Scholars arriving in Cambridge in the 17th century were not short of advice. James Duport, a tutor at Trinity College, compiled rules that covered most aspects of their lives. Today’s freshers take note: “Let your discourse be sauoury & sappy.”

Make choice of honest, studious, religious youths for yr Companions; avoid all profane scurrilous, unsavoury, rotten, frothy communication.

Excerpt from James Duport's list of rules for "Pupils & Schollers"

Some 350 years after it was written, a list of rules for “Pupils & Schollers” at Cambridge University would make edifying reading for the freshers joining the university this week.  A compendium containing many exhortations and dire warnings, it shines a light on the preoccupations of an era when education took place in Latin and Greek, taverns and inns were regarded as dens of sin, and gentlemen powdered their hair.

The rules drawn up by James Duport, a Fellow at Trinity College in the mid-17th century, offer guidance to undergraduates on matters of study and worship, decorum and deportment. For the first time, a comparison of two versions of the rules – one taken from an original source in the Wren Library and the other from a manuscript in Cambridge University Library – has been published in the Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society in a paper by Cambridge residents, Dr Christopher Preston and Philip Oswald.

A fair chunk of Duport’s rules concentrates on the proper behaviour of young men studying at institutions rooted in religion. The exuberant language, however, resonates with more than a superficial understanding of the natural slothfulness and waywardness of youth enjoying a first taste of freedom away from the parental home.

Prayers were an important part of student life: late or lukewarm attendance at chapel would be noted. “Use to be at Chappell at the beginning & come not drooping in (after the uncouth & ungodly manner of some) when almost all is done.” There was to be no lying-in on Sundays. “Rise earlier on the Lords day, then ordinary, & be more carefull to trimme your soules then bodyes.” The day was to be devoted to the Lord. ”Spend the Lords day wholly in religious duties, both publike and private.”

Several dozen of Duport’s rules relate to spiritual and personal development. “Labour for an humble, meeke, quiet, gentle, lowly, babelike, frame & temper of Spirit.” On the subject of suitable friends, the message was clear: “Make choice of honest, studious, religious youths for yr Companions; avoid all profane scurrilous, unsavoury, rotten, frothy communication.” A note of exasperation can be detected in: “Goe not a gadding and gossiping from Chamber to Chamber, for that is no recreation, but meere idlenesse and losse of time.”

As for recreation, football was to be avoided (“it being… a rude, boistrous exercise, & fitter for Clownes then for Schollers”) while tennis too could be overdone (“Use Tennis sparingly and never immediately after meales, it being then too violent & too stirring”).

In the 17th century, Cambridge students were a couple of years younger than today’s undergraduates and their tutors were in loco parentis. College tutors oversaw a curriculum centred on the study of Latin, Greek and Theology, and also took a strong interest in their pupils’ moral conduct. Duport, the only Royalist tutor at Trinity, was a particularly popular choice for rich Royalist families. His pupils included the famous naturalists John Ray and Francis Willughby.

Apart from instructions relating to fluency in Latin and Greek (“speake Latine alwayes in the Hall”), some of Duport’s advice on learning might not go amiss today. He insists on original sources. “Read an Author in his owne language and trust not too much to Translations.” He favours brevity in writing and speaking, and he encourages discussion with friends. “Use often to dispute & argue Logick, and Phylosophy with your Chamberfellow, and acquaintance when you are together.”

The rules are rich in details about what to wear and how to behave. “Wear no boots, nor powder your hair, let yr Garb be grave & sober, yet cheerful & pleasant.” Moderation in dress was the best approach. “Be not to spruce, curious, & fantastick, nor yet to careless, supine & slovenly in yr Apparel.”  Some habits remain disgusting. “When you reade or speake in your Tutors Chamber, or else where take heed of picking your Nose, or putting your Hatt or Hand to your face, or any such odd, uncouth, or unseemly gesture.”

The 17th century was a period of political and economic unrest: the English Civil War tore communities apart.  “Beware of riot, excess & intemperance, which hath drown’d & devoured ye most pregnant parts & choicest of witts.” Young men were to be protected from the evil and sin lurking in the back streets of Cambridge. “Never go into the town, except, to ye Church or Schools or Book-seller or Book-binders shop.”

The version of Duport’s rules held by the Wren Library at Trinity College is contained in a small commonplace book while the second copy (slightly different and with more rules) exists as a manuscript owned by Cambridge University Library. Both are handwritten.

The Wren Library’s version (which is dated 1660) was published by the historian GM Trevelyan in 1943 and has been used to interpret Duport’s philosophy of education during a period when an enthusiasm for scientific discovery began to flourish. Preston and Oswald were on the point of publishing a paper on the rules held by the Wren Library when they were alerted to the existence of another version (undated) at Cambridge University Library.

Access to this second version enabled them to make comparisons between the two. Their paper also explores the significance of other texts in the commonplace book held by the Wren Library (which include various poems, among them scurrilous verses about a Quaker accused of attempted buggery with a mare) and the mystery of two missing pages from the rules. Because the heading of the verse vilifying the Quaker had been crossed out and the final verses cut from the book, the authors first thought that these excised pages had dealt with sexual conduct. However, the more complete copy of rules held by Cambridge University revealed that the items removed covered behaviour in general so the reason remains a mystery.

Above all, Duport’s rules are a portrait of an energetic fatherly figure cajoling a group of feckless younger men to work hard and keep safe. The scholars under his care are described variously as slubbering, lolling, leaning and whispering. But as vehemently as he exhorts them to mend their idle ways, he also urges them to keep in touch with their families. “Write frequently to your Parents & Friends, to ye former especially if you know they desire you & expect it.”

Last month snippets taken from the rules of James Duport entered the ether for the first time when they were tweeted by Rosie Sharkey, Heritage Education Officer at Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge. She is leading a project to create a Heritage Education Centre (supported by a Heritage Lottery Fund Grant) at Great St Mary’s, which is the university church. She used Duport’s rules as a way of calling for volunteers with experience in historical research to investigate the remarkable history of Great St Mary’s. For more information go to

'James Duport’s Rules for his tutorial pupils: a comparison of two surviving manuscripts’ by CD Preston and PH Oswald was published in August 2013 in the Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, vol. 14, part 4, by Cambridge University Library (contact for a copy).

James Duport’s Rules for his tutorial pupils: a comparison of two surviving manuscripts by CD Preston and PH Oswald was published in August 2013 by The Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, Vol XIV, Part 4 (pages 317-362).

Dr Christopher Preston has worked as a botanist at the Biological Records Centre since 1980. Philip Oswald worked for the Nature Conservancy until his retirement in 1991. Both are Cambridge University alumni. Their shared interest in the history of British botany led them to collaborate in a translation of, and commentary on, the first English country flora, John Ray’s Cambridge Catalogue (1660), published by the Ray Society in 2011. The research triggered an interest in Ray’s tutor at Trinity College, James Duport, and the rules he compiled for his pupils.

For more information about this story contact Alex Buxton, Communications Office, University of Cambridge, 01223 761673

Inset images from top: the Cambridge University Library's copy of the Duport Rules (Add. MS 6986), credit to Syndics of Cambridge University Library; "The Young Student" circa 1660-1665, credit to The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; the Cambridge University Library's copy of the Duport Rules (Add. MS 6986), credit to Syndics of Cambridge University Library

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