Oxford University’s Long Haul

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • The History of the University of Oxford. Vol. I: The Early Oxford Schools edited by J.I. Catto
    Oxford, 684 pp, 55.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 19 951011 3
  • The History of the University of Oxford. Vol. III: The Collegiate University edited by James McConia
    Oxford, 775 pp, 60.00, July 1986, ISBN 0 19 951013 X
  • The History of the University of Oxford. Vol. V: The 18th Century edited by L.S. Sutherland and L.G. Mitchell
    Oxford, 949 pp, £75.00, July 1986, ISBN 0 19 951011 3
  • Learning and a Liberal Education: The Study of History in the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester, 1880-1914 by Peter Slee
    Manchester, 181 pp, £25.00, November 1986, ISBN 0 7190 1896 X

The new History of the University of Oxford, already some twenty years in the making, is a prodigious achievement and a posthumous tribute to its general editor, the late T.H. Aston. To date, some 2500 pages of text, footnotes, tables, plates and indices have appeared, and there are four centuries and five volumes to come. As the centuries advance and the evidence mounts, the volumes become fatter. Those who have laboured in the past through D.A. Winstanley on Cambridge, C.E. Mallett on Oxford and Hastings Rashdall on the Medieval university will find the going even heavier: a reflection of the state of historical research today and the problems of assimilating or reducing unprecedented quantities of information. One reading will certainly not suffice. These are volumes for rereading and reference (and let us hope the indices are up to it, for there appear to be lacunae).

Conveniently, Volume I appears first – an editorial achievement, for collaborative undertakings of this magnitude are always subject to delays. The obscure origins of the University are carefully reconstructed. In Sir Richard Southern’s distinction, Oxford was not ‘created’ – it ‘emerged’. The contributors explain the significance of its geographical location and its importance as a centre of legal activity. They discuss how it separated from the town and the existing religious orders, and how it gradually assumed a corporate identity with (at least to begin with) a strong Chancellor. The influences of the older University of Paris on Oxford’s earliest history are examined and differences noted (Oxford did not, for example, develop the kind of disciplinary faculties known in Europe). Nearly half the volume is a discussion of the studies and degree courses and the state of learning and scholarship as they bear on the professional and intellectual life of Medieval England. Historians of the Modern period are often baffled by the Medieval system of instruction, but the scales are now lifted from their eyes. There are many fine chapters on texts, lectures, and the uses of scholastic logic in imparting ‘mental discipline’ in ages distant from the 19th century when that conception returned as part of general education. The discussions by J.M. Fletcher and J.A. Weisheipl on the arts curriculum and 13th and 14th-century science are especially illuminating. Relatively speaking, Oxford was an instant success. By the time of the Black Death she was the most favoured and the most intellectually distinguished of all European universities, the home of Duns Scotus, William Ockham and the Mertonian school.

Volume III brings us to the Renaissance. We notice immediately the firm direction of the editor, James McConica, who has imposed an order on the writing of the history of the University in the 16th century that is uncommon in productions by diverse hands. His long-standing interest in the social composition of Oxford, and his familiarity with some of the contributions of the social sciences to the history of education, have enabled him to pull many of the chapters together, and he has produced three good ones of his own, two on the Elizabethan college and the emergence of the collegiate university and one on faculties and studies.

The editorial task of integrating the history of the 16th century was assisted by a clear historical theme: the formation of the Tudor state and the imposition of royal authority on Oxford. The upheavals in church and state reverberated throughout Oxford and were felt in the areas of university and college governance, the curriculum, scholarship, matriculations, and the appointment of lecturers and professors. The royal government engaged in systematic and often successful attempts to influence religious belief, scholarship, teaching and student discipline. The dissolution of monastic houses and the diversion of their income to Oxford, in conjunction with an increase in outside patronage, had a lively effect on the growth of libraries and collections, on the fabric of colleges and on the standard of comfort, as fellows and undergraduates rebelled against the spartan values of preceding centuries. Several chapters provide detailed discussions of college and university finances and new endowments, and there are accounts of church, state and university relations in a tempestuous century of disagreement and violent change.

By contrast with Volume III, or even Volume I, where the comparative unity of the intellectual and institutional life of Medieval religious civilisation brings an order of sorts to the history of the first two centuries of Oxford’s existence. Volume V is a great mélange. One can only sympathise with the task of the editors, L.G. Mitchell and the late Dame Lucy Sutherland. There is no general theme that ties the history of the 18th century together, nor are there solid historiographical precedents for writing a history of Oxford in relation to society. The bewildering events of the reigns of James II, William and Mary, Queen Anne and the Hanoverian monarchs include such astonishing changes as the revolution of 1688 and its aftermath, banking, commercial and industrial transformations, the American and French revolutions, the Enlightenment and the coming of Neoclassicism and Romanticism. Most of the economic changes appear to have affected Oxford only indirectly, but the American and French revolutions brought the University out of a long period of parochialism and into active support of monarch and minister. Intellectual changes associated with the Age of Reason affected Oxford more at the margins than in the mainstream, but everyday affairs and the structure of teaching were influenced to a greater extent than might be supposed from a general record of falling enrolments and a taste for the easy life.

As the editors are primarily students of the political life of the 18th century, the first two hundred pages of Volume V are devoted to discussions of ideological conflicts and party politics within church, state and university. One result was the formation of a Tory bias within Oxford, although moderate, anti-Whig and anti-ministerial more than dogmatic or fanatical, reflecting the political outlook of the Midlands gentry so closely associated with the University. Other chapters are devoted to the continuing influence of the Church on university life and administration. There is a great deal of valuable information on the development of a college staff. Half of Volume V is devoted to accounts of degree programmes, developments in the study of ancient and exotic languages, the importance of music to the social and aesthetic life of Oxford, the state of the professional disciplines, the several libraries, the University Press and architectural innovations. There is much miscellaneous information on the social life of students and dons, on the use of time, status distinctions, and what today we refer to as extracurricular activities and studies.

How is it possible to summarise the contributions of no less than half a hundred scholars representing many different styles and traditions of research packed into three dense and demanding volumes? One way is to comment that these are volumes for the researcher much more than for the general reader. Many chapters are highly technical – those on finances, for example – while others will appeal mainly to specialists in the history of logic, the politics of the later Stuarts, the history of antiquarian learning, and stained glass or building. Some chapters appear to be more ‘original’ than others, but it may also be the case that the information is less generally familiar. ‘Technical’, ‘specialist’ or ‘original’ are relative and even arbitrary terms. Less relative is the conclusion that the systematic investigation into the holdings of Oxford and foreign collections, archives and muniment rooms has produced countless riches.

Are there new findings and interpretations? Yes, but these come in different sizes and shapes. There are what may be called teasers, observations dropped in passing that invite further reflection. For example, we learn that the Medea was the most widely read of the plays of Euripides in the 18th century, and we may well wonder how a ‘feminist’ drama was interpreted or used in teaching. In the same period, politically radical students refused to powder their wigs, and the significance of this as a symbol of rebellion is intriguing.

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