Wednesday 10 February 2016

Town and gown

Today, 10th February, is traditionally St. Scholastica's Day. Who?-never-'eard-of-'er?  That's because she lived a long long time ago [she died on this day in 542AD], and indeed may not have lived at all but became a convenient post to hang some theo-political ideas upon.  She is supposed to have been the twin sister of Benedict of Nursia. If you are Catholic or have lived in a Catholic country, you'll know something about him as the Founder of the Benedictines, known as the Black Monks - not to be confused with the much later mendicant/preaching order the Dominicans after whom most of the Blackfriars locations are named. The existence of Scholastica, as an equal to her brother in her powers of theological discourse, encourages women to step out of the kitchen and bedroom and use their minds in the wider world.  If they believed in such things, she might be an appropriate Matron for Women-In-Science.

She was remembered for 500 years in the University of Oxford for a riot that erupted, on 10th February 1355, between the scholars of the college [Gown] and the less favoured people of working Oxford [Town].  It seemed to have started in a pub named the Swindlestock Tavern next to Carfax Tower where the Santander Bank [view?] is now located. Two privileged young buckos, Walter Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chesterfield by name, decided that the beer was not up to their drunken standards and threw what was left in their pots in the landlord's face. Fight! . . . melée . . .riot!  The Mayor demanded that the Chancellor to arrest and punish the original perps; Chancellor pulled his gown around himself and refused to allow any such interference in the ancient privileges of the University.  The two sides gathered up allies and the fight spread through the town.  Eventually, 63 scholars and clerks were dead and 30 townsmen.

King Edward III took the University's side entirely and imposed a sort of legal penance on the Mayor and Corporation: requiring them to walk to the University bareheaded bearing a purse containing 5/3d [five shillings and thruppence = 63 old pennies; one for each dead scholar] . . . in perpetuity! This charade carried on every St Scholastica's Day for the next 500 years.  In 1825, the then Mayor quietly refused to put himself and the citizenry through the indignity; the sky didn't fall and Oxford began to enter the modern era.

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