Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Research on medieval and early modern universities

James Hannam

A great deal of the business of natural philosophy, mathematics and medicine during the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern period took place in the setting of the universities. The earliest foundations were Bologna, Paris and Oxford but these were followed by dozens more in the next few centuries. What almost all universities had in common was that they were self governing corporations that were supported by both church and state. Their major purpose was to train men to be lawyers, theologians and physicians but they were also increasingly used by the gentry to educate their sons in the cultural skills necessary for courtly life.

Scholars widely accept that the universities had a valuable role in providing a setting for science in the Middle Ages although traditional historiography has tended to downplay their influence during the scientific revolution. They have been portrayed as reactionary bastions of Aristotelianism against the onslaught of the new philosophy. This view is now under attack. As more work is done on what was actually being taught and studied at the universities in the sixteen and seventeenth centuries, universities have been revealed as more effective educational institutions than previously thought. The bottom line is that the large majority of early modern men of science had university educations and many continued to work in them after graduation.

This article is intended to provide an annotated reading list for anyone who wants to cover the universities in their own research. Most of the people we study went to university and their experiences there need to be taken into account. I have concentrated on resources in English and on works that have some relationship to visiting English students and scholars. The second half of this article focuses very tightly on the primary and secondary sources available on the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the hope of encouraging more students to get to work on the prodigious resources that we have available right under our noses. On the whole my suggestions relate to the general history of the universities rather than specifically to the sciences but contain plenty of useful jumping off points whether you are interested in mathematics, medicine or natural philosophy.

General reading on the medieval and early modern university

Excellent starting points are the essays in the first two volumes of A History of the University in Europe: Universities in the Middle Ages (1992) and Universities in Early Modern Europe (1500–1800) (1996), both ed. Hilde de Ridder-Symoens (whose name is indexed in many different ways by library catalogues). Both of these volumes contain thematic essays by leading scholars which cover nearly all the ground on syllabuses, teaching and the government of universities. It is much less strong on the histories of individual institutions but for that we have the out of date but still useful Hastings Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages New Edition (F.M. Powicke and A.B. Emden (eds.)), 3 volumes (Oxford 1936). It remains an excellent way into the primary sources and is especially valuable for its potted histories of many of the universities. For an explanation of how the universities developed and why they are a unique European institution see Olaf Pedersen, The First Universities: Studium Generale and the Origins of University Education in Europe (trans. Richard North) (Cambridge, 1997). There are a few monographs in English on individual European universities such as Nancy Siraisi, Arts and sciences at Padua: the Studium of Padua before 1350 (Toronto, 1973) and William Courtenay Parisian Scholars in the Early Fourteenth Century: a Social Portrait, (Cambridge, 1999). The later is an excellent example of how to breath life into dry sources – in this case financial records. New and as yet unseen by me is Paul Grendler, The Universities of the Italian Renaissance (Johns Hopkins UP, 2004) which has nevertheless had reasonable reviews. If you have the relevant linguistic skills many universities have large literatures in the language of their own country.

There are plenty of examples of the sort of thing that people were studying in medieval universities in Edward Grant, God and Nature in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2001) which I think is excellent although some distrust its conclusions about medieval rationalism. Also good on the methods of teaching is Brian Lawn, Rise and decline of the scholastic 'Quaestio disputata' (Leiden, 1993) which deals with the disputation between master and student which was a central part of early university assessment. The vexing question of the relationship between the church and university academics is introduced by William Courtenay, 'Inquiry and Inquisition: Academic Freedom in the Medieval Universities' Church History 58, (1989) and covered in much for detail for the University of Paris in J.M.M.H. Thijssen, Censure and Heresy at the University of Paris: 1200–1400 (Philadelphia, 1998). Moving onto the early modern period, a useful antidote to the traditional disparagement of the universities is John Gaiscoigne, 'A reappraisal of the role of the universities in the scientific revolution,' in David C Lindberg and Richard Westman (eds.) Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, 1990) and see also Roy Strong, 'The Universities in the Scientific Revolution' in the Universities in Early Modern Europe (1500–1800) (1996) above.

Many English scholars spent a year or two at another European university. Jonathan Woolfson, Padua and the Tudors: English Students in Italy, 1485–1603, (Toronto, 1998) includes a useful prosopography as well as some indication of how hard it can be to trace individual scholars. He covers matters like William Harvey's medical career in Padua as well as visits by several early humanists. Academic relations between the Low Countries and the British Isles 1450–1700, Hilde de Ridder-Symoens and J.M. Fletcher (eds.). (Ghent,1989) contains several papers but is less rewarding.

Plenty of primary sources are in print for nearly all the medieval universities. Major collections exist for Paris (Chartularium Universitatis Parisiensis (Paris, 1891–9), 4 volumes), Bologna (Chartularium studii Bononiensis (Bologna, 1909–39), 10 volumes) and Padua (Monumenti della Università di Padova (Venice, 1884–8), 2 volumes) among others. A useful collection of sources in translation for those without Latin is Lynn Thorndike University Life and Records (New York, 1944). Sources for the early modern period become harder to come by as the sheer volume of material has probably precluded publication programs. Padua has an ongoing project. There is a large collection of registers and statutes for many colleges, schools and universities in the University Library Reading room just to the right of the door into the West Room and much, much more in the education section (South Wing, floor 6).

Oxford and Cambridge

Many students (including me) may feel much more inclined to do their research on the English universities rather than foreign ones.

Oxford had quite a reputation for mathematics in the medieval period but Cambridge was nowhere near being a leading European university. After the Reformation both universities enjoyed roughly equal prestige and continued to be part of the international intellectual community. In the early seventeen century scientific and mathematical chairs were endowed whose occupants may make a good subject for research, especially if their papers have been preserved.

Histories of the universities

The current standard histories of the universities are A History of the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, 1988–2004), 4 volumes and The History of the University of Oxford (Oxford, 1984–2000), 8 volumes. But these are two very different beasts.

Oxford's History is a considerable intellectual achievement bringing together dozens of scholars many of whom have produced outstanding work, while the Cambridge History consists of four comparatively short volumes by individual authors. For this reason there is a huge temptation to look in the Oxford volumes for information on teaching, government and society in the universities and assume the case at Cambridge was much the same. Often this was true but sometimes it was not. For straight forward narrative history there are two older multi-volume works worth reading: J.B. Mullinger, The University of Cambridge (Cambridge, 1873), 3 volumes and C.E. Mallet, A History of the University of Oxford (Oxford, 1924), 3 volumes. Both should be used with care.

Several other titles are also worth a look depending on the period of interest: A.B. Cobban, The Medieval English Universities: Oxford and Cambridge to c.1500 (Aldershot, 1988); Mark Curtis, Oxford and Cambridge in Transition, 1558–1642 (Oxford, 1959); H.C. Porter, Reformation and Reaction in Tudor Cambridge (Cambridge, 1959); H. Kearney, Scholars and Gentlemen: Universities and Society in Pre-Industrial Britain 1500–1700 (London, 1970); and 'Appendix: A Note on the Universities' in Christopher Hill, The Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (Oxford, 1965). Many of these books form part of a prolonged and as yet unresolved debate about for whom and for what the universities existed in the early modern period. Mordechai Feingold, The Mathematicians' Apprenticeship: Science, Universities and Society in England, 1560–1640 (Cambridge, 1984) is specifically about the quadrivium but should be read by anyone interested in the early modern English universities.

A final narrative history worth mentioning is Anthony à Wood, The History and Antiquities of the University of Oxford (1792–6), 2 volumes in 3 books. Sometimes referred to as the Annals, which they contain, these volumes are the source of many of the myths about medieval and Reformation Oxford that are still often repeated today. Wood himself was an Oxford contemporary of John Aubrey (of Brief Lives fame) who produced masses of manuscripts on university history which were published over the century after his death in 1695. The Cambridge equivalent is C.H. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge (Cambridge, 1842–53), 5 volumes, which was written in the nineteenth century.

Registers of students

Oxford and Cambridge are both very well served for printed registers of matriculations and degrees which are largely lacking for continental universities. The standard edition for Cambridge is J. Venn and J.A. Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses, Part One: from Earliest Times to 1751 (Cambridge, 1922–27), 4 volumes. For Oxford we have Joseph Foster, Alumni Oxonienses: the Members of the University of Oxford, 1500–1714 (Oxford, 1891–2), 4 volumes. For the earlier period records are very incomplete but have been collected by A.B. Emden: A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to A.D. 1500 (Oxford, 1957–9), 3 volumes and A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford from A.D. 1501 to 1540 (Oxford, 1974). He has also produced A Biographical Register of the University of Cambridge to A.D. 1500 (Cambridge, 1963) which contains much more information than Venn on the early period. Lots of near contemporary information on Oxford men in the early modern period can be founded in the potted biographies that make up Anthony à Wood Athenae Oxonienses (New edition with additions from Philip Bliss), (London, 1813–20), 5 volumes. Rather less contemporary but still very informative is C.H. Cooper, Athenae Cantabrigiensis (Cambridge, 1858–1913) which covers the period from 1500 to 1611.

Many colleges have had their own registers published although these rarely include anything that is not in Emden, Foster or Venn. However, they can be helpful as an entry to some of the college archives.

Printed sources

The printed sources from the University of Oxford come in three main groups. The first and most important are the bi-annual publications of the Oxford Historical Society. There are now over 130 volumes issued of which many are editions of archival sources from the University or colleges of Oxford. The University Library has them all in a group (North Front floor 3; 476:01.c) and there is nothing better than to go and browse through them to see what there is. Also indispensable is Strickland Gibson's standard edition of the historical university statutes, Statuta Antiqua Universitatis Oxoniensis (Oxford, 1931) and the collection of college statutes Statutes of the Colleges of Oxford (Oxford, 1853), 3 volumes. Finally, not to be overlooked by medievalists is Henry Anstey (ed.), Munimenta academica(London, 1868), 2 volumes, which is part of the Rolls Series and contains various medieval statutes and court records.

The printed sources for Cambridge are not quite so easily set out. The statutes for both University and colleges are in Documents relating to the University and Colleges of Cambridge (London, 1852), 3 volumes. There is also James Heywood, Early Cambridge University and College Statutes in the English language (London, 1855). Grace Books А, В, Г and Д (Cambridge, 1897–1910), 4 volumes in 5, cover the period from 1454 to 1589. These contain a mass of information on the awarding of degrees, payments and university administration. (The nearest Oxford equivalent is the Register of Congregation published by the Oxford Historical Society but only for 1448–63 and 1507–17). Also very useful are John Lamb (ed.), A Collection of Letters, Statutes, and other Documents: Illustrative of the History of the University of Cambridge, during the Period of the Reformation (London, 1838) and M.B. Hackett, The Original Statutes of the University of Cambridge: The Text and its History (Cambridge, 1970).