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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XV. English and Scottish Education. Universities and Public Schools to the Time of Colet

§ 11. The Beginnings of the Colleges; The Black Death

The college, it must be noted, was something more than a hall. In the hall, with its officially fixed rental, students of all degrees found some protection against the arbitrary exactions of the townsmen. They were subjected to certain disciplinary regulations. They paid for their accommodation. The college, on the other hand, was, in origin, the endowed home of a limited number of students of a particular class. Further, the college was not a monastery. It had a rule, which borrowed something from the principles which experience had approved in the orders; but it was not monastic. On the contrary, it was anti-monastic: the scholars of Walter de Merton and Hugo de Balsham were directly prepared for service in the world as men of affairs. Finally, the college was not, in the first instance, a profit-making school. Its doors were not open to all seekers after knowledge. Its scholars were members of a close corporation, living on a common stock, men of approved ability pursuing advanced studies under discipline. The distrubing guest and the would-be perendinant were, alike, repelled.

This conception comes out clearly in the statutes of Merton and in the earliest Peterhouse statutes, which were avowedly based upon the Merton rule. The Peterhouse society was to consist of fifteen scholars, one of whom was, as the master, to be the business head. A candidate for a vacancy in the body must be vir honestus, castus, pacificus, humilis et modestus (quatenus humana fragilitas nostra sinit) et indigens, ac in arte dialectica Baccalaureus. The field of study for the scholars was determined as including the arts, the philosophy of Aristotle and theology. The majority of the scholars must always be engaged in the diligent pursuit of the liberal arts; only with the express sanction of the whole body were certain designated fellows to proceed to the reading of theology. Two, but not more at the same time, might study the canon or the civil law, one, the medical art. Each fellow must follow a regular academic course, must prepare himself by hearing lectures, reading and discussion, for a career of activity. The aim of the founder was not the endowment of a life of learned ease; his revenues were intended, it was clearly stated, for scholars actualiter studentes et proficere volentes.

The college conception took rapid root. Before the year 1400, there had arisen in Cambridge six of the present colleges, with Michaelhouse (1324) and King’s Hall (1332), which, later, were absorbed in Henry VIII’s stately foundation, Trinity; in Oxford, the college of Merton had rivals in six of the existing colleges, besides Gloucester Hall (now Worcester), which was erected by the aroused Benedictines for students selected by their order, and the dissolved Canterbury Hall.

The foundation of several of these societies is directly traceable to the Black Death (1349). Oxford was half-depopulated, whether by the actual ravages of the plague or by the flight of the students. Cambridge, likewise, suffered terribly. Vast numbers of the country clergy were swept off. It was, partly, at least, with a view to recruiting the depleted ranks of his diocesan staff with well-equipped scholars that bishop Bateman founded Trinity Hall, Cambridge (1350), as a college of canonists and civilians, and, in a more catholic spirit, completed the labours of Edmund Gonville on a neighbouring site. About the same time and, seemingly, in the same spirit, Elizabeth de Burgh, countess of Clare, enlarged the earlier establishment (1326) of University Hall, and the guild brothers of Corpus Christi founded Bene’t or Corpus Christi College (1352). The generous founder of New College, Oxford, referred to the repairs of the devastation wrought by the plague as one of his inciting motives.

The attention of the pious benefactor, who, in centuries past, would have endowed a convent, was now drawn rather to the university, and that with the direct encouragement of at least the secular clergy. So Mary de St. Paul founded in Cambridge, in 1347, the college of Mary de Valentia, commonly called Pembroke Hall; and Exeter, Oriel and Queen’s arose in Oxford beside the first period group, composed of Merton, University and Balliol.

The statutes of these various societies set out particular objects, and differed, accordingly, in minor detail; but, in all cases, the main purpose was the same, and there was no vastly significant departure from the primitive model.

The old hostels had sheltered, and continued for some time to send forth, famous men; but Oxford and Cambridge scholarship associated itself rapidly with the newer colleges. Merton claims, not only Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, who were drawn away by the friars, but also Richard FitzRalph and bishop Bradwardine, the latter of whom is ranked by Chaucer with Augustine and Boethius. Wyclif is variously connected with Merton, Balliol and Canterbury Hall. The great clerical statesmen of fourteenth and fifteenth century England can be mostly identified with the universities and with colleges. If William of Wykeham was no trained scholar, and John Alcock was, possibly, nurtured in a hostel, no men were more alive than they to the advantages of college life. Henry Beaufort studied both at Peterhouse and in Oxford. William Waynflete, who was master of Wykeham’s school at Winchester, provost of Henry VI’s foundation at Eton and Beaufort’s successor as bishop, was, if not himself an Oxonian, destined to rival both his distinguished patrons, episcopal and royal, by his fine college of Magdalen.

In the first instance, the college was but the chartered and endowed house of a small society of scolares or scoii, pursuing advanced studies in a large university. Walter de Merton, indeed, from the very first, provided for certain parvuli, seemingly his kinsmen, who, under the care of a grammar master, were to be prepared for entry on a course in arts; in most, if not in all, of the early foundations the door was opened to poor students, who, in return for menial services, were supported on the superabundance of the victuals furnished by the founder’s bounty, and assisted in the pursuit of learning. But neither Walter de Merton nor Hugo de Balsham can be supposed to have contemplated the extension which was, ere long, given to the initial conception of the college by the admission, in constantly increasing numbers, of the class of undergraduated pensioners. Still less can they have looked forward to the day when colleges should dominate the university.

Development is, however, the necessary condition of all true life. Already, before the end of the fourteenth century, many of the old inns had become annexed to colleges. It was then decreed that no scholar should henceforth presume, on pain of expulsion, to dwell elsewhere in the university town than in a hall or hostel. This meant the disappearance of unattached students. By the middle of the fifteenth century, the system of admitting commensals had become established alike in the poorer and in the more wealthy foundations; and, when that step was reached, the English universities were on their way to that strange confusion and distinction of college and university which is the puzzle of the continental observer.