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Eden Oration

4 December 2007

Professor James E. Montgomery

Eden Oration, 1.12.2007

College and Madrasa

When Dr Eden instituted the tradition which is now known as his Oration, he seems to have intended it as both a celebration and a challenge. That much I presume from his Order and his Will.

The celebration consists of the commendation of Bishop Bateman and the Hall’s benefactors, including of course Eden himself. The nature of the challenge may not be so obvious to us today, for it consisted not of the delivery of the speech in Latin, or its duration, or that it should be from memory, but rather in its subject matter and the expertise of the audience remunerated for their attendance at the Oration. The activities of Hall lawyers, civil and ecclesiastical, during and after the Civil War (remember Eden died five weeks after the Battle of Naseby), attest to the jurisprudential acumen there assembled. Indeed, from 1666 until 1873 the Hall produced an unbroken succession of Regius professors of civil law in the University. In modern academic terms, we might liken the Oration to a keynote address at a select conference, for the Oration was by invitation rather than in accordance with its current inexorable march down the Table of Seniority.

In the course of the twentieth century, the very institution of the Oration became itself the challenge as fewer Fellows could boast an adequate mastery of Latin, despite the curtailment of its duration from 60 to 15 minutes and its redefinition as a toast. As Crawley the College historian remarks drily, ‘some had difficulty even in reading what a scholar had turned into Latin for them.’ We can easily imagine the Governing Bodies at which ‘it was first agreed that any Fellow could opt to pass his turn,’ the consequent liberty with which Fellows could, in complete statutory propriety, opt out of the Oration and then the classic Hall compromise according to which ‘every fellow takes his turn, but in English’ (p. 101).

The challenge of the Oration persists today but in a manner which our predecessors would have found unimaginable. Fellows who have been here longer than I will know when it was decided that a certain latitude of subject matter be allocated to the Orator, with an indication, recently mollified by custom to a preference, that the speech be devoted to the Orator’s research. In an era of extreme academic specialisation, of the triumph of jargon and the rhetoric of expertise, the challenge may consist of converting a highly technical subject into something readily communicable in 15 minutes without being completely trivialised in the process; or it may consist of the pre-prandial nature of the Oration such that it may seem preferable to transmogrify it into a post-prandial speech; or it may consist of the simple difficulty of discerning a suitable topic to satisfy the impatience of an audience before whom there beckons an opulent feast. Indeed, inasmuch as the Oration is tantamount, in the career of a Fellow, to an Andy Warhol moment, a by no means insignificant aspect of the challenge is the demand of self-restraint which current practice imposes upon the Orator.

Now, the challenge for the Orator who addresses you this evening is intensified by one significant aporia: throughout his 21 years as an academic he hasresisted the demand imposed upon the modern scholar that the scholar be a commodity: an expert, be it of a period, a topic, an individual, a technique or an approach. This resistance is informed by three considerations;

  • the Orator’s abhorrence of the academic monograph in which a smattering of good ideas are distended to some 120,000 words, a distension which the ideas are very rarely sufficient to support;
  • his approach to learning, which is that of a magpie, and delight in the resultant congeries of sparkling inconcinnities with which he fills his writings;
  • and his belief that universities and the societies to which they belong require an abundance of those who know a little about a lot, more than they require a superfluity of those who know a lot about a little.

In short, then, the Orator has no principal research interest to which he can dedicate his Oration this evening.

Constrained by this nature, therefore, he has earnestly mulled over what to say. He will therefore emulate some of his predecessors who have chosen to address you on Collegiate matters. Such Orations fall into two species; the entertainingly informative; and the bracingly hortatory. The former species concentrates on some aspect of College life, be it dining together or the history of the fabric of the College buildings, for example. The latter may present the Fellowship with an entreaty that, say, the College trim its lawns more regularly, or alter the terms of academic tenure, or convert the Chapel into a museum. I shall try to be both informative and hortatory. Entertainment I hold to be a responsibility of the auditor not the locutor.

A much cherished feature of Dr Eden’s Supper is its oenomaniacal wonders. Many of you will have sampled the delights of the College cellar, but few will be familiar with the long tradition of wine poetry in Arabic which preceded the advent of Islam in the seventh century and continued unabated into the tenth century, despite what many, though not all, Muslims took to be the Qur'an’s condemnation of alcohol. The acme of the tradition was reached in the figure of al-Hasan ibn Hani', better known as Abu Nuwas and possibly familiar to some of you from the Arabian Nights . Abu Nuwas died in 814, was possibly an alcoholic and was certainly a pederast and a sodomite. He was also a formidable poet, one for whom society’s taboos counted for but little, as his most famous poem demonstrates:

Leave off criticizing me for to criticize is but to incite;

cure me instead with that which is the disease —

A golden wine where sorrows do not alight:

Even a stone would be filled with joy were it to touch it;

Served from the hand of a girl dressed as a man;

She has two lovers: one who likes her as a boy and one who likes

Her as a girl:

Standing with her decanter, as the night grows dark,

A pearl-bright light from her face filling the room,

Pouring from the lip of the decanter a wine so pure in colour

That to look at it is like blinking the eyes,

Too subtle for the water such that the mix will not take:

Water is too coarse for the substance of the wine;

If you were to mix it with light, then the mix would take,

And rays and beams of light would be generated;

It was passed from mouth to mouth among nobles who had humiliated time

For time could only touch them as they wished.

This is why I weep. I do not weep for dwellings

Where Asma' and Hind used to live;

What a thought that tents would be pitched for the pearl-bright wine

Or that camels and sheep would roam around her.

So say to him who claims philosophy as his discipline;

You know a thing or two but many others have escaped your notice:

Do not deny God’s forgiveness, even if you are a man without blemish,

For your denial of it is but a disparagement of religion.


The Orator, however, is only too aware that, in the case of libertinage as much as in paraenesis, art fashions nature and so will forbear from the provision of more examples of such poetry. He would not want to be open to the charge of corrupting the young.


Dr Eden’s Supper is also famed for its alimentative sumptuousness. The tenth century Miracle of the Age, al-Hamadhani, tells the story of how his narrator, 'Isa ibn Hisham, accompanies the picaresque hero Abu al-Fath al-Iskandari to a dinner party at which a most delicious dish of marinated, fatty meat cooked slowly in piquantly sour milk (known in Arabic as madira ) is served. The assembled company are aquiver with anticipation but not Abu al-Fath who demonstrates virulent aversion to the dish. Abu al-Fath explains why, recounting how a fabulously wealthy merchant, having just finished building a palace of bling, invited him to supper. On the menu was the much sought after delicacy of madira . The merchant takes the hero on a tour of his mansion and lavishes upon him a minute description of the artifice and cost of every fitting and furnishing. When the hero announces that he needs to use the privy, his host exclaims,

My friend, would you care to use a commode which puts to shame the vernal

residence of the Emir and the autumnal abode of the vizier?

Its ceiling is of plaster, its floor of mortar, its roof flat, and it is paved with

marble, in addition to that.

The ant slips from its wall and cannot get a grip; when the fly walks on its

floor, it suffers a slip.

It is fitted with a door whereon the slats are of ivory and teak, joined together

most wondrously, in a fashion unique.

Indeed, the guest desires to sup there.


The hero can take such rhetorical largesse no more. His only thought is of escape. While making good his exit, all the while pursued by the merchant entreating him to stay to eat the madira , he injures a passer-by, is set upon by a mob and is imprisoned for two years. The dinner-party agrees that legal responsibility for his actions should properly rest with the dish and condemns it as iniquitous.

The true subject of my Oration this evening is neither libertinage nor bling, but is us, synecdochically speaking, insofar as we represent the Foundation, and how we come to be here this evening. To do this, I need to tell you a story, and, as an unprofessional historian, before I can tell my story, I need a method. But as I suspect the writing of History is really a Caucus-race, I can only repeat what the Dodo said to Alice: ‘the best way to explain it is to do it.’

We are all, I expect, familiar with the story of the founding of the College; of how Bishop William Bateman, on 15 January, 1350, sealed his tenor fundationis at Thorpe, thereby creating “‘a perpetual College of scholars of canon and civil law … called “The College of Scholars of the Holy Trinity of Norwich” and its habitation “The Hall of the Holy Trinity of Norwich”’.” Popular aetiology has it that our foundation was in response to the ravages of the Black Death among the clergy in Bateman’s diocese of Norwich from May to September, 1349. And yet during 1349 he had, as Crawley points out, already ‘instituted to benefices about ten times the annual average number of clergy’ and had ‘obtained the Pope’s leave to ordain up to sixty young men not fully qualified under the normal rules’ (Crawley, p. 4). The plague may best be deemed a picturesque incidental rather than an explanatory account. Indeed it is perhaps a more satisfactory explanation of why Bateman expanded Edward Gonville’s statues to include medicine in 1351 than of why he established a legal foundation. What is unique to the Hall among the early Colleges was its founder’s emphasis on the law rather than on the law and theology. One of the reasons for this emphasis can be discerned in Statute 20 where Bateman declared his intent that the Hall produce lawyers able to serve the ‘advantage, rule and direction’ of the See of Norwich.

Unlike the familiar tale of the College’s mephitic past, few may have realised that in founding a College devoted to the study of the law by charitable endowment, Bishop Bateman was actually emulating the central institution of Muslim education, the madrasa . Initially in Islam, the non-congregational mosque acted as the place where instruction in the Islamic sciences could be had. As al-rihla fi talab al-'ilm , travelling in quest for knowledge, is a Prophetically endorsed maxim of Muslim intellectual and religious life, the khan or hostelry was, in time, added as a place to lodge students who were not ordinarily resident within comfortable range of the mosque. Eventually, both institutions were combined in the form of the madrasa , the residential college, the foundation of which was supported by a waqf , a charitable benefaction. The madrasa was predominantly established for the study of Islamic law and was often endowed for a specific scholar. Its cursus studiorum did not include theology which was studied elsewhere, as were other subjects such as medicine, philosophy and the dicta et acta of the Prophet Muhammad. Its teachers and students were resident fellows and scholars. Its eristic method of instruction characterized by the khilaf , the sic et non of Western disputation. As a charitable foundation, the founder was free in his deed to make any legal stipulations regarding the foundation, and therefore many powerful individuals saw the madrasa as an important way of securing legal and religious authority for their ambitions.

Bishop Bateman could have had as his model the foundation, by Countess Matilda of Tuscany in 1115, of the Bologna law school for the scholar Irnerius, itself a duplicate of the foundation in Baghdad by the Seljuk ruler Nizam al-Mulk for the legal expert al-Shirazi who died in 1083. At this juncture, let me also draw your attention to the ambivalence of Bateman’s coat of arms, now the College crest: the crescent moon is as much an icon declaring indebtedness to Islam as it is of Crusading triumphalism.

Today, the madrasa is notorious as the home of Muslim radicalisation. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with radicalisation. The problem lies with the ends to which radicalisation can be directed. Radicalisation is a natural but not a necessary or a consistent consequence of deracination. Universities, colleges and madrasa s are predicated upon the civic, intellectual and social value of deracination and persist as institutions which facilitate and promote radicalisation. It is what we talk about when we wonder how we can better motivate our students and when we lament their lassitude. We Fellows will at some point have been radicalised, to devote ourselves to scholarship to the exclusion of many other pursuits, while for us as teachers, radicalisation translates into improved performance in Finals, for example. It also, this Orator opines, somewhat paradoxically creates better civil societies.

Deracination, however, is most prone to insularity, to omphalic contemplation and to self-satisfaction. When it does not lead to radicalisation, it often becomes its own end. The average age of the current Fellowship is roughly what it was during Eden’s transformative mastership. Eden’s funeral oration held that, ‘like another Hercules, he constantly girded himself to purge some filth which this stable had accumulated in the course of years; then at last a new face of things appeared, and what had been squalid through age and position began by a wonderful change to revive and flourish’ (Crawley, pp. 99-100).  

It is not within the compass of this Eden Orator’s orotundity to pronounce on whether the Hall is an Augean stables. You may already have formed your own opinion, as he has his. It is within his prerogative, however, to propose that the work of radicalisation be not the job of any one individual, be she Herculean or a mere mortal like the rest of us. It is time, this Orator humbly submits, that our new generation of Fellows and students participate fully and unrestrainedly in the project of radicalisation and not languish in the desuetude of deracination, for the approaches, solutions and compromises of the last thirty years are worn and tired, and at times seem barely fit for the challenges confronting an establishment such as this in the 21 st century.

My hortation is simple: in this peculiar avatar of an inherently Muslim institution, let us strive to ensure that the Hall be radicalised and not deracinated; that our aspirations and ambitions, perhaps even our failures, be what mark us as distinct, and not the claim that we are amiable and diminutive; or simply put, that the Hall remain ‘hidden’ no longer.

It is customary for the Orator to welcome all those who have joined us and to bid farewell to those who have left. To the first, I extend the greeting of the pre-Islamic desert Arabs, ahlan wa-sahlan , you have come to a folk who will shelter you and a safe place at which to alight; to the latter, I bid the Muslim farewell, ma'a alsalamah , go in peace, and ila al-liqa' , until next we meet, in the afterlife if not before.

 

December 2007

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