Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday 4 March 2024

Policing morals at Cambridge University - and at Oxford

The tradition of the Proctors policing the streets of Cambridge and in particular their concern to keep loose women off those streets and to protect male undergraduates from being led into temptation is discussed in an article on the BBC News website which can be seen at 'When to be poor, pretty and petulant was a crime'

Given the fallen state of human nature such efforts, however superficially successful, were no doubt unavailing. 

I noticed that this was under an Elizabethan statute. The sixteenth century appears to have been part an age of a ‘moral panic’ which possibly began in the last years of the fifteenth century, and which took in all forms of digression from what was considered the social norm. Sexual morality was but one aspect of deviance that attracted the attention of the relevant authorities across Europe. The concern with heresy and witchcraft, of political dissent, as well as reinforcing perceived hierarchies in families and communities was shared across Catholic and Reformed traditions. The conventions inherited from previous centuries were now enforced in a way that went from the occasional to the routine.

I am not sufficiently informed as to the history of Cambridge as to the minutiae of such policies there. Medieval Oxford was known to have areas noted for prostitution outside the city walls and had one very explicitly named street in the very centre - now re-named. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the St Thomas’ area was notorious for its houses of easy virtue and the great Tractarian Canon Chamberlain from the parish church was a vigorous opponent of them. Regular parish visiting to the houses of ill-repute helped to close them down and he faced down physical threats from the girls’ ‘protectors’.

If the University students were traditionally catered for in these matters - and certain streets and street corners were well known to be meeting places up to the 1960s - then the advent of military bases in the twentieth century opened up new possibilities. I recall being regaled by a retired Oxford policewoman I worked alongside with stories of staking out a brothel in the St Ebbe’s area which provided ‘services’ for the USAF in the 1950s…

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