Laws (Outdated)

“I Hereby Swear to Hate Henry Symeonis, Whoever That Is.”

Another reference to the same blackguard

Recently I learned that for more than 500 years, anyone who wanted a Master of Arts degree from Oxford had to take an oath promising they would never “agree to the reconciliation of Henry Symeonis” (this was in Latin, so quod numquam consencient in reconciliationem Henrici Symeonis). The requirement was added to the university statutes in 1264, and wasn’t removed until 1827—more than half a millennium later. The good part is that for most of that enormous span of time, nobody had any idea who Henry Symeonis actually was or what he might have done.

But they swore that whatever it was, they would never forgive him for it.

We don’t know, of course, exactly when the community forgot the details. The discussion on the Bodleian Library’s Archives and Manuscripts blog (linked by the Open Culture site, not that I don’t consult the Bodleian Library archives daily) suggests the collective memory had faded no later than 1608. That’s when a “renowned antiquary” wrote this (also in Latin, sorry):

[i]uramentis magistrorum de non resumendis (non dico Henrici Simeonis gradibus quem in artibus Oxoniae Regentem imperante Ioanne, ut apud exteros in monasterium cooptaretur, baccalaureum se finxisse ferunt) lectionibus alibi in hoc regno, quam hic Oxoniae et Cantabrigiae.

The Library characterizes this as saying Henry “fraudulently claimed he had a BA in order to obtain admission to a foreign monastery.” But it’s appropriately skeptical. (1) This was something the author stuck in parentheses while talking about something else. (2) He didn’t cite a source. (According to Google Translate—and I’m the one relying on Google, not the Library—it means “they say he forged a bachelor’s degree….”) (3) He was making this unsourced claim about something that happened 344 years earlier. This is like me claiming today that Gottfried Kirch couldn’t have discovered the Great Comet of 1680 because he was too drunk at the time to use a telescope. It might be true! But I hope you noticed I didn’t cite a source. (4) As discussed below, there turns out to be a better explanation for Symeon’s 500-year pariah status than “he fraudulently claimed he had a BA in order to obtain admission to a foreign monastery.” How dare he!

The Library also notes that in 1651, someone proposed amending the statutes to remove this part of the oath. The proposal was rejected, but the chronicler didn’t explain why. Was it because someone was still pissed at Henry Symeonis after almost four centuries? Again, maybe. But as the Library says, “[e]ven by that time, one suspects that the oath was of such antiquity that no one knew anything about it and it was thought best to leave it be.”

Graduates therefore continued to damn Henry Symeonis, whoever he was, for the next two centuries.

Finally, in 1827, those responsible for the statutes decided to remove the oath. But again, “no background information or reason for the decision is recorded.” Had they all finally forgiven the bastard? Yet again, maybe. But “[i]t is [also] possible” they felt it was safe to abolish this “because nobody knew exactly what they were abolishing.” Yes.

We might know nothing about Henry Symeon but for Reginald L. Poole, Keeper of the University Archives, who somehow came across the ancient oath and wondered, “Who the F is that and what did he do” (or British words to that effect). In 1912, Poole published a short article in the English Historical Review on his findings.

After digging through the crypt or wherever Oxford keeps this stuff, Poole found a 12th-century reference to a “Henry, son of Symeon.” He had a son named, you guessed it, Henry. Poole says that about this time, “son of Symeon” (or “Simeon,” or “fitz Simeon,” or maybe “Simmonds”) “seems to have become a surname.” This “Henry son of Henry Simeon” lived in Oxford in 1243, but apparently fled or was kicked out sometime after that, at a time when the university wasn’t getting along with King Henry III. Poole found that in 1264, the King ordered them to let him back in:

[I]f it should appear … that the chancellor and university would be content that Henry son of Henry Simeonis, who withdrew for the death of a man, would return to Oxford and stay there, so that the university should not retire from the said town on account of his staying there, then they should permit him to return without impediment…. [T]he king … has pardoned the said Henry the said death, on condition that he stand his trial if any will proceed against him….

Well, it’s not so much an order as sort of a royal suggestion. More importantly, Henry III seems to have been passing through Oxford at the time on his way to fight some rebels, and that didn’t go very well; in fact, he was taken prisoner. So Poole’s guess, and it seems like a good one, is that in 1264 the scholars felt free to ignore that loser king, and just to make their position clear, they amended the statutes so future generations would have to swear that they, too, would never forgive Henry Simeonis for murdering … whoever it was he murdered.

Part of the irony here, as the Library points out, is that by doing this they ended up ensuring that people would be talking about Henry Simeonis for much longer than they remembered his victim (if that’s what happened).

“Wait, did this just become a history blog?” I hear some of you saying. “That isn’t what I’m not paying to read about!” Try to hold on for two more paragraphs, people.

The phenomenon here—laws still on the books way past the expiration date, even after everybody’s forgotten what they were about—is something we’ve discussed before. Lots of times. See, e.g., “Californians Can No Longer Be Forced to Join a Posse” (Sept. 19, 2019); “In Michigan, You May Now Dance to the National Anthem” (Dec. 7, 2015); “The Guano Islands Act and So Forth” (July 8, 2014); “New Jersey Considers Repeal of Ancient Laws Regarding Women” (Mar. 20, 2011); “No-Dueling Promise May Be Dropped From Kentucky Bar Oath” (Mar. 10, 2010); cf.Court No Longer Recognizes Justice” (Feb. 8, 2018) (reporting that the Massachusetts Supreme Court was trying to figure out who was shown in a portrait that had been hanging there for more than a century). And who stole my post about the goddamn Statute of Marlborough?! That was passed in 1267 and four sections of it are still in force. (In 2015, a commission proposed repealing two of them, but somebody objected.)

The point is that when outdated laws are still on the books, don’t be like the guys in 1651 who just shrugged their shoulders and said “I don’t know what that’s for, so we better not mess with it.” Be like the guys in 1827 and take the leap. Deleting a 550-year-old statute is probably pretty safe.