Exam Term Enigmas

LUCY ALDOUS takes a look at examination traditions – and discovers beer, swords and wooden spoons.

bear beer byron jelly London pesky Senate House spoon st johns statutes villainous chaos

The inexorable conclusion of each academic year is Exam Term and the bizarreness therein.  Let’s console ourselves with the fact that at least we’re not as screwed as Lord Byron, who, legend has it, had to take his exams despite not having attended a single lecture.

And, on the plus side, at least we only have one subject to focus on – until the 19th century, you couldn’t actually graduate from Cambridge without having studied Maths, Latin and Greek to a certain level of proficiency.  And things aren’t quite as humiliating as they used to be – in Ye Olde Cambridge the student who received the lowest Tripos mark in Maths, for instance, was publicly humiliated by receiving a wooden spoon. The last wooden spoon to have been awarded at the Senate House was in 1909, when Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse of St. John's college was awarded ‘the spoon’, which was over one metre in length and shaped like an oar. It could have been worse for poor old Cuthbert, however; the tradition banned in 1875 was to dangle the spoon in a teasing manner from the top balcony of the Senate House, as the recipient came to receive his degree from the Vice-Chancellor.

But how much have things really changed? Isn’t the nerve-wracking trip to the Senate house in the aftermath of May Week euphoria a little like being hit in the face with a metaphorical metre-long wooden spoon?

The dreaded spoon isn’t the only bizarre Cambridge exam term tradition. One myth states that a student found a University Statute stating that his college should provide him with nine pints of ale, one a week, during his exam term.  And so they did.  The mysterious thing is that no one seems to know where this statute came from, nor do we know how he actually did in his exams. There is also another statute stating that Cambridge students must wear their swords to their exams. So it seems we’ve all failed before we’ve even started.  At least we don’t still have to wear our gowns to our exams, as is the status quo at The Other Place (Oxford…duh); just imagine the flocks of tourists gathered outside the Corn Exchange every morning throughout the exam term period. Nightmare. 

Post-results, college attitudes towards achievement seem to vary a great deal; from nice rooms, to handfuls of cash, to free dinners.  Trinity academic scholars certainly receive due reward for attaining a First in their degree; aside from a pocket-full of cash, you can even walk across on the Scholars’ lawn. Super. The flaw in the plan is that you have to be in full academic dress first. Not super. 

But regardless of how well you do, at least we can all actually graduate at the end of all this exam term stress.  Until 1921, women, despite having successfully taken and passed their exams, were not awarded a degree.  This is despite both Girton and Newnham having been founded long before (1869 and 1872 respectively). 

Suffice to say Cambridge must have been a very different place in the 19th and early 20th centuries, even during the dreaded Easter term.  Granchester, instead of being the safe revision-break haven we find it as today, with its quaint little country pubs and cafes, was in fact the destination of choice for lusty male students in search of a bit of skirt and stress release

And you couldn’t escape the exam-hub easily, rumour has it that Cambridge train station was purposefully built at a distance from most colleges to stop those pesky students dashing off to London every weekend for a bit of fun.  Escaping the bubble was made even more difficult by those famously elusive Cambridge statutes which state exactly how many nights each student has to spend in their college each term in order to graduate with their degree at the end of it all.  These were far more stringently followed than they are today.  Yet it seems a bit of debauchery prevailed – even in the days before The Mahal, Byron expressed his disgust at Cambridge academic life, describing it as a ‘villainous chaos of din and drunkenness’

So, all eyes on May Week, which inherited its name from a bygone time when it actually used to be in May, before people starting taking exams far too seriously.  During this week Cambridge traditions go utterly awol.  Hundreds of eager students jump aboard buses to travel out of Cambridge to watch girls wrestle in wellies full of jelly, and for one week only it’s almost acceptable to vomit in Kings’ chapel and swim the length of the Cam with a bag of clothes balanced on your head in an attempt to break into Trinity.  In this week of bizarre behaviour day becomes night and night day and this strange, stressful, summer term comes to an end.

Hang on in there. And if you can’t, do a Byron and buy a bear.