As we’re all aware the 2020 Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race has been cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. However, this unfortunate but necessary disruption to the sporting calendar isn’t going to derail a rivalry that has lasted over 800 years. For most of their history neither Oxford nor Cambridge required sporting events or close proximity to troll each other. So in this time of self isolation it’s time to look at that long distance rivalry. Though of course we at the Varsity Hotel Cambridge already know who is best…
An Old Rivalry
With no Boat Race this year we won’t be hearing the traditional chants of:
“I’d rather be a leper than a Tab” from Oxford
“Shove your Dreaming Spires up your arse” from Cambridge
Both sung to the tune of “she’ll be coming round the mountain”
Cambridge and Oxford have been trolling each other for centuries. Though generally with far superior grammar than typically found on modern social media. And often in Latin and/or Greek. But how did it all start?
Though the precise date when teaching began in Oxford is unknown, one thing is clear – Oxford is the older university. This is accepted by both sides as it was a group of Oxford scholars fleeing local hostility in the late 12th century who set up shop in Cambridge.
But while Oxford considered them mere malcontents and upstarts, Cambridge viewed themselves as upholding the independent traditions of academia, rather than bowing to pressure from the establishment. Both ideals sound very human, and a lasting rivalry was begun.
Now while everyone has heard of this 800+ year rivalry, there’s something that we tend to forget. For most of this time these two institutions were the only two universities in England. Both the Boat Race itself and even the sheer existence of other English universities are, by Oxbridge standards, a modern concept.
Plus, of course, both these institutions and their rivalry have survived such minor matters as: the Black Death; a pair of World Wars; multiple civil wars; and the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII – many of which were similarly old, scholarly and venerable institutions.
Who’s the Best?
Especially in more recent history, (which by Oxbridge standards counts as the past 150 years or so), each institution has developed a particular reputation for excellence:
Oxford is famed for its focus on the arts and humanities, with its PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) course in particular a degree without peer. Oxford can also boast twice the number of Prime Ministers among its alumni than Cambridge. And far more famous writers, poets, artists and the like. Famous alumni include: Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, J.R.R. Tolkien, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Michael Palin.
Cambridge, by contrast, has excelled in the sciences. It boasts far more Nobel Prize winners than not just Oxford, but any other university in the world. And many entire countries too. Its alumni/fellows include: Sir Isaac Newton; Charles Darwin; Alan Turing; Stephen Hawking; Bertrand Russel and, of course, John Cleese.
So which is better? Well in times such as these we should always remember that the Monty Python crew consisted of graduates from both establishments. In other words, much more can be accomplished by working together rather than highlighting differences.