Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Living Above the Shop

Comfortable canons' houses, Kanonicza Street, Cracow
Photo by denvilles duo,  reproduced under the Creative Commons licence.

Although the impact of the recession is clear to see in Little Clarendon Street (Oxford’s boutique shopping street, next to Somerville), where there are plenty of empty shop-fronts, the impressive amount of building work taking place in and around the college suggests a more buoyant story. There is currently construction on all four sides of Somerville – to the north, as the Maths Institute goes up on the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter; to the east, where St. Aloysius’ church is putting up an extension; to the south, where a new Tesco is taking shape, and finally on the western perimeter, where college itself is renovating and extending its Grade II Listed Wolfson building.

All this has been so noisy, that I have fled my Wolfson room and taken refuge in a Fellows’ set, or flat, at the top of the Victorian Maitland building. Moving here has been a reminder of how much the lifestyle of Oxford dons has changed. Although there are still plenty of Fellows who live in accommodation provided by, or within, their college, it is increasingly a minority experience. Nonetheless, living in is, historically, how dons have lived – giving tutorials, writing books, receiving visitors and sleeping in the same connected set of rooms. In my borrowed Maitland set, for example, I have at my disposal an airy living room, study, fridge-freezer and two bathrooms, should I need them. Dwelling in college is still the classic, romanticised perception of how Oxford dons live and should live, celebrated in C.P Snow novels and Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse Blue. Every year, our Freshers look dimly disappointed when I tell them that I don’t live inside Somerville’s walls, but actually come into Oxford every day by train from a major town in the Thames Valley; the don as commuter seems incongruous and unglamorous.

Living on the college site is of course an ongoing legacy of Oxford’s medieval past, and the medieval conception of a university as a community, of celibate and ordained men, similar to a cathedral chapter or monastic house. When I read the 15C minutes of the Cracow cathedral chapter, a surprising portion of their deliberations consist of squabbles about who got to live in which of the chapter’s stunning houses on Kanonicza Street, at the foot of the royal castle. In the Loire Valley, in the hilltop town of Montreuil-Bellay, you can still see the luxurious 15C bath-house provided for the collegiate canons who lived on site. My Maitland set might have a washing machine instead of a steam room, but it is a keen reminder of the ways in which Oxford colleges have for centuries functioned, and still strive to function, as living communities of academics and students, even if the norms of that shared life are constantly evolving.

3 comments:

  1. Living in College can also lead to the occasional battles with contract construction workers --- I'm sure there's also a medieval version of this --- especially when they put their asbestos-laden dumpsters just a few feet from the back door of one's flat. :)

    Or in the case of nights like tonight, much happier things---like parties with my students in my flat.

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