, singing, -

"Mihi est propositum in taberna mori,
Vinum sit appositum morientis ori,
Ut dicant, quum venerint, angelorum chori
Deus sit propitius huic potatori."

The students of the Northern nations mock, of course, at these revellers, thumbs are bitten, threats exchanged, and we shall see what comes of the quarrel. But the hall bells chime half-past noon; it is dinner-time in Oxford, and Stoke, as he throws off his mask (larva) and vine-leaves, mutters to himself the equivalent for "there WILL be a row about this." There will, indeed, for the penalty is not "crossing at the buttery," nor "gating," but--excommunication! (Munim. Academ., i. 18.) Dinner is not a very quiet affair, for the Catte's men have had to fight for their beer in the public streets with some Canterbury College fellows who were set on by their Warden, of all people, to commit this violence (ut vi et violentia raperent cerevisiam aliorum scholarum in vico): however, Catte's has had the best of it, and there is beer in plenty. It is possible, however, that fish is scarce, for certain "forestallers" (regratarii) have been buying up salmon and soles, and refusing to sell them at less than double the proper price. On the whole, however, there a rude abundance of meat and bread; indeed, Stoke may have fared better in Catte's than the modern undergraduate does in the hall of the college protected by St. Catherine. After dinner there would be lecture in Lent, but we are not in Lent. A young man's fancy lightly turns to the Beaumont, north of the modern Beaumont Street, where there are wide playing-fields, and space for archery, foot-ball, stool-ball, and other sports. Stoke rushes out of hall, and runs upstairs into the camera of Roger de Freshfield, a reading man, but a good fellow. He knocks and enters, and finds Freshfield over his favourite work, the Posterior Analytics, and a pottle of strawberries. "Come down to the Beaumont, old man," he says, "and play pyked staffe." Roger is disinclined to move, he MUST finish the Posterior Analytics. Stoke lounges about, in the eternal fashion of undergraduates after luncheon, and picking up the Philobiblon of Richard de Bury (then quite a new book), clinches his argument in favour of pyke and staffe with a quotation: "You will perhaps see a stiff-necked youth lounging sluggishly in his study . . . He is not ashamed to eat fruit and cheese over an open book, and to transfer his cup from side to side upon it." Thus addressed, Roger lays aside his Analytics, and the pair walk down by Balliol, to the Beaumont, where pyked staffe, or sword and buckler, is played. At the Beaumont they find two men who say that "sword and buckler can be played sofft and ffayre," that is, without hard hitting, and with one of these Stoke begins to fence. Alas! a dispute arose about a stroke, the by-standers interfered, and Stoke's opponent drew his hanger (extraxit cultellum vocatum hangere), and hit one John Felerd over the sconce. On this the Proctors come up, and the assailant is put in Bocardo, while Stoke goes off to a "pass-supper" given by an inceptor, who has just taken his degree. These suppers were not voluntary entertainments, but enforced by law. At supper the talk ranges over University gossip, they tell of the scholar who lately tried to raise the devil in Grope Lane, and was pleased by the gentlemanly manner of the foul fiend. They speak of the Queen's man, who has just been plucked for maintaining that Ego currit, or ego est currens, is as good Latin as ego curro. Then the party breaks up, and Stoke goes towards Merton, with some undergraduates of that college, Bridlington, Alderberk, and Lymby. At the corner of Grope Lane, out come many men of the Northern nations, armed with shields, and bows and arrows. Stoke and his friends run into Merton for weapons, and "standing in a window of that hall, shot divers arrows, and one that Bridlington shot hit Henry de l'Isle, and David Kirkby unmercifully perished, for after John de Benton had given him a dangerous wound in the head with his faulchion, came Will de la Hyde and wounded him in the knee with his sword."

These were rough times, and it is not improbable that Stoke had a brush with the Town before he got safely back to Catte's Hall. The old rudeness gave way gradually, as the colleges swallowed up the irregular halls, and as the scholars unattached, infando nomine Chamber-Dekyns, ceased to exist. Learning, however, dwindled, as colleges increased, under the clerical and reactionary rule of the House of Lancaster.

Andrew Lang