Alex Burghart

An Oxford treasure trove

Oxford’s reverence for the Classics over the centuries is brilliantly celebrated by L.W.B Brockliss — who also imagines a glorious virtual future for the university

‘What distinguishes Cambridge from Oxford,’ wrote A.A. Milne in 1939,

is that nobody who has been to Cambridge feels impelled to write about it… [whereas] every Oxonian has at least one book about Oxford inside him… Oxford men will say that this shows what a much more inspiring place Oxford is, and Cambridge men will say that it shows how much less quickly Oxford men grow up.

The hefty and brilliant tome that has escaped from inside Professor Brockliss is very grown up indeed and, as a history of the university, greater than all those that have come before. (The previous, eight-volume account that inspired this one has many fine qualities, but accessibility is not one of them.)

Brockliss is a rare hybrid of blues dark and light, having spent his formative years in the Fens before atoning for this sin by serving 32 years as a history don at Magdalen. He sets Oxford’s evolution squarely amid that of the European university at large — the developments of Paris, Bologna and the German schools — and places it within the necessary context of English political history. At the heart of his investigation is a near contradiction: that a university so fundamentally conservative and traditional has been able completely to re-invent itself several times over.

The medieval Catholic university, which morphed out of a collection of independent tutors renting rooms in the city, was effectively established in 1214 — like many great enterprises — by accident and after a fight. The Papal Bull settling a dispute between town and gown gave a distinct legal status to the students, their tutors and chancellor, which then came to underpin future collective action. Then, from the 13th century, benefactors seeking immortality established colleges guaranteeing provisions for scholars, formalising the rhythms of their lives and instituting another layer of independence from external interference.

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