Chaucer’s second and third Canterbury Tales are so full of sex that it’s easy to forget they’re specifically tales of college towns. The Miller spins a fabliau about an old Oxford carpenter and the guys who chase his hot young wife. The Reeve, a carpenter, snaps back with the story of a crooked miller from just outside Cambridge. Their bawdy back-and-forth is, I think, one of the earliest literary traces of the Oxford-Cambridge rivalry, a medieval squabble that landed yesterday, with it own Chaucerian flourish, on the banks of the Potomac.
When I shambled into D.C. many years ago, I crashed on the couch of a great friend who’s now the president of the Cambridge Society of Washington, D.C. Inspired by the annual Boat Race on the Thames, he and the Society convinced local Oxford alumni to adapt an Oxbridge tradition and revive a Washington one. According to local lore, the first Cambridge-Oxford boat race on the Potomac arose in 1985 as a challenge between Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman, Jr. (who holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge) and Senator Larry Pressler (who attended St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar). In the 1990s, the race grew into a multi-university regatta with 35,000 spectators, corporate sponsorship, and charitable causes. By 2000, the event was kaput.
Ah, but the past was merely General Prologue—because yesterday, latter-day proxies of the Miller and the Reeve schlepped to the Georgetown waterfront, the hooly blisful boatrace for to seke. Putting boats in the water, they battled not merely for glory but also for the Cambridge-Oxford Potomac Boat Race Trophy, a blindingly sumptuous goblet that will be forever hailed in story and song as “the Cup of Destiny.”
Behold, spectators and supporters began to gather within sight of the Watergate and the KenCen…
…as the “Quid Plura?” kobolds, half-stunned by the blazing sun, scrambled to take photos.
The women raced first, with Cambridge squeaking out a win over Oxford. Then the men raced, with Oxford…
…roundly out-rowing Cambridge, a defeat witnessed by bemused recreational boaters.
Alumni of both universities and their family and friends then adjourned to the Ritz-Carlton to convert each minute of boat racing into an hour of alcohol consumption.
“Quid Plura?” thanks the Cambridge Society for the invitation to hang out with a fun crowd and stretch a weak premise for a blog entry about medievalism into an excuse to drink on a hot afternoon, even if no one was overheard speaking Middle English.