The Class of 1250

For Oxford's earliest students, graduation could be a bloody affair.

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If undergrads seem an irresponsible bunch these days, excelling in the
extra-curricular subjects of dorm-hopping, beer-swilling, and the
squandering of parental cash, they pale in comparison to their medieval
ancestors at Oxford. The accounts from England’s first and most
hallowed University read like Animal House in Latin.

The university had sprung up during the medieval intellectual explosion of the early 10th century in the model of Europe’s first great academies, Paris and Bologna. We don’t know exactly when the first classes were given, but by the early 11th century, the university was an indelible feature of Oxford, then a busy riverside market town. It had none of the grand ivy-covered buildings we associated with the university today; the lectures were not held in purpose-built theaters but in hired halls or the professors’ own homes, filled with stuffed birds, shells, fossils, and astrolabes. And the pioneer students were a diverse bunch. Although many were from rich and noble families, the medieval roster included the progeny of ambitious merchants and even battlers like the sons of Clement Paston, a farmer who afforded the high tuition fees by plowing his fields “both wyntr and somer.” While most were destined for careers in the Church as scribes or administrators — they were generally called “clerks” (clerics) and wore their hair trimmed in the monk-like tonsure, with the top of the head shaved — this did not mean they had any commitment to celibacy or the edicts of the Bible. They weren’t even given religious instruction.

In fact, the students’ day-to-day lives were marked by an utter lack of discipline. The university had no residential colleges, so students lived in rented houses around the town, often four or five to a room, and could easily elude supervision. Arriving in Oxford very young — usually at the age of 15 or 16, although many kept going until their early 30s — they quickly grew into privileged roughnecks. These “learned imps,” as the poet Sir Philip Sidney politely called them later (we might call them juvenile delinquents), devoted their time to whoring and brawling, frequenting the taverns and brothels outside the town walls after curfew, terrorizing the local townsfolk by throwing stones and pouring water on their heads, vandalizing property, singing obscene songs, and in return being terrorized and beaten by the townsfolk. It didn’t help that the Oxford masters, chancellors, and professors, who had gone through the same college system, were worse reprobates than their pupils.

The Oxford students would eventually be domesticated, but those early days in the 11th century were the heyday of the half-savage scholar. They prowled the town in gangs based on their “Nation” — the Northern English, Southern English, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish had loyalties as intense, and rivalries as bitter, as British soccer clubs today. Life was punctuated by random outbursts of violence against townsfolk and other Nations, and no student ever ventured into the streets without his sword, pole-axe, or mace. But punishments were lenient, even when there were fatalities involved; usually, the worst that could happen to a miscreant was to be expelled and forced to study in Cambridge. Imagine a New York public high school where every kid is provided a weapon and told to study Joyce, and you begin to get the idea of the feral ambiance.

The same wanton excess characterized the students’ many celebrations. Every stage of the scholar’s progress was celebrated by feasts and carousing. There were parties at registration, parties for the hazing of freshmen (newcomers were forced to kiss seniors’ shoes and sometimes be led through town on asses), and boozy teaching parties called “Aristotle Banquets” that mimicked the Symposia of the Greeks. There were parties for the dozens of religious festivals on the calendar, which began at Mass and ended in the taverns, and were often marked by fancy dress. There were parties after the many violent feuds around town, when the two sides made up with a solemn kiss at the so-called “love days.” There were parties to mark the end of every academic year and parties before oral examinations, in order to bribe the attending professors with food and presents of fine gloves, precious rings, or sweetmeats, not to mention cold cash.

But the happiest event of all was one’s “inception,” when after seven years of study and mischief, a student became a Master of Arts. These, if a wealthy student was graduating, were truly spectacular medieval pageants, up there with royal weddings and homecomings from war. The process was somewhat more complicated than our modern university graduations. Some months earlier, the successful students had, on bended knee, received their licenses, or degrees, by the chancellor, proving they had slavishly learned the ancient texts and memorized their principles by rote. But the graduation process was not complete until the public exam and inception, a procedure that ended in a wonderful banquet for the student, as well as his professors and closest allies. The young men’s families regarded the event as part and parcel of their tuition fee, a splendid opportunity to impress their peers. If the Middle Ages has been dubbed by culinary historian Nichola Fletcher “the golden age of feasts” for its elaborate presentations and inventive, even bizarre, dishes, the university graduation feast was where the art was at its peak.

Scoring an Invitation: On the days leading up to the event, the graduating students would have been riding exuberantly around town with their servants, shouting out the announcement to their friends, knocking over peasants’ carts and generally causing mayhem. Many of their fellow students were chronically short of funds — living in icy garrets without candlelight, singing hymns at rich men’s doors for alms, and certainly unable to afford such expensive academic luxuries as books — so they leapt at the chance for a sumptuous free meal. The guest list would easily reach 100 people, and you could count on being included if you were from the same Nation. The inception banquet was also one of the few university events where women were invited, which further aroused the enthusiasm of the lusty young clerics-to-be.

Party Preparation:  Inceptions were held at the beginning of the school year, so that new Masters could start teaching in Michaelmas Term in October. The scholar would hire out a special hall for the event, with a connecting kitchen and a fireplace to warm the autumn evening. (A welcome asset at a time when most windows were without glass). Preparations for the banquet would have begun weeks beforehand; Oxford was a market town, so livestock and vegetable produce were, thankfully, readily available.   

What to Wear:  There were no special gowns for undergrads, but everyone loved color and loud, contrasting patterns were particularly popular. Student guests wore belted tunics in garish blues, reds, and yellows, sometimes with hooded capes that were lined with rabbit fur. In fact, unless their heads were covered, the fresh-faced clerks could only be distinguished from the Oxford townsfolk — who were generally young, given that the average life expectancy in the Middle Ages was only about 35 — by their distinctive monastic haircuts. Professors wore the official academic dress of the Masters, a somber black robe called a cappa, with a red hood lined with ermine. Women wore close-fitting, elaborately embroidered silk gowns, also as blindingly colorful as possible; their faces would be thick with lead-based makeup, which slowly poisoned the wearer. The ideal female figure was rather different from today: the medievals favored ample “love handles,” showing a woman’s well-fed prosperity, and small, “apple-like” breasts.

Party Progress:  First, the formal ceremony had to be dispensed with: Unlike modern graduations, the scholar had to give a lecture of his own, symbolizing his elevation to teacher’s status; receive his Master’s biretta (a square black cap with a tuft on the top, which is today replaced by a tassel); and then join his former professors. We know that in the University of Bologna, passionate Italian students would erupt into applause and carry their friend in triumph through the town, preceded by pipers and trumpeters, and there is no reason to think that the high-spirited Oxford students would do any different. But the real party began when they converged on the banquet hall.

Guests found the room decorated with multi-colored banners, gilded columns, gold-trimmed canopies, and sumptuous cushions — a splendid, if slightly over-the-top, effect that is far more inviting than the cold stone interiors we see in Gothic chambers today. The pitch of the revelry increased as the cup-bearers dashed back and forth with the wine. Music and dancing were officially discouraged at Oxford — those young clerks were supposedly heading for holy orders, after all — but the prohibition was largely ignored. Diners were entertained by minstrels with their lutes, while couples at the banquet would stand spontaneously and perform intricate dance routines. Actors, fools, dwarves, and storytellers all tried to make themselves heard above the din; even household dogs jumped onto the tables and joined the revelry. Eventually, the whole table would burst into raucous verse. The most beloved student drinking songs were imported from French universities by roving scholars, including such perennial classics as “To die in the pub is my life’s ambition,” and ditties that celebrated student freedom:

We in our wandering,
Blithesome and squandering,

Tara, tantara, teino!
Jesting eternally,
Quaffing infernally:
Tara, tantara, teino!

The Menu:  The banquet table was laden with food before the guests arrived to accentuate the visual effect. The eye feasted on a sea of ornamental meat platters, succulent pies, bejeweled chalices brimming with sugared fruits and bonbons, as well as decorative “subtleties” — goblets made of sugar that could later be eaten. Medieval cooks loved to make the food itself colorful and patterned, adding bright dyes made from herbs, flowers, saffron, and gold leaf, and using pomegranate seeds scattered like gems.

Although England did not have the range of fruits and spices available in the Mediterranean, the feast was a carnivore’s paradise. There was boar and deer to be had, succulent bear steaks and pyramids of seasoned pigeons, plovers and quails, mutton and swan, rabbit and venison, goose and pork. As the party progressed, whole roast beasts were brought in from the kitchen — the wealthier the host, the more exotic the animals. Meat-carving was considered a nobleman’s skill, so the guest of honor or his father would get busily to work. Supplementing the red meat would be a wonderful array of seafood: Oysters, herrings, stockfish, plaice, lampreys, pickerels, and eels. There were English favorites like blancmange — a mix of rice and fine chicken meat blended into a thick paste. There were even a few token vegetables dishes like asparagus. (Of course, before the discovery of the Americas, there were no tomatoes, corn, or potatoes). The meal ended with delicious desserts — thin sweet wafers, strawberries, luscious jams, and candied fruit.

Improbably enough, a good medieval host also had to ensure that the meal should be “healthy” by the standards of the day: He was obliged to give enough variety that a guest could choose meals that suited his particular humor – a food could be hot or cold, dry or wet, which matched an individual’s body, dominated as it was by black bile, phlegm, blood, or yellow bile. At Oxford, where the great medical minds of the day had studied the Greek dietary texts, professors happily gave advice on nutrition.

Drinking Notes: Students in the Middle Ages had never heard of tea, coffee, or cigarettes, let alone iced frappuccinos, but alcohol was an integral feature of Oxford life, guzzled continually by students and teachers alike. Statutes even provided that students supply their professors with a decent amount of wine during examinations. At a banquet, adventurous guests might be treated to Hypocras, a supposedly aphrodisiac (and insanely expensive) cocktail of Burgundy, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, and cardamom.

Table Etiquette: There were no individual plates at a medieval feast: Each guest’s meat portion was laid on a thick slice of bread called a trench, which soaked up the juices and would be devoured in turn. Those unaccustomed to genteel feasting could consult one of the many self-help books on medieval table manners with titles like The Book of Urbanity. To modern ears, the advice is fairly straightforward. Wash your hands on the morning of the banquet — and your face, if you have time. At the table, use only your thumb and two first fingers to eat, with the pinky clean to dip into the salt (forks did not arrive in Britain from Italy until 1608). Don’t pick your teeth with your knife. Wipe dirty hands on the table cloth, not your clothes. Don’t start arguments with fellow guests. Don’t stare hungrily at other people’s food. Don’t criticize the cooking. And remember to throw your scraps and bones beneath the table.

Conversation Tips:  Every Oxford student was obliged to speak Latin even in a casual social setting like this. Since their vocabulary and grammar were (as one professor complained) “villainous,” conversation manuals were published to provide phrases that might be useful in daily life. One survivor of the genre is the anonymous Scholar’s Manual. Although appearing first in Heidelberg in 1481, its humorous scenes give insights into how Oxford students might have bantered. It includes everything from the agonies of puppy love (“What plague is more virulent than a woman?”) to the best way of weedling money out of reluctant fathers. One chapter heading involves the pleasures of hazing: “Two young men… harassing a beanus (freshman); pretending that they do not know he is a beanus, but that he is an offensive smell.” And the section on how to prepare for exams includes some timeless phrases: “I’m worried and scared out of my wits. I haven’t completed my work properly, and many masters dislike me.”

The After-Party:  Following dessert, many of the young men lurched off in search of less respectable female company. Records show that scholars regularly visited prostitutes beneath the town walls, kept local mistresses, or tried vigorously to seduce their married landladies. The more intrepid would travel to the nunnery at Godstow, where scholars boasted they could find “all kinds of good cheer with the nuns, to the hearts desire.” But most guests simply repaired to the town taverns. Here, the tone of the evening quickly degenerated, with students inevitably getting into brawls with one another and the locals, who resented them bitterly. Medieval life was filled with casual violence: Typical is the 1231 dispute between students and a tavern cook that led to scalding water being poured on an Irish scholar’s head and the cook being shot dead with an arrow. Other “Town and Gown” clashes were even more dramatic. After one St. Scholastica’s Day feast in 1398, a trio of inebriated students in Swyndlestock Tavern complained about the “indifferent wine” and threw their mugs at the tavern-keeper’s head in disgust. Three days of bloody riots followed, with the townsmen sacking the student’s homes while chanting “Slay, Slay, Havoc, Havoc, Smite Fast, Give Good Knocks,” resulting in numerous dead and mauled on both sides. But just as common were the brawls between the student Nations, which could escalate into pitched battles; in 1258, when the Northern and Welsh students took on the Southern, pennants were flown to identify each side and “divers (many) on both sides were slain and pitifully wounded.”

But on a quiet night, partygoers sat around savoring beer, gossiping about professors, singing songs, and even sometimes debating Aristotle until the autumn sun broke through the mist. In short, they would “sitt bousynge and drynkynge so late in the nyght that in the mornynge they be so slogguysh they cannot holde up their hedys.” • 16 October 2008

SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Catto, J.I. (ed.), The History of the University of Oxford, vol. 1, The Early Oxford Schools, (Oxford, 1984); Daly, L.J., The Medieval University, 1200-1400, (New York, 1961); Fletcher, Nichola, Charlemagne’s Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting, (London, 2004); Haskins, C.H., The Rise of Universities, (Ithica, 1957); Morris, Jan (ed.), The Oxford Book of Oxford, (Oxford, 1978); Seybolt, Robert Francis, The Manuale Scholarium: An Original Account of Life in the Mediaeval University, (London, 1921).

Tony Perrottet’s book, Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.

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