Some more tidbits of information from Wells’ The Oxford Degree Ceremonies that might interest you:
- The oath or charge to “observe the ‘statutes, privileges, customs and liberties’ of his university” and the accompanying affirmation “Do fidem” (“I swear”) are most likely over 700 years old, and initially were important to keep a unity among those who had subscribed to the university, and to keep out encroachments. ((Joseph Wells, The Oxford Degree Ceremonies, 19-20.))
- The M.A.s are “exempt from Proctorial jurisdiction…” and “It is the M.A. who is admitted by the Vice-Chancellor to ‘begin’, i.e. to teach (ad incipiendum), when he is presented to him,” and many universities now call the end of the academic study “Commencement” because of this. ((ibid., 23.))
- A degree is a “‘step’ by which the distinction of becoming a full member” of the university is acquired. Wells notes Gibbon’s idea that “the use of academical degrees is visibly borrowed from the mechanic corporations, in which an apprentice, after serving his time, obtains a testimonial of his skill, and his license to practise his trade or mystery.” ((ibid., 24.))
- The Bachelor degree was an apprentice degree, an assistant, a pupil-teacher. ((ibid., 24.))
- The authority that the Vice-Chancellor had to grant degrees was originally from the Church of England. ((ibid., 25.))
- The degree was conferred by two modes: first, by consent of the existing Masters, and second, by the giving of a “licence” by the Chancellor. Originally, the granting of the license was conditional by participation in what is called the ceremonial “Act,” which has almost been completely abandoned in modern times.
At it Masters and Doctors formally showed that they were able to perform the function of their new rank, and were then ‘admitted’ to it by investiture with the ‘cap’ of authority [birettatio, or “laying on of the cap”], with the ‘ring’, and with the ‘kiss’ of peace; the kiss was given by the Senior Proctor; the ring was the symbol of the inceptor’s mystical marriage to his science. ((ibid., 27-28, 30.))
- The ceremonies of the “Act” were completely lost – “those ancient ceremonies and institution (sic) being as yet not wholly abolished…”, were last mentioned in 1733. ((ibid., 28, 30.))
- M.A.s had to show their qualifications for the degree by “publicly attacking or defending theses solemnly approved for discussion by Congregation.” ((ibid., 29.))
- Some traces of the “Act” are preserved in the literary, musical, and celebratory Encaenia, a dedicatory ceremonial event which precedes graduation ((ibid., 31.)). Interestingly, this has connections with the Feast of Dedication (also called the “Feast of Lights” or Hanukkah). Wikipedia notes about Encaenia:
The word is derived from the Greek word ‘εγκαίνια’, meaning a festival of renewal or dedication, and corresponds to the Latin term Commencement.
Hanukkah is “is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE”. Such a feast is mentioned in John 10:22.
Such dedications are usually done to consecrate altars, temples, or other sacred buildings.
- This commemoration includes all the pomp worthy of the the academics:
Commemoration may be, as John Richard Green said, ‘Oxford in masquerade’; there may be ‘grand incongruities, Abyssinian heroes robed in literary scarlet, degrees conferred by the suffrages of virgins in pink bonnets and blue, a great academical ceremony drowned in an atmosphere of Aristophanean (sic) chaff. ((ibid., 33.))
- Examinations were required anciently that were “rigorous and tremendous.” Robert de Sorbonne, the founder of the Paris college, gave a sermon once in which he compared the academic examinations with the Last Judgement:
…it need hardly be said that the moral of the sermon is the greater severity of the heavenly test as compared with the earthly; if a man neglects his prescribed book, he will be rejected once, but if he neglect ‘the book of conscience, he will be rejected for ever’. ((ibid., 41.))
- One of the examinations anciently was known as Responsions. Wikipedia notes:
It was nicknamed the Little Go and was generally taken by students prior to or shortly after matriculation. The examination consisted of comparatively simple questions on Latin, Ancient Greek and mathematics. . . . The name derives from Anglo-French responsion, Medieval Latin responsion, and from Latin responsio, to answer, or give a response.
Candidates that passed the Responsions were called “sophista generalis,” meaning you had now become a true Sophist, which continues today in our term “sophomore.” ((ibid., 65.))
- An interesting aspect of the examination is that it was more concerned with the process, the procedure, the journey, and of becoming something, rather than reproducing knowledge – “it sought its qualifications on all sides of a man’s life.” Those were admitted who were to be “fit in knowledge and [good] character.” ((ibid., 43-44.))
- Another curious tradition that was part of the degree ceremony was the deposition of certain witnesses who would testify of the fitness of the candidate for the degree they were seeking. They had to “swear this from ‘sure knowledge'” and “to the best of their belief.” The process took place as follows:
These depositions were whispered into the ears of the Proctor by the witnesses kneeling before him. The information was given on oath, and as it were under the seal of confession; for neither they nor the Proctors were allowed to reveal it. ((ibid., 45.))
- Much importance was placed on the academic dress. It was symbolic – “From the soberest drab to the high flaming scarlet, spiritual idiosyncrasies unfold themselves in the choice of colour; if the cut betoken intellect and talent, so does the colour betoken temper and heart.” ((ibid., quoting Carlyle Thomas, 64.)) Any alteration of the dress style was to be punished by imprisonment.
- The academic dress (gowns, caps and hoods) was to be procured by the candidate, by an oath, and was to be worn “on all proper occasions” ((ibid., 65.)). Wouldn’t that be interesting if this statute continued to be practiced today? But certain sacred clothing does find itself a permanent station or investiture in certain circumstances.
- The marks of the academic dresses, hoods, caps, colors, etc., all corresponded to your station in the University. ((ibid., 67.))
- Some of their cloaks were to be died purple to “suite the dignity of their position and to be like the blood of The Lord.” ((ibid., 68.))
- Being dressed with the gown was a noted experience:
The gown, the ‘putting on’ of which is now the distinguishing mark of the taking of the B.A. or M.A., is simply the survival of a mediaeval garment which was not even clerical, the long gown (toga) or cassock, which was worn under the cappa [cape]. ((ibid., 69.))
- The hood had its proper place in the ceremonial clothing:
The mark, however, which specially distinguished the degree was the hood, as to which the University was always strict, assigning the proper material and the proper colour to that of each faculty. . . . Originally it seems to have been attached to the cappa, and, as its name implies, was used for covering (the head) when required. . . . The M.A. hood, even in its present mutilated form, still presents survivals of the time when it was a real head covering… ((ibid., 70-71.))
- The “cap of authority” was invested as part of the ceremonial “Act” in former times at Oxford University. The style of the cap was unique and peculiar, and had quite a history:
The cap was sometimes square (biretta), and sometimes round (pileus). Gascoigne (writing in 1456) tells us that in his day the round cap was worn by Doctors of Divinity and Canon Law, and that is had always been so since the days of King Alfred; not content with his antiquity, he also affirms that the round cap was given by God Himself to the doctors of the Mosaic Law [agreeing with Nibley’s proposition]. He adds the more commonplace but more trustworthy information that the cap was in those days fastened by a string behind, to prevent its falling off. ((ibid., 71-72.))
Wells adds that some of the modern inventions are not improvements to the archaic form:
The modern stiff corners of the cap are an addition . . . the old cap drooped gracefully from its tuft in the centre . . . Later usage has specialized the round cap of velvet as belonging to the Doctors of Law and Medicine, and a most beautiful head-gear it is; it is preserved, in a less elaborate form, at the degree ceremony in the round caps of the Bedels. ((ibid., 72.))
The tuft was eventually replaced by the tassel. ((ibid., 72.)) The universal alteration, adoption, and subsequent loss of symbolism of the cap is denounced by Wells:
With the disappearance of social distinctions in dress, the tassel has been extended to all, except to choir-boys, and so the coveted badge of the mediaeval Master is now the property of all University ranks, and is undervalued and neglected in the same proportion as it has been rendered meaningless. ((ibid., 73.))
- Wells is disappointed overall in the stability of the academic dress over time:
Academic dress has sadly lost its picturesqueness, especially for the undergraduate; his gown no longer reaches to his heels, as the statute still requires it to do . . . At the present time the scanty relics of mediaeval usage are at the mercy of the tailers; and though it must be said for their respresentatives in Oxford that they do their best to maintain old traditions, yet there is no doubt that innovations are slowly but steadily introduced . . . ((ibid., 73-74.))
- The Sheldonian Theatre was a consecrated building, originally built and “set apart for the immediate worship of God.” ((ibid., 80.)) This was the same arrangement for the older location of degree ceremonies, the Divinity School. ((ibid., 91.))
I hope this has been an educational analysis into the origins of the graduation attire, and more particularly the ceremonies, which date to over a millenia ago.