Tag Archive | chronogram

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.


What follows is sheer speculation, but I should start with an explanation.

Last summer I went with my family to Deal in Kent for a week, and one day, intrigued by theories about Julius Caesar’s landing place in 55 and 54 BC, as one is bound to be, I took a long walk down the coast from Deal to within sight of the White Cliffs at Kingsdown.

In Kingsdown I found myself walking past something fine and unexpected, a beautifully presented Edwardian house by the sea with a Latin text carved in its façade.

The text reads si mea laeta placet casa tu precor hospes adesto, or with punctuation, si mea laeta placet casa, tu, precor, hospes, adesto; in English literally, “If my happy cottage is pleasing, do, I pray, stranger, be here”, or more fluently, “If you like my cheerful cottage, stranger, do please come in.” You may notice, though, that some of the letters are larger than others (I pick them out in bold): SI MEA LAETA PLACET CASA TV PRECOR HOSPES ADESTO. These larger letters, understood as Roman numerals, add up (I + V + L + L + C + C + C + D + M) to 1906, apparently the date when the house was constructed. In other words, it’s a chronogram, about which I blogged here, while here I pondered a connection between this chronogram in Deal and the examples from Oxford (including my own college, Brasenose) that I’d discussed in that blog. I so pondered because this example in Deal is a great piece of work, the nicest I’ve seen. Like the chronogram at Brasenose it is in verse, a dactylic hexameter, and it would be an extremely elegant composition even if it weren’t also a dating formula.

Well, I did some rapid research on the internet yesterday, and I started with one slighter stronger assumption, and one decidedly weak. The strong one is that chronograms of this quality are not easy to produce and are thus likely to be the work of a limited number of people. The weak is the one I’ve mentioned: given that I’ve identified two chronograms in Oxford, one on the façade of Frewin Hall from 1888 and another on the front of the Rhodes Building from 1911, as the work of Charles Shadwell, Fellow and later Provost of Oriel College, Oxford, I suspected that this example might have something to do with him too.

What I established yesterday was that in 1963, in the will of Alan Bruce Blaxland, the house bearing the chronogram, named “Pleasaunce” (a name alluded to in PLACET), was given as his residence at the time of his death. Alan Bruce Blaxland C.B. O.B.E. had been a senior officer in the British Indian Army during the Second World War, his most controversial role perhaps coming after the war when he chaired the court-martials of men who had joined Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army: he died on September 2, 1963 in the Victoria Hospital, Deal, at the age of 71.

In the 1901 and 1911 censuses we find Alan Bruce Blaxland at the ages of 8 and 18 at home with his family, two further brothers and two sisters, his mother Constance and father Bruce, a Church of England clergyman. In 1901 Bruce Blaxland was vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Lilleshall, Shropshire, and in 1911 of the Abbey Church in Shewsbury.

And it’s with Bruce that I start to indulge in wild speculation. The first step is the observation that both Bruce and Constance were from east Kent, Bruce from Canterbury, and Constance from Eastry, which is just a few miles from Kingsdown — my guess is that the house Alan Bruce Blaxland was living in in 1963 was built by his parents as a holiday home back where they spent their childhoods. The next step, and the ice gets less and less secure the further out I venture, involves the Revd. Bruce Blaxland’s education, since according to this very comprehensive account of his career (and I’ve checked out some of the relevant details in The Times archive), he studied Modern History at Oriel College, Oxford from 1879 to 1882, achieving a First Class degree.

This was, needless to say, precisely when Charles Shadwell was a fellow of Oriel, with his hobbies (as listed in Who’s Who) of “punting, billiards, chess problems, chronograms”. (One can read Walter Pater’s essay Diaphaneité, which describes an ideal personality, living a “purity of life”, modelled on his friend Charles Shadwell, and wonder about those recreations.) From 1874 to 1887, Shadwell, a man devoted to his college, was treasurer of Oriel, and from 1905 to 1914 its head. In between he lived at Frewin Hall, Oxford, carried out extensive renovations, and popped a Latin, hexametrical chronogram over the front door. I can think of any number of ways by which Blaxland and Shadwell might have become acquainted, and I’m obviously imagining that either Bruce Blaxland got into chronography himself when an undergraduate, inspired by Shadwell (in which case he was an excellent pupil), or (and I think this more likely) Blaxland requested a chronogram from Shadwell at a later date. The coincidence of an Oriel connection just seems too great to me otherwise.

Anyhow, it’s my blog, and I can speculate as much as I like.