At over 650 years old Corpus is certainly one of the more elderly colleges, which does mean we have a number of ancient traditions that just won’t go away. Thankfully though, it’s usually easy to ignore them if you want.
First of all, gowns. Until the mid-Sixties, students could be fined if they were not wearing a gown when in the street after dark. The undergraduate gown is still worn on the odd occasion; rather scarily, on your first couple of days at Corpus, especially for the Matriculation Ceremony – which in practice means walking to the front of the hall and signing your name (with a biro, no less) on a form.
After that, the only occasions when you might wear a gown are if you go to services in Chapel, and for Formal Hall. You certainly don’t have to wear one to sit exams, which is more than can be said for students at Oxford
Formal Hall is that quintessential part of Cambridge life that wouldn’t really work anywhere else. A survival from the days when all college meals were waiter-served, this institution has now turned into an evening’s entertainment in itself, and a cheap alternative to eating out when a celebration is called for.
The prospect of a gong, candles and Latin grace may seem very intimidating, but it soon isn’t. It’s really just an excuse to treat yourself and spend time with friends.
Formal Halls are held on Fridays and Sundays but most people tend to go no more than three or four times a term.
The other tradition unique to Cambridge is May Week, which bizarrely happens in June after the exams. Apparently it used to be held in May before people started taking exams more seriously. Garden parties, all-night balls, and other assorted forms of fun take place all week, making up for all the weeks beforehand when enjoyment is in short supply due to exam revision.
A foreign language?
Cambridge traditions are also enshrined in terminology that we still persist in using. Kitchens are called ‘gyp rooms’, two-part degree courses are called ‘triposes’, the student common room is the ‘combination room’, and all manner of people and practices have strange Latinate names that nobody knows the origin of. So students returning home after a term here can sometimes appear to their friends to be speaking a foreign language.
So, how does all of this impinge on our day-to-day existence? To most people, probably very little. In fact, everyone treats these traditions as a bit of light-hearted fun, to be enjoyed in an ironic sort of way. But if they’re not your kind of thing, it’s easy enough to avoid them.