Course Content
Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
BA English
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Unit 1 Role of Universities

Learning Outcomes

After the successful completion of the unit, the learners will be able to:

  • discern the material and ideological background of the rise of universities in Britain.
  • understand the significance of universities like Oxford and Cambridge in the intellectual growth of Great Britain.
  • compare and analyse the role of educational and intellectual growth in the development of Britain.
  • identify and recognize the literary figures who dominated the English literary realm.


Do you know what is common with Tim Berners Lee, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Mansoor Ali Khan, Indira Gandhi or T S Eliot? Of course, there are more people to complete the list. They were all Oxonians. In other words, they were all educated at Oxford University. Oxford and Cambridge always stood as the lighthouse of knowledge not only for Britain or Europe alone but also for the entire world as the list mentions. The intellectual development that happened in Medieval Britain was largely due to the emergence of universities like Oxford and Cambridge. Through this unit, we shall analyse the foundation and growth of universities in Britain.

University, Oxford, Cambridge, Cathedrals, Monasteries, Curriculum

University was a medieval European concept. In Medieval England, as it was in (Rome and Roman Britain) knowledge of Latin was inevitable for the conduct of any transaction associated with religion or academics. Therefore, literacy was attributed predominant consideration over anything else, at least among the elite classes and in the merchant community. Those who lacked proficiency in the Latin language sought the assistance of the literate persons whom they could rely upon. By the thirteenth century, the entire nobility became literate and by the fifteenth century, most of the cities in England had grammar schools under the sponsorship of the layman. The schools were generally attached to the Cathedrals1, monasteries2 and larger parishes3. Some clergies were engaged as private tutors, too. The right to grant licences to the schools rested with the bishops. Thus by the thirteenth century, at least one person in every village was able to produce a document in Latin.
The terms college and university originally had very similar meanings. Only with the passing of centuries did university come to signify an educational institution composed of more than one college. The word college means literally “union formed by law,” or a group of people associated in some common function. During the Middle Ages students at the universities of Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge found it convenient to rent houses and share expenses instead of living in private apartments.
During the Middle Ages the Latin word universitas referred to any type of community. The term that was normally used to describe a legally chartered school of teachers and students was studium generale, meaning a place of study open to students from all parts. The universitas was a group of teachers or students (or perhaps both) within the studium. Gradually certain schools— especially Bologna in Italy and Paris—gained international recognition, and students flocked to them. Their reputations allowed graduates of those schools to teach anywhere else. By the end of the 14th century the term universitas, which had displaced studium, was used to describe the better-known schools of Europe.
From contact with the Arab scholars in North Africa and Spain, Western educators learned new ways of thinking about mathematics, natural science, medicine, and philosophy. The Arabic number system was especially important, and became the foundation of Western arithmetic. Arab scholars also preserved and translated into Arabic the works of such influential Greek scholars as Aristotle, Euclid, Galen, and Ptolemy. Because many of these works had disappeared from Europe by the Middle Ages, they might have been lost forever if Arab scholars had not preserved them. In the 11th century medieval scholars developed Scholasticism, a philosophical and educational movement that attempted to reconcile Christian theology with Greek philosophy. Scholasticism reached its high point in the book Summa Theologiae written by Saint Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century Dominican theologian who taught at the University of Paris.

1. Cathedral: The principal church of a diocese, a church that is the official seat of a diocesan bishop
2. Monastery: A house for persons under religious vows.
3. Parish: the ecclesiastical unit of area committed to one pastor

Aquinas reconciled the authority of religious faith, represented by the Scriptures, with Greek reason, represented by Aristotle. The famous European universities of Paris, Salerno, Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, and Padua grew out of the Scholastics-led intellectual revival of the 12th and 13th centuries.
The first university in Europe was at Salerno, Italy. It became known as a school of medicine as early as the 9th century. As its fame spread, students were drawn to it from all over Europe. In 1231 it was licensed by Frederick II, Holy Roman emperor, as the only school of medicine in his Kingdom of Naples. The second university emerged at Bologna, Italy, during the 11th century at about the same time as the famed Muslim school, El Azhar University, in Cairo, Egypt. Bologna developed into a widely respected school of canon and civil law. At Bologna the masters formed themselves into organisations called collegia for the conferring of degrees. Other Italian universities founded from the 13th to the 15th century include Padua (1222), Siena (1241), Piacenza (1248), Rome (1303), Perugia (1308), Pisa (1343), Florence (1349), Pavia (1361), and Turin (1405).
North of Italy the first great universities were those at Paris in France and at Oxford and Cambridge in England. The University of Paris grew out of theological schools associated with Notre Dame Cathedral. Shortly after 1100 William of Champeaux, a theologian and philosopher, opened a school in the cathedral for teaching dialectic—a type of logical argumentation. The University of Paris as a formal institution actually emerged between 1150 and 1170, though its written statutes were not set down until about 1208. Recognition as a legal corporation came in 1215 from Pope Innocent III. About 1253 the theologian Robert de Sorbon began teaching at Paris. In about 1257 he founded the Maison (house) de Sorbonne as a theological school for poor students. His school received the pope’s official recognition in 1259, and it soon became one of the colleges around which the University of Paris grew. The Sorbonne is still one of the chief schools of the university. Other noted French universities were founded at Montpellier (1220), Toulouse (1229), Orléans (1306), Aix-en-Provence (1409), Poitiers (1431), and Caen (1432). The first university in Scotland was St. Andrews, founded in 1411 followed by the ones at Glasgow (1451), Aberdeen (1495) and Edinburgh (1583). The University of Heidelberg (1386) was the first university in Germany.
3.1.1 Oxford University
As the oldest English-speaking University in the world, Oxford lays claim to eight centuries of continuous existence. There is no clear date of foundation, but teaching has existed in some form at Oxford since 1096 AD. By 1170, Oxford, which was dominated neither by the Catholic Church nor by the monastic orders, had become a recognised centre of higher learning. In 1167 King Henry II forbade English students and scholars from going to Paris for learning following his quarrel with Thomas Becket. This might be the reason for the rise of Oxford. In 1188, renowned historian Gerald of Wales gave a public reading to the people gathered. By the end of the same century, Oxford started recruiting students from abroad. By the end of the 12th century, Oxford university was
well established. Oxford university was established after the style of the University of Paris. The subjects taught in the beginning were theology, law, medicine and the liberal arts. Oxford is situated 50 miles (80 kms) away from London beside the River Thames.
In the early stages of its existence, the university did not have permanent buildings. It functioned in the hired halls of churches and monasteries. With the establishment of Dominican and Franciscan orders, the study of theology gained more impetus. In the 13th century, rioting between gown and town (students and townspeople) hastened the establishment of primitive halls of residence. These were succeeded by the first of Oxford’s colleges, which began as medieval ‘halls of residence’ or endowed houses under the supervision of a Master. University College (1249), Balliol College (1263) and Merton College (1264) were the early colleges established at Oxford. Oxford’s reputation increased in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.






Fig 3.1.1 Oxford University

During its early days, the reputation of Oxford was based on theology and the liberal arts. But it also started focussing more on the physical sciences than the University of Paris. The mathematical and scientific tradition of Oxford positively influenced other universities like Vienna which was founded in 1365 and was started with teachers having Master’s Degrees from Oxford. The scientific temper developed by Oxford led to its popularity in meteorological studies. However, it could not progress much as the renowned alumnus Roger Bacon’s work was condemned by the Church. By the beginning of the 13th century, the number of students increased to 1500. It seems to have doubled by the end of the medieval period. A significant scholar contributed by the university was the religious reformer and heretic John Wycliffe (1330- 1384) who campaigned vigorously for a Bible in English against the wishes of the Roman Catholic Church. Renaissance scholars like the Dutch humanist Erasmus (1469-1536) carried new learning to Oxford. The scholars like William Grocyn (1446-1519), John Colet (1467-1519) and Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) enhanced the reputation of the university. Since then Oxford University has had a high reputation for the scholarship and learning in classical learning, political science and theology.
The students of Oxford university first attached themselves to those tutors who had a hired room for lectures. Mostly the students stayed in private houses or a hall under a principal elected by themselves. Only a few students were supported by their parents. The notion generally held was that the poor students were to be looked after by charity.
Yet, life in university was marked by violence and drinking. Violence was not confined to the students alone, on the other hand, it also engulfed others related to the university like the warden and sometimes the teachers, too. In the case of a murder by a student, it was considered manslaughter and the culprit was convicted for a short term imprisonment. The most infamous dispute between the Oxford university students and the citizens occurred in 1355. It started as a brawl in a town tavern but worsened into a riot between the scholars and the townsmen with bows and arrows and ultimately led to the death of several students from the University. The king punished the townspeople and the control of the city went to the university.
3.1.2 Cambridge University
Cambridge is located on the bank of River Cam, flowing 50 miles north of London. The early history of Cambridge is not so much known as that of Oxford. By 1200, Cambridge was a county town with a thriving commercial community. There was a school taught by clergy at Cambridge after 1112, but the elements of a university did not appear until scholars taking refuge from hostile townsmen in Oxford migrated to Cambridge and settled there in 1209. The students who flocked to Cambridge soon arranged their scheme of study after the pattern followed by the Universities in Italy and France, and which they were following at Oxford. They were numerous enough by 1226 to have set up an organisation, represented by an official called a Chancellor, and seem to have arranged regular courses of study, taught by their own members. King Henry III took them under his protection as early as 1231 and arranged for them to be sheltered from exploitation by their landlords. At the same time he tried to ensure that they got enough teaching, by an order that only those enrolled under the tuition of a recognised master were to be allowed to remain in the town. In 1231 and 1233 letters from the king and the pope indicated that Cambridge was a university with a chancellor at its head.
Gradually the students were permitted to stay at Cambridge and the first college at Cambridge was in fact established by Walter De Merton who had set up Merton college at Oxford. This college, also known as Pythagoras Hall, was created to accommodate the students from Oxford and to prevent their migration elsewhere. However, the first recognised college was founded at Peterhouse in 1284 by Hugh Balsham. The church handed over to the college was that of St Peter and the College later became known as Peterhouse.
Henceforward, Oxford and Cambridge advance on parallel lines, Oxford enjoying the advantage of a start of fifty years.







Fig 3.1.2 Cambridge University

Within the next three centuries, another fifteen colleges were founded and in 1318, Cambridge received its formal recognition from the Pope. However, it was not before 1502 that the university became popular. It was with the arrival of Erasmus that the spirit of Renaissance was inculcated into the learning of University. It was in 1546 that Henry VIII founded Trinity College which remains the largest of Cambridge’s all colleges. In 1571 the university was formally incorporated by the Parliament. In 1669, Isaac Newton received the Lucasian professorship of mathematics which he held for 30 years. His tenure as an instructor of Maths brought great fame to the university.
3.1.3 Curriculum
Medieval universities like Cambridge and Oxford were centred on higher learning in several subjects which were in practice during the early medieval period. However, with the advent of Renaissance thinking, the curriculum and subjects seem to have undergone gradual changes and evolved to become pre-modern educational systems. Students were trained for future jobs. Yet, due to the existing social order with a high preference given to ecclesiastical jobs, many of them became associated with the Church. Naturally, it affected the curriculum taught in the universities. The liberal arts education was provided by the university. The seven areas of study were divided into two sections called ‘Trivium’ and ‘Quadrivium’. The Trivium
The Trivium consisted of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic or Dialectic. More than learning the construction of speech the study of grammar was concerned with the derivation of meaning from words. The goal of learning grammar was to master the language skills and understand the features of the language. Through learning rhetoric, the learner was expected to comprehend persuasion in communication. The persuasive argument was centred on the arrangement of words and their presentation. Logic as a philosophy is based on the principle that debating is an important aspect of the learning process. Therefore, the debate was the most common teaching and learning technique prevalent in Oxford and Cambridge universities as in any other universities of Europe during the medieval times. A Bachelor’s degree was given to a student who completed four years of Trivium. It could be followed by a Master’s Degree. The Quadrivium
The Quadrivium consisted of Arithmetic, Astronomy, Geometry and Music. More than computation, learning Arithmetic was related to the philosophy of numbers. It also included the study of ratios and relationships. Renaissance thinking must have prompted the universities to include Astronomy focusing on Plato’s model of the universe and the study of relationships between the planets and their movements in space. Divine theories essentially influenced the teaching of Geometry in the universities. It was based on the concept that the universe was created based on some geometric calculations of the Supreme and therefore learning Geometry is the way to understand God’s creation. Learning of music was purely for aesthetic, spiritual and personal reasons, though it was believed that it was related to maths.
3.1.4 Life of a Student
The students attending university classes often thrived to have an atmosphere of freedom from parental and social control. Due to this reason, several students often got messed up with new habits like excessive drinking and rowdy behaviour. This eventually led to a bad reputation for the students in the nearby towns. In the universities, pastimes like gambling, music and chess were permitted. However, there were students who were well engaged in scholarly pursuits. Only religious holidays were exempted from regular class days. The student accommodations had minimum facilities in universities like Oxford. Students were often short of money and troubled their parents for money.
A student in the normal course entered university between the ages of twelve and fifteen. Before entering the universities, they were likely to have received primary education from the local churches. Only the boys were educated and the girls did not enjoy the privilege of education during the Middle Ages. However, girls from well-to-do families were educated by private tutors. Many students who did not come from wealthy families often struggled to survive.
The establishment of universities resulted in the general enhancement in matters of discipline and decorum. In Medieval England, university education was considered a priority for social advancement. A University degree was important in the appointments of the Church. During the medieval period, bishops were recruited from among the clergy who had a university degree. The universities were funded by the patrons in the hope of getting an ‘educated servant’ useful for their enterprises. The students did not only get intellectual advancement in the university other than their degrees, but ample political and social contacts for their future careers also. Many a time, intellectual growth of a student seemed secondary to the practical skills gained in the university advancing a graduate’s status. The popular culture of the gentleman-bureaucrats,lay persons and merchants were less sophisticated when compared to the graduates from the universities. Universities gave birth to a new reading public which eventually led to the trade of books. Emergence of universities necessitated the need for secular academic texts and reference works which were not produced by the clergy or the Church. Both Oxford and Cambridge Universities became the symbol of intelligentsia in the medieval world and contributed several well-known personalities to the modern world.

  •  Early medieval education was centred on the monasteries and Church institutions.
  • Oxford and Cambridge universities represent a shift of education from the Church to the secular agencies in Britain.
  • Though teaching existed at Oxford from the eleventh century onwards, it became institutionalised only in the following centuries.
  • A dispute between the students of Oxford and the townsman led to the beginning of learning at Cambridge
  • The Curriculum in medieval England consisted of the Trivium and the Qudrivium.
  • Initially the graduates from the universities were recruited to the Church offices.
  • The graduates led a more sophisticated life when compared to the other sections of the society in Britain.
  • The students who entered the university for education often were attracted by the carefree lifestyle rendered by the newly given liberty.

Objective Type Questions

1. Which was the language used for business transactions in medieval Britain?
2. Which historian gave a public reading at Oxford in 1188 for the first time?
3. Which early reformer of England graduated from Oxford?
4. Which scholar carried Renaissance learning to Oxford?
5. What was the first college of Cambridge known ?
6. Who founded Trinity College?
7. Which great scholar received Lucasian professorship in 1699?
8. What was the area of learning consisted of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic known?
9. Which area of learning consisted of Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy and Music?
10. Where was the first recognised college of Oxford founded at?

Answers to Objective Type Questions

1. Latin
2. Gerald of Wales
3. John Wycliffe
4. Erasmus
5. Pythagorus Hall
6. Henry VIII
7. Sir Isaaac Newton
8. Trivium
9. Quadrivium
10. Peterhouse


1. Discuss the role of Oxford and Cambridge universities in enabling a shift of education from the Church to the secular agencies in Britain?
2. Elucidate the circumstances that led to the inception of Cambridge.
3. Discuss the role of medieval universities in the intellectual development of England.

Suggested Readings

1. Rowse, A.L. The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of the Society , Ivan. R. Dee Publisher, 2000.
2. Carter, E.H. Mears,, A History of Britain, Stacey International, 2012.
3. Amt, Emilie. (Ed.), Medieval England, 1000-1500: A Reader, University of Toronto Press, 2000.
4. Brown, Eric. English History, A Concise Overview of the History of England from Start to End, Guy Saloniki, 2019.
5. Trevelyan, George Macaulay. Illustrated English Social History, Pelican, 1964. 6. Morgan, Kenneth O (Ed). The Oxford History of Britain, OUP Oxford, 2010. 7. Pritchard, R.E. Shakespeare’s England: Life in Elizabethan and Jacobean Times,
The History Press Limited, 2003.
8. Bailey, Richard. Images of English: A Cultural History of the Language , Cam- bridge University Press, 2009.
9. Bucholz, Robert and Newton Key, Early Modern England, 1485-1714 ,Wiley- Blackwell, 2003.
10. Jenkins, Simon. A Short History of England, Profile Books, 2018.
11. Churchill, Winston, A History of English-Speaking Peoples, Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.