Among the Spires | Travel | Smithsonian
Oxford is a "baffling jumble of structures . . . with no obvious center to them," says the author. (Rob Matheson/Corbis)

Among the Spires

Between medieval and modern, Oxford seeks equilibrium

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The premier bell of Oxford is Great Tom. Since 1684 it has hung in the tower of Christ Church, the most monumental constituent college within the University of Oxford, and every evening at five minutes past nine precisely it strikes 101 times, providing the city with a figurative tocsin.

Why 101? Because in 1546, when the college was founded, there were 100 members of the Christ Church foundation. Yes, but why 101? Oh, because in 1663 an additional student was co-opted. Why is it rung? Because in 1684, when the bell went up, the gates of the college were closed at 9 p.m. Well then, why five past nine? Because in those days, Oxford being located 1 degree 15 minutes of longitude west of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, 9:05 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time was 9:00 p.m. in Oxford.

And why does it still ring like that, when Christ Church today has some 650 scholars and students, and local times have not applied in England since the 19th century? Ah, well...read on.

Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. By general consent it is one of the most distinguished, and it is not much like any other. As it would say of itself, it is sui generis—one of a kind. I have known it all my life, as a schoolchild, undergraduate, graduate and finally as an honorary fellow of my college, and I have reached the conclusion that its character depends upon an equilibrium so improbable that it amounts to an ethos all its own.

For one thing, Oxford sits in the middle of a fairly ordinary mercantile and industrial city, very unlike the ideal civic setting of Cambridge, England; Princeton, New Jersey; or Salamanca, Spain. For another, its buildings are a baffling jumble of structures ancient and modern, with no obvious center to them, no dominating campus or architectural pattern. And most crucially, to my mind, Universitas Oxoniensis is unique in its attitudes: eager modernity beside medieval loyalties, skepticism tempered by tradition, and the whole venerable entity spiced with anomalous quirk and absurdity.

Recently the Congregation, the university's governing body, contemplated a change in its ancient statutes that would have, for the first time, allowed outsiders to form a majority in Oxford's policymaking body. Perhaps it was hoped that a few more rich tycoons in the management might help with the raising of money for the university—which, by comparison with its American counterparts, is pitifully underfunded. I suspect it came as a relief to most Oxonians when the proposal was defeated, and the old place remained, as far as is possible in a modern unified state, master of its own affairs. But might it not mean, some asked, that old fogies of Congregation would be united in defending a general status quo? But no, the truth is that, except in matters like the eccentric ringing of bells, the university is so tangled an institution, riven by so many different purposes and even ideologies, that its corporate instincts are likely to be at least as radical as they are stick-in-the-mud.

For the members of Congregation include the heads of the university's constituent colleges, and there are 39 of them—at the moment (new ones often crop up). This makes for permanent creative discord. Each college is autonomous, with its own statutes, its own agendas and its own proud master, warden, president, provost, rector or dean. The prime loyalty of most Oxford alumni is not to the university but to one's college—"What college?" is the first thing any Oxford graduate says to another when they meet in boardroom or on battlefield in later life. Not so long ago it was a socially loaded inquiry, because some colleges used to be more fashionable than others, like fraternities or sororities in the United States: today inherited class has lost most of its insidious allure, even in England, even at the University of Oxford, where Stan Laurel achieved such instant and fulsome respect when (in A Chump at Oxford, 1940) a window fell on his head and temporarily transformed him into a peer of the realm.

The all-pervasive collegiate structure of the university powerfully complicates its affairs. If the colleges are no longer graded by social distinction, they still represent a bewildering range of aesthetic, financial or intellectual reputations. Some are very rich, owning country estates, lavishly endowed by patrons of long ago. Others, notably the former women-only colleges, bravely scratch a living, compulsorily helped along by their richer colleagues (perhaps reluctantly, too, for was it not an Oxford savant who told the female sex, in 1884: "Inferior to us God made you: and our inferiors to the end of time you will remain"?).

Built over the course of nine centuries, huggermugger amid the medieval lanes of the inner city, or spilling out toward the open country, the colleges are also an idiosyncratic display of architectural history. They are all jumble, all enclaves of privacy and style, the older ones, indeed, actually fortified against potential louts or religious zealots. To wander around them, sometimes chivied away by officious college porters, sometimes spontaneously befriended by fellows of the Royal Society, under forbidding gatehouses, up and down venerable staircases, through a mesh of quadrangles, amid the miasmas of a dozen dining halls—to wander through those 39 colleges is to feel oneself stumbling through a separate world of idiosyncrasy.

But rationality keeps breaking in. Without it, of course, the equilibrium would collapse, and the University of Oxford would limp along as a mere nostalgic relic. In fact, the place is in a constant state of flux.

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