Don’t you just love gargoyles? Actually this Merton one must be a “grotesque” as it doesn’t spit water. These little monsters crawl over many an Oxbridge façade, favoring high perches, drain spouts, hidden nooks and John Kelly’s Voxford blog. I’m so honored to be featured as Kelly’s gargoyle of the week. Look up when exploring the old colleges if you feel googlie eyes.
Merton is “the oldest college” at Oxford, a title it shares with two others: Balliol and Univ. They were all established between 1249-1264. The dispute centers around which started teaching first. Merton’s claim of antiquity rests upon being the first college in England to receive a royal charter. Its oldest quad has buildings without chimneys because the technology hadn’t made it to England from the Continent. College treasures are still stored in the stone buildings to protect them from fire.
Merton also houses the oldest continuously functioning English library (built 1278 -1378) in the world. Merton cleverly built up its library by requiring academics to bring and bestow their personal book collections to the college. They also had three ancient astrolabes and a couple of multi-locked chests that used to house books before the advent of bookcases.
Photo of Merton Library from Wikipedia
I wish I could have taken photos of the Merton Library myself. It was like walking into a wooden crypt or a sacred mausoleum of literary antiquity. The walls and stalls were oak paneled and the ceiling open to the roof beams like an attic. The tiny stained glass windows let in little light.
The best lit stalls housed the most learned texts in the hierarchy of knowledge: theology and philosophy, followed by law and medicine. The lower humanities were in the least favorable northern corners. The progression of subjects lead to enlightenment as in those days colleges were formed first and foremost as religious institutions.
In the darkest recesses the first year students of past centuries might be reading lowly literature. And what literature! There’s one of the first printed versions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and it’s in the best shape of the 8 existing copies. Priceless! Merton also has a second volume of Shakespeare. I had to take out a tissue to avoid drooling over all the leather-bound, chained books.
Perhaps I should have been trembling with fear. The Merton Library is haunted! John Duns Scotus supposedly walks shin deep, wading through the new raised floor. Students sneak into the library to see him at night. I heard this tale and others from our student guide, Krishna Omkar.
Merton is as rich in stories as it is in history. J.R.R. Tolkien had an office in Fellows Quad. He met with his buddy C.S. Lewis in the Merton gardens which are lovely on a warm spring day. They sat around a stone table, that was to feature in the Narnia series, and discussed their writing when they weren’t meeting at the Eagle and Child pub.
This is The Stone Table? It wasn’t large enough to kill a cat let alone a mighty lion, Aslan. As for the name Aslan, my son told me that it is Islamic. He has a friend from Iran who is teased mercilessly for that name at their English boys school. Kids can be so cruel, but I like that there is more to the Narnia books beyond a Christian allegory. It feels like a treasure hunt living in Oxford and uncovering the inspiration for classic literature.
Merton also has tales from more recent times. On the day that the clocks fall back an hour, old Mertonians gather in Fellows Quad by the sundial. At 1:57 am they drink a toast. Linking arms, they walk backwards drinking port for an hour! Don’t mock it. This ritual is the only hope we have of maintaining the space-time continuum. Needless to say, it is a modern practice dating back to the 1970’s. Yes, I know that for some of you that is ancient history. My daughter’s eleven year old friend referred to the Bee Gees as “this really old band from long ago.” She then added, “They were guys but sounded just like girls.”
Back when Oxford students were still dancing to those “oldies,” my husband was at Oriel. The Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan was at Merton. Naruhito was invited to a formal ball and was provided a suitable date but didn’t know how to boogie. Henry came to the rescue and taught the crown prince how to disco dance. Not to the Bee Gees, that would be cruel and unusual punishment, but to Soft Cell. An international crisis was thus narrowly averted.
Despite the demonic gargoyles, Merton is a spiritual place with a huge 13th century chapel that was originally built as a parish church. It supposedly has the second best acoustics in all of Europe. A microphone is never necessary. The screen to the chapel was Sir Christopher Wren’s first commission.
At the end of our Oxford Newcomers' Club tour, we had tea in the grand hall, quite typical of the old colleges. On the way home down the cobblestone road, I had a good laugh. This is where you can find the Philosophy Department at Oxford:
For those of you hungering for more Oxford tales from my husband, next week Henry will be guest blogging about Eight’s Week – an Oxford rowing race. He’s out there on the Thames/Isis today with an old Oriel buddy. They’ll probably do some “research” down the boozer too. Time to push off.