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Susanna Gregory will be adding exclusive articles on the background to the Chronicles of Matthew Bartholomew on this page. We begin with a look at the origins of the college at the heart of the stories, Michaelhouse.

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The documents of Michaelhouse and King's Hall

Compared to Oxford, the University of Cambridge has few records documenting its early history. This paucity was compounded when, during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, the University was singled out for attack by resentful townspeople, and many writs and deeds fuelled a great fire in the market square. The townspeople felt very bitter at the preferential treatment of scholars, who came under the more lenient canon, rather than secular, law. The riots accompanying the Peasant's Revolt provided an excellent opportunity for old scores to be settled, and a number of University properties were attacked, not least Great St Mary's, in the tower of which was the University Chest - where all the money and important documents were stored. The Chest and its contents were burned in the Market Square, watched over by a formidable lady named Margery Starre, who stood by the inferno yelling 'Away with the learning of the clerks. Away with it!'

In terms of historical records, King's Hall fared better than Michaelhouse, perhaps because of its importance as a royal foundation (or perhaps because it was full of clerks?), and an exhaustive study from its foundation in 1317 to its surrender in 1540 has been possible. Michaelhouse, being smaller and less prominent, is not so well documented. However, those deeds that have survived are in Trinity's muniments room, some bound in the remarkable Otryngham Book. (John Otryngham, who died in 1455, was an enthusiastic Master of Michaelhouse who copied old title deeds, benefactions, statues, and other documents into a precedents book, which later became known as the Otryngham Book.)

Most documents in the Ortryngham Book are brief, and many use a form of shorthand that is often difficult to decipher, so that interpreting them is frequently a matter of guesswork. Unfortunately, none of the household accounts have survived, so we do not know how the scholars of Michaelhouse lived.