It wasn’t until the last few years of the twentieth century that Cambridge University Press started to think it might be a good idea to standardize its imprint and logo.

I was never wild about this victory lap for the  hobgoblin of little minds. We had been using a variety of different drawings of the University shield on our title pages and I always liked the variety. There was a treasured book with only reproductions of the vast number of shields in an array of sizes held in metal down at the printing house. I recall finding the Alma mater (nourishing mother) logo, by then reserved fairly exclusively for bibliographical works, particularly charming. Here it is from the title page of Some Account of the Present Greek Church (1722) by Dr John Covel, Master of Christ [sic] College, Cambridge. The book has, coincidentally a Cambridge style binding. (Click on that link to the book and you’ll find little arrows left and right which allow you open the book and move through those pages which they show at Unlocking the Archive.)

The first known use of the term to refer to an English university dates from 1600 when John Legate began to use Alma Mater Cantabrigia* in University Press books. The words around the edge read Hinc Lucem et Pocula Sacra (Hence Light and Scared Draughts). Pocula, the plural of poculum, actually means drinking vessel: submerging your light in your cups has always been a bit of an occupational hazard for the undergraduate, but in using this as one of their mottoes the University was clearly not focussing on the King Street run.

Here’s a rather splendid example from 1921.

S. C. Roberts’ book, celebrating 400 years of printing in Cambridge can be found at the Internet Archive. The year after this book was published Roberts became Secretary to the Syndics (head man), a job he held for the next 26 years. He them became Master of Pembroke College, not just a “sometime scholar” as the title page styles him.


* My education was long under the guidance of that wet-nurse, the benevolent educational institution. Cambridge’s Alma mater is unambiguously a friendly provider of nourishment. You can see her holding the light source in her right hand and collecting heavenly drops in her hefty poculum. Not sure why she’s wearing a hat made up of buildings though. The motto of the school I attended immediately before was a good deal harsher. Dura virum nutrix, hard nurse of men, kind of expresses the upbringing we got — definitely towards the Spartan end of the range. The school I attended before that sported a motto of a non-nourishing sort, though as I attended as a day boy my own mother was available for the alma bit. It (to my understanding) promoted a kind of “Keep right on to the end of the road” sentiment, though that song wasn’t unfortunately  our school song. “Behalde to ye hende” seems almost unendurably quainte.