'Victoria est dulcis' for Blackstone Medal winner

'Victoria est dulcis' for Blackstone Medal winner

Issued: Wed, 21 Apr 2010 15:07:00 BST

Contrary to the age-old claims of school children everywhere, Latin is far from a ‘dead language’ – just ask second-year MA Latin student Joel Leslie.

The University of Glasgow student has won the Cowan Blackstone Medal after taking part in a Latin examination which dates back to 1839.

The examination, which took place on Tuesday 20 April in the Kelvin Gallery, saw Joel quizzed on his knowledge of Latin in front of a panel of examiners and spectators while sitting on the historic Blackstone Chair. Both examiners and entrants wear gowns.Joel Leslie

After an initial exchange with the examiner in Latin, entrants are given passages to translate into English from Latin books which they have read above and beyond the normal prescription and, if deemed good enough by the panel, the best entrant will be awarded the medal.

This year, as is often the case, only one student put himself forward for the exam, but success is by no means guaranteed and entrants must demonstrate a sound knowledge of Latin grammar to be awarded the medal.

For Joel, however, 40 minutes of scrutiny by a panel comprising Professor Catherine Steel, Professor Matthew Fox and Dr Luke Houghton from Classics, was enough to secure him the medal.

Joel, 18 from Larkhall, said: “When I was young my dad gave me a copy of Homer’s The Odyssey and when I went to university I decided to study Latin and Greek. Latin is everywhere you look and it’s also a very important part of languages such as English, French and Italian. I hope to go on to study a PhD in Latin and Greek and become an academic.”

Cowan Medals for excellence in Greek and Latin were first presented in 1836-39 by James Cowan (undergraduate in Arts 1819, LLD 1834, schoolmaster in Sunderland), and may be competed for annually.  It is perhaps the only competition of its kind in the UK and was last presented three years ago. The names of the medal winners are written in gold-leaf in the Humanities Lecture theatre.

Latin is still taught in around 15 of the UK’s older institutions, including Edinburgh and St Andrews in Scotland and King’s College London and Manchester in England.The Blackstone Chair

Honorary teaching fellow Ronald Knox believes there are still many good reasons to learn Latin. He said: “Latin may not be widely spoken in its original form but it is at the root of many nations’ mother tongue and has heavily influenced others, such as English itself.

“An ability to speak Latin today provides students with an excellent linguistic understanding of all the Romance languages and enables them to enjoy some of the world’s oldest manuscripts as well as specialist texts.

“Glasgow has been teaching Latin since its foundation in 1451 and many of our students go on to work as teachers, historians, civil servants, librarians and archivists.”

“You can still see Latin everywhere, from its use in the legal system, through the naming of animals and plants, to the mottos of clans, schools and universities, including our own – Via Veritas Vita.”

From 1451 until the 19th century, students were examined while seated on the ‘Black Stone’. In 1775, the stone – a slab of black dolerite – was incorporated into the seat of a chair made of oak. A brass model of a bay tree sprouts from the top of the chair, and fixed within that is a time glass which is monitored by the Bedellus, the university janitor, who announces ‘fluxit’ when time is up.

Nowadays, the chair is used in ceremonial functions, including for honorary graduations.

Dr Knox added: “In the 1890s author John Buchan entered the competition but did not win the medal. In his best-known novel ‘ The 39 Steps’, the hero Richard Hannay foils a war-mongering organisation called The Black Stone – I think this is perhaps a salute to his experience on the chair.”


For more information contact Stuart Forsyth in the University of Glasgow Media Relations Office on 0141 330 4831 or email s.forsyth@admin.gla.ac.uk

Notes to Editors
On the front of the chair are various brass plates: the largest show the arms of the University and of its constituent College. Above the former are the names of the founders, Pope Nicholas V, King James II of Scotland and Bishop Turnbull of Glasgow. The smaller plaques, to either side, record the names of the principal royal benefactors. On the back are carved the Royal Arms of Scotland, and the Royal Arms of England.

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