Written in 1833 as a humorous account of a conflict within the Oxford Union Society, the poem Uniomachia succeeded in healing divisions and securing the future of the Society.

Background

From the spring of 1832, the governing Committee of the Oxford Union was controlled by a succession of politically-Conservative members, including Edward Cardwell. In Michaelmas 1833, their ascendancy was overthrown by a number of Liberal reformers, including Edward Massie as President, and Robert Lowe. The old Committee took offence at this and formed their own debating society, known as the Ramblers. The Rambler debates proved very popular among Union members and attendance at the Union declined. This led Massie and the new Committee to propose a motion to expel all members of the Ramblers from the Oxford Union. The debate on the motion was fierce and the Society remained divided, even after a clear majority (107 to 63) rejected the motion.

In an attempt to heal the rift, Thomas Jackson (pseudonym Habbakukius Dunderheadius), assisted by William Sinclair, a fellow undergraduate of St Mary’s Hall, decided to retell the story of the debate in mock Homeric verse.

Uniomachia

Uniomachia was originally composed in macaronic Greek and Latin, referred to as “Canino-Anglico-Græce et Latine”. Macaronic language is text that contains words or inflections from one language introduced into the context of another, often including bilingual puns. Many of the key characters in the Rambler debates are still discernible within the poem, but much of the original humour is lost, relying as it did on personal knowledge of the events and people depicted.

Shortly after the publication of the original, an English translation in the manner of Alexander Pope was composed by John Douglas Giles of Corpus Christi. To add to the hilarity, a distinguished lexicographer of the University, Dr Scott (pseudonym Slawkenberg) added mock-serious notes to a third edition of the original text.

A further unknown hand composed a separate English version in the manner of Walter Scott, entitled Proceedings of the Star-Chamber at Oxford, so-called after the venue for the debate, the Star Inn on Cornmarket Street.

The original Greek and Latin text, along with the various translations and additions, circulated rapidly around the University.

This widespread engagement with the text of Uniomachia helped turn the conflict into a light-hearted affair, removing any threat to the future of the Union. A banquet for the protagonists of the conflict was held where a blessing of friendship was read.

Historical Interpretation

Taking place so soon after the 1832 Reform Act, the incident has been seen as a reflection of the fears and hopes then preoccupying national politics. Massie had gained the presidency by collecting large numbers of proxy votes. Although this method was technically permitted within the Union rules, up until that point the current President had generally been able to nominate his successor in a manner not dissimilar to the House of Commons of the time. The Liberals use of voting thus seemed to echo the challenge to privilege embodied in the Reform Act and ignited Conservative fears as to where extended democracy would lead. The Union’s Liberals had also specifically defeated a recent proposal to devote the Union’s funds to the cause of resisting reform.

It was thus perhaps not just Uniomachia that healed the division over the Ramblers, but also the soothing of national Conservative fears. For the Parliamentary candidates returned after the Reform Act remained largely the same as those elected before. In fact several key players on opposite sides of the Rambler affair went on to serve together in Parliament, particularly Edward Cardwell and Robert Lowe as fellow members of William Gladstone’s Cabinet.

Digitisation

The first edition of the English translation of Uniomachia by Jedediah Puzzlepate (John Douglas Giles) has been digitised as part of the Digital Editions programme run by the Taylorian. Images and encoded transcriptions for Digital Editions texts can be freely accessed online: https://editions.mml.ox.ac.uk/