The student experience in the 1640s

Another entry for my occasional and necessarily elliptical history of student life, from Ruth Scurr’s new book John Aubrey: My Own Life, a sort of autobiography of the great seventeenth-century antiquary, writer and polymath assembled from his books, letters and other fragmentary writing. In this passage, written in 1642, Aubrey has just enrolled at Trinity College, Oxford:

‘Dr Ralph Kettell, the president of Trinity, often attends our lectures and exercises with an hourglass. He has been president since 1598 – the second president since the foundation of our college in 1555 – and is now almost eighty years old, with sharp grey eyes, white hair and a fresh ruddy complexion. He is over six foot tall, gigantic and terrible in his russet cloth gown, surplice and hood. He drags one foot – his right foot – so we hear him coming before he rounds the corner, like a rattlesnake.

“Turds! Tarrarags!” These are his names for the worst kind of boys. “Rascal-jacks! Blindcinques! Scobberlotchers! Get to your books and lessons, good-for-nothing idlers!” Such are his names for the boys that do no harm but do no work either, idling around the college grove with their hands in their pockets and telling the number of trees, etc.”’

Needless to say, this kind of thing is no longer part of what universities now like to call ‘the student experience’. But Kettell wasn’t all bad:

‘The President is a man of great charity. When he notices diligent boys with little money, whose friends have money, he is wont to drop money in at their windows at night. By day he walks up and down the college, peeping in at the keyholes to see if we boys follow our books or not. We mock him but we love him. “Seneca writes as a boar does piss: by jerks,” he tells us.’ (Scurr, p. 40)

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