Archive | July 2023

Middle-aged pursuits

As I coast toward 150 posts over 10 years (maybe a point to retire the blog…), this one brings together a few of its recurrent preoccupations, chronograms, Oxford, poetic metre, and it’s all, needless to say, in Latin.

The route to the cafe within the Town Hall in Oxford takes you past a display of the Oxford City Plate, the silverware used in Oxford civic ceremonies. Among the items is one I learned about last week from an unlikely source, the journal Chemistry and Industry in its June 24, 1961 issue, pp. 889-90. It is a piece of late Victoriana, and like a lot of that category of silverware looks like the FA Cup, and is a comparable kind of size. But the “Sheriff’s cup” was gifted to the City by Charles Lancelot Shadwell in 1908, according to the notice alongside it, and “is used to serve wine at Mayor-making ceremonies. The guests pass it around the table so everyone can drink from it.” I doubt the latter tradition persists, and I also have a hunch (see below) it isn’t quite what it was designed for.

On the bell of the “cup”, in any case, are the City of Oxford’s arms, and in the upper register a Latin text, on one side CIVITAS OXONIAE GAVDET IN SCABINO and on the other (currently out of sight) ET CRATERA PORRIGIT VOBIS PLENVM VINO — taken together, “The City of Oxford takes joy in its Sheriff, and offers you a mixing bowl full of wine”. (The word cratera maybe suggests a receptacle from which wine could be drawn, rather than any kind of actual cup.) But anyone to whom the name of Charles L. Shadwell is familiar will not be surprised to see that some of the letters of this inscription are larger than others.

Here it is again with the inflated letters in bold:


It is, need I say, a chronogram, a text that additionally encodes a date by including letters that can also serve as numbers totalling up to a significant date. This can’t be done in English, which uses Roman script but not Roman numerals, but can be done in Latin (and Greek, Hebrew, and languages that use Arabic script, on which see this fascinating article, with some beautiful examples, by Mehr Afshan Farooqi).

In this case the letters doubling as numerals, CIVIXIVDICICIIVILVMVI, add up, counting each letter independently, to 1894, the year, his “Schrieval year”, when Shadwell served as Sheriff of Oxford, an entirely ceremonial position as far as I can gather. The cup was evidently something he had made for himself, then gifted to the City in 1908, by which time he was Provost of Oriel College.

But I mentioned metre, and this for me is the most interesting aspect of Shadwell’s cup. Of the chronograms of Shadwell I am aware of, one is a dactylic hexameter and the other, on the facade of the Rhodes Building in Oriel, is not metrical. The example in Kingsdown, Deal, which I have attempted to link to Shadwell, is another hexameter. The Latin on the Oxford City cup is certainly verse, but of a very different kind.

Civitas Oxoniae gaudet in Scabino/ et cratera porrigit vobis plenum vino has a medieval form, trochaic, but ruled by stress and rhyme, not by syllable quantity as in classical poetry. The most familiar example of this Vagantenstrophe or goliardic verse is the twelfth-century Confession of the Archpoet, which you can read more about here, and which begins Estuans intrinsecus ira vehementi / in amaritudine loquar mee menti, “Boiling inwardly with intense anger/ I shall address my mind in bitterness”. This specific poem was very familiar: I’ve come across no less than three Oxford takes on the Confession from the end of the nineteenth century in the last week, though with the poem attributed to Walter Map, as it once tended to be.

But my main interest in poetic metre has always been in the “ethos” of its various forms, what difference it makes to the meaning of poetry if it is couched in hexameters, hendecasyllables–or goliardic. In those other late Victorian goliardic poems, in every case (two by A. D. Godley of Omnibus fame, and the other included in James Williams’ 1901 collection The Oxford Year), the metre accompanies accounts of youthful misbehaviour and general fecklessness true to the character of medieval goliardic poetry.

In the case of the cup, opting for the medieval form suits well enough the function of the item inscribed: the goliardic poet was a heavy drinker, or claimed to be. In the same poem the Archpoet expresses his memorable ambition, meum est propositum in taberna mori/ ut sint vina proxima morientis ori, “It is my purpose to die in a tavern, so that there may be wine right by my mouth as I die”. But I think goliardics speak most of all to Shadwell’s perception of his role as Sheriff of Oxford, his sense of it as a medieval role in a medieval city. The non-classical word scabinus sets the tone. There may well be a social charge too when a University man celebrates his grand house in a classical hexameter and his role in city affairs in scurrilous goliardics: Shadwell was fastidious, self-important and an undoubted snob (there’s an anecdote of his dealings with City officials at the bottom).

But Charles L. Shadwell was also responsible for creating some rather beautiful epigraphic Neo-Latin. I think I have now identified examples on stone, wood and silver.

If anyone knows of comparably peculiar Latin inscriptions, with elongated Is and Vs etc. and dating between around 1870 and 1920, I’m on the lookout for further potential Shadwellograms, so do please let me know!

H. M. Lodge, “Half a Century at the Chest”,
The Oxford Magazine January 29, 1947, 231-2, at 231.