Rules for Cambridge freshers – from 1660

Historical research by Philip Oswald, one of GSM’s volunteer researchers, has been picked up by the University of Cambridge and national media.

As the latest intake of students prepares to start life at Cambridge University, snippets of the rules written for 17th Century freshers entered the ether for the first time three weeks ago. Rosie Sharkey, Heritage Education Officer at Great St Mary’s,  tweeted extracts advising students to “avoid all profane scurrilous, unsavoury, rotten, frothy communication” and keep fashionable excess to a minimum: “be not to spruce, curious & fantastick nor…careless, supine and slovenly in yr Apparel.”

The University Communications Office picked up the story as a perfect freshers’ week feature, and met with Rosie, Philip Oswald and his co-author, Dr Christopher Preston, to discuss the research and draft a press release.


Scholars in academic dress from David Loggan’s Cantabrigia Illustrata of 1690
Credit: By kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge

Written by Trinity College fellow James Duport in 1660, the rules concentrate on the proper behaviour of young men studying at institutions rooted in religion. The exuberant language, however, resonates with more than a superficial understanding of the natural slothfulness and waywardness of youth enjoying a first taste of freedom away from the parental home.

Students are reminded to attend Great St Mary’s Church regularly, and to take notes on the sermon. As for recreation, football was to be avoided (“it being… a rude, boistrous exercise, & fitter for Clownes then for Schollers”) while tennis too could be overdone (“Use Tennis sparingly and never immediately after meales, it being then too violent & too stirring”).


the Cambridge University Library’s copy of the Duport Rules (Add. MS 6986), credit: Syndics of Cambridge University Library

Philip Oswald and Dr Christopher Preston published “James Duport’s Rules for his tutorial pupils: a comparison of two surviving manuscripts” in August 2013 in The Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, Vol XIV, Part 4 (pages 317-362).

The Wren Library’s version of Duport’s Rules (which is dated 1660) was published by the historian GM Trevelyan in 1943 and has been used to interpret Duport’s philosophy of education during a period when an enthusiasm for scientific discovery began to flourish. Preston and Oswald were on the point of publishing a paper on the rules held by the Wren when they were alerted to the existence of another version (undated) at Cambridge University Library. Access to this second version enabled them to make comparisons between the two.

Above all, Duport’s rules are a portrait of an energetic fatherly figure cajoling a group of feckless younger men to work hard and keep safe. The scholars under his care are described variously as slubbering, lolling, leaning and whispering.

Some teenage habits remain revolting: “When you reade or speake in your Tutors Chamber, or else where take heed of picking your Nose, or putting your Hatt or Hand to your face, or any such odd, uncouth, or unseemly gesture.” But as vehemently as he exhorts them to mend their idle ways, Duport also urges them to keep in touch with their families. “Write frequently to your Parents & Friends, to ye former especially if you know they desire you & expect it.”

You can read the full story on the University of Cambridge website and in the media here:

If you’d like to get involved with unearthing fascinating nuggets of Cambridge history like this, why not become a research volunteer for Great St Mary’s?

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