Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Merton College Stories

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.


Alyson | New England Living said...

What an amazing tour. It was so nice to read this and be reminded of some of the interesting places I visited in Oxford. It's been so long that I'd forgotten some things.

I wish I'd seen "The Canterbury Tales" when I was there. What an experience!

tina said...

I must confess, gargoyles give me the creeps-always. Interesting tour.

Deb said...

Ah, the eleven-year-old comments sound vaguely familiar. I'm glad she didn't say anything too scathingly negative about the Bee-Gees. I loved the photos of Merton, and I'm looking forward to reading Henry's post on the races. I saw him out there yesterday on the river doing his research.

Anonymous said...

How appropriate that Merton should house Japanese royalty. In the English Civil war, Queeen Henrietta Maria lived there. Later Charles II's wife AND his mistress both stayed in Merton (separate rooms) when the Black Death made London uninhabitable.

It's also fitting that such an old college be the place where TS Eliot first read out "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

Bee said...

So many treasures in Merton -- and this post!

So if Merton's chapel has the 2nd best acoustics in Europe, who rates 1st place honors?

I think that "Tainted Love" really holds up . . . but perhaps it is better without the visual of the lead singer dancing! (I think that he could have used some dance instruction from your husband.)

I look forward to your guest blogger.

Sarah Laurence said...

I agree Alyson– Krishna made the oldest college sound so lively and fun.

Tina, I have to admit to a somewhat dark sense of humor.

Deb, Henry was out again yesterday and the event continues through Saturday. I once rowed bow, but now I can’t even remember how to number the positions. It’s good Henry’s taken the helm. It will be a fun post.


In the library where I did come and go
Was a bust of T.S. Eliot; how did you know?

Do I dare
Disturb the blog?
No, once posted there is no time
For revisions with a click I could reverse.
Till comments wake us, and we drown.

Bee, how true, but have you seen the other “Tainted Love” video (the MTV one without the singers)? . . . my kids read this blog. Henry gives them dancing lessons too. I have a hard time keeping up with him myself!

walk2write said...

Your blog is a 21st century Baedecker! It transports me (remember Star Trek?) to another place and time...

Sarah Laurence said...

w2w, what a great compliment! The time of the Baedekers . . . before Fromer’s, Let’s Go, Lonely Planet etc. Professor Sharon Marcus, who studies 19th century women’s journals, said my blog reminded her of travel diaries from that time. Old approach, new media that would be me. I also loved Star Trek as a kid – the idea of exploring new worlds has stuck although I try to avoid splitting infinitives. “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” In many ways visiting Oxford is more like Dr. Who – traveling time. England is so rich in tradition.

Bee, sorry, I missed answering your question. According to our Merton guide, the church with the best acoustics is in Florence. I can’t remember which one – I was too busy taking photos, awed by the original stained glass.

Bee said...


We went to a concert of Baroque Latin music (rare to hear here) in Douai Abbey last night . . . and the acoustics were superb. It is a beautiful place; do you know it?
(Woolhampton, not too far from Pangbourne)

I drove through Oxford yesterday, and I thought of you!! Now you are completely and forever layered into the mix of memories and associations that are "my Oxford."

I was on my way to Burford -- such a lovely little town, if you are interested in taking a blog field-trip. We have been going there for about 10 years. I was on a rose-seeking mission at the Burford Plant Company -- a completely amazing nursery. I also dropped into Huffkin's for lunch and the Red Lion Bookshop for some new reads and village gossip. (I was stunned to see a Costa Coffee on the main street . . . but the bookshop proprietor told me that it had closed down after only three months. Good going to all of the independents!!)

In case you are interested, I walked away with three new books -- all English in subject and author. "The Bolter" by Frances Osborne; "The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth" by Frances Wilson; and "Birthday Letters" by Ted Hughes.

Did you know that "Country Life" has their offices in Burford?

Sarah Laurence said...

Thanks, Bee, for all those great tips! Honored to be an Oxford memory.

Michael Cotton, MA, FRCS, FACS, FCS(ECSA), FMH said...

The port ceremony was begun in 1972 by Jonathan Madden, Paul le Druillenec, Patrick Traill, Andrew Wiles (all undergraduates at the time)and others with the support of the omniscient late Tom Braun (fellow of the college). Andrew Wiles became famous later for solving the riddle of Fermat's Last Theorem in 1994.

Sarah Laurence said...

Michael, thanks for the history and welcome to my blog!