Monday, June 18, 2012

When town-gown relations go bad

Well, here's one from the vault: the St. Scholastica Day Riot.  I was hanging out last night with a medievalist colleague who brought up this historical nugget in the course of our chit-chat about the history of Ghosttown.  You can read the Wikipedia article yourselves; it isn't long.  Rather than quote directly from that, I will summarize, making a few idiomatic substitutions so that we can imagine the scenario playing out today, rather than 657 years ago.  Here's your story, folks:

In the winter of 1355, a couple of college students at the University of Oxford were getting drunk at a local bar.  Aware that they were virtually above the local civil law, as university scholars, these students allowed themselves to act like complete boors: they created a scene by complaining loudly to the bar owner that his beer was bad.  The bar owner and the students started arguing, hurling curses at each other, and eventually the students threw their beers in his face and beat him up in front of his other customers.

The locals and the students, who already kind of despised each other, almost immediately began using this incident as a casus belli, and started skirmishing in the streets.  The mayor of Oxford asked the head of the university to arrest the two disorderly bar fighters, since the mayor himself had no such authority over Oxford scholars.  A mob of 200 students supported their douchebag brethren by assaulting the mayor and other locals in response to the arrest request.  This assault snowballed into a full-scale riot that lasted for days.  By the time all the dust settled, 63 students and 30 locals were dead

Can you imagine??  I've seen the occasional unpleasant and class-inflected encounter between entitled, privileged college students and the people who live full-time in university towns, but I can't say I've ever seen anything close to a massive riot.  And, given the technological advancements in handheld weaponry since the 1300s, I would have to guess that, if anything like this ever reared its head in Ghosttown, the students would be wiped out very quickly.

So there's something thought-provoking to recall, the next time you read in the local paper about a couple of rowdy frat boys being thrown in the drunk tank after making a scene at the off-campus bar.

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