Decorated initial I

t must not be forgotten, however, that, by the original foundation, all the members of the College were both Scholars and Fellows, of equal dignity, except in standing, the Scholar being nothing but a junior Fellow, and the Fellow nothing but an elder Scholar. There were a few boys of the Founder's kin, for whom a separate provision was made; and "commoners" were admitted from time to time at the discretion of the College, but these were mere supernumeraries, at first of low degree, afterwards of higher rank, and on the footing of fellow-com- moners. It was not until the new order of Postmasters (portiouistae) was founded by Wylliott, about 1380, that a second class of students was recognized by the College; and this institution of College "scholarships," in the modern sense, long remained a characteristic feature of Merton. Unlike the young " Scholares," the Postmasters did not rise by seniority to what are now called Fellowships, and were, in fact, the humble friends of the Master-Fellows who had nominated them. It would appear that at the end of the fifteenth century, if not from the first, each Master-Fellow had this right; and the number of Postmasters was always to be the same as that of the Master-Fellows. Until that period they seem to have been lodged in the separate building, opposite the College gate, long known as "Postmasters Hall." It is not clear whether they took meals in the College Hall, or lived on rations served out to them; but it is perfectly clear that they fared badly enough until their diet was improved in the reign of James I. by special benefactions of Thomas Jessop and others. In the previous reign, they had been removed into the College itself; and thenceforward for several generations they slept, probably on truckle-beds, in the bedrooms of their respective "Masters." Indeed, a College-order of 1543 leads us to suppose that some of them were expected to wait upon the Bachelor-Fellows in Hall.

The Scrutiny

Another institution characteristic of Merton in the olden times is one now obsolete, but formerly known as the "Scrutiny." The Founder had expressly ordained in his statutes that a "Chapter or Scutiny" should be held in the College itself thrice a year — a week before Christmas, a week before Easter, and on July 20; and that on these occasions a diligent enquiry should be made into the life, behaviour, morals, and progress in learning of all his scholars, as well as into all matters needing correction or improvement. He also decreed that, once a year, the Warden, bailiffs of manors, and all others concerned in the management of College property, should render a solemn account of their stewardship before the Vice-Warden and all the Scholars, assembled at " one of the manors." The bailiffs and other agents of the College were to resign their keys, without reserve, into the hands of the Warden; but the Warden himself was to undergo a like inquisition into his own conduct, and was apparently to be visited with censure or penalties, in case of delinquency, by the College meeting. It is by no means easy to understand why this annual audit, for such it was, should not have been appointed to be held at one of the stated " Chapters or Scrutinies," or why "one of the manors" should have been designated as the lawful place for it.

At all events, the distinction between a Scrutiny and an Audit-meeting seems to have been lost at a very early period. Scrutinies, or Chapters, were held frequently, though at irregular intervals; but at least once a year the Scrutiny assumed the form of an Audit, not only into accounts, but into conduct, being sometimes held in the College Hall, and sometimes at Holywell Manor. The earliest notice of such a Scrutiny in the College Eegister is under the date 1483, when three questions were propounded for discussion: — (1) the conduct of College servants; (2) the number of Postmasters; and (3) the appointment of College officers. Two years later, however, we find three other questions laid down as the proper subjects for consideration : — (1) the residence and conduct of the Warden; (2) the condition of the manors; and (3) the expediency of increasing the number of Fellows. At a later period, the regular questions were — (1) the expediency of increasing the number of Postmasters; (2) the conduct of College servants (as before); and (3) the appointment of a single College officer, the garden-master.

Practically, the Scrutiny often resolved itself into a sort of caucus, at which a free and easy altercation took place among the Fellows upon all the points of difference likely to arise in a cloistered society absorbed in its own petty interests. In Professor Rogers' interesting record of a Scrutiny held in 1338-9, long before the College Register commences, every kind of grievance is brought forward, from the Warden's neglect of duty to the slovenly attire of the Chaplain, the excessive charge for horses, and the in- cessant squabbles between three quarrelsome Fellows. The same freedom of complaint shows itself in the briefer notices of later Scrutinies to be found in the Register. Undue indul- gence in games of ball, loitering about the town, the introduction of Fellow-commoners into Hall, the prevalence of noise in the bed-chambers at night, as well as enmities among the Fellows, and abuses in the estate-management, were among the stock topics of discussion at Scrutinies; and in 1585 complaints were made at a Scrutiny against suspected Papists. It is evident that reflections were often cast upon the Warden; but it was known that he could only be deposed by the Visitor after three admonitions from the Sub-Warden; and, though in one case these admonitions were given, the Visitor, Archbishop Sancroft, declined to adopt the extreme course. The practice of reviewing the conduct of the Warden at Scrutinies appears, indeed, to have been finally dropped under Warden Chamber, who, as Court physician to King Henry VIII., had a good excuse for constantly absenting himself; but the practice of mviting personal charges against Fellows survived much longer, and Scrutinies were nominally held in the last century.

«Variations," or College disputations

A third institution distinctive of Merton was the system of «Variations," or College disputations, of the same nature as the exercises required for University degrees. This custom is thus described by John Poynter, in a little work on the curiosities of Oxford, published in 1749. "The Master-Fellows," he says, " are obliged by their Statutes to take their turns every year about the Act time, or at least before the first day of August, to vary, as they call it, that is, to perform some public exercise in the Comtnon Hall, the Variator opposing Aristotle in three Latin speeches, upon three questions in Philosophy, or rather Morality; the three Deans in their turns answering the Variator in three speeches in opposition to his, and in defence of his Aristotle, and after every speech disputing with him syllogistic- ally upon the same. Which Declamations or Disputations were amicably concluded with a magnificent and expensive supper, the charges of which formerly came to £100, but of late years much retrenched." He adds that the audience was composed of the Vice-Chancellor and Proctors, with several Heads of Houses, besides the Warden and all the members of the College. As Variations were still in force when Poynter wrote, we may accept his description of them as tolerably accurate; but he is evidently wrong in supposing them to have taken place at one season of the year only, for the College Register clearly proves the actual date of them to have been moveable, so long as they were performed within the two years of "Regency" following Inception.

By the old rule of the University, all Regent- Masters were obliged to give "ordinary" lectures during that period. This obligation was enforced at Merton by the oath required of Bachelor-Fellows before their Inception; and by the same oath they bound themselves during the same period, not only to engage in the logical and philosophical disputations of the College, but also to "vary twice." The system was regularly established, and is mentioned as of immemorial antiquity, before the end of the fifteenth century. From that time forward Variations are frequently and fully recorded in the Register; and, whenever dispensations were allowed, the fact is duly noted. In 1673 a Fellow was fined £12 — a large sum in those days — for neglecting his second Variations; and the significant comment is appended : — "we acquitted him, so far as we could, of his perjury."

Even the subjects chosen by the Variations are carefully specified, and astonish us by their wide range of interest. At first, metaphysical and logical questions predominate; but there is a large admixture of ethical questions, and a few bearing on natural philosophy. At the end of the sixteenth and throughout the seventeenth century, politics enter largely into the field of disputation; while in the eighteenth century a more discursive and literary tone of thought makes itself clearly felt. Upon the whole, we can well believe that, in the age before examinations, these intellectual trials of strength played no mean part in education, quickening the wits of Merton Fellows, if they did not encourage the cultivation of solid knowledge.

The Merton Grammar-Masters — the Earliest Type of College Tutors

It is to be hoped, no doubt, that they were preceded and supplemented by sound private tuition; but upon this, unhappily, the Merton records throw no light. It seems to be assumed in the original Statutes that Scholars of Merton, though bound to study within the House, will receive their instruction outside it. The only exception was the statutable institution of a grammar-master, who was to have charge of the students in of grammar, and to whom " the more advanced misfht have recourse without a blush, when doubts should arise in their faculty." This institution was treated by Archbishop Peckham as of primary importance; and he specially censures the College for practically excluding boys who had still to learn the rudiments of grammar. There is good reason to believe that John of Cornwall, who is mentioned as the first to introduce the study of English in schools, and to abandon the practice of construing Latin into French, actually held the office of grammar-master in Merton College. These Merton grammar-masters (who continued to be appointed in the sixteenth century) were probably the earliest type of College tutors — an order which inevitably developed itself at a later period, but of which the history remains to be evolved from very scanty materials. The medical lectures founded by Linacre, and the Divinity lectures founded by Bickley, in the sixteenth century, as well as the lectures delivered by Thomas Bodley on Greek, were essentially College lectures, but seem to have been professorial rather than tutorial. A College order of June 9th, 1586, the first year of Savile s wardenship, requires the Regent- Masters to deliver twenty public lectures to the Postmasters on the Sphere or on Arithmetic, as the Warden should think fit. Probably this rule was soon neglected; and it is not until a much later period that we find the modern relation of tutor and pupil a living reality in Colleges.

We may pass lightly over some other strange, though not unique, customs of Merton which fill a large space in the Register and the pages of Anthony Wood. One of these was the annual election of a Ignis Begentium, or " Christmas King," on the vigil of St. Edmund (Nov. 19th), under the authority of sealed letters, which " pretended to have been brought from some place beyond sea." This absurd farce, reminding us of the rough burlesques formerly practised on board ship in crossing the Equator, was solemnly enacted year after year, and recorded in the Register with as much gravity as the succession of a Warden. The person chosen was the senior Fellow who had not yet borne the office; and, according to Wood, his duty was " to punish all misdemeanours done in the time of Christmas, either by imposing exercises on the juniors, or putting into the stocks at the end of the Hall any of the servants, with other punishments that were sometimes very ridiculous." This went on until Candlemas (Feb. 2nd), " or much about the time that the Ignis Begentium was celebrated." The Ignis Begentium seems to have been nothing more than a great College wine-party round the Hall fire, attended with various traditional festivities, and provided at the cost of all the Regent-Masters, or only of the Senior Regent, whose munificent hospitality is sometimes expressly commended. Of a similar nature were the practical jokes and rude horse-play described by Anthony Wood as carried on, by way of initiating freshmen, on All Saints Eve and other Eves and Saints' Days up to Christmas, as well as on Shrove Tuesday, when the poor novices were compelled to declaim in undress from a form placed on the High Table, and rewarded, or punished with some brutality, for their performances. It is significant that, under the Commonwealth, these old-world jovialities were disused, and soon afterwards died out. The old custom of singing Catholic hymns in the College Hall, on the Eves and Vigils of Saints' Days between All Saints and Candlemas Day, had been modified at the Reformation by the substitution of Sternhold and Hopkins' Psalms, which con- tinued to be sung in Anthony Wood's times. Not less curious, and more important, are the detailed regulations made for the health of the College during frequent outbreaks of the plague, when the majority of Fellows and students migrated to Cux- ham, Stow Wood, Islip, Eynsham, or elsewhere, and communi- cation between the College and the town was strictly limited.

The Few Surviving Medieval and Renaissance Customs

Were it possible for a Merton Fellow of the Plantagenet, Tudor, or Stuart period to revisit his College in our own day, he would find but few survivals of the quaint usages once peculiar to it. The recitation of a thanksgiving prayer for benefits inherited from the Founder at the end of each chapel- service, the time-honoured practice of striking the Hall table with a wooden trencher as a signal for grace, and the ceremonies observed on the induction of a new Warden, are perhaps the only outward and visible relics of its ancient customary which the spirit of innovation has left alive. But he would feel him- self at home in the noble choir of the Chapel, with its stone- work and painted glass almost untouched by the lapse of six centuries; in the Library, retaining every structural feature of Bishop Rede's original work down to its minutest detail; in the Treasury, with its massive high-pitched roof, under which the College archives have been preserved entire since the reign of Edward I., together with a coeval inventory of the documents then deposited there; in the College Garden, surrounded on two sides by the town-wall of Henry HI., extended eastward since the close of the Middle Ages by purchases from the City, but curtailed westward by sales of land for the site of Corpus.

Perhaps, on reviewing tlie unbroken continuity of College history through more than twenty generations, crowded with vicissitudes in Church and State, with transformations of ancient institutions, and with revolutions in human thought, he would cease to repine over changes which the Founder himself foresaw as inevitable, and would rather marvel at the vitality of a collegiate society, which can still maintain its corporate identity, with so much of its original structure, in an age beyond that which mediaeval seers had assisgned for the end of the world.

Links to Related Material


The Colleges of Oxford: Their Histories and Traditions. Ed. Andrew Clarke, M.A. London: Metheuen, 1891. HathiTrust online version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 30 November 2022.

Last modified 30 November 2022