The Nostalgia Series, Part II: Ascension Day

Five-hundred-or-so years ago—which, in Oxford, falls under “modern history”—a mob of townspeople were chasing two students (as tended to happen back then).  One student was from Lincoln College and the other Brasenose.  They reached Lincoln’s gate, at which point the porters—being English and, by extension, sticklers for the rules—permitted the Lincoln student to enter but shut the Brasenose student out.  The Brasenose student attempted to climb the Lincoln walls’ ivy to safety but, alas, fell and was killed.

The rivalry between Lincoln and Brasenose has persisted for five-hundred years, though, and Lincoln continues to commemorate the event by inviting Brasenose students over, once a year on Ascension Day, for a conciliatory pint.  In an act of lingering bitterness, though, the ale is spiked with ivy, which makes it nearly undrinkable.  I was lucky to have all this explained to me over one of the aforementioned pints with a friend at Lincoln, who—in addition to relating the above story—assured me that the free beer in no way constituted an apology.

Bad beer is only part of the Ascension Day celebration.  Instead, Lincoln has conglomerated its annual get-together with Brasenose with a few other, seemingly disconnected, traditions.  When I arrived at Lincoln, a large group of Oxford townspeople, led by several prients carrying long wooden staves, were returning from “beating the bounds” of their parish.  This is, of course, an important ritual by which the Anglican Church in Oxford delineates its boundaries—which now run through a Marks and Spencer’s grocery store and a Wagamama’s noodle shop.

Ascension Day is about more than celebrating mob violence and delineating property rights, though: it is also a tool for teaching important moral lessons.  The high point of Ascension Day comes at 12:30 p.m., when Lincoln students throw £40 worth of pennies from the college tower.  I watched as a group of school children from the parish fought each other to gather them, alternating between jostling to get closer to the tower and howling as they were pelted by pennies.  The Vicar, standing by, explained that in the good-old days, the pennies would have been heated so the children would have to wait for the pennies to cool before grabbing them.  The event would have thus been doubly instructive, teaching the value of money but the perils of greed.

Laughing at the suffering of children: an Oxford tradition

Oxford is full of stories, most of which have been forgotten.  Why the murder of a Brasenose student five hundred years ago is commemorated—and, inexplicably, melded with a religious holiday and penny-throwing ritual—is completely beyond me.  In fact, like most of Oxford’s traditions, the practices of Ascension Day seem to have continued, even as their original meaning and purpose has been lost.  Part of me thinks that this inability to break free from past ways of doing things in part explains why Oxford is struggling to maintain its position as a world-class research university in the 21st century.  And yet, although devoid of any clear academic purpose, these traditions are key part of why Oxford is so utterly unique.

In the last few months, I’ve been frantically ticking boxes in my mental pre-departure-from-Oxford checklist.  I’ve drank port in the Senior Common Room with the college Provost, sifted through disintegrating 17th century books in the St. Edmund’s Hall Old Library, eaten in the Christ Church dining hall (as featured in Harry Potter), witnessed the procession of maces and academic gowns of the Encaenia ceremony, and, of course, sat an exam wearing a red carnation, tuxedo, white bow tie, and academic gown.  I’m already regretting not writing about these experiences—and many others that I am, at the moment, forgetting—because in a few days, I will be back in the U.S., and the absurdity of what here is routine will quickly present itself.

The iconic Oxford photo

I’m excited to move to Berkeley, but I fully understand that there’s something here—be it the traditions, or the architecture, or the formal halls, or the sub fusc—that I know I will miss.  Even the byzantine labrynth of bureaucracy students here are subjected to somehow fits into the overall topography, as if an extension of more entertaining traditions—like the annual college Tortoise Race or May Day bridge-jumping.

Now on my last week here, I’ve given up on ticking any more boxes.  Oxford only reveals its secrets slowly—something that the D.Phils on their third degree and tenth year of study here seem to have realized, but that, for a second-year American masters student, can make leaving very, very hard.

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