The life of medieval students studying at the University of Oxford is currently being examined after a major excavation has revealed artifacts that are up to 800-years-old, which, up until now, have been lying completely undisturbed for hundreds of years. From beer mugs fashioned out of ceramic, to writing tools, archaeologists have discovered a plethora of items that once belonged to students at Oxford.
The area undergoing excavation once belonged to a Franciscan friary called Greyfriars that was founded in 1224, and which was arguably the start of a curriculum that helped to revolutionize academic life at the University of Oxford, according to The Independent.
After Henry II put a stop to English students studying at the University of Paris in 1167, the University of Oxford began to grow extremely fast, but at that point in time, it was still in many ways a university which had a purely vocational approach to learning. With pragmatic courses that taught students useful tasks such as letter writing, law, and Latin, the university was a world away from what it is today.
All of this changed with the Franciscan friars, who introduced theology at Oxford, and this helped immensely when it came to paving the way for philosophy, physics, geology, and the study of natural history.
It should come as no surprise then that excavations at the University of Oxford have yielded a wide range of artifacts, including tools that may have been used in the medieval practice of alchemy. With the discovery of a ceramic container, archaeologists were able to deduce that this container once held mercury from Spain, and they believe it is highly possible that this alchemical tool might have been used to try and help those who may have suffered from leprosy, as well as syphilis.
Other items found during the excavations at Oxford are oil lamps so that students would be able to read and study deep into the night if they so desired, as well as a pencil comprised of lead, a rarity in medieval times. A clasp fashioned out of brass was found which once adorned a 13th century book, and bookmarks of bronze were also recovered. With writing tools in abundance at that time, archaeologists have uncovered styluses, quills, and an item known as a parchment pricker.
— Museum of Oxford (@MuseumofOxford) March 5, 2018
When looking over a list of those who taught at the famous Greyfriars Franciscan friary at Oxford University, the list is long and illustrious and includes scholars like Roger Bacon, John of Peckham, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, physicist Robert Grosseteste, Peter Phillarges, and political theorist William of Ockham.
Because such notables were teaching and attending the university, theirs was a lavish diet when it came to meals, which archaeologists can now attest to. Evidence shows aside from the usual meat, which would have included beef, chicken, lamb, mutton, pork, and geese, those at the friary at Oxford also had a penchant for seafood like cod, haddock, oysters, herring, trout, salmon, and eels.
They also enjoyed walnuts and hazelnuts, and frequently consumed something called pottage, which was a heavy stew with vegetables and was created out of rye, oats, wheat, and barley.
To accompany their meals, the excavation at the University of Oxford showed that utensils were used, and these could be rather fancy in appearance. Some of the utensils found were iron knives that were comprised of wood and bone when it came to their decorations and also plenty of iron spoons. Also recovered from the site was a massive mortar which measures 60 centimeters in diameter and a multitude of cooking pots.
One curious object discovered during Oxford’s excavation was a tiny bowl that was created out of the wood of either a plum or apple tree, and archaeologists believe this bowl may have been used for purposes of bloodletting, which was a very common practice during the medieval era.
A wooden ball was also found at the university, and this was a particularly exciting moment for archaeologists as it showed clearly that despite King Edward III’s edict that English subjects could face serious imprisonment for “stone, wood and iron throwing” and “other such idle games,” medieval students at Oxford were more interested in enjoying themselves than they were in following what was believed to be a silly law.
Ben Ford, who headed up the archaeological dig at the University of Oxford, revealed just how thrilling his work has been when it comes to learning more about the life of the average medieval student and teacher.
“Our excavation has allowed us to more fully understand the lives of some of Oxford’s earliest students. The hundreds of everyday objects we found our revealing, in remarkable detail, how they and their teachers lived.”
Archaeological work at the Franciscan friary at the University of Oxford will continue until 2021, and the more than 10,000 artifacts discovered so far will be undergoing further analysis.