It is said that the University of Oxford was not created, that rather it emerged. Universities in general, and the University of Oxford in particular, are among one of the many contributions of Medieval civilization to the present day. The University of Oxford was not the earliest university in the world - Paris and Bologna were founded before it - but it is the oldest English-speaking university in the world, and has eight centuries of history behind it. The development of the University of Oxford took place against a wider backdrop of the revolution that was shaking 12th century Europe: a zest for intellectual discovery, which the existing cathedral and monastic schools could not meet (Green, 1974). Oxford University was a by-product of this intellectual revolution.
As I said, there is no clear date of foundation for the university, but teaching existed in Oxford in various forms since the 11th century, the earliest records of this being grammar schools, that sprang up around St. Mary's Church, and which are recorded in Oxford from 1096. Grammar schools were generally headed by a master who knew one subject, be it theology or mathematics or logic. It is thought that there were 109 school masters in Oxford during the early history of education in Oxford, the period 1096-1125. From 1167 onwards, the year that Henry II banned students from England attending university in Paris (the place they had gone to study previously), the University of Oxford expanded rapidly. In 1201, the first Head of Schools was appointed, John Girim, and it is at this point that many people argue the University was founded, as at this point the collection of schools (the University) enjoyed royal favor, providing it privileges and bestowing patronage.
From 1201, therefore, the University of Oxford was being led by a magister scolarum Oxoniae. During 1214-1215, a title of cancellarius oxoniae had been set up, in 1216 conferring the role of Chancellor on the University's first Chancellor, Geoffrey de Lucy. The University has had a statutory history since 1230, the date of the first recorded statute, which was enacted to ensure that every scholar took an obligatory matriculation upon entering the University.
Up to the thirteenth century, the congregation (universitus regentium) was the sole governing body of Oxford University. The role of congregation was to accept new masters to the University, to mete out discipline to the scholars and students, and to bestow degrees on successful candidates. Convocations of the universitus regentium were held in St. Mary's Church on the High Street, the building used for all important university business.
The transition from schools to a structure that resembles more of the modern University occurred with the formation of the private halls for students. These halls were the place where the students lived, took lessons and ate. By 1444, there were 69 halls, of which only one remains, St. Edmunds Hall.
Another transition would occur in the Middle Ages, which would set the scene for the University as we know it now: the transition from halls to colleges.
University College is said to be the earliest college, endowed by William of Durham, although Balliol and Merton also argue for this title. The colleges were set up in place of halls, but basically served exactly the same function for the students: they were the places lectures were taken, meals were eaten, and where the students slept.
The aim of the University, from its foundation, was scholarship in the service of religion ("Dominus illuminatio mea" is still the motto of the University). Hence, during the early years of the University, four main subjects were studied: theology, philosophy, mathematics and logic. The University came into being as the character of Medieval learning itself was being shaped anew, and Oxford was deeply involved in the shaping of the future of scholastic thought.
Having spoken in brief about something of the history of the founding of Oxford University, I shall now go on to discuss the sociological history of the University from its foundations until the end of the 14th century.
What idea or set of norms made Oxford University a community?
In the Middle Ages, as now, the University of Oxford was tied to the local social and cultural scene, which gave it life, but the teachers and students that made up the University were tied together by their common search for knowledge and their exploration of research and 'knowing'.
Membership to the community that was Oxford University in the Middle Ages was determined by your ability to be able to pay to enter as a student: if you could do this, you were accepted as a member of the University and were sworn in to the community by means of the matriculation ceremony, at which you promised to obey all rules and regulations of the community, and to do your best to add to the scholarly output of the community.
Membership of the community was reinforced by certain behaviors and rules: the wearing of caps and gowns was compulsory for students, and caps must have been worn during all lectures (which led to some funny recorded tales of some students only being able to attend one in three lectures as they were poor and only had enough money to buy one cap between three). The gowns for scholars and students used in the Middle Ages differ greatly from the gowns used today by scholars and students of the University: then, scholars wore short gowns with the marks of rank pasted on their caps; today, they wear long gowns, with the marks of rank shown by colored collars. The students then wore blue coats, now they use short black gowns.
That all lectures and all meetings of convocation, and the matriculation and graduation ceremonies, were given in Latin also reinforced membership of the community. Latin was not the language used by the people of Oxford town at that time, and so this behavior reinforced the students' and scholars' sense of belonging to the community that was the University of Oxford.
Membership to the select community that was (and is) the University of Oxford was also reinforced geographically, with some areas of the town being open only for members of the University, for instance, the colleges, the Halls, St. Mary's Church. This geographic split between members of the University, and 'ordinary' townsfolk, as I say, very visually reinforced the fact that Oxford University was very much a community, living and working alongside the town it shares, but very much a secret community, closed to anyone not bound by its rules and liberated by its shared ideas.
Did someone's socioeconomic background determine who was part of the University? If so, what were the criteria?
Admission to the University of Oxford during the period from its establishment to the end of the fourteenth century was based, not on academic merit, but on the student's ability to pay the entrance fee and their maintenance costs whilst studying there (there was no entrance exam, so theoretically, anyone who could pay could obtain a place). This, of course, was restrictive, in the sense that only people who could afford to pay would be able to attend the University. And indeed, there were many sons of noblemen and clergy who passed through the University in those days, including Henry Beaufort (a future Cardinal), and Alexander Neville (the future Bishop of York).
However, the population of the University of Oxford during this period was a cross-section of classes. There was no examination for admission, although there were some restrictions on entry, in that students had to know something of Latin grammar and to speak Latin. This would have been the norm, though, for students who had passed through grammar school before attending University.
Whilst there were many sons of noblemen and clergy, there were also many people from less privileged backgrounds who managed to study at the University of Oxford, indeed, the majority of the 1500 students who were registered in the congregation between 4th December 1358 and 19th November 1363, would have been from modest backgrounds. Some of these students would have been supported by their parents, others would have won patronage from church men, religious leaders or wealthy local gentry.
Admission to become a teacher at the University of Oxford was, however, determined by merit, not the ability to pay. As there were few universities in Europe, and hence few teaching places, gaining a position at the University of Oxford was - and remains - extremely difficult, but entirely uncontingent on background, or social class.
Did Oxford University's community define themselves in terms of 'another'?
As has been discussed, the University was very much defined within itself by various means, through the use of dress, language, ceremony etc. The University was, however, and through these customs that reinforced their sense of community, also defined by outsiders as 'other'. The famous 'town and gown' split that existed in Oxford from the founding of the University,…