The History of Academic Ceremonial Feasts
University traditions were founded in Europe during the High Middle Ages when it became apparent that the old cathedral schools were not sufficient for the education required. More advanced educational institutions emerged, called universities. The system began in southern Europe, but the university system quickly spread to England and the German-speaking areas. A couple of very significant universities that were fully developed by the end of the 12th century were Bologna and Paris. Swedish youths also used to travel there.
Rituals from the church
A fully developed medieval university had four faculties. First came the theological, because priest training was usually the main thing. Then came the legal and then the medical. The philosophical faculty, on the other hand, was a kind of preparatory education in the seven liberal arts (artes), which were not arts in our time but subject areas of the type of mathematics, rhetoric and astronomy. Therefore, one passed this faculty before moving on, for example, to theology.
All exams had different ritual elements, which were largely drawn from the ecclesiastical sphere, but which were not without elements from the guild system. Of course, the first universities in the Nordic countries took over the rituals when they were formed: Uppsala in 1477 and Copenhagen in 1479. First doctorate, the Philosophiae Doctor, is said to have been awarded in Paris in 1150. But it was not until the early 1800s that the doctorate began to take on its modern meaning as the highest academic degree, thanks to the practice at universities in Germany.
Within the philosophical faculty, one could take certain exams. The lowest was called the baccalaureate exam (the word remains in Bachelor of Arts) and then came the master’s degree. However, one became a doctor only after studying at the higher faculties, thus in theology, law, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, agricultural science, forestry science, and veterinary medicine.
In the 1900s, the philosophical faculties were divided and, among other things, humanistic, social science, and technical-natural science faculties were created.
History of the conferment ceremony in Sweden
Early on, a custom arose at universities to call those who had acquired approved insights into “the seven liberal arts,” artium liberalium or liberal arts, magister. It was an education for a free and active citizen, as opposed to studies in vocational subjects. In the schools of the Middle Ages, the liberal arts included the basic subjects of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, as well as the more advanced subjects of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.
To be confered to a magister, one had to first dispute for practice (pro exercitio) and then dispute to obtain the degree (pro gradu). The magister conferment was carried out with solemn formalities. The word magister became a commonly used title for teachers in Sweden and Finland, because magistrates usually had the right to lecture and teach, and because the head of medieval monastery schools was called magister scholarum.
The first Swedish conferment
The first documented conferment was held in Uppsala on a cold January day in 1600. In Lund, the first conferment took place in 1670, also in winter, only two years after the university was established. Conferments within the so-called higher faculties were rare in earlier times.
The theological conferment were not exam ceremonies in the usual sense until the beginning of the 1900s, but rather a kind of chapter of orders, since “deserving priests of the King”, the head of the church, were honored with a theological doctorate.
Awarded by the king
Until the beginning of the 1900s, the theological doctorate was awarded by the king as an honorary degree, often in connection with a major event, such as a coronation or jubilee. From the beginning of the 1900s, the title of theological doctor was awarded after the dissertation. Since 1969, the doctorate has been replaced by a doctoral degree in Sweden, but the title of doctor remains for those who have obtained this degree.
In older times, most things related to academic ceremonies were very carefully regulated by regulations issued locally or centrally. The conferments had a legal background. Even if one had disserted, one did not become a doctor of medicine or philosophy until one was conferred. Before that, one did not have the right to call oneself a doctor – that’s what the law said.
Criticism of mandatory participation
The conferment have sometimes been subjected to very harsh criticism, both from students who were to be promoted and others. A period when this happened was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But perhaps an even sharper and longer-lasting aversion to promotions was expressed at times during the 1700s and 1800s. Above all, people then reacted against the compulsion associated with the ceremony and against the high costs that it entailed for the individual. Nowadays, it is voluntary at all universities and colleges to participate in these ceremonies. An examined doctor does not need to be conferred and a professor who has recently taken up his or her position does not have to be inaugurated in a formal ceremony.
It is also voluntary for universities and colleges to organize conferments or inaugurations, and higher authorities do not interfere with the forms of ceremonies. There are also no overarching rules regarding diplomas, laurel wreaths, hats, or embroidery on tailcoat collars and rings. However, the activities are governed by practical regulations, work orders, and instructions on time limits that must be adhered to. All of this is ultimately based on, in some cases, centuries-old customs, but it has also been developed with regard to economic circumstances, environmental requirements, and much more. The tradition is based on certain basic principles but is constantly changing with the times and has developed differently in different places.
Each university and college have its own special ceremonies, which are tied to that particular institution. No two Swedish universities have the same ceremonies in full.
What remains of common academic traditions nowadays is mainly conferment of doctoral degrees, inauguration of new professors and inauguration of a new vice-chancellor.
The doctoral dissertation
A doctoral dissertation means that a student in research education, who has written and published a scientific thesis, defends it publicly, that is, exposes it to expert criticism. During the Middle Ages, these speech and argumentation exercises, alongside lectures, were the most important form of education, a system that originated from ancient philosophical schools, dating back to Aristotle’s circle.
Dissertations have also in modern times, until the 1960s, been conducted in solemn forms. From the 1970s, when the doctorate was gradually introduced, much changed. The degree was replaced by an examination and the dissertation took on a different character. Before the reform, the public defense of a dissertation was always the endpoint of the doctoral student’s education, but now some parts of the so-called reading course can be completed later. A dissertation in our days resembles more of a regular seminar exercise that is carried out in front of open doors and therefore perhaps in a slightly extra tense atmosphere. A more festive dinner or lunch is still usually arranged after the dissertation.
Announcing the dissertation
“Spikning av dissertation” is a Swedish term that translates to “Nailing of the public defense”. At least three weeks in advance, it must be announced that a dissertation will take place, through a notice on the university bulletin board. This is called “spikning” of a dissertation. It means that a copy of the generally thick document, approved by the dean or vice-chancellor, is literally nailed to the university bulletin board. Spikning is an old tradition for announcing a theory. Early on, it became a sort of academic tradition, a symbol of publication.
The respondent performs the nailing under the supervision of a caretaker. Family members often participate in the event, which can sometimes be combined with simpler festive elements, such as toasting with a glass of champagne. This old form of spikning has been abolished at most universities. Nowadays, spikning can mean that the dissertation is published on a special page on the university’s website.
Conferred at an academic ceremony
When a dissertation has taken place, the newly appointed doctor can be conferred at a conferment of doctoral degrees. However, this is no longer mandatory. A conferment is the ceremony through which a university with fixed research resources gives those who are entitled their external signs of doctoral dignity. The conferment is the most important and most traditional of the academic ceremonies.
Academic insignia, that is, ritual objects that occur at various ceremonies and spread splendor over them, are used at conferments. Spirals symbolize the university’s self-government and jurisdiction – that one can, for example, judge students for cheating. The spirals occur in Uppsala, Lund, and Gothenburg. They are worn at the head of the solemn academic processions by cursorers or pedellers, the names vary but in Gothenburg they are called pedellers. They usually walk immediately before the university’s vice-chancellor in the academic procession.
King Oscar II donated vice-chancellor chains to the universities in Uppsala and Lund. All universities and colleges now have vice-chancellor chains that the vice-chancellor wears as a necklace.
In Sweden, the special academic dresses that are so common abroad only occur exceptionally. The University of Gothenburg has introduced a special academic dress worn by the vice-chancellor and the deans.
Ancient and traditional ceremonies
Sweden and Finland are the countries where conferments have been best preserved. In Finland, the conferment ceremonies are of a more ancient and traditional character.
A conferment that includes all categories, jubilee doctors, honorary doctors, and doctors after passing exams, is – like the promotion wreaths – something typical of the Swedish-Finnish cultural circle. These elements certainly contribute to maintaining a tradition that, albeit with major changes, has existed in our country for at least four hundred years.
A jubilee doctor or doctor jubilaris is someone who was promoted fifty years ago and is now invited back to their old university’s ceremony. The tradition of especially honoring these jubilarians only occurs in Sweden and Finland and was first applied at the medical faculty in Uppsala in 1804. Jubilee doctors receive no rings or hats, but new diplomas and the jubilee doctors of philosophy receive a fresh laurel wreath to wear during the ceremony.
Faculties appoint honorary doctors
An honorary doctor, doctor honoris causa, is appointed partly by scientists, mainly from other countries, whom Swedish university and college researchers have contacted in their work, and partly by other people who have not achieved a doctorate through formal achievements but whom the university would like to tie to the research community. In general, the practice of which achievements to honor can differ significantly between institutions.
It is always the faculties themselves that appoint honorary doctors, not the vice-chancellor or the university management in general. Furthermore, someone who, for example, has become a doctor of philosophy after passing exams at a Swedish university cannot be appointed an honorary doctor of philosophy at another. Since Sweden is a small country, national validity is applied. This means, for example, that someone who has been awarded an honorary doctorate in medicine in Umeå on one occasion should not later be awarded the same dignity in Uppsala.
The conferment act – who the actors are
A promotor is the person who gives promovendi, the new doctor, their dignities through insignia, such as hat, ring, etc. There are different ways of appointing promotors at different educational institutions, but it is always a professor who must be a doctor, not necessarily within the faculty in question.
The promotor is appointed by the faculty. The promotor is considered part of a succession, and an important element of the promotion is that this sequence is marked by the coronation with a wreath or hat and the words: “I XX, myself a doctor of philosophy…” or “Ego NN, ipse philosophiae doctor…”
Regarding other actors, all educational institutions have different systems, depending on practical circumstances. At almost all educational institutions’ ceremonies, a greater or lesser number of students serve as marshals.
The conferment ceremony – how it works
The conferment guarantees the professional skill of the promovendi, the transition from student to trained researcher.
Nowadays, promovendi line up in procession by faculty in alphabetical order. In the past, this parade was arranged according to skill, with the best going first and thus called primus. The second-best was placed last in the line and was therefore called ultimus, which means the outermost. Far into the 1800s, there was also a custom that books should be ritually opened and then closed, and swords were also used. Overall, the conferment ceremonies in the past were monstrously long with speeches, sermons, cantatas, hymns, etc.
The conferment ceremony at the University of Gothenburg begins with a speech by the vice-chancellor followed by the awarding of the university’s major prizes and honors, which is not part of the promotion itself. Then the faculties’ conferment begin, usually in the order: Sahlgrenska Academy, Faculty of Humanities, Artistic Faculty, Faculty of Science, IT Faculty, School of Business, Economics and Law, Faculty of Education, and Faculty of Social Sciences. The order may sometimes be adjusted depending on how many doctors are to be promoted.
Finally, there is a student tribute that consists of the chairman of the the University of Gothenburg Student Union (GUS) speaking and one of the university’s student choirs performing.
The promotor for each faculty begins their part with the greeting from the Roman Senate in Latin. The Senate was opened with a wish for prosperity that expressed the hope that everything would be good.
The conferment ceremony is the highlight of the event. The main idea, which still remains at the old universities, is that the promovendi should rise up in the cathedra – or on the Parnassus, as it is often called in these contexts – and then go down on the other side. This symbolizes that they now have the right to conduct academic teaching.
In the cathedra, the promotor meets the promovendus, greets them with a handshake, puts a hat or wreath on them, puts a ring on their finger, and gives them a diploma. Before the promovendus steps down from the cathedra, the promotor says goodbye with a handshake. Individual promotion occurs everywhere. When all faculties are completed, the entire faculty receives a common fanfare and congratulations from the promotor.
The language used during the promotion ceremony, that is, the one used during the actual conferment, is either Swedish or Latin. The exception is the presentation of foreign honorary doctors, which sometimes takes place in English or another modern language.
Latin is still used because the promotion is a link in a long chain. Latin became the language of the church, and higher education in the Middle Ages had long been mostly ecclesiastical in nature. Since the universities grew out of the old cathedral schools, it was natural for Latin to become the language of the learned world.
The promotor declares herself/himself to be appointed by the relevant faculty and holder of the rank that is now to be awarded to others, which is marked by putting on a hat or wreath. First the promotor asks the honorary doctors to accept the signs of their new dignity: the hat or wreath, the ring, and the diploma. Finally, the promotor says goodbye to the new honorary doctor.
Then the promotor turns to those who have taken a doctorate. They are asked to come forward one by one to receive their insignia. Here, the practice shifts and the handover can, for example, be limited to the diploma. If someone is promoted without being present in person, their name is read out, followed by the word absens, “absent”. In the Latin formula, it ends with the word dixi, “I have spoken”.
Insignia - the hat, wreath, ring and diploma
Insignia are the objects that are distributed during the promotion ceremony and have symbolic significance. It is the conferment that gives the right to wear the insignia, not the dissertation.
The doctor’s hat symbolizes freedom but also power. In the past, a doctor’s hat could be colored and resemble a beret. Nowadays, the hat is always black and pleated. The doctor’s hat in the theological faculty has a black ribbon. The other hats have a gold clasp, which represents the respective faculty’s symbol. The hat is awarded at the promotion ceremony in the so-called “higher” faculties, i.e., the theological, legal, medical, dental, pharmaceutical, agricultural, forestry, and veterinary faculties, which are related to medieval tradition. In some cases, this also applies to technical faculties.
In the philosophical faculties, the promovendi wear a laurel wreath instead of a hat. The laurel wreath is worn on the day of the conferment ceremony, but the doctor who wishes to do so can obtain a doctor´s hat to use formal occasions, after the conferment.
The laurel wreath was a wreath of victory in the ancient world and was also used as such in the Renaissance triumphs. It later became an award for poets, but already at the early universities it was a reward for scholarly efforts. It has been retained as a conferment symbol in Sweden and Finland, but not in other countries.
The ring is made of gold and symbolizes loyalty. It has sometimes been expressed that the person has entered into marriage with Science. Different universities and faculties have different symbols that adorn the rings. In Gothenburg, it is optional for a doctor to obtain a ring and wear it during the ceremony. Honorary doctors receive a ring from the university the day before and wear the ring during the ceremony. However, the ring is symbolically handed over during the promotion.
The diploma was originally a written confirmation of the rights that belonged to the conferred doctor. In practice, it constituted a kind of documentation that the doctor needed, for example when traveling to other universities. The diploma is now awarded to all graduates. It is rolled up, usually provided with a seal and packaged in various ways.
The Conferment banquet
Meals in connection with the ceremony were abundant in old times, as were balls and other festivities. It was mainly these that made the promotions so expensive for poor students and contributed to creating opposition to the conferment tradition. Nowadays, it is always voluntary for those who have been conferred to participate in the banquet, organized with speeches, songs, music, entertainment, and dance. The University of Gothenburg invites its new doctors and one guest to the banquet. The doctors can also invite an additional four guests, but they must pay the cover price for them.
At most universities, a tailcoat is recommended for men participating in the procession. A white waistcoat and a white bow tie are worn under the tailcoat, a black bow tie never occurs in promotion contexts. For women, a long dress or folk costume applies. Guests who participate in both the ceremony and the banquet are also recommended to wear formal attire.
When promotions began Uppsala University was founded in 1477 and the first promotion took place in 1600. Lund University was founded in 1666 and the first promotion took place in 1670. The University of Gothenburg was founded in 1891 and the first conferment took place in 1903. (The college became University of Gothenburg in 1954)
By: Carina Elmäng/GU