The commencement ceremony as we know it had its beginnings in the Middle Ages as rites of initiation into the close brotherhood of guild membership. Guilds were groups of artisans, tradesmen, and merchants who banded together to regulate their industry and standardize the training of potential new members. Our modern academic degrees of bachelor, master, and doctor correspond loosely to the titles of apprentice, journeyman, and master that indicated the ancient guildman’s level of knowledge and skill. Like the initiation rituals of the medieval guild, our commencement ceremony symbolizes both a new beginning and acceptance into the ranks of those who have attained an important and substantial body of knowledge.
An important part of the pomp and circumstance of the traditional commencement ceremony, the mace is a symbol of the authority of the university. It evolved from the weapons carried by the elite bodyguards who protected the king and other high officials at important events. It is carried in the processional by the grand marshal, a faculty member chosen for the occasion. In the early centuries of the university system, faculty members who were appointed to be marshals were charged with the task of ensuring that scholars complied with the curfew. Today, the mace has a purely symbolic purpose–to represent the authority of the university as a degree-granting institution.
The origins of academic dress date back to the 12th and 13th centuries, when universities were taking form. The ordinary dress of the scholar, whether student or teacher, was the dress of a cleric. With few exceptions, the medieval scholar had taken at least minor orders, made certain vows, and perhaps been tonsured. Long gowns were worn and may have been necessary for warmth in unheated buildings. Hoods seem to have served to cover the tonsured head until superseded for that purpose by the skull cap.
The assignment of colors to signify certain faculties was to be a much later development, and one which was to be standardized only in the United States in the late 19th century. White taken from the white fur trimming of the Oxford and Cambridge B.A. hoods, was assigned to arts and letters. Red, one of the traditional colors of the church, went to theology. Green, the color of medieval herbs, was adopted for medicine, and olive, because it was so close to green, was given to pharmacy. Golden yellow, standing for the wealth which scientific research has produced, was assigned to the sciences. The Intercollegiate Commission met at Columbia University in 1895 and adopted a code of academic dress, which besides regulating the cut and style and materials of the gowns, prescribed the colors which were to represent the different fields of learning.