One perennial feature of university life is the tension between ‘town’ (locals) and ‘gown’ (students). When I studied in Nottingham during the early 1990s, my friends and I gave ‘townies’ our wary respect during our drinking and clubbing trips to the city – and respect is probably too charitable a word for their view of us. But it struck me recently that for this mostly harmless rivalry to exist there has to be both ‘town’ and ‘gown’ and, now we’ve experienced lockdowns, we can no longer take that co-existence for granted. At the time I wrote this piece, we were in the midst of the covid pandemic, arguments were raging about whether it would be safe for students to attend their university courses in person and some were claiming that a shift to online degree studies was in any case long overdue.
I won’t rehearse lockdown arguments here, except to say that lots of people at the time quite rightly spoke up for the social and educational importance of students being physically present for their studies. They mostly, I expect, had in mind the educational relationship between students and their lecturers, but another important part of university life is the relationship – fractious or otherwise – with people who aren’t students.
In fact the concept of ‘town versus gown’ not only goes all the way back to the founding of universities in medieval times, but played a pivotal, if not necessarily noble, role in their development.
The early universities in cities such as Bologna and Paris took a very different form to the institutions we know today. They were loose communities of masters and scholars who lived amongst the people of the town. Yet from the beginning universities were international in character, with students travelling from all over Europe to study. This was fraught with risk: as foreigners, they lacked the protection of the local law and often found their property confiscated under the so-called Right of Reprisal, in lieu of debts previously incurred by fellow countrymen.
The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was sympathetic to the plight of the students who ‘for love of learning choose exile and poverty, and divest themselves of their patrimony, while exposing themselves to every peril, and suffering what must be most grievous to endure: bodily injuries without cause from the vilest of men’. In 1158, his Authentica habita or Privilegium Scholasticum (1158) – thought to be the key founding document of the medieval university and later incorporated into Roman law – turned the tables in favour of the students, who thenceforth were to be considered clergy and as such would be granted certain privileges. As men of God they were effectively above secular law and exempted from the jurisdiction of the local civil magistrates. (1)
Unsurprisingly these ‘benefits of clergy’ gave considerable license to youthful bad behaviour, and riots were a frequent occurrence. Locals were further wound up by the language and dress of the students. They couldn’t understand the scholarly Latin spoken by the students and resented the long gowns they wore as these were impractical for work and were intended to convey a superior social status. Hence ‘town versus gown’.
Nevertheless students brought prestige and prosperity to towns and could threaten to leave en masse in order to get concessions on charges for books, lodging and food. (2) This was no idle threat, and one such migration in the 1160s took students from the University of Paris to Oxford, where they would go on to establish the first great university in England. The second great university was also formed as a result of town-versus-gown tension. In 1209 the killing of a local Oxford woman and the execution of several students who were held responsible provoked an exodus to Cambridge. (3)
But the most notorious incident took place in 1355 on 10th February – St Scholastica’s Day, named for a patron saint of education, an association which would become ignominious. At the Swyndelstock Tavern in Oxford two scholars who were unhappy with the quality of the wine assaulted the tavern keeper, who also happened to be the Mayor. Attempts to arrest the culprits were thwarted by other students who locked the gates of the town and ran riot, setting buildings on fire and injuring many. The townsmen retaliated in force, bows and arrows were used by both sides, and by the end of the conflict several locals and over 60 scholars were dead. (4)
True to form, the king sided with the students, several townsmen were sent to the Tower and the university’s privileges were increased. From then, on each St Scholastica’s Day the mayor and other important townsmen had to attend a Mass for the souls of the dead and pay a penny each in penance. Although the amount was never adjusted for inflation and thus the financial burden reduced over time, the humiliating ritual was only ended in 1852. (5)
In the meantime, tensions had got so bad that in the early fifteenth century students were required to live under stricter supervision in dedicated quarters. Here we see the beginnings of the modern hall system for student accommodation. (6)
This segregation does not appear to have had the desired effect, at least in the long term. From the seventeenth century, Town versus Gown battles would became a Bonfire night tradition, exacerbated by the disputes over money and privileges that accompanied the start of each academic year. (7) For a satirical account of one such skirmish, see The English Spy (1825) by Bernard Blackmantle. (Thanks to the Two Nerdy History Girls blog for flagging this up).
The privileges at the heart of these disputes were in place until surprisingly recently. Cambridge local historian Allan Brigham tells us that: “Right up until the late 19th Century, the university had loads of controls which included licensing pubs, prohibiting plays, and controlling weights and measures. They could imprison ‘lewd women’ for prostitution, and the vice-chancellor had the right to try university members, meaning they were exempt from civil courts… All these seem pretty good reasons for the townspeople to feel they were second-class citizens.” (8)
This would finally change in the 19th century when Oxbridge’s monopoly on higher education was abolished and new universities proliferated, becoming important parts of the cultural, social and economic life of many towns and cities.
Modern day townies and gownies
In these relatively civil times, with the original causes of town v gown tension having faded into historical memory, it’s nevertheless understandable that permanent locals and transient students may sometimes rub each other up the wrong way. In the 1994 tune Hey! Student, The Fall’s Mark E Smith wrote from the perspective of a local resident eyeing students with disdain, but in place of gowns it was ‘long hair down and sneakers on your feet’ that caused his protagonist offence. More recently, the political push to increase the numbers attending university prompted The Guardian to ask ‘Is the student boom wrecking communities?’
Yet for the most part town and gown enjoy a peaceful co-existence. Students hail from all walks of life, they speak the same language as the locals, and gowns are rarely worn except at graduation. These days a ‘town versus gown’ battle is likely to involve a charity run or friendly boxing match.
Where there are occasional flare-ups of genuine tension between locals and students, maybe these are just part and parcel of having a thriving intellectual community in one’s midst. And as recent experience has all-too-convincingly demonstrated, students and lecturers, town and gown are meant to be together, not kept apart.
- Scholarly Privileges in the Middle Ages by Pearl Kibre (Mediaeval Academy of America, 1961)
- A History of the Western Educational Experience by Gerald L. Gutek (Random House, 1972). Available via Amazon.
- A Social History of Education in England by John Lawson and Harold Silver (Methuen & Co Ltd, 1973). Available via Amazon.
- ‘Oxford Inscriptions: Site of Swindlestock Tavern’ by Stephanie Jenkins (Oxford History, 2013)
- ‘The Ultimate Town Vs Gown’ by Christopher Cheung (The Oxford Student, 2013)
- To lick a Lord and thrash a cad’: Oxford ‘Town & Gown’ by Mark Davies (BBC Oxford, 2010)
- Popular Anti-Catholicism in Mid-Victorian Britain by Denis G. Paz (Stanford University Press, 1992). Available on Google Books.
- ‘Is Town v Gown a thing of the past?’ by Allan Brigham (Cambridge Evening News, 2008).