In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval English Universities

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Anthologies
  • Universities in Sociopolitical Context
  • Relations Between English and Continental Universities

Medieval Studies Medieval English Universities
Hannah Skoda
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0238


Medieval English universities include, of course, only Oxford and Cambridge. These universities emerged in a wider context of the growth of higher learning across Europe, and their origins lie concomitant with those of the universities of Paris, Bologna, and Salamanca for example. These early institutions represent the growth of learning out of the context of monastic and cathedral settings, and provided dedicated environments for the pursuit of studies in the arts, theology, law, and medicine. The stimulus to higher learning came from a variety of sources, particularly the rediscovery of Arabic learning and a growing interest in classical authors: in many ways, the early days of universities should be seen within the context of the “twelfth-century Renaissance.” The term “university” is drawn from Roman law, to refer to the institutional corporation that, in the case of Oxford, arose out of preexisting schools of higher learning: a university was a self-regulating community of scholars, recognized by civil or ecclesiastical authority. Records of teaching in Oxford stretch back to 1096, and over the course of the 12th century, the town became, through a process of cumulative reputation, a center of learning. The head of the university was named as a chancellor in 1201, and the masters were recognized as a universitas in 1231 by the pope; a royal charter was granted in 1248. The origins of the University of Cambridge lie, famously, in an exodus on students from Oxford in 1209 following a dispute between town and gown. Initially these universities looked very different from the collegiate institutions into which they evolved: colleges, with the exception of a few early outliers (Merton, Balliol, and University College in Oxford; Peterhouse in Cambridge), were founded rather later in the 14th and 15th centuries as endowed fellowships of scholars with a remit to work as a community dedicated to the service of God through higher learning. While Oxford and Cambridge stood alone throughout the Middle Ages, this was not inevitable: in 1338, a group of Oxford scholars seceded to Stamford, but failed to found a university there; Owain-Glyn Dwr attempted to found a university in Wales; Scotland saw the foundation of the universities of Aberdeen, St Andrew’s and Glasgow in the 15th century. Students at Oxford and Cambridge could be as young as fourteen. Historians have debated their prosopographical make up, and while it is clear that the lowest social strata would never have been in a position to meet the entrance requirements, higher education did indeed provide some opportunities for social mobility, and increasingly so as scholarship provisions increased. Students studied a course in the arts and could then progress to a higher degree in theology, law, or medicine. The universities of medieval England are well documented and provide a rich source for historians of ideas, those interested in changing institutional structures, the social history of youthful (mis)behavior, relations between town and gown, prosopography, and the shifting political and religious role of universities in the wider polity.

Introductory Works

Historians of universities must begin by considering their origins and developing functions over time. This has been done most effectively in comparative European perspective, and it is widely acknowledged by historians that, despite Henry III’s 1167 prohibition on English students’ study abroad, international networks of scholars rapidly developed (Courtenay and Miethke 2000). Traditionally the focus has been on institutional origins, with the papacy given a prominent role in Rashdall 1987. The institutional approach was followed by Cobban 1975, which argues that two basic models of universities emerged in Bologna and Paris, and explores the distinctiveness of the English case in its early days: in this model, focus is upon administrative structures and the development of student privileges. An alternative approach lies in the intellectual impetuses that drove the schools, seminally explored in Haskins 1972. The intellectual and the institutional were most effectively shown to intersect and to drive development in Leff 1968. Southern 1987 explores a shift under John XXII from the independent authority and jurisdiction of the masters of theology to that of the papacy at Avignon: the implications of this are far reaching since Southern demonstrates the way in which this created an international need for university-trained men; this view was challenged in Courtenay 1989 (see Censorship). Fifteenth-century universities once again appear vulnerable to the complaint that intellectual freedoms were undermined by pragmatic political needs: de Ridder-Symoens 2003 includes articles that address this question of decline from a variety of perspectives (prosopographical, social, intellectual) to argue for the continued vitality of these institutions and to explain the raft of new foundations in this period. Indeed, the period is treated as one of explicit transition in the edited collection Kittelson and Transue 1984, and the argument of political expediency is turned on its head with the argument that it was precisely this ready adaptation of universities that ensured their survival.

  • Cobban, Alan. Medieval Universities: Their Development and Organisation. London: Methuen, 1975.

    A synthesis of 20th-century historiography of the universities. A useful introduction to the European context, which allows the reader to see what was distinctive about English universities. The book is particularly strong on the early stages of the universities, on colleges, and on relations with wider society.

  • Courtenay, William, and Jürgen Miethke, eds. Universities and Schooling in Medieval Society. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000.

    A useful collection of essays on higher education in European context. The book is particularly helpful in exploring who students were, their socioeconomic and geographical backgrounds, and the establishment of networks of scholars (the article by Courtenay is particularly helpful for students of English universities in this respect).

  • de Ridder-Symoens, Hilde, ed. A History of the University in Europe. Vol. 1, Universities in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    First published in 1992. Presents a series of articles by historians such as Walter Rüegg, Jacques Verger, Rainer Christoph Schwinges, Peter Moraw, Hilde de Ridder-Symoens, and John North, which explore the historiographical debates that frame the study of medieval universities. All the essays discuss European universities (including English ones) in comparative perspective, with a particular focus on shift over time. There is an emphasis on the later Middle Ages.

  • Haskins, Charles Homer. The Rise of the Universities. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972.

    First published in 1923, this remains a seminal introduction to the social and intellectual history of universities. It is particularly useful for students wishing to get a colorful introduction, and to researchers keen to explore the kinds of source material available.

  • Kittelson, James, and Pamela Transue, eds. Rebirth, Reform and Resilience: Universities in Transition 1300–1700. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1984.

    A collection of essays in comparative European perspective, exploring the historiographical problem of so-called decline of later medieval universities. Argues that universities were resilient because they were so closely connected to the needs of society.

  • Leff, Gordon. Paris and Oxford Universities in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries: An Institutional and Intellectual History. New York: John Wiley, 1968.

    Provides a detailed analysis of the curriculum and scholarship in both universities. Argues cogently that institutional and intellectual developments went hand in hand in the early history of the universities, while demonstrating what was distinctive about Oxford.

  • Rashdall, Hastings. The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

    Revised by F. Maurice Powicke and Alfred B. Emden. First published in 1895, this book remains one of the most comprehensive introductions to the history of medieval universities, with dedicated sections on the English universities. It is particularly strong as an introductory guide to the institutional history of these institutions, and was first revised and updated in the 1930s.

  • Southern, Richard. “The Changing Role of the Universities in Medieval Europe.” Historical Research 60 (1987): 133–146.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.1987.tb02288.x

    A seminal piece with wide ramifications for the understanding of the function of learning that opens up a wider discussion of the shift from the independent authority and jurisdiction of masters of theology to that of the papacy. Southern argues that, while the authority of universities therefore declined, the career prospects of their masters in the service of pope or state were renewed. An alternative interpretation of the evidence is provided in Courtenay 1989 (cited under Censorship).

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