Oxford’s Most Unusual Traditions
Blues and battels and coming up and eights and Gaudies and Norrington Tables and provosts and Michaelmas and Mods and tutes and pidges… for any newcomer, Oxford can seem like another universe. It has its own vocabulary, dress code and bizarre rituals to go with it.
We’ll take you through some of Oxford University’s most unusual traditions, giving you a little glimpse of life inside this unique microcosm of history and tradition.
Matriculation and Sub Fusc
A few weeks into the first term of the academic year, students discover the first of many unusual Oxford traditions. All new students must undergo a Matriculation ceremony, marking students’ official welcome into the university. Like Oxford’s graduation ceremonies, this takes place in the prestigious Sheldonian Theatre, and is conducted entirely in Latin. Matriculation is the first point at which students must wear their sub fusc, the correct academic dress for exams. This consists of a short black gown and either a suit and a tie, or a shirt with a black ribbon. Matriculation is the perfect opportunity to grab some great pictures for Instagram with your new friends!
Nothing beats the adrenaline rush that comes from finishing your exams. Particularly at Oxford, this moment becomes all the more ecstatic because of the tradition known as ‘trashing’. Friends gather behind the Exam Schools, armed with confetti, silly string, shaving foam, balloons and prosecco. Then they prepare to take aim at the students leaving the building!
In addition, it is tradition to clean yourself off with a dip in the river in Christ Church meadows. However, some have criticised trashing for its environmental impact and for the mess it leaves. It can be known to get a bit out of hand! And in some instances, trashers have been known to tie helpless friends to trees, or worse, to trash them with substances far stinkier than shaving foam.
May Day Morning
For the past 500 years, Oxford students and residents have gathered on Magdalen Bridge at 6am on the 1st of May, just as the sun is rising. This occasion is known as May Day, and it marks the beginning of summer. Usually, crowds come to listen to the ethereal sounds of the College Choir singing the Hymnus Eucharisticus from Magdalen Tower. Then groups of Morris dancers take to Radcliffe Square to continue the festivities! It’s customary for cafes and restaurants to open early to accommodate the revelry of this unusual Oxford tradition.
Bops are regularly-held social events within Oxford University colleges, forming a fun and joyful part of college life. Usually they have a theme, with fancy dress requirements spanning from the expected to the extremely unexpected. Bops bring the college community together in solidarity; their format, traditions or themes can define and represent the character of each college. A motion to conclude every bop with the song Free Nelson Mandela until Mandela was freed from prison was passed by the Wadham College Student Union in 1987. And following his liberation, they voted to continue the tradition in celebration.
Please don’t walk on the grass
A big change for new students is that you suddenly have to think about whether you can or can’t walk on a particular piece of grass. Some colleges (Corpus Christi, Balliol and St Hugh’s, for example) are very happy for students to roam free-range on their green spaces. But other colleges make things a little more complicated: at Oriel, the grass can only be walked on in the summer term. And there are even more unusual and complicated rules. The 3rd quadrangle can be used in the afternoon for playing croquet, and the 1st quadrangle for boules.
Since 1971, at the turning back of the clocks on the last Sunday of October, students at Merton College dress in full academic attire for a peculiar tradition. They link arms and walk backwards around the Fellows’ quad for one hour, starting at 2am. If you think that’s odd, every three years at New College, the Lord Mayor leads a procession of city councillors to a ritual inspection of the city walls. This tradition dates back to 1379, when they needed to ensure the city’s safety from invaders. Also there is a 600-year-old tradition taking place on Ascension Day, when clergymen walk around ‘beating the bounds’ – hitting Oxford’s boundary stones with sticks whilst shouting ‘Mark! Mark!’
The enmity between Oxford and Cambridge is as old as it is famous. It dates back to the 12th century, when the University of Cambridge was born out scholars who defected from Oxford. Oxonians refer to their rivals with derision as ‘Tabs’. This is a contraction of the word ‘Cantabrigian’, meaning someone from Cambridge. Annual sporting competitions throughout the year allow these two institutions to go head to head; these include the Boat Race on the River Thames and the rugby union Varsity Match at Twickenham Stadium.
Rivalries are also inevitable amongst Oxford University’s colleges. One of the most infamous is that between Broad Street neighbours, Trinity and Balliol. According to folklore, the feud originates in the late 17th century, when president of Trinity College Ralph Bathurst was seen throwing stones at Balliol’s windows. Amazingly, the feud continued into the 21st century and still exists today. And in 2010, Balliol students vandalised one of Trinity’s ponds, leading to the death of all but one fish.
- For a translation of some of the terms used in the article and more info on unusual Oxford traditions, here’s a glossary of Oxford terms
- Watch this vlog from a new student, explaining some of the most unusual parts of life as an Oxford student
- For more on morris dancers and May Day morning, check out this video. Skip to 14:29 for the dancing!
If you could pick any city in the world to do a summer course… why not Oxford?
Click here to find out more about the Oxford Scholastica Academy.