Following on from the First Post of this blog concerning the tensions in Paris between scholars of different geographic origins I thought I would bring things closer to (my) home and talk about Oxford. Oxford followed the Parisian model of dividing the Arts faculty into ‘nations’. The term nations should not be confused with the modern concept of the nation state which did not exist in the middle ages but should instead evoke a sense of community, or shared background/language. In Bologna there were as many as fourteen ‘Nations’, separate administrative units within the university which held feasts, looked after the sick and so forth whereas in Paris there were four. Oxford it seems may have had four too in the very beginning, but these quickly coalesced into two separate power blocks, the Australes and the Boreales. The former originating south of the Trent, and the most powerful of the two, and the latter those students from the north of England and Scotland. The Welsh were considered part of the more powerful Australes, among scholars from the Romance lands and the wealthier and more politically important south of England, far less peripheral than we might imagine.
Between the two parties of North and South there were bitter rivalries, so much so that even the Masters, the teachers within the university, would join in on these deadly battles. Today’s post is about one such incident, which took place on the 29th of April 1388. A serious battle broke out between the northerners and the Welsh, who were according to the chronicler Henry Knighton semper inquieti (never quiet). During this battle, if you believe him, the chronicler Adam of Usk, who was studying at Oxford at the time, played a central role. Several scholars were killed and many northern students returned home and abandoned their studies because they feared they were no longer safe.
Such was the case with the violence in medieval Oxford reprisals were never far behind. The following year according to the gaol delivery roll, a large body of northern scholars rose up and having elected a leader, sought out the welsh and shot them in the street. They chanted as they went ‘war war war, slay, slay, slay the welsh dogs and he who helps or even looks out his window shall be dead’. The gang ransacked the homes of scholars, stealing from one poor chap two swords, a buckler (shield), two bows, twenty-six arrows, gauntlets and other diverse armour. Medieval scholars were sufficiently armed it seems to turn a minor tavern brawl into a real pitched battle! The mob then rounded up the remaining Welsh students who had not fled, or died, and marched them to the gate forcing them to urinate on the towns gates, then kiss the soiled gateposts, banged their heads against the gates until their noses bled and tears rose from their eyes.
In a testament to the unreliability of medieval chronicles, Knighton says that what actually happened was the Welsh and the northerners civilly agreed upon a time and a place to do battle, but the matter was settled by Thomas Woodstock without anyone being harmed and the Welsh agreed to leave the town peacefully, exchanging kisses of peace with the northerners as they did so.
I will let you decide who to believe….
Kibre, Pearl. The Nations in the Medieval Universities. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Medieval Academy of America, 1948)
Knighton, Henry. Knighton’s Chronicle 1337-1396 edited by G.H Martin. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995)
The Chronicle of Adam of Usk ed. and trans. By C. Given-Wilson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997)
Oxfordshire Sessions of the Peace in the Reign of Richard IIed. by Elisabeth Kimball (Banbury: Cheney & Sons, 1983)