Financial fiddles in Cambridge colleges

My last career before becoming a full-time novelist was managing a digital archive founded deep within the library system at the megaversity, the University of Texas at Austin. For most of those twelve years, my salary depended on my ability to obtain grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Getting that first grant requires a great project and evidence of good planning; getting the subsequent grants requires proof that you managed your first grant correctly. That means you must learn to navigate a vast and complex bureaucracy. Not alone! There are whole offices devoted to helping faculty and staff manage such funds. It helps not to thrash against the complexity and the opacity and the multiplicity of forms. Don’t even think about trying to fiddle them; it can’t be done. fiddles

Don’t ask why. That was my motto, until I read Victor Morgan’s A History of the University of Cambridge. Volume II: 1546-1750 (Cambridge University Press, 2004.) I’ve raved about this book already: the clarity of writing, the breadth and depth of scholarship, the wit and understanding displayed in the selection of anecdotes. In this post, I’ll look at some of the reasons we draw clear, bright, shining lines — in triplicate — between grant-funded activities and everything else.

Universities have long memories. In olden days, like Tudor times, there were no regular audits. (At UT, we were audited by the university, the state, and the federal government.) Audits could happen, in theory. Audits might be proposed or even threatened, but they rarely actually came to pass. There were no Accounting Departments or Offices of Sponsored Projects to disburse your funds after you fill out an elaborate and mysterious form for each specific expenditure. I(“Not eligible for bsp” is my personal favorite. This note had to be included in every salary assignment.)

In the sixteenth century, heads of Cambridge colleges managed their college’s funds directly; often to their own advantage. Colleges were funded by endowments. Endowments these days are usually stock portfolios. I had no idea which widget factories, service providers, or cornfields produced the $1.5 million in grants we won for the archive in my years there. Somewhere underneath the numbers there must have been an actual something, one supposes. But the head of a college in a university in the sixteenth century knew exactly where his funds came from. In fact, if you were the recipient of a Bacon scholarship, you could probably ride out to the field in Norfolk or Cambridgeshire and have a look at the crops that would pay for your bread and beer next term.

Wealth meant land, so endowments were gifts of estates. The college would then lease the estate to a tenant who would farm it and pay the college an annual rent. The bursar of the college rode out to collect the said rents, as well as the fines (fees) for renewing leases. Leases could be for odd lengths of time, by our standards. Their standards were shifting from a long, stability-oriented perspective to a short-term profit perspective. From medieval to modern, in other words. Some leases were for “lives,” which originally meant actual lifetimes and then gradually boiled down to twenty-one years or even just seven. I can’t explain that process. The upshot is that some tenants held leases of valuable property at absurdly low rents, especially in those inflationary times.

So there was pressure to renew leases for the legitimate reason of keeping up with the cost of maintaining the college. But there was another pressure built in to their personal-management system: profits from leases, such as new fees, were divided among the resident masters of the college and the head of the college. The head took a bigger share, naturally. Teaching masters only lived in the college for a few years, so they had an incentive to trade a stiff entry fine for a long-term reduction in rent. That could be a big chunk of money right when you needed it most, to buy nice clothes for your new position as the vicar of Somewhere.

Heads of colleges had a lot of influence in all directions. Their recommendations could be crucial in landing that plush vicarage in a rich Suffolk wool town rather than being sent to minister to the poor on some Yorkshire backwater. They could also finagle cheap leases on college properties for courtiers who would later do some great favor, like deflecting that audit that’s been pending for years. The Corn Act of 1576 required that a third of college leasehold rents be paid in corn, the price of just kept on rising. This was another windfall for colleges to exploit.

These bricks aren't free, you know
These bricks aren’t free, you know

Bursars were elected by the masters as a group, but the Head could apply pressure there as well. With the right sort of bursars (corrupt and/or oblivious) you could skim money off the top of every payment that came through the college. Some heads bought rental properties around Cambridge; others charged the college for the support of their fine horses.

Colleges brewed their own ale and baked their own bread. They sold these fine products, dividing the profits among the faculty. That gives a whole ‘nother meaning to the library’s annual bake sale. Maybe we should bring this back. “Linguistics Department Pale Ale” available here!


Kit at Cambridge

On 17 March, 1581, one Christopher Marlen was registered in the Cambridge University Book of Matriculation. That surname was spelled many different ways in different contexts: Marlowe, Marlow, Marloe, Marlo, Marle, Marlen, Marlin, Marlyne, Marlinge, Merlin, Marley, Marlye, Morley, Morle (Honan, p.18.) This is what happens when there’s no standard spelling or even the idea that such a standard should exist. The second syllable is unstressed, which in English means the vowel is something like ‘uh,’ with a tiny stripe of ‘o’ for most people. But we need have no doubt that young Kit knew who he was. His work demonstrates spectacular self-confidence.

He was 17, about average for a freshman. He was a scholarship boy — poor — but a scholar, not a sizar. Sizars were even poorer. They had to do chores for everyone else in exchange for their educations. Kit’s scholarship was 1 shilling per week, for every week in residence. He could and did sign it over to another boy when he was gone. One shilling is 12 pennies. He had to pay for his food and drink in the college commons out of that shilling.

Kit shared a room with three other scholarship boys on the north-west side of the quadrangle at Corpus Christi College. This is now called the Old Court and it’s the oldest closed court at Cambridge. Marlowe is honored with a plaque on the wall of his range. The Old Court at the Corpus Christi College.The windows had been glazed in the past decade or so and the walls cleanly plastered. Two chimney flues ran through Kit’s chambers, so it must have been decently warm in winter. He would have shared a bed, but had his own desk.

Like every other student in the busy university, Kit wore a black, floor-length gown and a round black skullcap. He could wear whatever he liked under it, one supposes. Certainly at least a clean shirt, linen braies, wool hose (round pants) and warm stockings. There were endless rules about dress, of course, as there were everywhere in this period. Nothing but ‘sad’ colors — puke, brown, black, gray — no lace or pinkings, no braids or twists.

All students were expected to attend college lectures in addition to some university-wide lectures given in the Common Schools. But some evaded such rigors. Robert Greene, a later enemy of Kit’s, wrote, “I lighted amongst wags as lewd as my selfe, with whom I consumed the flower of my youth.”

They also had fun, though. St. John’s College was famous for its theater productions, which all could attend. Kit met his great life-long friend, Thomas Nashe, there. And here’s a charming note from Honan (p.79): “At Corpus, he found an unusual emphasis on singing: he had won his award partly for his musical ability and skill in making verses.” We tend to think of Marlowe as hard-bitten, cynical, always on the edge of violence, at least in his creative work. We don’t think of him as a young man with a pleasant singing voice.

Kit met some extremely hot Protestants in college. We know he knew them and cared about them, because he signed over his scholarship to them, recorded forever in the college buttery book. One of these was Francis Kett, who went on to instigate a rebellion and get himself burned for heresy. Another was John Greenwood, who went on to found the London Separatists, be jailed repeatedly, and ultimately hung. Marlowe was still alive and possibly in London at the time of Greenwood’s hanging. Did he go to watch and shake his head at the vile absurdity of both sides?

Honan insightfully says (p.84), “Marlowe’s college friends cared about beliefs, ideas, or literature; what mattered was whether they took a fresh line on anything.”

Here’s the way he spent his days. Up at 5:00 am for chapel, then a little breakfast. Then lectures in the hall: six o’clock, Aristotle or scripture; then Greek, either literature like Homer or Demosthenes, or grammar. Then he was either free to study or went to a lecture in Schools. Dinner would have been between 11:00 and 12:00; the main meal of the day. At 3:00, more lectures in the hall; rhetoric this time, Tully or Cicero for choice. Then the scholar’s sophisme; exercises in disputation, one presumes.

Honan describes Marlowe (p. 89) as “a poet-in-residence waiting to be amused.” I definitely knew people like that in college. Maybe I was one, some of the time. Certainly I did not concern myself with learning anything useful. I spent a lot of time reading Homer and filled out the program with things like Self-paced Astronomy.

Kit got his BA in 1584. He stayed on, still a Parker scholar, to study for his MA, which he attained in 1587. Dido_wikicomAccording to the terms of his scholarship, he was supposed to be studying divinity with the aim of becoming an aid and ornament to the English church in some needy parish. Instead, he spent a fair amount of time elsewhere doing something secret that paid well enough to buy nice clothes and wrote a translation of Ovid’s sexy Art of Love and two plays. He may have collaborated with Thomas Nashe on the first one, Dido, Queen of Carthage. It might have been performed at Cambridge, but there’s no record of that happening. The other was Tamburlaine, first performed in London in 1587. That play rocked the world and changed the theater in all of Europe forever.

Not bad for “a poet-in-residence waiting to be amused.” Peer closely at that title page and you’ll see the abbreviation ‘Gent.’ after the authors’ names. Those clever lads earned their gentility the hard way, living on a shilling a week and enduring endless hours of rhetoric lectures in Latin.