Cambridge Act and Tripos verses

J. J. Hall

Cambridge Bibliographical Society Monograph no. 15

‘Act’ and ‘Tripos’ verses were Latin (or occasionally Greek) verses composed for distribution, usually as printed sheets, at academic ceremonies in Cambridge from 1565 (at the latest) until 1894. Most of the earliest have as their subjects serious academic questions which were formally debated as part of the ceremonies; many others are humorous or satirical; some are simply on whatever topic happened to take the author’s fancy. This study provides an annotated list of these verses, with as introduction a history of them, and of the ceremonies for which they were composed. It also includes indexes of the subjects of the verses, and of the men who wrote them or took part in the exercises and ceremonies for which they were written – an index which includes many famous names: Milton and Macaulay, Ralph Cudworth and Richard Bentley, R.C. Jebb and M.R. James, to name but a few.

The book shows that ‘Act’ and ‘Tripos’ verses are a source of information which cannot be ignored by serious students of the history of Cambridge University (and, therefore, of the history of higher education in England). Up to the early eighteenth century the subjects of the verses are important evidence of what subjects were thought worthy of serious academic study and debate – subjects which are often much more modern than traditional views of the academic curriculum would lead one to expect. ‘Newton’s hypothesis correctly explains the basis of colours’ was already a subject of debate in 1680.

In the later eighteenth and the nineteenth century this ceases to be so, but the verses are still a valuable source of information about the subjects which interested the undergraduates who usually wrote the verses (there is, for instance, much evidence about their attitudes to women’s higher education), and how much licence they were allowed by the dons who had to vet their work. For example, poems about students’ conflicts with the proctors were allowed, but one suggesting the seduction of a particular proctor by a prostitute caused a major row when the responsible don failed to ban it.

Other evidence discussed in this book shows how, in Cambridge, the distinction of degrees with honours from ordinary degrees, and the division of degrees with honours into classes, have their origin in academic ceremonies of the seventeenth century.

Published for the Cambridge Bibliographical Society by Cambridge University Library, 2009
ix+375 pp.; ISBN: 978-0-902205-65-9 ISSN: 0575-6782; Price £18.00

Copies are available from the Society at the University Library, West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DR.