Archive | April 2016

Fons et origo

Well well

My winning blog topic this evening is a hole in the ground.

But not just any old hole in the ground. This hole is smack in the middle of my college and, as the more perceptive among you will already have spotted, a well.

We had no idea it was there. The quad in which it was found, Chapel Quad a.k.a. the Deer Park (our ironic competition with Magdalen College’s Deer Park, which contains real deer), is being re-landscaped, but the well doesn’t appear on any plans, and gets no mention in our records, so it was quite unexpected. There’s no sign of it either on Loggan’s engraving of the college from 1675 (the red line marks the spot), and the college records of works thereafter are pretty comprehensive. That said, there is some writing within the well, the letters H G(?) and 18 (the well is about 5m. deep, so that might be its height/depth in feet, but what do I know), so someone’s been down it at some point. (The lead pipe in the picture is a later addition, presumably dating to whenever it was that the well was capped, and designed to provide pumped water from it.)


So the well is older than the late seventeenth century, and we also have a terminus post quem: in the fill of the well’s construction trench archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology (source also of the photo at the head of this post) found a single sherd of pottery datable to the fifteenth/sixteenth century.

That places us at a very interesting time. Brasenose College was founded in 1508-12, on the cusp of the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII. But the well is close to, and likely closely associated with, a building now known as the Medieval Kitchen (just behind it on Loggan’s engraving), which stands at an odd angle to the other college buildings and is presumed to be a survival from before the foundation of the College. Assuming that the well and the Medieval Kitchen are coordinated, it seems likely that the well predates the College, too.

Before Brasenose College was founded, this part of Oxford was a jumble of smaller academic institutions, the halls which preceded the establishment of the larger, endowed colleges. Then, as now, the vicinity of St Mary’s church, the University Church, was the heart of the University: in 1408-9 as many as thirty-two halls lined (the aptly named) School St. This now survives as the west side of Radcliffe Sq, mainly taken up by one side of Brasenose College. It once extended to the northern wall of the city, until blocked by an extension to the Bodleian Library.

These academic halls were places where small numbers of students would live and receive lectures: they typically had the form of medieval town houses, a ground-to-roof hall with rooms attached, the hall for eating and lecturing, the rooms for study and sleep. On the site now occupied by Brasenose, as the map below (from Volume 1 of the Quatercentenary Monographs produced by the College in 1909) indicates, there were at least ten academic halls, Broadgates, Haberdashers’, Little St. Edmund, St. Mary’s Entry, Salesurry, Brasenose, Little University, Ivy, St Thomas’ and Shield. Brasenose Hall, in existence since the thirteenth century, had its entrance where the current College entrance is, and is its most significant precursor. The first Principal of “The King’s Hall and College of Brasenose” (to give us our full name), Matthew Smyth, had been Principal of Brasenose Hall, and of course the new foundation adopted its peculiar name.

Over the centuries Brasenose College expanded to fill the space occupied by these halls, but the bit of college we’re concerned with, the Deer Park, only really joined the College when laid out as a second quad in the seventeenth century, just a few years before Loggan’s image. On this map of the site of Brasenose in 1500, just before the college was founded, it is marked VII, and this was the location of the academic hall known as St Mary’s Entry (I here acknowledge my debt to my polymathic colleague Jonathan Jones).

image-2 copy

St Mary’s Entry, Introitus Sanctae Mariae in Vico Scholarum in contemporary records, seems to have been a comparatively recent establishment, dating to the second half of the fifteenth century. It and Salesurry Hall (VIII) were granted in perpetuity to one of the founders of Brasenose, Sir Richard Sutton, by Oriel College, its owner, on February 20, 1509/10 (at a rent of 13s. 4d). That “Medieval Kitchen”, meanwhile, is a mystery: “It has a fine open-timber roof, apparently of an earlier date than anything else we have, and has every appearance of being an older building, incorporated into the College,” in the words of Quatercentenary Monograph. My entirely uninformed guess is that the Medieval Kitchen and the hall of St Mary’s Entry are one and the same, and that it and its associated well belong to that time just before the foundation of the College by Royal Charter, at which point most, but evidently not quite all, of what preceded it was flattened and replaced.

MK inside

Medieval Kitchen” (St Mary’s Entry?) interior

I like wandering around this city and imagining the very different appearance it had in the past. It’s a paradoxical thing, since Oxford’s cityscape is already so very old. But Oxford is also a place where building has never stopped, and the centre of the University, Radcliffe Sq, is especially transformed from its appearance 500 years ago. Our “Medieval Kitchen” may well be a fragment of that earlier, more ramshackle University of Oxford. I’m also fascinated by the hidden history of its buildings: I speculated on the history of another part of Brasenose College here, and also imagined the suburb of Oxford where I live when it was still open fields, hosting an encounter between James I and dignitaries from the City and University in 1605.

But there’s nothing more evocative than a well for representing the distant, forgotten past, reaching deep down into the ground beneath us.

P.S. For another blog on the subject, and this one written by an archaeologist who knows what she’s talking about, Francesca Anthony, see here.

MK outside

“Medieval Kitchen” exterior (with the well beneath the metal fencing to the right)


Map of the College shortly post-foundation, suggesting that the “Medieval Kitchen” is an element retained from St Mary’s Entry.

Lucretius, face to face


Lucretius is the Marmite of Roman literature. For some of my colleagues the De Rerum Natura, “On the Nature of the Universe” (DRN), his attempt to express the complex philosophical creed of Epicurus in poetry, mixes incompatibles: even certain Bodley Medal laureates have been known to diss Lucretius in my presence. Others are more sympathetic, and for some of them it’s the very strangeness of this project that holds a lot of its appeal.

I count myself one of the latter group, predictably, and I’m especially intrigued by Lucretius’ skill in exploiting the resources of poetry to advance his key aim, converting the reader to Epicurus’ philosophy and the contented existence that he insists will follow. In the DRN poetry and philosophy are thoroughly interwoven, inseparable, which means that interpreting the poem requires as good a grip of his philosophical position as his poetic technique. David West’s great little book The Imagery and Poetry of Lucretius is still for me the best introduction to Lucretius’ intricate poetry, and I’d freely admit that I fall far short of competence on the philosophical side myself. When I was co-writing something on Epicureanism and Lucretius recently, I left as much of the seriously technical stuff as I could to my co-author, Barney Taylor, who’s got a surer footing in Epicureanism and Lucretius’ account of it than I’ll ever have.

All I’m going to do in this blog is develop a thought I had while Barney and I were revising our article over the weekend. The focus is Lucretius as philosopher-poet or poet-philosopher, a poet whose poetry is all about convincing us of his philosophical convictions.

The De Rerum Natura is addressed to “Memmius”, generally believed to be C. Memmius L. f., a senior politician in Rome in the 50’s BC. By “addressed to” I mean that Lucretius presents the detailed account of Epicureanism doctrine that he offers in the DRN as a private communication between himself and Memmius: the stated aim of the poem is the conversion of this one individual. That’s the initial set up, at any rate. In practice, across the whole of the poem, although that intimacy is maintained, Memmius is named only occasionally, and a well-established interpretation of Lucretius’ strategy here is that this allows the place in the conversation originally occupied by Memmius to become the reader’s. When Lucretius addresses “you”, in other words, it’s easy for readers to feel that it is with them, individually, that Lucretius is communicating. Certainly the ancients thought that reading the De Rerum Natura was like “discussing the nature of the Universe with Lucretius as if face to face” (cum Lucretio videbuntur velut coram de rerum naturam disputare, Vitruvius 9 praef. 17).

Well, that was once the established view. But in 1993 a very influential article by Phillip Mitsis upset it. Mitsis argued that Lucretius’ style of argument in the poem was too aggressive for it simply to be a case of Memmius standing in for the reader. Rather, he suggests, the reader is being encouraged to see the “you” addressed in the poem, Memmius, as a bit of an dunce, consistently failing to grasp Lucretius’ arguments; according to Mitsis, the reader does not slip into Memmius’ shoes, then, but instead, in the process of watching Memmius get it wrong over and over again, and wishing to avoid sharing Memmius’ slow-wittedness, imperceptibly absorbs the wisdom of Epicurus.

That would certainly be psychologically astute on Lucretius’ part, and everyone agrees that Lucretius has the psychology of teaching pretty much taped, but on a number of grounds I don’t find Mitsis’ theory very convincing. Barney Taylor is actually working on a comprehensive response to his article, which, as I say, is a very influential one, and I wouldn’t attempt to anticipate Barney’s arguments even if I could.

But I am going to suggest one potentially relevant consideration, which occurred to me last weekend when I came across a remark attributed to Epicurus himself (Epicurus fr. 208 Usener). It is from a letter written by Epicurus to a fellow Epicurean, and it’s preserved for us by the Roman philosopher Seneca (Epist. 7.11). It simply says, “I say this not to many people, but just to you: we are, each for the other, an audience large enough” (haec ego non multis, sed tibi: satis enim magnum alter alteri theatrum sumus). But what struck me about it was that the relationship that Epicurus here describes existing between himself and his correspondent, intimate communication between two individuals, is exactly what Lucretius also establishes between himself and Memmius in the DRN.

What Epicurus is describing is I think a kind of ideal for Epicureans, perhaps even the quintessence of an Epicurean life of pleasure and ἀταραξία, freedom from anxiety. The intimate colloquy with a friend answers to a cluster of things that Epicurus believed contributed to the good life. Epicurus’ school was located in the Garden (Κῆπος), a small property belonging to him just outside Athens, a place of retreat from public life which Epicurus shared with friends, and in which their friendship was expressed through communal living, eating, and conversation. Cicero caricatures Epicureans as “carrying on discussions in their own little gardens” (in hortulis suis … dicere, Leg. 1.39), while Epicurus himself, in a letter he wrote as he lay dying to a friend named Idomeneus, describes the intense pain he was in, but insists his suffering is offset by “the joy in my soul at the recollection of our past conversations” (τὸ κατὰ ψυχὴν χαῖρον ἐπὶ τῇ τῶν γεγονότων ἡμῖν διαλογισμῶν μνήμῃ, Diog. Laert. 10.22). As for friendship itself, there was no aspect of social life more highly valued by Epicurus or his followers. In Epicurus’ own words (Sententiae Vaticanae 78), “The man of noble character is chiefly concerned with wisdom and friendship. Of these the former is a mortal good, but the latter is immortal” (ὁ γενναῖος περὶ σοφίαν καὶ φιλίαν μάλιστα γίγνεται, ὧν τὸ μέν ἐστι θνητὸν ἀγαθόν, τὸ δὲ ἀθάνατον).

Epicurus and Lucretius are both replicating this ideal of the intimate conversation as approximately as they can in written form, by a letter (generally understood in Antiquity as conversation by other means), and by a poem that dramatises a similar discussion. And insofar as the De Rerum Natura styles itself a conversation with Memmius, it is a token of friendship, too. Lucretius says so explicitly early in Book 1, explaining his motivation for undertaking the writing of the poem, despite its difficulties (140-41), “your excellence and the pleasure of delightful friendship that I anticipate” (tua … uirtus … et sperata uoluptas/ suauis amicitiae). Friendship is here presented as an abundant source of pleasure, pleasure being the primary good in Epicurean philosophy. I might add, though, that this is a moment when Memmius goes unnamed. Is it in fact friendship with me, the reader, that Lucretius has in mind here? The possibility of an intimacy extending across two millennia, achieved by a poetic text, is one of those things that makes Roman literature kind of thrilling.

But enough of that. The basic dramatic setup of the De Rerum Natura seems designed to express this especially valued Epicurean social practice of friendship. It’s important in this connection that friendship, amicitia, was something highly valued by Romans in general. Lucretius’ task in the DRN is to convert ordinary Romans to a philosophy that promoted a radically different understanding of the world, not an easy task. He tries very hard not to alienate his reader, and to insist on the common ground between Rome and Epicureanism. Amicitia is one such: to Romans there would be little less threatening than a friendly conversation.

Nevertheless, what may seem perfectly Roman is also thoroughly Epicurean. Spend any time “discussing the nature of the Universe with Lucretius as if face to face” and you start to see the world as you should, you start to become an Epicurean; but as part of that process you start to adopt the social practices of Epicureans, the friendly discussions in a space (the De Rerum Natura, a kind of poetic Garden) free of the distractions and anxieties of everyday life. That’s as cunning a piece of psychological manipulation as Mitsis proposes, I think: by the very act of reading the De Rerum Natura, your behaviour is being moulded into an Epicurean shape.

I don’t think any of that represents an unprecedented insight. But I suggested earlier that thinking about one-to-one conversation might also give us a counterargument to Mitsis. What I have in mind is the paramount value that Epicureans attached to friendship, amicitia, φιλία. If Lucretius’ colloquy with Memmius, and with each of us, does indeed embody friendship, Epicurus’ immortal good, could an Epicurean, in a poem dedicated to conveying the life-transforming doctrines of Epicurus, contemplate betraying such a sacred thing? For a betrayal of friendship is surely what Mitsis’ theory amounts to: Lucretius is pretending to be Memmius’ friend, with his deepest interests at heart, but in fact is showing him up as an idiot for the benefit of the rest of us.

I can’t see that for an Epicurean that could be anything but unthinkable.

(P.S. 13.4.2016. In a text I’ve been encouraged to read by James Warren [see the discussion below], Philodemus’ Peri Parrhesias or On Frank Criticism, there is a lot of very interesting material on parrhesia, candid (and typically corrective) speech, as a mark of friendship and an essential component of the relationship between philosopher and pupil, itself figured as an encounter between friends, and on the candid speech that played a key role in Epicurean communities, a kind of group therapy maintaining the psychic and philosophical health of their members. As a corollary, we are informed (fr. 41) that “to act in secret is necessarily most unfriendly, no doubt.”)