14 October 2020

Dominae et Magistrae

October 14, 1920, was the day when women first were granted degrees by the University. One week earlier, they had been matriculated: their admission took place within the Vice-Chancellorship of Herbert Blakiston, who had been a resolute opponent of granting degrees to women (he also, as President of Trinity, resisted strong government pressure to admit Indian undergraduates ... the lucky fellows went to Balliol instead). It must have been striking to sit in the Sheldonian Theatre and to hear the ancient formula grammatically adapted: "Dominae, scitote vos in matriculam Universitatis hodie relatas esse" (how was it pronounced? Dommi-nee, sigh-toe-tea vos in may-trick-you-lamb You-nee-virsy-tay-tiss  hod-eye-ee ree-lay-tass essee?)

I regard their Admission to Degrees at the Ancient House of Congregation the following week, a century ago today, as a most significant advance for the weaker and humbler sex, that is, for us chaps.

It created for us the delectable possibility of proposing Matrimony to a woman who was a graduate of this University, Domina et Magistra.

Back in 1920, Dorothy Sayers pulled strings to ensure that she was one of the first batch of women to be 'done at that memorable ceremony. Later, in her Gaudy Night, where she marries off Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane's final acceptance of his addresses is made to evoke a University  ceremony. In Wimsey, the once-male University affirms and respects the full status and integrity of women within the ancient continuum of the English and European academy.

Wimsey and Vane have emerged from a concert in Balliol (the institution which occasioned the best joke ever made about the architecture of an Oxford college, C'est magnifique mais ce n'est pas la gare) and they are walking down New College Lane to 'send their love to London River' ... 'the light wind fluttering their gowns as they walked'.


She stood still; and he stopped perforce and turned towards her. She laid both hands upon the fronts of his gown, looking into his face while she searched for the word that should carry her over the last difficult breach.

It was he who found it for her, With a gesture of submission he bared his head and stood gravely, the square cap dangling in his hand.

"Placetne, magistra?"


The Proctor, stumping grimly past with averted eyes, reflected that Oxford was losing all sense of dignity. But what could he do? If Senior Members of the University chose to stand--in their gowns, too!--closely and passionately embracing in New College Lane right under the Warden's windows, he was powerless to prevent it. He primly settled his white bands and went upon his walk unheeded; and no hand plucked his velvet sleeve.

(The Proctors patrolled the streets to keep order among the undergraduates; and at degree ceremonies performed a ritual walk among the Regent Masters to enable any Master to veto the graduation of a supplicant by plucking a proctorial sleeve. 'Placet' is the formal ceremonial assent to a formal proposal.)



scotchlil said...

It disappointed me terribly when the otherwise splendid BBC version of Wimsey omitted that Latin exchange. I'm sure that Messers Petherbridge and Walter would have been up to it... and there are always subtitles. It really is one of the finest parts of the book.

Scribe said...

Dear Father, I can just about recall my own matriculation in 1954, particularly the word 'citote'. For days afterwards my little group of new friends would greet each other with that word. The whole thing was delivered with English pronunciation, of the kind used by Dr Fisher ("Carried Neminay contra die sentay".) In college (Jesus) scholars were expected to read the Grace with the kind of accent we had been taught at school, something I suppose dreamed up by 19th century scholars. A false quantity led to a sconcing. Church Latin was tolerated, but not very welcome. Ah, well! I suppose it's all been done away with now, so as not to frighten the snowflakes of both sexes.

Josephus Muris Saliensis said...


Those texts learnt in youth, the psalms for grace or other prayers (Actiones nostras, for example), will always retain their school Latin sound in one's ear, however oft-repeated in Holy Mother Church later.

vetusta ecclesia said...

I received my MA at the hands of Sir Kenneth Weare and witnessed the King of Spain receiving the DCL by Diploma from Macmillan ( his last outing as Chancellor?). Both had Latin pronunciation of the sort you describe.

Banshee said...

Is _that_ what "and no hand plucked his velvet sleeve" meant?! Aha! Thank you!!!!

(Yeah, I know, it's probably in the annotated Wimsey, but I don't _have_ the annotated Wimsey.)

It's one of those endlines that sound so good that you don't really have to know... but now I do know, and it's better. Wonderful.

I agree that the BBC shouldn't have left out the Latin. It's very popular with readers, and they could easily have had a reference earlier to the ceremonies, so that nobody would be left out.

Will said...

The pun on Marshal Bosquet’s words is variously attributed, both as to the speaker and as to the building. Wikipedia attributes it to an anonymous French visitor upon seeing my own college (Keble), which seems plausible enough, given the spiritual kinship between Butterfield’s buildings and St Pancras station.

Scribe said...

Sorry, JMS. Scitote, of course. A slip of the pen.

Oliver Nicholson said...

Surely relatas would be not ree-lay-tass but ree-lay-tays - along the lines of the don who opposed the restored pronunciation by observing that he saw no reason why he should not continue to pronounce causas cors-ays rather than the new-fangled cow's arse.

Josephus Muris Saliensis said...

But surely (to combine FrH’s delicious asomaton pneuma with one of my own patronising favourites), ON, it depends on the vowel length. So ‘know-stray’ (nostra), but ‘know-strass’ (nostras). The principle is that it to be pronounced as English. None of us would mix up the sounds of pace and pass.