Last week, strictly as a stress-reducing measure, I did what anyone else would do and researched the life of a Victorian pastor.
100% to blame for all the time I wasted, and the time you are currently wasting, is Adele Curness, who tweeted an image of a graffito from the choir stalls of Brasenose College Chapel. E.S. Radcliffe, who had expended such loving care inscribing his name there, was easy enough to find once I opted for Edmund over Edward: he turned out to be Edmund Stringfellow Radcliffe, who was born on February 23 1775 and died on January 20 1826. A Lancastrian from a prosperous background, he was typical of the intake to Brasenose College at this period in its history.
Entering the church, like many of his student contemporaries, Radcliffe lived a comfortable and uneventful life, to all appearances. He secured the living of Walton-le-Dale near Preston in 1803, and adding a Perpetual Curacy of Burnley in 1817. This was pluralism, the holding of multiple offices, but a comparatively benign example if Radcliffe was also able (unlike many of his clerical contemporaries) to serve the parish of Burnley, around 25 miles away. In 1810 he married Frances Ford (born 1789, seemingly of a similarly well-to-do family), and between then and Edmund’s death they had a large family, nine children (by my count) in total. It was these that I found myself, in an entirely unsystematic fashion, chasing through the census records this week.
Here they are:
1. Edmund Ford, born 1811, dies as an infant in January 1812;
2. Edmund Ford, born 1812;
3. Frances Emily, born 1813;
4. Sarah Ann, born 1815;
5. Dulcibella, born 1817;
6. Robert Parker, born 1819;
7. Charles Wilbraham, born 1821;
8. John Randle, born 1823;
9. George Travis, born 1825.
After Edmund Stringfellow Radcliffe’s death in 1826, his widow Frances moved from Lancashire to Rugby, where all her sons went to school. Rugby School was enjoying its heyday under the direction of Thomas Arnold, headmaster from 1828. I’ve spent most time this week reading about Charles Wilbraham Radcliffe (no. 7) and his violent fate, but the other children also illustrate in their way nineteeth-century English not-so-genteel lives.
Frances’ first surviving child, Edmund Ford Radcliffe, who had been given exactly the same name (memorialising his father and mother) as his dead brother, subsequently entered the the Civil Service in Bengal, and became a judge: at the time of the 1851 census three of his daughters, all born in the “East Indies”, are staying with grandmother at Elm Cottage, Little Church Lane, in Rugby. He died in 1864, his place of death given as Rugby, presumably in his mother’s house.
Frances Emily Radcliffe (No. 3) married the heir to the tea firm Richard Twining III at the family’s local church in Rugby in 1831, at the age of 17. She lived a very privileged life in the Twining family house on the Strand (she, her husband and three children are all there in the 1841 census), but she died in childbirth in 1847.
Neither Sarah Ann nor Dulcibella (nos. 4 and 5, the latter, I think, a family name on her mother’s side: a couple of her nieces certainly share it) marry. When Frances their mother dies in 1872 (she was 83), they live on at Elm Cottage, describing themselves in the 1881 census as “annuitants”. Sarah Ann dies in 1895, Dulcibella in 1901. Meanwhile Robert Parker Radcliffe (no. 6), whom we find visiting his mother in Rugby in the 1861 census, was an officer in the Royal Artillery: he lived until 1907. Leaving no. 7 (Charles Wilbraham Radcliffe) aside for a moment, John Randle Radcliffe (no. 8) followed his father into the church, the only one of Edmund’s children to do so. He is staying with his mother and sisters (and nieces) in Rugby in the 1851 and 1871 censuses, “Studying for the Church” in 1851, holding various curacies in the vicinity of Rugby before becoming vicar of Snitterfield, close to Stratford-upon-Avon and thus not far either from Rugby, in 1877. He served the parish until his death in 1898, never marrying.
The youngest of the siblings, George Travis Radcliffe (d. 1904), is another India hand, rising to command the 7th (later called the 3rd) Madras Light Cavalry. As an officer in the Indian Army he was following in the footsteps of his older brother Charles Wilbraham Radcliffe, to whom I turn. Charles has left the fullest record out of all his siblings, for the worst reasons.
At the time of the so-called “Indian Mutiny”, the uprising against British rule in 1857, Capt. C. W. Radcliffe found himself in Lucknow, serving with a regiment of Bengal cavalry. When elements of it started to desert and the regiment was disbanded, Radcliffe took command of a unit of Volunteer Cavalry in actions against rebels near Lucknow, and then joined the rest of the British combatants and non-combatants (including his wife Emily and three children) as they took refuge in the Lucknow Residency, starting a siege that lasted from June until November 1857.
Many of the survivors of the siege, rapidly converted into a classic imperial story of triumph snatched from disaster, subsequently published diaries or memoirs, and we hear a lot both of Capt. Radcliffe and his wife and family. A prominent figure in the defence of the Residency, he was killed the night before the “first relief” (really a reinforcement) on September 25, 1857, when a British force fought its way through to the Residency, but were too depleted to attempt evacuating it. The siege would not be broken for another 61 days.
In the diaries of Lady Inglis (wife of the commanding officer for the first 87 days before the “first relief”, not published until 1892), we hear that Radcliffe was severely wounded, and needed his arm amputated. A Lady’s Diary of the Siege of Lucknow, Written for the Perusal of Friends at Home by Mrs. James P. Harris, published in 1858 by John Murray (who had cornered the market with the Afghan War diaries of Lady Sale and Vincent Eyre a few years before), confirms that the injury was fatal:
September 25, Friday
The enemy made two attacks during the night. Captain Ratcliffe of the 7th Cavalry was mortally wounded at the Cawnpore battery by a round shot. He will be a terrible loss to his wife and a very large family.
Continued firing in the city all day.
Kaye in his History of the Sepoy War III.542 talks of “one of the very best of our officers … ever foremost in attack and defence, whose cheerfulness, under all depressing circumstances, had set a gallant example.” The conditions within the Residency during the siege were appalling, food in short supply and disease running rife, over and above the constant threat of snipers, artillery and mines. One of Radcliffe’s children, Ada Maud, had died of cholera during the first part of the siege.
We could hardly be further away from Edmund Radcliffe patiently carving his name during chapel services in Brasenose. But a much more recent Brasenose student, J. G. Farrell, based his Booker-winning novel The Siege of Krishnapur on the Siege of the Lucknow Residency. In it he shows the trappings of “civilisation” progressively falling away from the British defenders as the appalling siege drags on, and I couldn’t help thinking of that as a couple of internet searches took me from an Oxford college chapel to the unspeakable brutality (on both sides) of the “Indian Mutiny”. A church in rural Lancashire, a public school, the desperate privations of a beleaguered British outpost, some tea, is not an outrageous summation of the Victorian scene. I remain deeply intrigued by the contradictions of “the peculiar lives led by the British officer class in nineteenth-century India, privileged, violent and above all precarious.”
A couple of grandchildren to remind us that life goes on. Eva Mary Radcliffe, daughter of Charles, was born after her father’s death in 1858: her daughter Eva Mabel Radclife Freeth lived until 1960. William Scott Warley Radcliffe, son of Robert Parker Radcliffe (no. 6), like his father an army officer, died in 1954. Another Dulcibella, Dulcibella Eden Radcliffe, daughter of George (no. 9), married Charles Owen Hore in 1889, and died in 1946, longterm resident of a grace-and-favour apartment (formerly occupied by Lady Sale) within Hampton Court: take a look at this fascinating document, pp. 21 and 44.
This is the last will and testament of William Hulme of Kearsley, a well-to-do but otherwise fairly nondescript Lancastrian gentleman who died on this day (29 October) in 1691: the will is dated a few days earlier. It caused quite a flutter when it was brought to my college, Brasenose, a couple of weeks ago.
Hulme had been a student at Brasenose, and the most important stipulation of his will was designed to support scholarship here. The income of his reasonably extensive land holdings (in Heaton-Norris, Denton, Ashton under Lyne, Reddish, Harwood and Manchester) was to be used to support “four of the poor sort of bachelors of arts takeing such degree in Brazen-Nose Colledge in Oxford, as from time to time shall resolve to continue and reside there by the space of four years after such degree taken,” the students by implication originating in the North West. In other words, the money was to help scholars who had earned a bachelor’s degree to work toward a master’s, and Hulme’s intent was seemingly to ensure high-quality representatives of the Church of England in a part of the world, Lancashire, where Nonconformism was making inroads.
(The relation between Brasenose and Lancashire is not coincidental: there were connections going back to its founders early in the 16th century, Sir Richard Sutton and William Smyth, Bishop of Lincoln: Smyth, a protégé of the Stanleys at Knowsley Hall, was born at Farnworth, as it happens only a couple of miles from my birthplace at Whiston Hospital. Meanwhile Sutton was apparently a Cheshire man, from Macclesfield. Brasenose in the 17th century was the obvious choice of Oxford college for a young man from the North West, as it had been for Hulme himself. Farnworth’s only other other claim to fame, as far as I know, is as the alleged inspiration for Paul Simon’s Homeward Bound.)*
So it was a generous but comparatively modest bequest to my college, and given with a fairly narrow aim in view. So what? I hear you cry. Well, what makes Hulme’s will of more than strictly local interest is where some of the land he bequeathed happened to be located.
Manchester in Hulme’s day was a small town clustered around the Collegiate Church, now Manchester Cathedral. In the next two centuries, as the Industrial Revolution took hold, the agricultural land that Hulme had owned on its outskirts would become some of the most valuable real estate in the country, massively increasing the original bequest.But first, Hulme’s will at the top. Strictly speaking, what we’re looking at is the copy of the will held by its executor, his cousin William Baguley: but since it seems that the original will was lost at an early stage, this may well have been the reference copy. It is now safely in the College archives, but just a few months ago it was up for sale on eBay. My eagle-eyed colleague Chris McKenna spotted it there (it had already at that stage been sold, for a princely £75) and I contacted first the vendor, and then via him the purchaser, offering to buy it from him. To our good fortune the purchaser, Mike Buckley, turned out to be a historian with a particular interest in William Hulme, and he himself had been stunned to see such an important document on sale. When I contacted Mike he spontaneously offered to present it to the College, his only concern being that it be safely preserved. All he’d let us offer him in return was dinner in College, and we’re greatly in his debt. Meanwhile the vendor was able to tell me that he’d bought the will along with a lot of other legal documents from a dealer at the Newark Antiques Fair, and that he assumed the original source was a solicitors’ office. He has promised to look out for the dealer at future fairs to find out where these documents did originate, but wherever it was must represent some kind of continuity with the executor William Baguley or his lawyers at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, and that’s an exciting idea.
At any rate, this piece of parchment kicked off something remarkable. The history of the Hulme Trust is excellently told by I.B. Fallows in William Hulme and his Trust, but it is essentially the story of a comparatively modest arrangement to support the proper education of clerics which within a hundred years was generating so much money that the trustees didn’t know what to do with it. Fallows tracks the ballooning revenues of the Trust as Manchester expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, £95 in 1693, £280 in 1750, £1,176 in 1794, and £5,161 in 1825 (with accumulated savings and investments of £40,782). In Fallows’ words (p. 84), expressing the situation in 1770,
Suddenly large amounts of land were required for new factories and for the housing of the workers who manned them. Struggling farms in the damp, cotton-friendly estates of long-dead Hulmes could be leased or sold to the new manufacturers. Coal mining and associated heavy industry suddenly exploded. Trustees of the Hulme estates were controlling an asset whose revenues were likely to spiral beyond all their conceivable needs in the next generation. A trust which had been started with the modest aim of assisting four poor scholars and improving the quality of Anglican preachers now had far more money than it required.
The challenge for the Trust through the 19th century was to find an application for the vast sums they found themselves managing that was broadly compatible with Hulme’s wishes. The letter of his will was certainly observed: between 1691 and 1881 a total of 641 young men (not exclusively “of a poor sort”, but the trustees did on the whole observe the original purpose) were enabled to continue their studies at Brasenose, the numbers of exhibitions awarded increasing over time along with the value of those awards. Fallows tracks a representative selection of the scholars, the overwhelming majority of whom took holy orders. One example is William Webb Ellis, perhaps the most famous product of Brasenose after Michael Palin. Ellis was the son of an officer killed in the Peninsular War who won a full scholarship to Rugby School and there, allegedly, invented Rugby the sport. Whether he really did is doubtful: the story seems to develop after his death, in the context of the split between Rugby Union and Rugby League in the 1890s. But he certainly was a young man of straitened family circumstances who went on to have a successful career as an evangelical rector of various parishes in London and Essex.
Funding MA’s like William Webb Ellis still left lots of money unused, however, and the Trustees tried various ways of spending it. For a long time from the end of the 18th century they attempted to persuade Brasenose College to let them use the money to build special accommodation in Oxford for the Hulme Exhibitioners, but rather to their credit the College was unwilling to introduce this distinction between the undergraduates, Exhibitioners and others. That option closed off, the Trustees set about purchasing advowsons, the right to nominate their choice as priest in a parish, thereby providing livings for the men who had benefited from the exhibitions at Brasenose. But while that could be considered a reasonable extension of the terms of Hulme’s will, as the wealth of the Trust grew so did the desperate need of the new north-western cities for an educational infrastructure, and pressure increased to direct the funds more to the benefit of Manchester in particular.
As the story was told to me years ago, the good citizens of Manchester diddled Brasenose out of its rightful inheritance, leaving only such reminders as Brazennose St in central Manchester. In fact Brasenose and its students had benefited greatly from the Trust, and might have benefited more had they agreed with the Trust’s plans at an earlier stage. A series of Acts of Parliament had extended the capacities of the Trust, and finally in 1881 the Charity Commission proposed, and an Act of Parliament confirmed, a radical new plan which saw funds directed to a range of schools in the vicinity of Manchester, including Manchester Grammar School, Manchester High School for Girls, William Hulme’s Grammar School (also in Manchester), Oldham Hulme Grammar School (Mike Buckley’s old school), Bury Grammar School (the alma mater of Fallows), and what would develop into Manchester University. Fallows estimates that 120,000-150,000 young people, female and male, between the ages of 11 and 21 have benefited “directly (through personal scholarships) or indirectly (through help given to their school or college)” since 1881. Brasenose continued to benefit, too: one corner of New Quad was built with Hulme money and we still draw income to support our educational activities, along with a collection of beneficiaries in the North West.A striking thing about William Hulme from the perspective of my college is how invisible he is. There’s no portrait of one of our greatest benefactors in the Hall, and when I asked the archivist what material there was related to him to show to Mike Buckley when he visited, the answer was very little. We have a long grace for special occasions which names all our benefactors: Gulielmus Hulme was apparently only added to it in 1975. The Hulme Common Room for graduate students was established in 1963. Aside from that, the only physical memorial to him in College is a Latin plaque (below) put up at one end of the Hall by Church of English priests who had benefited from Hulme Exhibitions, in 1902, when that role of the Trust was reaching its end.
The peculiar absence of Hulme from the College narrative no doubt tells us something about privileged Oxford’s relations with the country’s industrial heartlands, but it also reflects the sheer oddity of this whole story, in investment terms the ultimate “sleeper”. Everything after all hinges on a massive fluke, that a quiet backwater in an undeveloped part of the country, and that is undoubtedly what the market towns of south-east Lancashire were in the 17th century, would become the dynamic engine of the Industrial Revolution. The impression one gets is that in Brasenose the impact of Hulme’s legacy for a long time just didn’t really register, yet Fallows calculates that a total of somewhere in the region of £20,000,000 has been disbursed by the Trust since its inception. I suppose the story of Hulme’s legacy in turn is a microcosm of Britain’s story in the 18th and 19th centuries, but who could possibly have predicted the colossal impact of a minor Lancastrian landowner’s will?
(This is a book review from nearly a decade ago. I wrote it for the LRB, but at the last moment they rejected it as insufficiently controversial, as far as I recall. It was already far too controversial for a College that had turned very toxic indeed under pressure of our quincentenary celebrations, so that was absolutely fine by me. But it’s a long time ago now, and all the current talk of statue destruction made me think of it. As well as a book review it’s also a meditation, by a younger version of myself, on the peculiar place I work in. A exceedingly minority interest, either way.)
J. Mordaunt Crook, Brasenose: The Biography of an Oxford College. Oxford, 2008.
On 9 March 1881, the ‘bump supper’ celebration of a Brasenose success on the river turned ugly. ‘In the flickering light of bonfires,’ recalled L.R. Farnell, the scholar of Greek religion, ‘could be seen the figures of some two hundred young men bounding and leaping high . . . and passing from lurid light into deep shadow alternately; and the leaping was accompanied by terrifying yells and the most fantastic music ever devised by savages standing on the verge of culture.’ Finally, the undergraduates turned their attentions to a statue that had stood in the middle of Old Quad lawn for 150 years, and defaced it with indelible paint. It and its obscene graffiti were quietly despatched to a scrapyard soon after.
The target of their drunken assault, whether or not those Victorian hoorays were aware of it, was an appropriate one. Although universally known as Cain and Abel, the statue was in fact a copy of a Renaissance image of Samson slaying a Philistine. Walter Pater, a fellow of the college, found some consolation in the sight of these Brasenose athletes (‘like panthers,’ he had described them) leaping naked over bonfires. But the presence of the arch-aesthete in Oxford’s heartiest college during its most philistine phase throws up manifold anomalies: the mind boggles, for example, at the notion of Pater tutoring the future Earl Haig. On the matter of the statue’s destruction, Pater was defensive. If we can believe Edmund Gosse, it was ‘almost the only thing that ever ruffled him’: on mention of the statue, ‘Pater would sit up in a moment, and say, with great acidity, “It was totally devoid of merit, no doubt.”’
Pater’s dilemma, as the aesthete amongst athletes, is one for which a modern Fellow of Brasenose, contemplating the history of the college, is bound to feel some sympathy. Everything about that Victorian venting of testosterone, after all, is apt to set a contemporary academic’s teeth on edge. But our misfortune is that the events of that night are not so unrepresentative of Brasenose culture as we might like. This is ‘Good old BNC’, historically the jovial, well-lubricated and none-too-intellectual champion of causes long lost elsewhere, even in Oxford. In Brasenose’s tolerant atmosphere, for example, the ‘pass man’ (the wealthy sportsman with no interest in an honours degree, and no aptitude for it either) survived and flourished far longer than at other colleges, and the admission of students on the exclusive basis of sporting ability continued to be practised almost to within living memory. ‘As Balliol enlisted clever heads, so B.N.C. enlisted stout legs and arms,’ reminisces a late 19th-century undergraduate. In the later 1880s, sensationally, a top-flight Etonian rower was actually rejected: ‘he couldn’t spell; he could hardly even write his own name; we had to draw the line somewhere.’
Now this is all, as they say, history, and perhaps none of it would matter very much if 2009 weren’t the 500th anniversary of Brasenose College, and our history consequently hard to duck. Any anniversary, let alone the celebration of half a millennium of existence, is bound to expose the subject of celebration to a rather unforgiving light, and J. M. Crook’s elegant college history is only the most explicit contribution to this unavoidable exercise in navel-gazing. But as we, the current Fellows, make the claim to continuity with our predecessors which is presumably essential if the simple age of the institution is going to count for anything, the process is not painless. On the crucial question of what exactly it is that we are celebrating – what an Oxbridge college is actually for, these days – there is less consensus than one might like. The university (in the shape of the subject Faculties) may well have just as great a claim on our time and loyalty as the college, for example, and issues such as how we admit students, how the college is administered, which of the various types of employment contract we hold, and indeed how we teach, have the potential to weaken further the identity and cohesion of the diverse group of scholars that constitutes a college fellowship. The tutorial, the most familiar expression of the Oxford teaching system and rightly regarded as the bellwether of the health of the collegiate system and Oxford education in general, is under pressure everywhere. It is a matter of dispute whether an individual college should aspire to be ‘known for its strengths’ in medicine or law or PPE: self-evidently true for some, a hopelessly parochial throwback for others. So, 500 years of what? An elite educational institution? An extremely picturesque hall of res? A Grade I listed coffee room? The young hooligans of 1881 had a clear idea what they were celebrating, and, judging by the stocks of paint they got in, a good plan of how to celebrate it. Can we say the same of ourselves?
One can cite a host of contemporary niggles (such as I have) which can sour a college’s atmosphere, and no doubt the Fellows of 1881 could have done the same. But perhaps a clerical friend of mine is right to trace the problem farther back. On this analysis the staff of the modern University of Oxford are secular cuckoos in an essentially religious institution: Oxford colleges are monastic foundations which have abandoned the monastic rules which were crucial to maintain harmony within diverse and densely populated communities. I think there’s a lot in that, and we would all do well to read the Rule of St Benedict. It is certainly the case that to a modern Fellow it is only really with the last quarter of the 19th century that the landscape of Oxford University becomes familiar at all. The great watershed is the growth in the authority of the university (at the expense of the colleges) that followed from the Royal Commissions of 1850, 1871 and 1877; and just as important for the academic culture of the place, the secularisation of Oxford which allowed dons to marry and move out to the suburbs in North Oxford which are way beyond the means of their modern counterparts. Before that point Brasenose was a clutch of actual or apprentice clergymen, and its history the story of the (disproportionate, to the secular eye) impact made by theological controversies. It is hard to summon up much fellow-feeling for the men who heckled Archbishop Cranmer as he hobbled up Brasenose Lane on his way to be burned. But for most of the 19th century Brasenose is hardly less alien, a community thoroughly identified with the Church of England: even a superficially interesting figure like William Webb Ellis, a scholar at BNC shortly after his alleged invention of rugby, turns out to have been yet another common-or-garden aspirant to the Anglican priesthood, a profoundly unremarkable man quite oblivious of the myth that the late-Victorian cult of team sports would build up around him.
Such continuities as can be identified between today and pre-1850 Brasenose are either coincidental or functions of the simple physical restrictions of the site. It is a pleasant surprise, but gives us very little insight into Regency Oxford, to find that as long ago as 1821 the Phoenix, a dining club along the objectionable lines of the Bullingdon (these days excluded from the college), was encountering ‘violent opposition throughout the College’ for its social exclusivity. (That does tell us something about the Phoenix, mind you.) As for the physical environment, a history does provide good evidence of a local kind of architectural determinism. Enforced intimacy forges peculiarly collegiate virtues and vices, key to which are the subordination or not of the typically burgeoning academic ego to the higher interests of the community. On the one hand we find sworn ideological enemies during the Commonwealth, an intruded Puritan principal and a Royalist bursar, co-operating to rescue the college in its darkest hour. But rather more in evidence are the bitter feuds which, once sparked, the college environment is peculiarly adept at inflaming. I was once shown what my guide called the ‘million pound bookcase’, a nondescript item of furniture somehow implicated in the mutual loathing between two ancient historians, Hugh Last and Sir Ronald Syme, which cost Brasenose any part of Syme’s large estate on his death in 1989. The consumption of alcohol, pursued with prodigious application, it seems, by every generation of Brasenose students and Fellows, also no doubt has its roots in the intense sociality dictated by the college environment. This hardly differentiates Brasenose from any other institute of higher education, of course, but drinking achieved an iconic status in this college, reflected in the annual Ale Verses celebration on Shrove Tuesday, and a popular etymology of Brasenose’s peculiar name from an old word for ‘brewery’. This at least bodes well for the 2009 celebrations. Whatever other anxieties there may be, nobody familiar with the college’s history can harbour the slightest doubt about this Fellowship’s capacity to organise a piss-up in a Brasinhuse.
Yet it is the culture of the college since the reforms of the later 19th century, starkly but adequately exemplified by the vandalising of Cain and Abel, that confronts a Fellow today. No individual contributed more to the crystallisation of Brasenose’s modern reputation than the hard-drinking, sports-obsessed principal, W.T.S. Stallybrass, who dominated the college between the two world wars. To say that Stallybrass set no great stock by academic excellence would be an understatement: Blues proliferated, Firsts were practically unknown. But there is no doubt that, as it excelled on the rugby pitch and the Thames, Brasenose also developed a strong corporate ethos focused on its clubbable principal. When, at the start of hostilities in 1939, Brasenose men joined up with the RAF en masse, and then were killed en masse, Stallybrass had taken photographs of them when they had visited him on leave, and wrote all their obituaries (‘in the air, on the rugby field . . . he did not know what fear was’; ‘only the examiners could defeat him’). The photos, the obituaries, the appallingly large WWII memorial in the college chapel – all this is terribly moving. But the war and the social changes it wrought did for that particular ideal of collegiality. Stallybrass himself fell from a train out of Paddington in 1948, shortly after being defeated in college by other Fellows determined to improve academic standards. After the war the sporting types in whom Brasenose had specialised increasingly found Oxford’s doors closed to anything except academic talent. Crook quotes Jan Morris on the tragedy of ‘Carruthers’, the archetypal nice-but-dim pass man, who had ‘survived at Oxford until the Second World War, which he won.’ Brasenose College, Crook suggests, had been Carruthers’s veritable alma mater.
Stallybrass died on St Jude’s Day, patron saint of lost causes, and it all adds up to a compelling myth: the Golden Age of the college, lost along with all those young men shot down over the Channel. Was the Oxbridge college itself the last of Brasenose’s lost causes, only truly possible when a coherent ethos, forged in manly endeavour on the water or the rugger pitch, bound its members together? The problem of course is that, intensely poignant as Stallybrass’s photographic record is, Carruthers didn’t really win the war, or didn’t do so single-handedly. I am bound to think of a clever Welsh grammar-school boy who went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1938, but found there a society so rigidly stratified and unsympathetic to someone of his background that he welcomed the opportunity to join the army and leave Cambridge the following year. That man, my father, did his bit for the war effort too, landing on D-Day, fighting through to Germany, losing a lot of friends; but I don’t think he ever went back to Cambridge, and by all accounts Trinity Hall was a lot less exclusive than Brasenose at that time. Another combatant on D-Day was Brasenose’s Nobel laureate, William Golding, on whose literary career the hearty Brasenose of Stallybrass had a tellingly minimal influence. In the case of J.G. Farrell, an undergraduate in the 1950s, it was the onset of polio and treatment in an iron lung that transformed him from a stereotypical Brasenose hearty into a novelist.
A college history must of course be selective, but sometimes selection can collude too closely with its subjects. A peculiar decision taken by Crook is to list all the members of the Phoenix club from its foundation, while the Fellows of Brasenose (rather more central to the project, one would think) go unrecorded. And here is another atypical Stallybrass undergraduate, relegated to a footnote: Peter Twinn, mathematician and entomologist, who at Bletchley Park in 1940 is credited with having broken the German Enigma code for the first time. As Crook admits, ‘BNC between the wars was very much a masculine, almost aggressively homosocial, society.’ John Betjeman feigned a limp whenever he entered the college, calculating that the hearties would not pick on an aesthete who was crippled. The idyll constructed by Stallybrass was built on the exclusion of women, the lower classes and overt exercise of the intellect. Indeed, it was a gentleman’s club, with all the qualities of such a place, loyalty and cohesion, but like a club, defined as much by those whose faces didn’t fit as by the membership.
Notwithstanding populist stereotypes of ‘the old boy network and the old school tie’, the ideals of Stallybrass are as dead as the Oxford dodo. But like the country as a whole, a college can lose its empire (on the playing fields in this instance) and struggle to find a role. In the face of an assertion of collegiate identity as confident as Stallybrass’s one can allow oneself to doubt the role of a college that lacks the same muscularity of purpose. Ambivalent (at best) at what we have been, labouring under our own collegiate Curse of Cain, Pater’s accommodation with the philistines, we may even countenance the possibility that a college is just an anachronistic survival which, like the monarchy, can only compromise so many times with prevailing circumstances without losing its identity entirely. What, to pose that crucial question one more time, is there to celebrate?
A college, as Crook well puts it, is ‘a permanent set of buildings and an impermanent set of people’: on the one hand the Oxford architecture that seemed to William Morris almost organic (buildings that ‘look almost as if they had grown out of the roadway’); on the other, the constantly shifting populations of students, staff and Fellows. What a college most obviously is (though superficially) is a cumulative building enterprise, the architectural sum, not always so felicitous, of centuries of construction. But the wrong conclusion can be drawn from this, the wrong answer to the big question of what we are. It is perhaps the clearest sign of our lack of self-belief that the most insistent answers to the demands of a quincentennial celebration have been that something should be built. Throwing up a new structure, needed or not, is of course the perennial Oxford substitute for creative thinking: the evidence is everywhere. But the great paradox of Oxford is that the impermanent element of this peculiar concoction, the people, is what really matters; the familiar Oxford of quads, crenellations and spires (say it quietly) is quite tangential to the serious project of teaching and researching. In Brasenose this might be called the Narnia Principle, in deference to a couple of gilded fawns, a Victorian lamppost and a scruffy double-doored exit from the chapel, which the imagination of C.S. Lewis, no doubt on a wintry night, transformed into the kingdom of the Snow Queen. Strictly speaking, Narnia begins in a shabby backyard which currently houses the recycling bins. It isn’t of course that building is insignificant or unnecessary in a collegiate university. This is a city in which academics, let alone students struggle to afford accommodation; and I treasure the view of the Radcliffe Camera and University Church I have from my teaching room. But good building must embody a recognition of the relative importance of stone and the creative temperaments that animate it. Dreaming spires, and all that. With a bit of luck the Credit Crunch will do for any such plans, just as surely as it is sending Oxford graduates flooding into teaching and research.
So what should we do to mark the 500th Anniversary of Brasenose? It is easier to say what we shouldn’t, but I do know that Stallybrass’s belief that a shared intellectual endeavour is insufficient to bind a community together is utter nonsense. More than nonsense, actually: a terrifying lack of confidence in our mission as researchers and educators, as if an aptitude and enthusiasm for academic subjects has less power to galvanise young people than an aptitude for propelling a boat. The least that our quincentenary requires is a bout of quiet introspection proper to a collection of scholars, even secular ones: we should remember what we are and what we are not and re- discover our pride in it; we should forcibly restate the value of the education we offer and the research we do, and resist those pressures of administration and self-justification which constantly distract us from the things we are qualified to do. We should indeed read and digest the Rule of St Benedict, but we should also celebrate what our college does best: it harbours a community not defined by ethos (which can easily become class) but by aptitude. The fondest memories of its alumni/ae are not of high jinks but of intellectual excitement. Its architecturally-enforced intimacy may prolong feuds between colleagues, but it also fosters tolerance and openness: it is precisely the manageable scale of the constituent colleges which makes intimidating Oxford accessible. Indeed, the greatest boon of the physical restrictions of a college is that it makes it, as an institution, maximally intolerant of hierarchy. If that still sounds too monastic a prescription for the 21st century, we might also stretch to a cheap reproduction, emphatically positioned in the middle of Old Quad, of Samson slaying a Philistine with the jawbone of an ass.
On May 5, 1945, The Times reported an unexpected encounter in Hamburg. The British had accepted the city’s surrender and were discussing arrangements with their German counterparts when another German officer came in, “a brisk young man wearing the scarf of Brasenose College.” He explained to the British officers that he had been educated at Oxford and had written a book on parliamentary government, which he hoped would get him the new job he suspected he would soon be needing. Back in Brasenose College, Oxford, the headline in the paper (“How Hamburg Fell; Cottage Meeting; The German From Brasenose”) raised hopes that Justus Carl von Ruperti, Rhodes Scholar at Brasenose from 1933 to 1935, had survived the war. In fact he had been killed in Russia in 1943.
I wrote a couple of years ago about Ruperti’s memorial in the chapel of Brasenose College, an arresting one not only because it commemorated this enemy fatality of the Second World War, but also because it was created in the decade immediately after the end of the war. Later, after some research in the archives of Rhodes House, I described a note I had found there referring to a visit by Ruperti’s mother to Oxford in the 1950’s.
Someone who featured prominently in that story was Fritz Caspari. Fritz and Justus Carl (or Juscar, or sometimes Carl Justus) had been the German Rhodes Scholars at Oxford for 1933 (there were only two scholars from Germany per year), and while Juscar stayed in Germany during the war, and died fighting on the Eastern Front, Fritz, a vocal opponent of National Socialism, left Germany for the United States in 1939, subsequently combining a career as an academic historian with that of a senior West German diplomat. His remarkable life is described in a Telegraph obituary here, and there is a video interview with him conducted shortly before his death here.
Fritz Caspari died in 2010, and through an old student of mine, Harriet Baker, I have been put in touch with his son, Conrad Caspari, who is currently working his way through his father’s voluminous papers: a precious archive for the pre-war, wartime and post-war history of Germany and its foreign relations.
In my earlier research on Ruperti, a preoccupation was to pin down his politics. I’m not sure I achieved that, but I did come to understand how an Oxford college in 1950, containing within its fellowship British ex-combatants, could have persuaded itself to commemorate a German casualty. To me, and more importantly to wiser heads before before me, it was clear that Juscar was no Nazi.
Here the topic is the relationship between Juscar and Fritz. What Conrad has shared with me is information from his father’s papers which offers vivid insight a troubled time, and in particular glimpses of the relationship that developed between two young men whose futures, ultimately hinging on their decisions to leave or stay in Nazi Germany as it launched the war, were to to diverge so dramatically.
The first encounter between Fritz and Juscar did not promise a close friendship, it’s fair to say. It occurred at the interviews for the German Rhodes Scholarships in the forbidding Stadtschloss in the middle of Berlin. Fritz had been recommended for a scholarship by Count Albrecht von Bernstorff, a former Rhodes Scholar himself who would be executed in 1945 for opposition to Hitler. As Fritz emerged from his interview, one of the other candidates, “the rather formal young Prussian aristocrat who had gone in before him,” asked him how he had managed. (What follows is from Fritz Caspari’s written account, but he also tells the story in this filmed interview; all translations are Conrad Caspari’s.)
“What do you mean, ‘How did I manage?’?” Fritz replied.
“I mean, how did you manage to leave the room?”
“Well, once I realised the whole thing was over, I stood up, made a short bow, walked to the door, said goodbye, and went out.”
“There’s no way you’ll get the scholarship!” the young man said.
“Why not?” Fritz asked, baffled. “How did you leave the room, then?”
“I walked out backwards. You should never have turned your back on them, of course.”
“Backwards! But how on earth did you find the door handle?”
“Not a problem if you think about it in advance. I’d planned it and counted the steps carefully on the way in, so on the way back to the door I didn’t need to turn at all.”
That young Prussian aristocrat, so much more at home than the middle-class (though well-connected) Fritz in the Prussian Schloss, was Justus Carl von Ruperti, needless to say. In the event, it was he and Fritz who found themselves the German Rhodes Scholars in Oxford a year later, and a friendship developed: among his father’s papers Conrad has found a number of letters from Juscar to Fritz, dating between 1936, when Juscar has left Oxford, and 1939, when Fritz left Germany.
In December 1936 Juscar writes to Fritz and another 1933 Rhodes Scholar, (Clarence) Bill Lee from Arkansas, who were apparently staying at Fritz’s family home in Heidelberg. The letter switches between German and English for Bill’s benefit. Juscar was serving at the time in the military at Lüneburg (from where he also wrote to the Principal of Brasenose, William Stallybrass), and discusses what he had gathered from Time and The Times about the abdication of Edward VIII. With some irony he comments that “judging from sterner Prussian principles one can only speak of [the former king’s] lamentable weakness.” Just some irony: Justus Carl von Ruperti has emerged from everything I have read by and about him as a very sober and serious young man.
The next letter dates from two years later, August 1938, when Juscar writes to Fritz in Füssen in Bavaria, where Fritz was unwillingly fulfilling his military service requirement in a mountain regiment. He used to recall that he and his comrades plotted to kill Hitler on one of his regular visits to Bavaria, but they were never supplied with live ammunition. In his letter Juscar describes a trip he had made back to his home territory of East Prussia, travelling by boat from Travemünde to “my beautiful Danzig”, since 1920 a “Free City” under the jurisdiction of the League of Nations. He visits Gdingen (Gdynia), the port constructed by Poland along the coast from Danzig (Gdansk) in the Polish Corridor, established after the First World War to allow Poland access to the Baltic, in the process separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Juscar is impressed by the new port at Gdynia, and while he notes the efforts to consolidate “Polishness” in the Corridor, including land reforms in the Corridor which would soon affect his uncle’s estate, he seems relaxed about them. In my first post on Ruperti I wrote about German efforts to consolidate Germanness in East Prussia, but the German invasion of Poland would put paid to any land reform, and in the longer term to East Prussia. Juscar looks forward to seeing Fritz in Göttingen in October.
Another name mentioned in this letter is Ferdinand von Stumm, who had also attended Oxford in the 1930s. Conrad tells me that Ferdinand wrote to his father in the US in 1946, sharing news of Juscar’s death among others’, and telling him that he and Juscar had become best friends during the war. In his letter, von Stumm apologetically requested from Fritz that he send him some crêpe shoe soles: he had lost his left foot during the war, and needed them to make walking easier.
Come October 1938, Juscar is again writing to Fritz from Königsberg (now, as things have turned out, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad), where Juscar was working on his doctorate and reading Goethe. He seems to mention a mutual friend Alex Böker, who had left Germany for the US in 1938, and held a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford from 1939. But Juscar also asks Fritz to help a friend of his, Wolfgang Fontaine, to secure a Rhodes Scholarship from 1939 (Fritz was on the selection committee in 1938, the last German selection panel for the Rhodes until it was reinstated in 1969; Fritz served in that year as well, when one of the successful candidates was Lippold von Klencke, Juscar’s nephew.) Whether Fontaine ever took up his scholarship, I do not know. Juscar suggests that a reference for his application might be forthcoming from Fontaine’s uncle, General Keitel, a notorious figure later to be condemned and hanged at Nuremberg for war crimes.
From a diary that Fritz Caspari kept from 1938 to 1940 we learn that on October 22 1938, he and Juscar did meet up in Göttingen, drinking Bordeaux, walking to the Bismarckturm, and meeting Juscar’s brother, a cavalry officer recently returned from the Sudetenland. (He would also die during the war.)
Fritz Caspari reestablished contact with the von Ruperti family after the war, and remained in touch with them throughout his life. The last letters to him from Juscar that Conrad has uncovered are from December 1938 and January 1939, both from Königsberg, and hint at pressure on their friendship associated with Fritz’s decision to leave Germany: “the thought of your departure is no longer so estranging because you will be the best bridge to our friends,” writes Juscar in the first of them. Between this and the later letter the two seem to have met up in Berlin, but in January Juscar talks in oblique terms of the difficulty of maintaining old friendships in the current circumstances, and I take the reference to be primarily to their friendship. Juscar’s sign-off, “Leben Sie wohl,” suggests a certain finality too. I don’t really know how to read this last letter, to be honest, though it seems full of a sense of momentous and incompatible decisions.
Here is all of it:
Königsberg, 12 January 1939
Thank you for your card–it helped me during the many awkward moments which I have to live through here, I am afraid these are fights about the continuation of old friendships. While I was in Berlin I was torn as to whether I should use the proximity of our rooms to impart my worries to you. I left it with only a suggestion of these and I am happy about that. The fact of your coming and the very simple way we could be together was more important to me in spite of everything. Please take this as a sign that my willingness to be open vis-à-vis old friends has not suffered. And please be persuaded that I wish to become more conscious of all my errors. But the recovery of all the beauty we have lost is consumed by life and surviving in the here and now. The creator, who rules over all life, cannot drive us all crazy and the oldest love must be put aside for the most recent one.
In the coming days I will become engaged to Irma R. and I am happy to be certain of your helpful thoughts in this regard as well.
Leben Sie wohl, your C.J.
In a new departure, a topical blog. In another new departure, a short one.
Here is a BBC article discussing the efforts of the Turkish coup plotters to seize control of the media. In a very contemporary twist, as they tried to secure TV networks and newspapers, etc., President Erdogan used his iPhone to make a critical intervention, phoning (and via FaceTime, physically appearing) on CNN. It’s still a confusing picture: Twitter and Facebook may have been blocked by the government, presumably to prevent the coup leaders from getting their message across, but other social networks, WhatsApp, Periscope, weren’t. All in all, it tells us how very difficult it is in 2016 to secure comprehensive control of information outlets, but also how crucial it remains to try to achieve that control if you have plans to usurp political authority.
In AD 271 there was a military coup somewhere on the Rhine frontier of the Roman Empire, and the evidence we have about it also suggests an attempt to control the media. The effect of the coup was to bring to power an emperor named Domitianus, or rather what our evidence tells us is that Domitianus claimed to be emperor, and as we know from Turkey, claims to be in control do not automatically amount to real control. Our evidence about Domitianus is simply this: there are coins bearing an image of him with the imperial motto around his head “IMP(ERATOR) C DOMITIANUS P(IUS) F(ELIX) AUG(USTUS).
The coins indicating that Domitianus was emperor also intimate that he wasn’t emperor for awfully long. In total only two examples of Domitianus coins have ever been found, one found during agricultural work in a vineyard near Nantes in 1900, and another found by a metal detectorist in 2003 at Chalgrove near Oxford. They are so rare that between the discovery of the first and the second coins, effective efforts were made to prove that the French example was a hoax. By this stage of the third century AD coins were being minted in massive quantities: if ever you find a Roman coin, it is very likely to be from this time. There are also lots of coin hoards from what was a very unstable period. Yet Domitianus features in just two of them. At Mildenhall in Wiltshire in 1978 a hoard of 55,000 “radiates” (as Domitianus’ style of coin is called) was found; at Normanby in Lincolnshire in 1985, 48,000 more of them: not a single Domitianus in sight. Even in the comparatively modest Chalgrove hoard, the Domitianus is one of nearly 5,000 coins in total.
Some historical context. Rome in the second half of the third century AD was in crisis. The emperor Valerian had been captured by the Persians in 260, a huge shock to the Empire. In the same year the Western Empire, Spain, Gaul, Germany and Britain, seceded under a rebel general named Postumus, and remained independent of Rome until 274, although Postumus’ successors ruled over a progressively smaller chunk of territory. Domitianus fits in after Postumus’ third successor Victorinus (269-71): plausibly Domitianus was involved in the putsch that removed Victorinus, seized control for a few days, and was then himself dispatched by Tetricus, who ruled the “Gallic Empire” until defeat by Aurelian in 274. Aurelian was the great reunifier of the Empire, bringing Zenobia’s Palmyra back into the fold as well. I hope that wasn’t too difficult to follow, but imagine living it.
About Domitianus himself we know practically nothing. Aside from the coins, there are scattered references in our sources to a general and a rebel by this name. To repeat, though, only the coins proclaim him emperor. Only the statement read out under pressure by the anchor on State TV TRT claimed the success of the Turkish coup, too. The point of similarity is what it takes in 2016, and what it takes in 271, to control the narrative. In the third century there was no TV, no mass media at all, but there was one medium which in its way did the same job of insinuating a message across the army and wider population. Coinage carrying the emperor’s image, and potentially other information too, could be used to communicate a claim to power. The other side of Domitianus’ coin carries an image of peace and plenty (a female figure carrying a libation bowl and cornucopia) and the legend CONCORDIA MILITUM, “Agreement among the Soldiers”, a more explicit claim of authority over the (crucial) armed forces.
So the equivalent of occupying the CNN offices in the third century was to secure the Royal Mint, and it looks like this was Domitianus’ first, and perhaps his only, act in pursuit of power. The evidence of the coins (the French and English examples are identical) seems to be that, while Domitianus managed to secure control of one of the Gallic Empire’s mints, in Cologne, he never controlled the principal mint in Trier. Trier, Augusta Treverorum, was Domitianus’s nemesis, or maybe his iPhone.
The coin of Domitianus found near Oxford is a rather unimpressive thing in the flesh, small and muddy-green, but it’s beautifully presented in the money gallery of the Ashmolean Museum, which is worth a visit for all kinds of other reasons.
Sylviane Estiot & Gildas Salaün, “L’usurpateur Domitianus”, Revue numismatique 160 (2004), 201-218.
Richard Abdy, “The Domitian II coin from Chalgrove: a Gallic emperor returns to history”, Antiquity 83 (2009), 751-757.
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).
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.
“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.
“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.
My least snappy title by a distance. Apologies, and apologies also for a blog inspired by a pun so obscure that I’ve seen it attributed to two Oxford Classicists separately. Actually it was really inspired by Claire Webster, to whom thanks.
“To call a spado a spado” is a joke that Claire heard Tom Braun, a Classicist at Merton College, make, but I can claim an earlier outing. A former student of my college, Brasenose, recalls attending lectures in the 1950’s on the Roman satirist Juvenal, delivered by J.G. Griffith of Jesus College. Juvenal does not pull his punches, and Griffith, clearly a don of the old school, “felt inhibited” discussing his poetry “when lady students were present.” When the last of the women undergraduates eventually left the group, he remarked with relief, “At last: now I can call a spado a spado.”
Not a very edifying scene to contemplate, and I’ve got a feeling this joke has been told for as long as Juvenal has been taught through the medium of English. Allow me to explain it. A spado in Latin is a eunuch, and though Juvenal in actual fact used the term sparingly (only three times in total), eunuchs were very much the kind of affront to Roman manhood that Juvenal’s spectacularly jaundiced style of satire specialised in attacking. In Satire XIV, for example, he lays into the spado Posides, a freedman of the emperor Claudius, for his extravagant building projects (see here for what might have been one of his villas on the Amalfi Coast), but it’s probably more relevant that when Juvenal launches his satirical project in his scene-setting first poem, explaining that he’s been driven to abusive poetry by the moral corruption he sees all around him in the city of Rome, it is with a “soft spado” taking a wife (cum tener uxorem ducat spado) that he begins (1.22).
The expression “to call a spade a spade” of course means to speak frankly and directly, to tell it like it is. A spade’s spadiness is the perfect analogy because it’s an utterly unexotic piece of equipment, with entirely practical and unglamorous uses. In fact humour can be got from the perceived distance between spades and specialness (“to call a spade a geomorphological modification implement”) or from intensifying the spade’s mundane associations (“to call a spade a bloody shovel”). Calling a spade a spade is a quality or disquality we could easily associate with Juvenal, and J.G. Griffith could apply it to the less roundabout style of discussing Juvenal’s satire he felt able to adopt once all the women had left the room. Hence “to call a spado a spado“.
Now, I’m not going to devote an entire blog, composed in the precious hours I’ve snatched from my new life as an administrative drone, to explaining a donnish pun. Luckily the original expression “to call a spade a spade” has its own rather interesting history.
Like a lot of colloquial expressions that we assume are just traditional, or maybe biblical, this is anything but. We owe it to the great humanist Erasmus, and the collection of aphorisms, the Adages, which he first published in 1500 but added to for the rest of his life, so that in its final form, in 1536, the Adages reached a total of 4,151 entries, a Herculean achievement as he himself described it. These proverbs were then translated from Erasmus’ Latin into the vernacular languages of Europe, and the result is that our everyday language is peppered with Erasmian maxims: if you ever talk about “a necessary evil”, “rare bird”, “squeezing water from a stone”, “looking a gift horse in the mouth”, “putting the cart before the horse”, you owe that turn of phrase, and heaps of others, to Erasmus.
These proverbs weren’t Erasmus’ own invention. He found most of them in the Greek and Roman literature that, as a Renaissance humanist, he saw as the key to building a civilized society. It helped that he achieved an encyclopedic knowledge of that literature. There really wasn’t much that Erasmus hadn’t read at some time or another. I once traced the common turn of phrase “to lose a battle, but not the war” back to Erasmus’ Adages, but he’d found it in the late-antique dictionary of Nonius Marcellus, which he read and exploited for the penultimate 1533 edition of the Adages. I confess it tickles me that people, in the normal course of conversation, unwittingly repeat the words of classical writers: “a necessary evil” comes from the Greek geographer Strabo, “in the same boat” from a letter of Cicero, “one swallow does not make a summer” from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “a friend in need is a friend indeed” (a jingle in Latin, too: amicus certus in re incerta cernitur) from a tragedy of Ennius via Cicero, “to lose a battle but not the war” from Juvenal’s great predecessor in Roman satire, Lucilius (for whom Nonius’ De compendiosa doctrina is an important source). It tickles me especially that the expression “to call a spade a spade”, which is all about using simple language, is actually the result of the most learned man of his day’s unparalleled familiarity with the literature of classical antiquity.
We’re all Classicists really, it’s just that some of us don’t know it yet.
“To call a spade a spade” is just one of these 4,151 aphorisms, no. 1205, in fact. But it has an especially interesting history. Erasmus introduced it, in the 1515 edition, as Ficus ficus, ligonem ligonem vocat, “He calls figs figs, and a hoe a hoe.” “It is applied,” he explains, “to the man who explains something as it is, with simple, rustic truthfulness, and does not wrap it up in complex or elaborate expression.” He traces his Latin version of the saying to a Greek original, ta suka suka, ten skaphen skaphen legon (τὰ σῦκα σῦκα, τὴν σκάφην σκάφην λέγων), a line of verse which he attributes to Aristophanes, the most famous writer of Attic Comedy, apparently on the basis of reading John Tzetzes, a twelfth-century Byzantine scholar. The saying itself he found in one of his favourite ancient writers, the Greek satirist Lucian: in Jupiter Rants (Zeus Tragoidos 32), Heracles excuses himself as a “country bumpkin” who, “in the words of the comic poet” calls “the skaphe skaphe” (for reasons that will become clearer, I’ll hold off translating skaphe for the moment); while in How To Write History (41) Lucian lists the qualities of a good historian, “fearless, incorruptible, independent, a lover of frankness and truth, prepared, as the comic poet says, to call ‘figs figs, and the skaphe skaphe‘.” The full expression in How To Write History, figs and all, probably comes from another comic poet (though in a very different style of Comedy), Menander (fr. 717 Koerte). But the source of the version in Jupiter Rants (Aristophanes fr. 927 Kassel-Austin) may indeed be Aristophanes, depending how much faith we place in Tzetzes (traditionally, not awfully much).
This Roman hoe, from the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, is a Roman hoe.
For its impact on our everyday speech, Erasmus’ Adages is one of the most influential books ever written. In relation to no. 1205, the English versions of the Adages that rapidly appeared, for example by Richard Taverner and Nicholas Udall, rendered Erasmus’ ligo as “spade”–hence the aphorism we still use today. But there’s one odd thing we haven’t mentioned about Erasmus’ 1,205th adage: it’s all wrong. The Greek word that Erasmus translated as ligo, “hoe,” and Udall as “spade”, skaphe (σκάφη), means no such thing. A skaphe is not a tool for excavating but something excavated, a dug-out canoe or, in this case, probably a kneading trough or dough bin. Now, “to call a kneading trough a kneading trough” references an appropriately mundane item of kitchen equipment, it is true, but it lacks the snappiness of “calling a spade a spade”. “Spade”, “hoe” or “mattock” σκάφη simply does not mean, and it reminds us that Erasmus’ learning of Greek was always a work in progress, but his blooper was serendipitous if, as I suspect, it ensured the popularity and endurance of the English expression.
There we have it, anyway, the history of a turn of phrase which we may not have imagined had much of a history. On the contrary, when you bluntly call a spade a spade, you are echoing the language of Athenian dramatists from 2,500 years ago, with a twist added quite unwittingly by the leading light of the northern Renaissance.
Courtesy of Armand D’Angour (who knows his Attic Comedy much better than I do, as well as having a much dirtier mind), a further possible dimension of the original Greek expression, if σῦκον and σκάφη carry obscene further meanings (σῦκον): a superbly ironic joke by the comedian, calling figs figs, when “figs” mean something entirely different…