In addition to distinguishing members of the university community from townsmen, academic dress served to distinguish University men from one another.  To anyone conversant with this sartorial language, the rank of any other member of the University was evident at a glance.  For outsiders, a visual lexicon was provided by this plate from Loggan’s Oxonia illustrata.

At the very bottom of the hierarchy are servants (serviens), who, although not students or teachers were members of the academic community, enjoying some of its rights and privileges, and subject to its jurisdiction. Next come what we would call undergraduates, that is students studying for the Bachellor’s degree, who have not yet graduated.  No disciplinary hierarchy is evident here (because they are all studying the broad ‘arts’ or ‘philosophy’ curriculum), with one exception: undergraduate students of civil law who have already spent four years in the university are given the highest rank. After obtaining the bachellor’s degree, however, a steep disciplinary hierarchy becomes apparent: bachellors of music (one of the seven liberal arts) come below BAs generally, while bachellors of law come below medicine, who in turn defer to bachellors of theology.  More surprising still is the place of the doctors of music and masters of arts between bachelors of law and medicine. Finally, at the pinnacle of the academic hierarchy, come the doctors of medicine, law, and theology.  At this point, the social order of society at large intrudes aggressively into the ivory tower: between the most senior representatives of the queen of the sciences (the doctors of theology) and the Vice-Chancellor himself interpose members of the lesser nobility (knights and baronets) and members and sons of the upper nobility (barons, earls, and dukes). What we have here, then, is a hierarchy composed of several conflicting criteria: length of study, academic seniority, disciplinary prestige, and secular social status.

Deference to superiors. The key point is that this hierarchy governed more than university ceremonial: it also structured the everyday interactions of every member of the academic community. By making visible academic rank, this clothing also ensured that the deference to superiors could be made a pervasive feature of university life.  The purpose of higher education was to inform manners as well as learning; and this deference was canonised in a chapter of the Statutes ‘On the respect of Juniors for their Seniors’:

It is enacted, that the juniors shall show due and suitable reverence to their seniors both in public and private, that is, under-graduates to bachelors, bachelors of arts to masters, and in like manner masters to doctors: that is, by yielding to them the best places at meetings, by giving way when they meet, and by uncovering the head at a suitable distance, and also by a reverent greeting and address.

More generally,

all persons of every condition (excepting the sons of Lords and Barons …), who have not at the time attained to the degree of master of arts, or bachelor of divinity, law, or medicine, while in company with others [at any university function outside the schools of arts or philosophy] … are to stand bare-headed, and with an humble and modest demeanour [156].

Infringing this statute could lead to corporal punishment for younger members, fines for older members, and imprisonment for the obstinate (157).

Similar deference was required by the statutes of the Bodleian Library of 1613. 

Source: Oxford University Statutes, translated by G. R. M. Ward, Volume 1: Containing the Caroline Code, or Laudian Statues, promulgated A.D. 1636 (London, 1845), pp. 156-7. The precise circumstances in which each item of clothing was obligatory was explained in Title XIV, ch. 3 of the statutes, 'The Academical Dresses suited to each Degree and Faculty', pp. 152-4 (available here). 

Credits: Howard Hotson (December 2018).