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Scholarly tools from left: quills, styluses and book clasps.

Tools of Medieval Wisdom Unearthed Beneath England’s Ancient Academic Hub

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Archaeologists in England have unearthed in excess of 10,000 medieval artifacts in central Oxford and every single one of them is providing a clearer picture of day to day life at Oxford University, as it was seven centuries ago.

Oxford University has become England’s academic pulsing heart, but it began as part of a friary established by Franciscan friars in 1224, known as Greyfriars. The massive archaeological dig is being directed by archaeologist, Ben Ford of the heritage consultancy, Oxford Archaeology, who told reporters at The Independent, among the smaller finds were “writing equipment, refectory cutlery and even ceramic beer mugs used by students and teachers back in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.” They also recovered “Ultra-rare octagonal oak columns, possibly from the friary’s 13th century timber church,” and a “beautiful mediaeval tiled pavement from the friary… discovered very near the new Westgate shopping center in central Oxford, archaeologists told reporters.”

Tile floor was found at the site

Tile floor was found at the site (Image:© Oxford Archaeology)

According to the archeological report the dig has unearthed the iron knives and spoons, for consuming potage and broth. The recent finds tell archaeologists that Oxford’s medieval scholars ate a very wide range of terrestrial sourced foods including “meat, eggs, cereals, mutton, lamb, pork, beef, chicken and geese.” Sea fish included cod, whiting, haddock, herring, eel, gurnard, conger, grey mullet, thornback ray, salmon and sea trout, and archaeologists reported that among the freshwater fish eaten were roach and dace. A microscopic examination of all the food remains and radiocarbon dating will begin shortly.

Oxford university had already existed for a few decades, teaching “practical vocationally oriented courses like letter writing, Latin grammar, classical speech making, basic maths and practical law,” but the Franciscan monks “transformed the institution – focusing on intellectually much more rigorous and challenging subject matter in the curriculum,” according to the The Independent report.

The Franciscans, with their Dominican colleagues and rivals, focused on theology using the Bible as a portal into subjects such as “advanced philosophy, physics, natural history, geology and even optics.” What’s more, the ancient tools used in these “advanced studies” have been found, including “well-preserved quills, styluses, oil lamps for aiding reading, a pure lead rare medieval pencil, bronze book marks, special scissors to cut vellum, and a very rare brass clasp from a large 13th century book.”

Writing implements such as quills and styluses were found at the Oxford University site

Writing implements such as quills and styluses were found at the Oxford University site. (Image:© Oxford Archaeology)

Archeologists also found hard evidence of alchemical practices in that “the excavation has even yielded a small ceramic container that had held Spanish-originating mercury which the friars may well have used for alchemical experiments, mercury-assisted metal gilding – or even for trying to treat leprosy and possibly syphilis” said archaeologist Ben Ford.

And as far as “who” might have actually used these tools, many famous scholars were associated with Greyfriars, for example: Robert Grosseteste was among medieval Europe’s first great mathematicians and physicists and he is matched in intellect by another student, Roger Bacon, the famous philosopher, and pioneer of empirical science.

“Our excavation has allowed us to more fully understand the lives of some of Oxford’s earliest students,” said Ben Ford, and “The hundreds of everyday objects we found are revealing, in remarkable detail, how they and their teachers lived.” A number of medical artifacts have been unearthed including “glass urine sample bottles… a beautifully preserved small wooden bowl, made of plum or apple tree wood, which may well have been used to collect blood during bloodletting, a practice which monks believed was good for their health!

Among the religious artifacts found in the friary were a “pilgrim badge from a trip to Thomas Becket’s tomb at Canterbury,” which was discovered with a “pendant displaying the crucifixion.” And finally, when the studies were over, recreation began, evident in that archaeologists were delighted “to find a wooden ball,” confirming an old medieval account of Oxford students entertaining themselves with sporty distractions.

Top image: Scholarly tools from left: quills, styluses and book clasps. Credit: © Oxford Archaeology

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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