St. Scholastica’s Day: Town and Gown problems in the 14th century

The new semester is well underway, and my teaching load this semester (one section of History of the English Language, one section of Chaucer’s Works, and two sections of a Second-Year Seminar on the Oxford Inklings) means that I’m busy with reading–prep work for classes and piles of student work. As usual, I’ve also got several books around the house in various states of being read–Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death, Frederick Hackwood’s Old English Sports, Timothy Jones’ Outlawry in Medieval Literature, and Armin Brott’s The Expectant Father (this will, of course, require a separate entry soon).

I’ve also got a book that caught my eye in a used bookstore a while back–an 1876 edition of Reverend T. F. Thiselton Dyer’s British Popular Customs Present and Past. It’s an quirky bit of armchair sleuthing in which the Reverend Dyer collects accounts of the various festivals, customs, and local oddments from around the British Isles and from texts drawn from a millennium’s worth of writers and historians.

As a bit of personal entertainment, I’ve started reading the appropriate day’s events and celebrations whenever the calendar dictates it, and today’s entry on St. Scholastica’s Day caught my eye as a useful cautionary tale about the long-standing tension between town and gown. The story is drawn from William Huddesford’s 1772 The Lives of Those Eminent Antiquaries John Leland, Thomas Hearne, and Anthony Wood:

“The Burghers or Citizens of Oxford appeared in their full number on St. Scholastica’s Day at St. Mary’s. Alderman Wright, their oracle, told them that if they did not appear there might be some hole picked in their charter […] he told them moreover that, though it was a popish matter, yet policy ought to take place at this juncture in time. The origin of this custom was a furious contest between the citizens of Oxford and the students. Some of the latter being at a tavern, on the 10th of February, 1354, broke the landlord’s head with a vessel in which he had served them some bad wine. The man immediately collected together a number of his neighbors and fellow-citizens, who, having for a long time waited for such an opportunity, fell upon the students, and in spite of the mandates of the Chancellor, and even the King himself (who was then at Woodstock), continued their outrages for several days, not only killing or wounding the scholars, but, in contempt of the sacerdotal order, destroying all the religious crosses of the town. For this offense the King deprived the city of many valuable privileges, and bestowed them on the University, and the Bishop of Lincoln forbade the administration of the sacraments to the citizens of the town.”

The story then goes on to explain how, after three years of petitioning, the town of Oxford was able to win a commutation of the sentence, but only so long as, on St. Scholastica’s Day each year, the citizens came to St. Mary’s and swore “observance of the customary rights of the University, under penalty of 100 marks in case of omission of this ceremony […] The traditional story that the mayor was obliged to attend with a halter around his neck […] has no real foundation.”

Can anyone else think of any good stories (real or fictional) of medieval students and townsfolk at odds? I’ll spot you The Reeve’s Tale as a freebie…

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Filed under 14th Century, History, University

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