Home  »  Volume II: English THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES  »  § 2. Beginnings of Oxford and Cambridge

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

§ 2. Beginnings of Oxford and Cambridge

Certain, however, it is that, in the first half of the twelfth century, a number of famous names are connected with Oxford teaching. It may be that if, as Gervase of Canterbury testifies, Vacarius taught civil law at Oxford, in 1149, he did not lecture as an Oxford master, but as a member of the train of archbishop Theobald. But Theobaldus Stampensis, as a recent historian has pointed out, in letters written between 1101 and 1117 styles himself master in Oxford; Robert Pullen, afterwards cardinal and the author of Sententiarum Libri Octo, is stated, on good authority, to have taught in Oxford in 1133; and, when in 1189 Giraldus Cambrensis read his Topographia Hibernica at Oxford, “where the most learned and famous of the clergy of England were then to be found,” he entertained “all the doctors of the several faculties and such of their pupils as were of greater fame and repute.”

In the story of this last incident we have clear indications of an existing and of an organised Oxford university.

Modern research points to the year 1167 as the date of the birth of Oxford as a studium generale, and offers a chain of circumstantial evidence to connect it with an expulsion of alien students by the Parisian authorities and the contemporary recall by Henry II, then engaged in the contest with Becket, of all clerks holding English cures. However this may have been, the last few years of the twelfth century furnish abundant proof of the presence in Oxford of students in considerable numbers.

In 1192, Oxford, according to Robert of Devizes, could barely maintain her clerks. In 1197, the great abbot Samson of Bury entertained a large company of Oxford masters. When the troubles of 1209 burst upon the university, scholars to the number—according to Matthew Paris—of three thousand dispersed in various directions.

It is to this last occasion that the Oxford historian refers the appearance of Cambridge as a studium generale.

The story is characteristic of the times. An Oxford clerk kills a woman—accidentally, as it is afterwards said. But the culprit flees. The town authorities search the dwelling wherein he lodged, and, in his absence, arrest two or three of his companions, who are perfectly innocent of the offence, if such it be. King John, however, is in the middle of his famous quarrel with the pope, and is ready to wreak his vengeance on any clerk. On the king’s instructions, the innocent prisoners are hanged. In combined fear and indignation, the Oxford masters proclaim a suspension of studies; and the scholars scatter. Some merely retreat to Reading; others migrate further afield. Some go to Paris; some to Cambridge.

Cambridge, as a town, dates back to the days of the Roman occupation of Britain, when it represented the intersection of two great military highways and a consequent guard-post. William I made it his base for attack upon Ely, and pulled down eighteen of its 387 dwelling-houses to secure a site for a castle which should command the passage of its important ford. Henry I erected it into a borough corporate. The establishment of a great fair at Barnwell about 1103 and the settlement of Jews in 1106 denote a growth of trade and population. At what date students first found their way to its narrow streets, and what was the attractive force compelling them thither, it is, as in the case of Oxford, impossible, absolutely, to determine. Cambridge, like Oxford, was not a cathedral city; and the wealthy priory of Barnwell, founded about 1112, lay well away from the district in which the students congregated. A story of early lectures by a party of monks despatched by Joffred, abbot of Crowland, to his manor of Cottenham is, by internal evidence, demonstrated to be a late invention. It is not until the first quarter of the thirteenth century that genuine history records the presence in Cambridge of a concourse of clerks; it is in 1231, when the Parisian scholars were returning to their former quarters after the famous secession of 1229, that we obtain our first clear proof of the existence in the English fen town of an organised society of masters and students. In that year (3 May) a royal writ commands the sheriff of the county to proclaim and, if need be, take and imprison certain pretended clerks in Cambridge qui sub nullius magistri scholarum sunt disciplina et tuitione; he is to expel within fifteen days any clerk who is not under the control of a responsible master. At the same time, a second writ addressed to the mayor and bailiffs recites that Satis constat vobis quod apud villam nostram Cantebr. studendi causa e diversis partibus tam cismarinis quam transmarinis scholarium confluit multitudo, and enjoins that the hostel rents chargeable to scholars shall be fixed secundum consuetudinem Universitatis by two masters and two good and lawful men of the town.

The Oxford suspendium clericorum of 1209 had at least reinforced the numbers of the Cambridge scholars. In 1229, a riot in Paris led to a similar migration of students from the metropolitan university. Henry III issued an invitation to the migrants to come over into England, and settle “in what cities, boroughs and villages they pleased to choose”; and Cambridge shared with Oxford in the benefits of the Parisian exodus.

Henceforward, Oxford and Cambridge advance on parallel lines, Oxford enjoying the advantage of a start of fifty years.

The Oxford suspendium came to an end in 1214 under the terms of a settlement arranged by the papal legate, Nicholas of Tusculum. A legatine ordinance subjected to penance the executioners of the unfortunate victims of 1209 and, in true medieval fashion, imposed a heavy mulct upon the townsmen, present and future. It further required that a clerk arrested by townsmen should be forthwith surrendered on the demand of the bishop of Lincoln, or the archdeacon or his official, or “the chancellor or whomsoever the bishop of Lincoln shall depute to the office.” And the rents of halls were to be taxed by a joint board of four burghers and four clerks. Here we have the record of the beginnings of a privileged academic society. The first task of an infant university is, necessarily, the organisation of its constitution. That work was begun in Oxford before 1214. In a very real sense the university of Oxford was a “republic of letters.” The Oxford constitution, as it reveals itself in the course of the thirteenth century, is, essentially, democratic. The centre of its organic life is the assembly of masters. For the distribution of her members into four nations, as at Paris, Oxford substituted a division into northerners and southerners; Scottish students combined with English north countrymen to form the boreales, whilst Welshmen, “Marchmen” and Irishmen were ranked with the australes. The two proctors were the elected mouthpieces of the two divisions. The supreme legislative authority was the entire body of masters of all faculties assembled in the “great congregation”; where the proctors brought forward proposed statutes, counted the votes and announced decisions. A “lesser congregation” of regents, i.e. of actually teaching masters, of all faculties, passed graces affecting studies or dealt with minor finance; while a yet narrower assembly of regents in arts supervised the grant of the magisterial licence to teach, and elected the proctors for the year.

The titular head of the university was the chancellor. It was round this officer that the struggle for university liberties was destined to be waged.