During “Another Morning Run” post, I tried to reveal that the various colleges are both near one another as well as spread throughout the town. No matter which direction you might head (or run), you will come across a number of the 38 different colleges and 6 permanent, private halls (which retain that make up the University of Oxford).
The college system at Oxford is fairly unique, if not a bit confusing. (Its biggest competitor, Cambridge University, has a similar system.) Although I suspect that many of its alumni would roll over in their graves at the suggestion, a good way – at least as a starting point – to conceptualize the Oxford college system is to think of each college as an American college sorority or fraternity (or as a federal system not unlike how the U.S. and 50 independent states come together as a nation). Everyone goes to the university, but some people are members of Sigma Chi or Alpha Chi Omega, etc. Oxford students are admitted to the University, but they also are admitted to a specific college, receive tutorial assistance, and typically live in dormitories (and take their meals) at their college. The students will also typically compete in intramural sports and other contests by their respective colleges – hence another similarity to the fraternity/sorority comparison. Unlike fraternities the students have their tutors through the college and likely receive some of their class work at and through their college, yet, the University offers most of the lectures and substantive instruction. And, ultimately, what ties everyone together is the examinations taken by the students – they are University exams, not college exams. If you are taking a history final it does not matter whether you are at Keble, or Merton, or Queens – you all take the same university exam in history.
The system developed primarily as a reaction to disputes between the “town and gown.” The most notorious of the clashes between the townsfolk and the students occurred in 1355 when a full-blown riot broke out, which lasted 4 days with 63 students losing their lives in the violence. In response, the colleges began to build residence halls to house (and protect) the students – thus, the creation of limited-access, fortress like buildings where much of the living space consists of courtyard green spaces surrounded (“protected by”) four walls. In addition to residence halls, dining rooms, and classroom space, every college would construct a chapel. I don’t think anyone would suggest the relationship between town and gown today is so combative (in fact, the word is that the University now runs the town), but the walls remain.
Like many things when we try to date the “oldest” of anything, some debates arise. (For instance, some people still argue that Harvard is older than the College of William & Mary.) The oldest colleges at Oxford do date from the mid-13th century and the general consensus seems to be that the oldest are Balliol College (whose graduates include Graham Greene and Aldous Huxley), University College, and Merton College. Most would admit that Christ Church College is the most magnificent in terms of the size of its campus and the majesty of its buildings, which include a cathedral in addition to a magnificent chapel (as well as the dining hall that served as the model for the dining hall in the Harry Potter movies). The same majority would also probably conclude that Wycliffe Hall is the most – what’s the antonym for majestic? – modest of the colleges. Thus, rather than having a “proper” English dinner each evening at Christ Church, I fend for myself around Wycliffe Hall.