Azara Blog: Cambridge University's 800th anniversary street banner with dates

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Date published: 2009/03/23

Cambridge University is having its 800th anniversary this year. As part of that celebration, they have erected street banners all over the main streets of Cambridge. Most of the banners have images on them but one just has nine allegedly significant university dates listed:

1209 - Groups of scholars flee from Oxford, after riots break out and all schools were closed. Some of them congregate at the ancient Roman trading post of Cambridge for the purpose of study, the earliest record of the University.

1381 - The Peasant's Revolt. A mob led by the city's mayor stormed Corpus Christi College, burning books, records and manuscripts, in protest against its rigid exaction of "candle rents", or rent charges assessed upon houses in its ownership, according to the number of wax-tapers found. A wage freeze and a new poll tax ignites the Peasant's Revolt. Led by Wat Tyler, the peasants march on London to protest, but King Richard's forces behead Tyler and the uprising is swiftly crushed.

1446 - The founding charter of King's College. The lavish decoration of this charter and the concessions, exemptions and privileges it confers indicate the importance of the foundation of King”s College to Henry VI (1422-1471). The charter was written by John Broke (documented 1443-1450) clerk of the chancery, and illuminated by the London artist William Abell (documented 1450-d.1474).

1584 - The Cambridge University Press, first established in 1534 by Henry VIII, publishes its first book: Two Treatises of the Lord His Holie Supper.

1687 - Isaac Newton, of Trinity College, publishes his laws of motion and universal gravitation in his book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Newton is considered the father of calculus and modern mathematics. He became Lucasian Professor fo Mathematics at Cambridge in 1669, a position which today is held by Stephen Hawking.

1787 - William Wordsworth arrives at Cambridge and publishes his first poem. Later, in his epic poem The Prelude, he recounted of his arrival, 'And nothing cheered our way till first we saw | The long-roofed chapel of King's College lift | Turrets and pinnacles in answering files, | Extended high above a dusky grove.'

1859 - Christ's College graduate Charles Darwin posits his theory of natural selection in his ground-breaking book On the Origin of Species. This was followed by The Descent of Man (1871) which argued that humans and apes shared a common ancestor - a theory which revolutionised our understanding of life.

1988 - Stephen Hawking, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics since 1980, publishes his book A Brief History of Time. Hawking is known around the world for his research in the fields of theoretical cosmology and quantum gravity. The book was an international phenomenon, remaining on the Sunday Times best-seller list for 237 weeks.

2009 - The University of Cambridge celebrates its 800th Anniversary.

Now of course given 800 years of history, it is easy to quibble with some of the choices, although obviously one of the ground rules was to have one allegedly significant event per century, which perhaps explains the rather weak selections before Newton. And the arrival of Wordsworth in Cambridge hardly seems like an earth-shattering event. Indeed, the only two earth-shattering events listed are Newton and Darwin. But the prize for the silliest date of them all is 1988, for A Brief History of Time. In a hundred years nobody will care about A Brief History of Time. It is not a particularly well written book, and it had no influence on any academic development at all. It is pretty obvious that far and away the most significant work in Cambridge the last half of the 20th century was Crick and Watson on DNA, in 1953 (definitely earth-shattering). Presumably the university did not want two biology events in a row. Or perhaps they just wanted to have a more recent event which looked trendy. Whatever, it is just embarrassing. Presumably even Hawking would prefer to be remembered for his academic work rather than this book.

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