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Photograph copyright ©1999 Denis Waugh.

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In about 1224 in Oxford, a Franciscan monk, Salimbene, noticed that it was the Englishman's habit always to drain off a beaker of wine saying `ge bi a vu' (`I drink to you'), thus implying that it would be churlish for his friend not to drink as much as he. Very convivial, but if, like me, you are sitting here thoughtfully regarding Messrs Salters' boats just below the pub garden, and have any idea of acquitting yourselves with any style, think very carefully. I am.

By the end of of the eleventh century the Franciscan Theobald of Etampes, formerly Master at Caen, was giving instruction to between sixty and a hundred students here, subscribing himself in letters Magister Oxenfordiae. Oxford University was on its way. Then, in 1167, in the heat of the dispute between Henry II and Thomas à Becket, English scholars were recalled from Paris to arbitrate. They congregated at Oxford and its future as a seat of learning was assured. The nucleus of the university centred on St Mary's Church and Catte Street and around them sprouted up a supporting community of bookbinders, illuminators and parchment-makers.

A university was originally a guild - a union formed by masters and scholars to protect themselves from profiteering townspeople and thus was the line drawn between town and gown. In 1209, after an affray in which a townswoman was killed (accidentally, the students insisted, aggrieved by the fuss), citizens apprehended what students they could and hanged two, at which point the rest - perhaps 3,000 `gowns' - scattered to Reading, Paris and Cambridge, where Oxford's sister university was to grow. It is possible that Oxford and Cambridge became great universities because in neither place was there a bishop - hence there was freedom from ecclesiastical supervision and a certain independence of thought was possible.

Or sometimes it was. John Wyclif (1330 - 84) became the first Englishman to lecture on the Bible in about two hundred years. In his ire (some fifty years later in 1428), Richard Fleming, Bishop of Lincoln, had Wyclif's bones dug up and burned, the ashes being cast into the river. And just to make sure, the next year he founded Lincoln College for students preparing to equip themselves for the fight against unorthodoxy.

`It is a noble flourishing city, so possessed of all that can contribute to make the residence of the scholars easy and comfortable, that no spot of ground in England goes beyond it' wrote Defoe in A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, but there are those who would disagree. Sir Thomas More remembered his days at Oxford as days of cold and hunger, and later Dr Johnson was to remember the `sting of humiliation' that his poverty entailed.

Even earlier, there was the thirteenth-century St Richard of Wych, a poor vegetarian who, because he shared a gown with a friend, could only attend alternate lectures.

Walter Map thought that it was the `rustics... who vie with each other in bringing up their ignoble and degenerate offspring to the liberal arts,' the aristocracy being `too proud or too lazy to put their children to learning' and it was perhaps in response to his jibes that in 1474 Magdalen College was founded by William of Waynflete. Its aristocratic cloister between chapel and river was expressly designed to make the sons of fee-paying nobility feel comfortably at home.

But the sentiments of an early thirteenth-century letter home could be those of any student in any age.

This is to inform you that I am studying at Oxford with the greatest diligence, but the matter of money stands greatly in the way of my promotion as it is now two months since I spent the last of what you sent me. The city is expensive and makes many demands; I have to rent lodgings, buy necessaries, and provide for many other things which I cannot now specify. Wherefore I respectfully beg your paternity that by the promptings of divine pity you may assist me, so that I may be able to complete what I have well begun...

Text copyright ©1999 Priscilla Waugh.

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