Let it never be said that degree class isn’t, at its heart, about establishing a rank order.
Quite literally – a degree is not, strictly, like a swimming certificate, but is evidence of a class of membership of a university: a first class Bachelor of Arts degree represents a place in a hierarchy. Mediaeval universities were self-governing communities which sat outside or alongside the laws of the state.
And this card from Cambridge illustrates the point clearly. Look at the top left, and you’ll see a large spoon (yes, that’s what it is) dangling from above. As the card says:
The degrees are conferred in the Senate House. Our illustration represents the great degree day after the Tripos, when the Wooden Spoon is hung over the heads of the candidates, and finally descends into the arms of him who has won it – the last of the Honour men – a dubious honour.
The Vice-Chancellor sits on a raised dais, and the two Proctors stand on his left hand. The men come up by Colleges, led by a senior member, who presents them, and led in a very singular fashion.
They come in fours, and each holds a finger of the right hand of their leader, who, as he introduces them, raises his cap. Then one by one they kneel at the feet of the Vice-Chancellor, with palms pressed together as supplicants, and the Vice-Chancellor presses their hands between his and utters the formula of admission.
Strictly, it related to the Mathematics Tripos (Tripos is Cambridge for exams). Wrangler was the name given to those with first class honours; Senior Optime the name given to those with second class honours; Junior Optime given to those with third class honours; and the Wooden Spoon was the Junior Optime with the lowest marks. Below the honours were those awarded ordinary degrees, so the Wooden Spoon wasn’t the candidate judged worst over all, just the worst of the best. And it was no ordinary wooden spoon, but carved specially for the occasion!
Christopher Stray has written on the history of this, in the chapter “The Wooden Spoon: Rank (dis)order in Cambridge 1753–1909” published in History of Universities: Volume XXVI/1, edited by Mordecai Feingold.
The first wooden spoon seems to have been awarded in 1793 – the last was awarded in 1909 to Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse, student of St John’s College. Cuthbert’s picture, below, is adapted from the entertaining post The Way of the Man with the last Wooden Spoon on the Hear the Boat Sing blog.
The card is undated but the look and feel is Edwardian, so perhaps the card was inspired by this final spoon?