II.5 'Authentica habita': Academic garments to distinguish town from gown

II.5 'Authentica habita': Academic garments to distinguish town from gown

Town and gown. In paintings and engravings of Oxford created well into the nineteenth century – of which this view of the High Street in 1809-10 by J. M. W. Turner is perhaps the most famous – the city is typically populated partly by figures dressed in academic caps, hoods and gowns.  Today – when such garments are reserved for rare, formal occasions – it is easy to imagine that these are mere decorative touches, designed to remind the viewer of the special character of a university town.  But in fact, the wearing of these vestments was obligatory, not only for the formal assemblies of the University in Congregation and Convocation, nor even merely for lesser University functions such as sermons, lectures and disputations: they were also required as part of the daily life of the University community.  Their primary purpose (discussed here) was to distinguish University men from townsmen. Their secondary purpose (illustrated by the following image) was to distinguish University men from one another according to their various degrees and faculties. 
Authentica habita. Distinctive academic clothing of this kind is almost as old as the university as a legally recognised, self-governing institution. Like secular and monastic clergy, matriculated members of the university corporation were immune from civil jurisdiction: instead, they were be tried by in the bishop’s court or by their own masters in university courts, provided that they distinguished themselves by wearing a variant of clerical dress. The wearing of academic garments in images such as this was the visible symbol that members of the university community were in Oxford but not of Oxford, at least as far as their subjection to civic authority was concerned.
Image. View of the High Street, Oxford, by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851). Oil on Canvas, 68.5 x 100.3 cm. Ashmolean Museum: WA2016.48. Source: Wikimedia (public domain). A series of preliminary watercolour sketches for this painting are preserved in the Tate. The painting was commissioned as the basis for an engraving by the Oxford print-seller, James Wyatt: see British Museum, no. 1857,0520.444 and Sanders of Oxford.  A fund-raising campaign was undertaken in 2015 to save this painting for the nation and obtain it for the Ashmolean.
Credits: Howard Hotson (December 2018)