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  • Christopher Marlowe, William Austen, and the Community of Corpus Christi College
  • Arata Ide

THE history of deep antagonism between town and gown in Cambridge chiefly centers on the social spheres of everyday existence. Since both the immensely privileged collegians and the common townsfolk walked the same streets day after day, obtained their supplies of bread and drink from the same markets, and used the same ditches and trenches to perform their natural functions, it was perhaps inevitable that friction should occur in many aspects of their lives. From its earliest days, the university had been concerned with protecting and controlling its members. Its jurisdiction and privileges, which appear to have had their origins in a charter of Edward I, had been consolidated and expanded by Elizabeth’s royal patent during the period in question. The charter of 1383, reconfirmed by Richard II, clearly stated the chancellor’s right to exercise jurisdiction regarding “all manner of personal pleas, whether of debts accounts and any other contracts and wrongs, or of breaches of the peace and misprisions whatsoever, committed within the town of Cambridge and its suburbs (felony and mayhem alone excepted) in which a master or scholar or a scholar’s servant or a common officer of the University is one of the parties.”1 The jurisdiction of the university was exercised by the vice-chancellor’s court or, “unless the proctors or taxors of the University, or any of them, or [End Page 56] a master of arts, or one of superior degree, be one of the litigants,” by the commissary’s court.2 Each week during term time, both courts sat in the university consistory located on the east side of the Schools Quadrangle, “although extra sessions were also frequently convened in the judges’ college rooms.”3 Details of a wide range of legal business conducted in the university court can be found in the “Act Books,” which recorded office and personal causes including decrees, orders, bonds for licenses, assignations in causes, personal examinations, depositions, criminal information, assizes of bread and drink, and Taxors’ and Proctors’ prosecutions.

In spite of a number of documents suggesting violent conflict between town and gown, it is necessary, as Alexandra Shepard cogently argues, to be guarded about contemporary rhetoric on the division in order to construe “the more complex reality of relations” within the community. In particular, the commercial interests of both sides “were deeply enmeshed, with the university heavily dependent on the town for its provisions and the town likewise reliant on the university for a significant portion of its livelihood.”4 In a sense, the documents concerning town-gown tension paradoxically suggest the depth of this mutual economic relationship. Shared alliances and deep affinity, as well as intense friction, can be observed in the Act Books of the vice-chancellor’s court. University members were variously bound to local traders: college masters for the acquisition of books, stewards for debts of chapel building projects, fellows for moneylending ventures, etc. As for poor scholars who had to secure assistance from parents or patrons, it was a matter of course that their pecuniary embarrassment, though their loans were humble in scale, frequently engendered economic interdependence with townsfolk. Scholars became acquainted with townsfolk in the course of their transactions, having been forced to pawn (often at an extortionate rate) their “doublets,” “gowns,” “knit hoses,” “featherbed,” “sheets,” “books,” and other necessaries to obtain living expenses and stipends for their tutors. Small wonder that we can sometimes find poor scholars accused of failure to pay debts, or tutors [End Page 57] who have appealed on behalf of their pupils against acquisitive traders taking security in exchange for pitifully small sums of cash.

The Act Books of the vice-chancellor’s court contain a record of one trivial but interesting case between a Cambridge student and a victualer. On 7 April 1587, one William Austen incurred a claim of Richard Gee, a victualer, for reimbursement of 18s 4d due for victuals.5 We do not know how often this had happened previously, but Austen apparently visited Gee’s house to buy provisions on credit. On this particular occasion, or on a subsequent trip when Austen was...


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