Between May Dip and post-exam soakings, the month of May is lively with student traditions. MUSA volunteer blogger, Selena Putri, tells us about an examination tradition that has (mercifully!) died out since St Andrews’ foundation. Please note that this article has hyperlinks embedded that you can follow for more information.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, anyone? St Andrews possesses a significant stone of its own, although I doubt the St Andrews blackstone gave the power of immortality. In fact, in its heyday, the blackstone was most likely a dreaded object to many students.
Used for oral examinations, the blackstone was the regal throne upon which students had to sit (beside the professor’s chair) and recite in Latin for the whole class to witness and for the examiners to scrutinize and assess.
The blackstone is on display at MUSA, as part of their Heritage Collection. It dates to the period between 1410-1500 and accompanied the first graduates of the university during their daunting examinations. To put this into perspective: the blackstone was probably made and used before Christopher Columbus even reached the New World! Without much documentation to show the blackstone in use, one is left to the imagination to consider its function and belonging in sixteenth-century St Andrews.
However, there is research into the historic roles and operations of different St Andrews university buildings which give us some insight. According to this history of The King James Library – produced by the School of Divinity, early university teaching began on the site of this library, located by St Mary’s Quad. It was in the Parliament Hall (still there today) that students most likely faced the portentous blackstone when they sat for examinations.
The only other stone akin to this one is found in The Hunterian’s Historical Collection in Glasgow as part of Glasgow University’s own collection; however, their stone only dates to the eighteenth century. Hence, MUSA is proud of the fine condition in which the St Andrews blackstone is found today as it stands resolutely and wrapped by a gold cord.
Today, it would take far too long to require every student to sit on the blackstone for each of their exams. Times have changed. Latin is still taught under the School of Classics, although the St Andrews examination environment has evolved. Today’s more recognizable examination setting consists of a grand sports hall with hundreds of identical desks and chairs lined up in neat rows and columns. I suppose we still experience the effect of the ominous blackstone; we are still aware of the burn of the seat and the pressure of the moment, albeit in the twenty-first century and among a much greater student population.
The blackstone certainly makes one think of what other archaic traditions the university used to, or still does, subscribe to. Alongside the John Honey Gaudie walk, the May Dip, the advancing examination period, as well as approaching warm weather, the month of May is and has always been an anticipated one in St Andrews.
About Selena Putri
Selena is a second-year undergraduate student at the University of St Andrews. She studies Art History and International Relations and is interested in the traditions, notable figures and forgotten histories of St Andrews. She is an avid vlogger of student life and beyond the town, she is interested in the politics and sustainability of artistic, environmental, and cultural practices.