I Got Those Oxford Blues

There are times I can’t help feeling rather sorry for Oxford. I mean, put yourself in its shoes. Not that a university can properly be said to have shoes, of course, but for God’s sake play along and stop causing trouble. Go put yourself in a pair of Oxford brogues if it’ll make you feel better. The rest of you can just hold on to those nice metaphorical shoes you slipped into without making a fuss. Ready? No, you don’t have to do up the laces, just stand in them for a bit imagining what it would be like to have 38 constituent colleges, a vice-chancellor, and a river running through you. What do you mean they’re the wrong size? Ok, forget the shoes. They’re not important and I feel like they’re distracting you from the issue at hand.

What I’m trying to get at is that Oxford must miss the days when it was the only university in the country. What fun it would have had. More than one hundred years of back-to-back boat race victories and consecutive top ranking in the national academic league tables, with the only down side being a general consensus that it had something of an unfair advantage on University Challenge. Oh yes, life was good for Oxford back then, as it trampled all over the nonexistent competition in those equally nonexistent shoes some of you had so much difficulty with back in paragraph one.

Today, of course, it’s just one university among many – and boy, I bet that stings. You know how firstborns sometimes resent younger siblings for coming between them and their parents? I sometimes think that’s how Oxford must have felt as a succession of rosy-cheeked redbricks were clasped to the public bosom. At 917 it’s old enough to be polite when it bumps into Cambridge or the LSE at family gatherings, but the emptiness of its childhood years still gnaws at it like the gap left behind by an omitted Oxford comma.

I think this is why William Ewart Gladstone felt as though he had something to prove on his university’s behalf. Not content with the already glittering roll of alumni that Oxford could boast by the end of the 19th century, the former Prime Minister felt the need to bag just one more trophy for his alma mater. And so, in June 1892, two months before becoming Prime Minister for the fourth and final time, W.E. Gladstone published an article in a magazine called The Nineteenth Century in which he asked the question “Did Dante study at Oxford?” Out of context this seems like a rather baffling topic for a politician to be interested in, akin to David Cameron trying to prove that Torquemada attended Eton. For all I know, however, the academic CVs of early Renaissance poets might have been a trending topic in the summer of 1892. Hashtags to this effect may have been scrawled across the Westminster stonemasonry, with insightful captions wittily affixed to humorous portraits of cats. Gladstone was certainly no stranger to the questioning of long-held academic truths, as the celebrated Greek colour saga demonstrates, and he may have felt that here was another sacred cow just waiting to be tossed on the grill.

When I first heard of the existence of Gladstone’s monograph in Jake Kerridge’s Telegraph article last week, I assumed that he had invented it. It just seemed so implausible. But a few short Internet-minutes later I had found a bookseller who naughtily agreed to slice out those pages from his bound collection of The Nineteenth Century issues and send them to me by mail. A few mail-days later and there it was – a bizarre ten-page attempt at armchair detective work conducted in an attempt to boost the reputation of a university that, quite frankly, wasn’t doing so badly in the PR stakes at the time. It’s not as though there was any chance of getting any money out of Dante as an alumnus, either. Universities tend to have to act faster than that if they want to milk the graduate connection.
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And if I’m being honest, the evidence for Dante ever having attended Oxford is rather thin. Thinner than Dante, in fact, and the poor man’s been a skeleton since the mid-14th Century. I mean, Gladstone addresses this paucity of what you or I would call proof when he says: “we are largely dependent on conjecture and presumption”, but goes on to make the rather staggering claim that: “The fact that he does not name the University of Oxford in no way detracts from [the force of the evidence]; for neither does he anywhere name the University of Paris, where we know that he studied, and perhaps studied long.”

Now this, while having the virtue of being absolutely true, also has the vice of being absolutely bonkers. Dante also never wrote about eating a digestive biscuit or performing handstands on the Great Wall of China (although, not having read the Divine Comedy in the original Italian, this is pure supposition). Does this mean we should reimagine Italy’s literary hero as a sweet-toothed gymnast with a fondness for Oriental cuisine?

The article is endearingly entertaining, and evokes an era when gentlemen could quote Italian or ancient Greek to each other without the need for translated footnotes. O tempora o mores!, as I suppose he would have said to the waiter, ordering another helping of Japanese-style battered shrimp.

But, all in all, the piece is little more than a way for Gladstone to take pride in his academic heritage. As he says in conclusion: “We shall surely not be told that if he went to Oxford we do not know why he went thither. He did not go to saunter by the Isis, or to scale the height of Shotover: he went to haunts already made illustrious (to cite no other names) by Roger Bacon, by Grossetête, and by Bradwardine. He went to refresh his thirst at a fast-swelling fountainhead of knowledge, and to imp the wings by which he was to mount, and mount so high that few have ever soared above him, into the empyrean of celestial wisdom.”

Stirring stuff. And so what if it’s a little lacking in intellectual rigour? What did you expect? It’s not as though he attended Cambridge.