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

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Take Your Seats

The canons' favourite house - the Erazm Ciolek Palace, Cracow
Photo by Ansomia

As the new academic year gets under way, and Somerville welcomes a number of new Fellows and lecturers, members of the Senior Common Room (i.e. academic staff of the college) have been sent an email explaining the etiquette of seating at lunchtimes, when we eat together in our 19C, high-ceilinged, wood-panelled hall. SCR seating conventions vary between colleges, but at Somerville good manners consist of early lunchers taking a seat on the left-hand side of High Table, and of later arrivals sitting in the next free place thereafter. If you’re reserving places for guests or colleagues with whom you’re having a working lunch, you normally head for the ‘lower high’ tables (i.e. the overflow area).

When I first worked in the archives of the Cracow diocese, as a graduate student, I spent several weeks reading the minutes of the Cracow cathedral chapter from the late 15th-century (in an archive located in a gatehouse on the Wawel hill, which scores of tourists passed beneath every hour). I was surprised, and slightly disappointed, to find that these very senior and educated clergymen – who assisted the bishop in the running of the cathedral and diocese – did not spend much time at their meetings discussing what we would think of as religion. Instead, they were much preoccupied with regulating and organising their collective collegiate life. They argued about which canon got to occupy the best houses in Canons’ Street, at the foot of the castle, about who should be excluded from their common table/shared meal-times for bad behaviour, and in particular who should sit and stand where… in cathedral chapter meetings, in public processions, and during church services. Behind the finely tuned conventions, the oft-reiterated rules and the occasional squabbles, one could detect a clear vision of how the shared, communal life of a late medieval cathedral chapter should look, and a strong belief in that ideal.

Somerville may be a 19C foundation, but like all Oxford colleges it has inherited certain medieval social conventions. It is a secular institution, with a high percentage of female academics, with scholars working on everything from the influenza virus to 19C discourses about democracy. In all this, Somerville as a collegiate body would have been scarcely imaginable to the 15C canons of Cracow, except perhaps in some apocalyptic vision of their late medieval world turned anarchically upside down. But the SCR email about high table seating is something they would instantly have understood. 

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