Wherein Oxford students are licensed to ill by the king to fight for their right to party.
Almost since their medieval creation universities have been hotbeds of protest. From early conflicts over religion and political rule to more modern protests regarding climate change and individual rights, universities have been hotbeds for students clamoring for modifying—and sometimes overthrowing—the existing system.
Perhaps no issue is more near and dear to the hearts of college students ancient and modern than the one facing students in fourteenth-century Oxford: the quality of the local beer. After a riot in which almost one hundred people were killed, the king finally licensed them, not to be Beastie Boys or to be ill (for which they didn’t need a license: the Black Plague had already struck Oxford six years earlier), but at least to lord over the town.
Town and Gown
Conflicts between schools and the towns in which they were hosted were present from the beginning of the university system. Because the early universities did not own their own facilities, but instead rented buildings and halls from the town, the schools were relatively free to pack up and skedaddle when political and/or financial circumstances weren’t to their liking: the University of Lisbon twice moved to Coimbra in the fourteenth century, and the University of Paris shut down for two years after the city guard punished student rioters (killing several of them).
Problems between schools and towns were exacerbated by the fact that schools were Church institutions; students even wore tonsures as a sign of their ecclesiastical status, meaning town leaders needed to step very carefully around students and university officials (the Paris guards were only given permission by the Church to punish students after pressure from the king’s regent). This factored directly into the conflict (and resolution) of the beer-fueled riot in Oxford.
Beer Makes Me a Jolly Good Fellow
Christian feast days were not merely a medieval reason for going to church: they were also an occasion to celebrate, which university students unsurprisingly used to the fullest. The University of Paris incident began when students and a tavern owner argued over the bill from a Shrove Tuesday hullaballoo, and the St. Scholastica Day riot of 1355 began when Oxford students expressed their displeasure with the quality of their wine by throwing the drink in the tavern owner’s face and beating him with the wooden drinking pot.
Disputes between town and gown in medieval Oxford were often settled through violence—Cambridge University itself was formed in 1209 after students left following the lynching of two of their peers—and St. Scholastica’s day (February 10) was no exception. Unfortunately for the students, the Swindlestock tavern was owned by the mayor of Oxford. Bailiffs sent to arrested the students were resisted by 200 scholars who rioted through Oxford, assaulting the mayor and reportedly killing a 14 year-old.
The following day the townspeople (aided by others from the countryside) retaliated, with 2,000 people storming the University crying, “Slea, Slea…Havock, Havock…Smyte fast, give gode knocks.” Over 60 students were killed, with some said to have been scalped (I do wonder what was taken: the entire hair ring, or simply the bald patch?), and approximately 30 townspeople died in the fighting.
Punish the Guilty…If They’re Townies
The king, looking aghast at all the carnage, and needing to stay on the good side of the Pope, knew exactly how to handle the problem: stick it to the townspeople. The mayor and other leaders were locked up in the Tower of London, and the University was granted the authority to tax food and drink in the town and, perhaps even more importantly, to assize the weights and measures for local commerce.
The best punishment—and by best, read “most humiliating”—was the ritual where, on each St. Scholastica’s day, the mayor and 62 other townspeople were required to attend Mass at the University church and make a restitutional payment of one penny each (for the 63 dead scholars) to the vice-chancellor and other University administrators. In 1642 the mayor and city council refused to obey this law because “the originall was superstitious and besides they are often jeared by the Schollars that the mayor weres a halter about his neck on that day;” the ritual was finally dropped in 1858.
Modern university students may not listen to the Beastie Boys (unless it’s part of an ironic “Let’s mock the 80’s” party), but the outcome of this incident could nonetheless be inspirational for the modern academy. I suspect many university presidents would love to require the local town council to abase themselves on a yearly basis, and perhaps to even slap a halter around the mayor’s neck as part of the festivities.
Image: 1907 postcard of the St. Scholastica’s Day Riot (Source)