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No axe-tossing, bear-fighting or idleness - Tudor student life revealed in first translation of Caius statutes

  • 11 February 2018

A vivid glimpse into the lives of sixteenth century students at Gonville & Caius, compelled to speak only in Latin, remain celibate and resist the lure of bear-fights, backstreet taverns and idleness, is revealed in all its prescriptive detail in a new book editing and translating the Latin statutes of the College’s founders.

In the age of Dr John Caius, third founder of the College and its Master for 14 years, student timetables and penalties make the routines of their busy modern counterparts look positively relaxed. Under Dr Caius’ firm instructions, undergraduates were fined if they missed daily morning lectures or were not back in their chambers by 8pm to carry on working after dinner, and students were forbidden from putting up archery targets or laying out tennis courts and from the sport of tossing axes in College to ensure they were not distracted from their studies.

The colourful picture of Caian life in the Tudor period is contained in Gonville & Caius College: The Statutes of the Founders, by Caius Senior Fellow Michael Prichard (1950) - pictured. The volume, published by Boydell & Brewer and available at a discount to alumni, offers the first translation of the statutes of Edmund Gonville, who founded the College as Gonville Hall in 1348; William Bateman, Bishop of Norwich, who moved the foundation to its present site; and John Caius, an alumnus and physician who refounded his old College in 1557, extending it and securing its future. A masterly work of scholarship, ten years in the making, the book unearths a wealth of new information on the financial and bursarial aspects of the College's history.

The statutes of Dr Caius, Master for 14 years from 1558 until shortly before his death in 1573, reflect the tensions and conflicts with some of the College’s fellows that beset the first seven years of his mastership, including his efforts to crack down on dividends being paid to fellows as a way of circumventing limits on stipends. The last seven years, once Caius had brought the College finances under closer control, were far less fraught than they have often been portrayed, according to fresh research and analysis by Mr Prichard. His synopsis of the structure and conclusions of the book can be read below.

From the outset, Dr Caius set rigorous and highly-prescribed standards for both the fellows and the students of his College, the statutes reveal. There would be, they state, a master who would take precedence over others in the College, and “thirteen or more fellows, worthy persons of unblemished beliefs, god-fearing, chaste and devoted to the pursuit of learning… and of irreproachable morals” (those who fell below par risked being put in the stocks in Hall). In addition, the College would be home to 29 scholars (to be increased as more benefactors provided funds), together with a butler, a caterer, and a cook and his assistant.

John Caius’ own scholars, according to his statutes, were to come primarily from Norfolk (a county closely linked to the College), with a handful of others from London and nearby counties. They were to be at least 16 years of age, “of a good height, and born of parents whom fortune has not favoured: for poverty is the training school of virtue”.  The admissions process was no less stringent, if perhaps less scientific, than today: with no UCAS points to proffer, the boys were to be “rigorously examined for three days publicly in the chapel… as to whether they write legibly, sing musically, construe Latin properly, are polyphonists, know Greek and can write verse, and after scrutiny as to whether they are of commendable morals, of good character and promise, clever, teachable and diligent.” There was to be no bribery, in case “the unworthy, the trouble-makers and the inept” should be chosen.

For the handful who met the challenging entry criteria, sixteenth century life at Caius was just as demanding. While the master and fellows kept an eye on their morals, the students were to devote themselves to Greek, Latin, logic, rhetoric, and natural and moral philosophy (in which they should argue moot cases in Latin every day from 3-4pm in Hall), together with arithmetic and music.

Bachelors of Arts as well as undergraduate scholars and pensioners were to be fined if they did not attend lectures in the morning and disputations in the afternoon, including in the vacations, “lest they grow sluggish from idleness, become accustomed to licence and persuade themselves that they are free to do whatever they like”.

The rules (and fines) didn’t stop there. The entire academic community at Caius – fellows, scholars and pensioners (students not supported by College funds) – should speak solely in Latin at table, in Chapel and around College, Dr Caius decreed, or forfeit the day’s common meal. Possibly a yet more burdensome constraint was the rule of “perpetual and honest celibacy”, on pain of expulsion from the College: enforced so that members of the college could “live without distraction, complete their studies more quickly and become the wiser”. No such prescription endures today, though the rule did endure until 1860.

The rigid academic dress code required by Dr Caius was yet another restriction endured by all members of the College, although the slightly testy tone of the statute on dress suggests that not all met his demanding standards. All were to wear “a long, ankle-length garment, with open sleeves, traditional clerical collar, black or violet or in between the two in colour”, with a cloth garment known as an ‘exomis’ on top and a tunic or cassock underneath, or risk exclusion. All this should be worn both in and out of College, “and in a decent state: not worn out, not torn, not moth-eaten, not too small or too big but of the right size to fit the wearer”. The prescription does not end there, as Dr Caius felt the need to spell out some specific fashion no no’s: “No one shall wear boots with hoops, but only those that fit tight to the leg; no one frilly shirts, but plain, loose-textured ones with an inconspicuous ruffle and that ruffle at the neck, and not a pointed hat, either in the College or outside”.

Deprived of both romantic and sartorial adventures, students would have found that the options for other distractions were also limited. Keeping animals for hunting, fowling or as pets was banned, and nor could scholars put up archery targets, lay out tennis courts or toss an axe within the boundaries of the College (axe-tossing was, indeed, grounds for expulsion). Even Dr Caius, however, recognised the need for some leisure activity, and the statutes permit Caians to “practise with bows in the fields, or play with balls in college, providing that is done in suitable places and without causing a nuisance”.

A spot of football would be as far an entertainment went, at least if students kept to the rules. College members were expressly forbidden to frequent “backstreet taverns or wine-shops”, never mind “places of ill repute or suspicion” and could sleep only in their assigned room within College. Also out of bounds were bullfights, bear-fights or dog fights, as were performances by travelling players, who “perform foolish play for the foolish rabble”.

With his students confined so often to College, Dr Caius did not forget to lay down a few extra rules of behaviour. No member of the College should “relieve himself upon its walls or doors”, his statutes chide, and – in a requirement still in place today – neither should they tear, mistreat or mark library books.

In addition to safeguarding the morals and work ethic of those in his College, Dr Caius, a former Royal Physician, did not forget their health. The statutes also set out his decree that no building should close in the south side of the College, “lest the stagnant air become infected through the failure to let it flow freely and does harm to the health of our members”. While some of Dr Caius’ more restrictive prescriptions have fallen by the wayside (many rather rapidly after his departure as Master), this one remains in place today.

While some of the rules set down by Dr Caius contrast sharply with those governing modern College life, sixteenth century students would in fact not have found the "routine for studying" quite so irksome and rigid as his statutes would suggest, Mr Prichard believes. "Gonville & Caius College was one of the (very) poor colleges and, whatever the position in more fashionable colleges like King's and Trinity, most of its junior members seem to have had relatively modest means and came up here as scholars to acquire a degree and qualify to earn a living. Even those who had means and were admitted to the college as major pensioners seem to have valued academic life."

Caius' aversion to ruffles and other fripperies may also have been prompted elsewhere than his own College, Mr Prichard adds. "I doubt whether there were in Caius many of the popinjays whose dress infuriated John Caius so much; his strictures were prompted by his impressions of conduct in the University generally rather than in his own College. Furthermore, even when he was Master Caius spent a most of his time away from the College and living in London, not only earning his living but doing an immense amount of work for the College too."

The most unexpected conclusion of the translation project was the degree to which Dr Caius survived challenging times to achieve surprisingly peaceable relations with the Fellowship, Mr Prichard concludes. "It has left me with a much more sympathetic view of him and the difficulties he overcame than I had started with."

Professor Sir Alan Fersht, Master of Caius, warmly welcomed the book's publication. "Michael  Prichard, sometime Senior Tutor, sometime President and legendary teacher and now Senior Fellow of Caius has capped his devotion to the College with a magnum opus of scholarship made colourful and of compelling reading with interesting details of our history that reveal so much. One practice that intrigues me is the use of stocks in Hall to punish awkward Fellows – but I fear it may be difficult to get it reinstated if it comes to a vote."


  • Gonville & Caius College: The Statutes of the Founders by Michael Prichard can be ordered online here. We are pleased to have negotiated an alumni discount of 35% on the RRP of £60, to any Caians ordering direct from the publisher. After discount the cost is just £39/$64.35 (plus p&p). Simply add the book to your basket and enter code BB541 in the promotional codes box at the checkout. Alternatively call +44 (0)1243 843 291 from the UK, Europe and RoW, or +1 585-275-0419 from North and South America.
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Author’s synopsis

Gonville & Caius College is exceptional in having had three separate founders each of whom drew up statutes for their foundation: the rector Edmund Gonville, the bishop William Bateman and the doctor John Caius.  The three sets of statutes bear the stamp of their makers’ very different personalities and the circumstances in which each of the sets of statutes came into existence.  In contrast to the short-lived statutes of the first founder, those of William Bateman continued in force for over 500 years and for the last 300 of those years they were supplemented and largely supplanted by the much fuller statutes of the third founder, John Caius.

The statutes made by those founders have two unique features: first, the statutes of the last founder did not supersede those of the second founder but took effect concurrently with them for over three hundred years;  and, second, the longest set of the three founders’ statutes was formulated by someone – John Caius – who was not only a founder but had himself been a fellow of the college for which he was drawing up his statutes and was Master of that college during the years in which he was formulating the final draft of those statutes.  The first feature gave rise to legal issues that continued to trouble the college until both the second and third founders’ statutes were replaced in 1860, while the second feature gave to Caius’ statutes the unique detail of their provisions and their exceptional character.  For both these reasons John Caius’ statutes in particular deserve greater attention than they have been given.

The work falls into two Parts. 

Part I is principally devoted to editions and translations (in Sections II, III and IV) of the statutes given to the college by the three founders, and it also contains (in Section I) an introduction comparing the very different characteristics which are exhibited by the statutes of each of the founders.  Editions and translations of two subsidiary works are also included in Sections III and IV:  these are commentaries on the statutes of Bateman and Caius, namely, the “expositions” of Bateman’s statutes that were written by Caius before he started to draft his own statutes, and the legally binding “interpretations” that were put upon Caius’ statutes by Archbishop Parker two years after Caius’ death and by his direction.

Part II has three sections: Section V Background, Section VI Aftermath, and Section VII Appendices. Section V Background contains accounts of the circumstances in which the statutes of each of the three founders came into existence.  The late Christopher Brooke very kindly contributed the accounts of the backgrounds to Gonville’s and Bateman’s foundations, and Michael Prichard wrote the account of the background to Caius’ statutes, concentrating upon those aspects which had most effect upon the contents and character of the third founder’s statutes, and in particular upon Caius’ relations with individual fellows when he was Master.  Those relations were admittedly fraught during the first seven years of his mastership – a period when he seems to have acted more as a founder than as a Master – but it is argued here that relations with fellows of the college were far less unhappy in the last seven years of Caius’ life than Venn has led us to believe.  Part VI Aftermath consists of essays on five topics which were the subject of clear and emphatic instructions by Caius in his statutes but were, in later centuries, either (a) the subject of bitter dispute and litigation (the Master’s negative vote and the Norfolk preference) or else (b) were, by tacit agreement, construed in ways which ran counter to the intentions and wishes of the third founder (the restriction of the government of the college to the Master and the twelve senior fellows, the long rigidity that restricted stipends and the devious resort to dividends to supplement them).  Relatively little has been written on the last two of those topics (stipends and dividends), for histories of the college have tended to shun any enquiry into the financial and economic history of the college.  Both stipends and dividends were subjects on which Caius felt strongly and in his statutes he included detailed provisions on the former and emphatic prohibitions against the latter.  His statutes on both subjects were set aside – very gradually in the case of stipends and almost immediately in the case of dividends – yet one searches in vain for either subject in the index to Venn’s voluminous account of the history of the college (Biographical History, vol. III).  An attempt has been made in the present work to remedy the neglect of those two topics.  Section VII Appendices has nine appendices which contain transcripts and (where appropriate) translations of relevant documents to which frequent reference is made earlier in the work.  Most of these documents are in the college’s archives and some of them have appeared in Venn’s edition of the Annals of the college, but since that work may not be readily available they have been reproduced here and supplemented with explanatory notes and cross-references.

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