Friday, April 19, 2013

University Classes, Regency Style

I spent this past weekend traveling with my daughter, a high school senior, to visit one of the oldest colleges in the U.S. It got me thinking about university life during the regency.

A university education was one of the major advantages that set the regency gentleman apart from his social inferiors, and, like everything else in Britain in the early 1800s, the road to a degree was marked by sharp class distinctions. At Oxford, one of England’s two major universities during the regency,

This Nobleman Commoner wears a silk robe trimmed in gold, and the mortarboard he holds bears a golden tassel.
the first major distinction was between dependent members (those at the university who were "on the foundation," meaning they received money for studying and/or working there) and independent members (those who paid their own way).

Independent members came from the country’s prosperous families, the nobility and gentry, and could be divided into four tiers. At the top were Noblemen Commoners, a group made up of peers and sons of peers. Noblemen Commoners were allowed to wear a gold tassel or “tuft” on their cap, giving rise to the term “tufthunter” to describe a social climber. The amateur poet and artist Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe (BA 1802, MA 1806) satirized one such Oxonian:
A gay golden tuft on his cap he displays,
Which dazzles all eyes with its ravishing rays—
True badge of nobility, awful and grand,
Confin’d to the essence and cream of the land.

The wealthy Gentleman Commoner could be distinguished by his silk gown trimmed lavishly in rows of black pompoms.
The second tier of independent members consisted of Gentlemen Commoners. They weren’t noble, but they came from wealth, and paid higher fees accordingly. Both Noblemen Commoners and Gentlemen Commoners received special privileges, for example being allowed to sit at the high table for meals. The third tier of independent members, by far the largest group, consisted of Commoners. Commoners likewise paid their own way, but they came from genteel families of more typical circumstances and were charged standard fees. Below them came the batlers, sometimes spelled battelers or battlers, also called semi-commoners. The batler had a buttery account, as opposed to eating with those who received the “commons” from the kitchen (the buttery was more or less a storeroom that supplied bread, butter, cheese, milk, sugar, and ale; the kitchen served soups, meats, fish, pies, preserves and sweets). In other words, he was on a budget plan. Batlers could afford to attend Oxford at their expense, but just barely, and so they occupied the lowest rank of independent members, existing in a sort of quasi-gentlemanly limbo.

The majority of undergraduates were Commoners, like this young man, recognizable from his sleeveless gown of black stuff. ("Stuff" was essentially anything that wasn't silk, usually wool.)
In contrast to the independent members, dependent members gained admittance through sheer brains and hard work. Though by mid-century such scholars would be viewed with respect for their academic merit, during the more class-conscious regency they were still seen as social inferiors—"charity boys"—rather than real gentlemen. Dependent members consisted of three tiers. At the top were Foundationers, those on scholarships from the university foundation itself. They were usually referred to as Scholars, though Magdelene College called them Demies and at Merton they were known as Postmasters. The second tier of dependent members was made up of Exhibitioners. They had less prestigious scholarships, provided by one of the individual colleges or by outside entities like preparatory schools or private organizations. At the bottom of the pecking order, far below the Scholars and Exhibitioners, came Servitors—even their name sounds lowly—who hailed from humble families and did not have grants.

The lowly servitor worked his way through university, performing servants' duties such as waiting at table. (And notice how the humbler the undergraduate is, the less likely he is to stare out of his portrait.)
Servitors received free lodging and some free meals, and were excused from paying fees for lectures. In return, they were required to perform menial duties for the Fellows, essentially working their way through university as servants. (At Cambridge, those of equivalent rank were called sizars or subsizars.) One famous Servitor was Dr. Johnson of Dictionary fame, who said, “the difference between us Servitors and Gentlemen commoners, is this, that we are men of wit and no fortune and they are men of fortune and no wit.”

Anyone at Oxford could tell at a glance exactly who was of high rank and who wasn’t, since caps and gowns were required (and still are, in many instances). In addition to the gold tuft on his cap, the Nobleman Commoner wore a gown of colored silk—the color was up to him—decorated on the sleeves, yoke and hem with gold lace. The Gentleman Commoner was not quite such a peacock but looked almost as grand, bearing a black tuft on his cap and a silk gown decorated with rows of black pompoms on the sleeves and hem. The Commoners wore a sleeveless gown made of black stuff, with streamers decorated in braid dangling from the yoke in back. Servitors wore a similar sleeveless gown, but without the braided streamers. Until 1770, instead of wearing the familiar mortarboard cap the Servitor had to wear a round hat, sometimes referred to as a cow-pat, but eventually this mark of shame was eliminated and he was allowed to wear a square cap without a tassel.

Over the first half of the 1800s, the term servitor fell out of favor, as did the requirement that such students act as servants for the Fellows. Instead they were first called clerks (sometimes bible-clerks, since they were paid a stipend for saying grace, keeping track of chapel attendance and reading the bible lessons aloud), and then absorbed into the Exhibitioners. The terms Nobleman Commoner and Gentleman Commoner likewise fell by the wayside. Acts like the Christ Church Ordinances Bill of 1867 eliminated such distinctions, ensuring that any undergraduates who were not on the foundation became known simply as Commoners.

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's newest regency romance, Lord of Secrets,was released March 25 and is available now. If you like angst and "tortured" heroes, you should give it a look. It joins her debut regency, Ruined by Rumor, while her third, A Tryst With Trouble, will be released in September. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.


Ella Quinn - Romance Novelist said...

Really, well done post. I tweeted.

Vonnie said...

Excellent post, Alyssa. Where ever did you dig up all that information? I knew there were many levels, but not that many.

Alyssa Everett said...

@Ella - Thanks so much!

@Vonnie - I didn't know there were that many levels until I started looking into it myself. (I knew about Noblemen and Gentlemen Commoners, but batlers were a complete surprise.) There are some good histories by modern authors like Richard Tames, but there are also lots of period sources, since so many of the men writing in England in the 19th century attended Oxford or Cambridge.

Layna Pimentel said...

I'm a year late to the game here, but an excellent post indeed.

louiseculmer said...

fascinting information, thank you very much for posting it, Particularly interesting about the servitors, i knew they had them in the medieval and early modern periods, didn't know they still had them in the regency era. The term 'servitor' would not originally have had negative connotations, since in medieval and early modern times, being a servant was considered a perfectly respectable occupation. even upper class young men often acted as servants in noble households for instance.

Jess VanBuren said...

I was hoping someone would be able to offer terms for universities around 1815. Rough start and end of year plus common times a gentleman might go home to visit family had he the finances and inclination. I just don't want to assume it's about the same as it is now.