Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Shared Treasures

I have in the past allowed myself some discouraging remarks about the state of higher education in Britain, because it had seemed to me that in recent years the Brits have taken up some of the worst features of our American system at the expense of the better ones. Accordingly, I feel honor bound to report on evidence of a very different kind: the highly enjoyable and exhilarating weekend Joan and I just spent in Oxford, our shared alma mater. In an earlier posting I reported on one of the university’s American reunions. In this one I touch on our experience of one of its “Oxford Thinking” week-ends. Putting this in our parochial terms, such a weekend is more substantial than a “Princeton Today” program, but less grand than a Princeton Alumni Day.

The great battle in Oxford is, and for some time will continue to be, the jockeying between the individual, autonomous colleges and the growing power and ambitions of a central university administration. The joke current in my undergraduate days half a century ago involved the American tourist who arrives in town and baffles a man he meets in the street by asking him, “Which way is the University?” The “University” being a merely platonic concept, it was as though he were asking directions to the Sorry State of Affairs, or to see a printed list of No Uncertain Terms. The weight of tradition and academic conservatism, complicated by ancient legal arrangements hardly imaginable in America, bolster the college-centered vision. Common sense, the realities of modernity, and the palpable need for the effective deployment of limited resources suggest that the more “centralized” vision must certainly win out. These Alumni Weekends give incidental evidence that it is winning.

In this regard it was significant that the only venue really convenient for an event of this sort—the Said Business School next to the railroad station—is among the newest, least traditionally “Oxonian”, and most architecturally nondescript sites in Oxford. There simply isn’t anywhere else one could run five or six concurrent lectures for fifty or more people—a requirement it met to perfection. The thoughtfully chosen theme of the week-end was “Shared Treasures.” This phrase drew explicit attention to the breath-taking interior re-designing of the University's Ashmolean Museum, fairly recently completed, but in a larger sense it reminded us all of the extent to which our ancient university in its ancient city is among the great shared treasures of the world’s cultural patrimony.

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford: the old and the new

The principal “shared treasures” were intellectual: a dazzling array of lectures by several of Oxford’s most celebrated scholars, among which we had to make difficult choices. To report at length would protract this post unduly, but my own top three—out of a sumptuous menu--were Hermione Lee’s panel on biography, a lecture by Emma Smith on the history of the Bodleian’s copy of the Shakespeare First Folio, and an absolutely bravura and apparently off the cuff talk about the English Reformation by religious historian Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch. That’s one erudite cuff, let me tell you.

The trip to Oxford had a double purpose, only part of which I have described. The occasion gave us the opportunity to stay with old and dear friends, Margaret and Derek Davies. Margaret had been among our cohort studying English before she married the young law don of Saint Catherine’s College. For many decades they lived on a marvelous large property on Boar’s Hill. They have now retired to a smaller version of it at the base of the hill, in the village of Cumnor. There is a special quality to ancient friendships even as there is to ancient universities, and we much enjoyed their mellow hospitality. On Sunday morning we went along to the parish church, Saint Michael’s, where a large and voluble congregation was, by chance, celebrating their patronal festival (Michaelmas being September 29—i.e, today). The priest apologized for the fact that he could not actually document earlier celebrations in the spot much further back than seven hundred years, even though Anglo-Saxons were probably worshipping there well before the year 1000.

The parish church of Saint Michael the Archangel: Cumnor, Oxon.

For us the Eucharist is the greatest of shared treasures, and to partake in a place it has been shared for a millennium was most pleasing. But there was another treasure yet to come. We spent Sunday night in a London hotel near Saint Pancras Station, whence the Eurostar for Paris leaves. That meant we were also near the British Museum, and that we would to able to spend part of a morning there. With limited time, we decided to focus on a single goal—the hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold, the largest ever found, recently uncovered in Staffordshire. Well, it had been there, briefly, one of the guards explained. A pity…but we had just missed it. It had now been returned to its proper and permanent home in the Midlands. “But,” he added when he noted the disappointment on our faces, “just over there is the Fishpool.”

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Luke 12:34)

He was pointing toward Room 40, one of the “new” medieval galleries opened only last year and as yet unseen by me. More specifically he was pointing toward the first large case you see as you enter the room. In it, lavishly scattered like the petals from golden roses, are 1237 bright shining coins of the fifteenth century. This is the Fishpool Hoard, and I choose my flowery image with intention. It is quite possible that these gold coins, together with a few exquisite pieces of jewelry, were hastily buried by defeated Lancastrians on the run following one of the skirmishes of the Wars of the Roses—the Battle of Hexham, in 1464. The excitement of my own “discovery” of them can hardly have been less intense than that of the workmen who dug them up on a Nottinghamshire building site forty-five years ago. I have spent my professional life trying to uncover and share the intellectual treasures of the past. This golden hoard was thus the perfect terminal punctuation for our weekend of Shared Treasures. I made a feint at reading on the train back to Paris, but mainly I was daydreaming.

One treasure (the recent Anglo-Saxon hoard) went unshared--until I can get to the Midlands