Daily Archives: October 25, 2012

A Much Abridged History of Towns and Gowns

1908, Western University of Pennsylvania, now named University of Pittsburgh. (Photo courtesy of the Library’s Pennsylvania Department)

I adore working in Oakland.  We have Phipps Conservatory. We have the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.We have Schenley Park, which possesses my favorite fountain.  We have tasty dining options (and the library isn’t bad either). It’s truly inspiring to come to work every day.

 A couple of other things that Oakland has: townies and gownies.  These two terms have been used since the middle ages to describe the residents and students in a particular area. Townies and gownies have lived side by side for ages, and the relationship has been a tumultuous one.

When western universities first began  in medieval Europe (Bologna, Paris, Oxford) they were formed under the Catholic Church, and students enjoyed some exemptions from local laws, courtesy  of the pope.  The students were considered minor clergy and as such wore gowns, hence the term “gownie.”  As you can imagine, this did not please the townspeople, especially because university students had a reputation for drinking and carousing.  These medieval students were not particularly fond of town merchants, who had a penchant for overcharging gownies for food and rent.

These tensions often boiled over.  In fact they boiled over so much that the University of Cambridge in England was founded in 1209 by “scholars seeking refuge from hostile townsmen in Oxford,” according to Cambridge’s own website.   Over one hundred years later in Oxford, sixty-three students and thirty townspeople died in the St. Scholastica Day Riot.  It began in a tavern, as students argued with the barkeep over the beer quality, or lack thereof.  A jug was smashed over the barkeep’s head.  A three-day riot ensued between townies and gownies.

Happily, Pittsburgh’s Oakland residents and students work hard to bridge the gap between them.  There’s the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, this group works with local universities and residents to improve the lives of all who live, work, and study in Oakland.  OPDC has an Oakland 2025 bold strategic plan that is worth a look.  The Oakland Business Improvement District is a group of business owners who work to maintain a vibrant commercial presence in the neighborhood. And the universities themselves do their best maintain a presence for good in the community, requiring volunteer hours of their students, investing in neighborhoods, and churning out graduates that help make Pittsburgh a well-educated city.  The Oakland student/resident relationship is not perfect, but it’s getting better as Pittsburgh works to improve all of its neighborhoods.  And hey, at least we’ve never had a St. Scholastica  Day Riot.

If you want to learn more about the history and evolution of Oakland, the library has you covered with books, and of course, Rick Sebak.



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