In early modern Oxford and Cambridge the practice of disputation was, as in all contemporary university contexts, among the most common methods of educating and evaluating students throughout their careers. Despite their frequency and popularity, however, disputations at Oxbridge rarely came to print as dissertations, in stark contrast to the practice developed in universities elsewhere in Europe. Nonetheless, the topics under dispute among students in early modern Oxford and Cambridge (England’s only universities in the period) did find their way to publication, albeit in a form somewhat different to the continental dissertatio: Short poems known as ‘Act’ or ‘Tripos’ verses (composed mainly in Latin but sometimes in Greek or Hebrew) were produced regularly to commemorate and publicise disputation events from at least the mid-sixteenth century onwards.
This contribution offers a study of a group of nine act and tripos verses marking disputation events on the science of sound in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After an overview of the poetic genre in general and an introduction to contemporary study of sound (selected as one of the most frequently disputed topics in the period for which this poetry survives), this article focuses on the important evidence offered by the poems for their role in receiving and disseminating new ideas in early modern science. As we shall see, the verses’ blend of classical and contemporary literary themes suggests an atmosphere at the disputation events not simply of dry, occasional versification in ancient languages, but rather of lively alertness to popular cultural themes and their active employment to properly entertain an audience. The poems’ clever and often humorous engagement with their disputation themes reflects, moreover, the intense interest in questions of contemporary natural philosophical research in Oxford and Cambridge. The contribution finishes by suggesting that act and tripos verse may even have contributed to a growing curiosity around questions of natural philosophy among educated circles in the period.