One of our students, Anaïs Vittu, went on Wednesday evening to High Table at Christ’s College. Anaïs is roughly half-way through her PhD – she works on bioinformatics in the field of innate immunology – and she was invited by an associate of her boss at the laboratory in Strasburg where she works.
High Table of course is shorthand for dinner – the high table in the dining hall of a Cambridge College, frequently on a dias, is traditionally reserved for the senior college members, while the lower tables are, set orthogonally to high table, occupied by junior members.
There is a long association between scholarship and conviviality – in the case of a Cambridge college, one predicated on a monastic tradition that has become ritualised over the long life of the university. But the experience of High Table (or at any rate the Parlour experience which frequently follows it) also has historical roots in the dissolute gaming culture of the eighteenth century. It is not so long since Fellows of all colleges were known as one-bottle or two-bottle men (always men), reflecting how much port they could put away each night. And the Parlour records of Emmanuel College and Caius College contain meticulous notes of wagers between Fellows on any number of possible outcomes: on November 14th 1796, Mr Williams of Caius College bet Mr Stancliffe a bottle of port that Napoleon Bonaparte ‘is either taken prisoner, or dead at this time’ – the wager was lost, of course, and the debt of wine accordingly ‘posted’ in the college cellars rather than handed over directly. Another Fellow bet that the President ‘does not swim 100 yards within the first three times of bathing in the following season’.
The tradition of High Table is held by some to be in decline. Fellows of colleges now live mostly at home and eat with their families rather than in college, and dinner can be, by all accounts, a nonagenarian experience, retired or life Fellows making up the regulars. Two-bottle men are not held in such high esteem (or perhaps they just die young).
I cannot speak for Anaïs’s experience – I do not think she was expected to drink gallons of port or place bets on the whereabouts of Boney (or Edward Snowden). She did report however that it was an impressive, enjoyable, and above all singular experience.