A few weekends back, a number of us bussed out to Cambridge, to see how the “other half” lived (and this is precisely the type of poor taste in humour that had Oxford townies beating up gownies 800 years ago, prompting the mass exodus of said gownies to found Cambridge as a sort of refugee camp with books). While some have trivialized any distinction between the two institutions (Patterson 2011), significant differences are immediately recognizable. While Oxford enjoys the thriving bustle and genteel urbanity of a small city, Cambridge offers the idyllic provincialism of a sleepy hamlet (and any incidental Danish associations here will be hermeneutically relevant in teasing out the difference in drinking habits between the two: as the Bard tells us, your Englishman will drink your Dane dead drunk easily).
Our trip included an eye opening visit to the chapel at King’s College. To their credit, Cambridge did manage to slap together a pretty good facsimile of an Oxford college chapel, and KC’s stained glass presents one of the finer extant representatives of medieval glass. The glass itself has a bit of history, having survived at least two separate campaigns of militant madmen. During the English Civil war, Cromwell had quartered his troops in Cambridge. In what was justified as a righteous bit of anti-idolatry, but in reality was just a righteous bit of goofing around, Cromwell’s troops smashed the glass in the majority of Cambridge windows. Since they were stabling the horses at King’s College Chapel they spared its glass, so as to keep the horses from getting chilled in the winter drafts. One might legitimately enquire why the horses were not stabled in the stables, but these were, of course, reserved for the Irish.
Along Trinity Street, we witnessed the magnificent Chronophage, an enormous golden clock designed by inventor Dr. John Taylor in homage to John Harrison, who invented the Harrison time as an answer to the problem of longitudinal orientation in naval navigation. Sitting atop the clock is a fierce, demonic grasshopper for the grasshopper escapement, munching up the hours like they were fields of the Pharoah. Besides being both a monument of mechanical precision and poignant symbol of the human condition, the Chronophage also serves to remind students to stop standing around, gawking at clocks when their weekly tutorial papers remain unwritten.
Also on the itinerary, a visit to the Samuel Pepys library, situated at fabulous Magdalene College (with the extra ‘e’ added to differentiate it from its sister school, Magdalen, in Oxford, and you French speakers will note the jibe on the Oxford branch’s relative femininity), former stomping grounds of Shimer Nat Sci and Old English heavyweight, Bev ‘Bevowulf’ Thurber. Items of bibliographic interest here include a first edition of Newton’s Principia, a longtime favorite of Shimer facilitators for the ‘exorbitant’ amount of student grey matter destroyed by it. Also of note, Pepys thrilling account of the London Fire of 1666, in which he valiantly dashed from place to place, conferring with his aristocratic colleagues that the city was “raging every which way.” The conflagration was eventually attributed to a fire at the abode of Charles II’s baker, though given the year, one wonders if some mucking about with prisms by students desperately trying to finish their light papers might also be responsible. Fortunately, the fire only claimed seven human lives, but the damage to the royal pudding supply was irreparable, as attested to by Charles II’s alliance soon after with Louis XIV, who’s pastry chefs were legendary.
All in all, an informative trip, and though the punters stand outside the boat (c’mon, are we animals?), no doubt we can forgive our Cambridge neighbors their rustic foibles in recognition of all their wonderful, opaque and intractable contributions to Shimer’s Nat Sci core readings.