In writing this article, the author is indebted to Reginald Adams for his book, The College Graces of Oxford and Cambridge, and also to the article Cambridge College Graces by the late S.J. Mitchell, sometime Fellow-Commoner of Christ’s College.
The saying of Grace in Latin before and after dinner has long been a distinctive hallmark of formal dining in Hall in Cambridge and Oxford colleges. In some colleges, this task is performed by the presiding Fellow or the Chaplain, though more commonly by a Scholar. This author himself had the duty and privilege of reading Grace in Hall at his own college, Selwyn, on numerous occasions during two years spent as a Scholar while an undergraduate.
In some colleges, the summons to dinner is by the tolling of the Chapel bell, though unusual variations exist or have existed at some Oxford colleges. At The Queen’s College, the call to dinner is by the sound of the trumpet. At New College, until about 1830, the signal for the start of dinner was proclaimed by two choristers intoning in unison, very slowly, the words “Tempus vocandi à manger, O seigneurs” – a curious mixture of Latin and medieval French, meaning “Time to call you to dine, my masters”. Back in Cambridge, the tradition of using these words has been wonderfully revived this academical year by our current President, Monica Morrill, to summon C.U.H.&G.S. members and their guests to dinner, at both the St Nicholas Feast and the Annual Dinner.
Once gathered in Hall at the start of dinner, with junior members ready at their places along the low tables, all stand at the entrance of the Fellows proceeding to High Table, announced by the butler sounding a gong or using a gavel, or, at Magdalene College, by the announcement “Stand in the Hall, please”.
Each college has its own Latin text for Grace. In some colleges, before dinner, this is shortened to the two-word formula “Benedictus benedicat” (May the Blessed One bless) – especially on more informal occasions, such as when the Fellows dine alone. In some colleges, the pre-dinner Grace takes the form of an introduction based on two verses from Psalm 145, beginning “Oculi omnium in te sperant, Domine”, followed by a prayer and a blessing, often beginning “Benedic, Domine”. C.U.H.&G.S. members will be familiar with the Clare College Grace before dinner in this format, declaimed superbly on many occasions by our illustrious Senior Treasurer, Dr Gordon Wright. The text is as follows: “Oculi omnium in te sperant, Domine; tu das iis escam eorum in tempore opportuno. Aperis tu manum tuam, et imples omne animal benedictione tua.”
“Sanctifica nos, quaesumus, Domine, per verbum et orationem, istisque tuis donis, quae de tua bonitate sumus accepturi, benedicito per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.”
Translation (from Reginald Adams’ book):
“The eyes of all wait upon thee, O Lord; thou givest them their meat in due season. Thou openest thine hand and fillest every living thing with blessing.”
“Sanctify us, we beseech thee, O Lord, through thy word and prayer, and consecrate these thy gifts, which through thy generosity we are about to receive, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
A commonly-used shorter version at some colleges omits the psalm and opens with the prayer “Benedic, Domine, nos et dona tua”, or alternatively “Benedic, Domine, nobis et donis tuis” – by a quirk of grammar, the verb “benedicere” may take either the accusative or the dative case. At Newnham, in the phrase where “sumpturi” would normally be used, this is replaced by the feminine form “sumpturae”, unless men are present.
Trinity is unique in having two High Tables, and the Grace before dinner is recited antiphonally between the Master and Vice-Master (or the presiding Fellows at each of the two tables).
After dinner, in some colleges a simple two-word formula is used: “Benedicto benedicatur” (May the Blessed One be blessed), or alternatively the versicle “Laus Deo”, pronounced by the Head of House or presiding Fellow, with the response “Deo gratias” said by all. At Selwyn, this latter formula was replaced in the 1990s by the use of the versicle “Benedicamus Domino”, with the response “Laus Deo”. Then follows a toast proposed to Church and Queen, drunk sitting down, in memory of an early Master at the end of the 19th century, who had a disability which made him unable to stand.
A curious tradition exists at Jesus College at the end of dinner: as the Fellows leave the Hall to retire to the Senior Combination Room, the last Fellow to leave – the Junior Fellow – gives a deep bow to all present, and all applaud, the amount of applause according to collective judgment of how well he is thought to have bowed! As well as different texts being used for Grace before dinner and after dinner, in some colleges a further distinction is made: between Ferial (everyday) use, and Festal use (for special feast days). The festal after-dinner Grace is often comprehensive in scope, including prayers for the monarch, the church, and for commemorating benefactors. At Trinity, members of the Royal Family are mentioned in order of precedence. At Jesus, a prayer for Parliament is included.
St John’s is unusual in using a lengthy after-dinner “post cibum” Grace every evening. This is somewhat longer than the "ante cibum" one: the first section includes a prayer of thanksgiving for the munificence of the college's illustrious and pious Foundress, Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII, who also founded Christ's College a few years earlier (in 1505). The second section includes a prayer for our Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth.
At some feasts, a setting of the Grace might be sung by the choir. The author of this article has, while an undergraduate, set to music the Grace of his own college, Selwyn, for four-part unaccompanied choir. Just one Cambridge college, Queens’, uses an after-dinner Grace in English instead of Latin:
“For these and all his mercies, for the Queens our Foundresses, and for our other benefactors, God’s holy name be blessed and praised. God preserve our Queen and Church.”
The Cambridge college with the most extensive collection of Graces is Christ’s, where there are four, respectively titled Ante prandium, Post prandium, Ante coenam, and Post coenam. Strictly speaking, “prandium” denotes luncheon (which, until comparatively recent times, was the principal meal of the day), while “coena” denotes the evening meal (though this distinction has been lost). One of these Graces, Post prandium, is illustrated in the accompanying picture, on a broadsheet printed in the first half of the 17th century for use of the reader on duty at Christ’s College.
It is greatly to be hoped that the use of Latin Graces in Hall will continue to survive in an era where fewer junior members coming up to Cambridge will have had a decent grounding in Latin while at school. An encouraging sign is that new Latin Graces have continued to be composed in the 20th century, for Girton and Wolfson Colleges, the latter in fact having a choice of three possible texts for Grace before dinner, with one of these, uniquely, being a verse in hexameter form:
“Sanctificet nobis victum qui cuncta creavit.”
(“Let him who hath created all things bless for us what there is to eat.”)
1 Published by the Perpetua Press, Oxford (1992), ISBN 1 870882 06 7
2 In Cambridge, the magazine of the Cambridge Society, No.24 (1989)
3 John Richardson Selwyn, second Master of the college, 1893-8, younger son of George Augustus Selwyn, in whose memory the college was founded.
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