Joking aside, this is a very funny book, whose quality is not seriously impaired by its publisher’s incompetence. Written with wit and a keen sense of the ridiculous, it is both scholarly and entertaining, tracing the history of student mischief through the nine centuries of Oxford University’s existence and demonstrating that however poorly students may behave today, it is nothing to how they behaved in the thirteenth century. Rioting used to be a common occurrence and students seem regularly to have bludgeoned each other to death or to have been suspended from butchers’ hooks by angry townspeople. By the end of the fourteenth century things had clearly improved, as William of Wykeham only felt the need to ban ball games from his beautiful New College chapel. As today, it seems that much of the mischief was alcohol-fuelled and short-lived, although a few students did throw up (!) perfectly good careers as priests and become highwaymen.
The author’s interest is not limited to the student population and this well researched little volume also considers the lunacy which prevailed in the University’s own regulations right up until 1854. Archbishop Laud, a seventeenth century Chancellor of Oxford University wrote the (modestly titled) Laudian Code, which the combined towering intellects of the University appear not to have questioned for over two hundred years. The author has included some select quotations and points out that, were the Code still in force, today’s students would be whipped in public for going to Sainsbury’s, not to mention ‘the absurd practice of walking publicly in boots’.
The book comes up to date, recounting student derring-do right into the twenty-first century and is actually a great introduction to Oxford’s unusually well-documented history, with snippets of fascinating and extraordinary information giving a hilarious taste of the bizarre and occasionally shocking ways in which both students and the University have chosen to join in the pursuit of knowledge. To be kinder to the publishers, the cover and the pocket-size format is attractive and the inclusion of a bibliography is very welcome. This is highly recommended for anyone looking for an intelligent but funny read.