Oxford University consists of thirty-nine colleges, each with its own foundation date, history and internal management. The exact foundation date of the university isn’t known, although teaching is known to have taken place here since the eleventh century. It is the oldest university in the English-speaking world.
Religious orders settled in Oxford during the thirteenth century and created houses or ‘Halls’ for students. Friction sometimes existed with townspeople, and colleges were later endowed by private benefactors as self-contained and safe scholarly communities. The first such colleges were Merton, Balliol and University College – ‘Univ’ – with each (of course) claiming to be the earliest.
A century later a new college was founded, aptly perhaps (at the time) named ‘New College’, to bolster the number of clergy (England was still a Catholic country) after the ravages of the Black Death, a plague that had spread through Europe and caused the death of over a third of the English population. Its founder gave it the motto ‘Manners Makyth Man’.
The statutes for New College were rather strict, allowing no ball games, no shooting (arrows, stones etc), no dancing or wrestling, or any other ‘incautious or inordinate’ games. Daily church attendance was mandatory. Whilst the students had a sparse existence, the tutors, or ‘fellows’, lived well, enjoying comfortable quarters and eating and drinking extensively at ‘High Table’ (‘High Table’ still exists as the – often lavish – dining table for ‘dons’). The contrast was such that the saying went that ‘manners makyth man and the want of them the fellow’.
The most famous head, or ‘Warden’, of New College was the Reverend Dr Spooner. He is best-known for his ‘spoonerisms’, whereby the first letter of some words are swapped to create a different, often absurd meaning. One such famous example was when dismissing a recalcitrant student : ‘Sir, you have tasted two whole worms; you have hissed all my mystery lectures and you have been caught fighting a liar in the quad. You shall leave by the next town drain’. Another notorious spoonerism was when he proposed the (so-called) ‘loyal toast’ : ‘to our queer old dean’. The possibilities for spoonerisms are many and various.
Such light-hearted and somewhat frivolous tales of Oxford colleges and characters are legion, and reflect the fact that the university has had a rich and varied history, full of idiosyncracies, quirks and odd traditions, although this cannot detract from the fact that the university has from its beginnings been a rich seat of learning and has firmly established itself as one of the world’s foremost universities, without always taking itself too seriously!