The Medieval University Monopoly

New universities sprang up across medieval Europe at a rapid rate, yet at the start of the 19th century, England had only two: Oxford and Cambridge. For centuries, England’s two oldest institutions enjoyed a strict duopoly on higher learning, enforced by law. Why were they allowed to?

In June 1686, a small family – a clergyman, his wife, and their daughter – disembarked from a ship at the docks of Boston, Massachusetts. They had just finished a long journey of a month or more across the Atlantic, escaping from England. The clergyman, a scholarly, 60 year old named Charles Morton, was fleeing prosecution. His crime? Teaching students – or, more specifically, teaching students in north London.   

From 1334 onwards, graduates of Oxford and Cambridge were required to swear an oath that they would not give lectures outside these two English universities. It was a prohibition occasioned by the secession in 1333 of men from Oxford to the little Lincolnshire town of Stamford. They were escaping the violence and chaos which often attended medieval university life – the frequent battles between students, and between students and other communities within the town – the same conditions, in fact, which had led an earlier generation of scholars to up sticks and leave Oxford for Cambridge. But their action now threatened both universities, and so the Stamford experiment had to be suppressed. The sheriff of Lincoln, the lord chancellor, even the king, Edward III, were all called into play and the result became known as the ‘Stamford Oath’; an oath which Oxford and Cambridge graduates continued to swear until 1827.

It is true to say that Charles Morton was unusually unlucky in being prosecuted for breaking this oath by establishing his own academy at Newington Green in London. His evident success in recruiting numerous and impressive students, like Daniel Defoe, was part of the problem, as were his staunchly Presbyterian religious beliefs and his radical, republican political views. But the depressing effect of the Stamford Oath was undeniable and its symbolism inescapable. Repeated at each graduation and reinforced by successive revisions of both universities’ statutes, it made their determination to preserve a duopoly in higher learning absolutely plain.

This was in sharp contrast to the European experience. Just as Oxford and Cambridge were establishing and policing their unique right to produce graduates, ever growing numbers of universities were being founded across the Continent. In the 14th century new institutions appeared in towns from Pisa to Prague; from Kraków to Cahors. In the years that followed, the gap in numbers between English universities and those on the Continent grew even greater, with over 100 founded or refounded in Europe after 1500. Oxford and Cambridge remained the only universities in England. Indeed, even as Morton’s teaching career began in the mid-17th century, universities were springing up in such unlikely places as the small towns of Prešov in Slovakia and Nijmegen in the Netherlands. The English experience was also very unlike that of the Scots, who acquired five universities between 1451, when Glasgow opened, and 1582, when Edinburgh was established. [ … ]

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