Oxford, like the equivalently named Bosporus, developed as a cattle crossing; the Thames narrowed and grew shallow at that point; a fortress was built there in 912, a market formed, and Kings Cnut and Harold held gemots there long before the University arose. Presumably there were schools at Oxford in Cnut’s days, but we hear of no cathedral school. About 1117 we find mention of a “master at Oxenford.” In 1133 Robert Pullen, a theologian, came from Paris and lectured at Oxford on theology.52 By steps now lost to history, the schools of Oxford became in the twelfth century a studium generale or university—“no man can say when.”53 In 1209, according to a contemporary estimate, there were 3000 students and teachers at Oxford.54 As at Paris there were four faculties: arts, theology, medicine, and canon law. In England the teaching of civil law escaped the universities, and lodged at the Inns of Court in London. Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, the Inner and the Middle Temple were the fourteenth-century descendants of the homes or chambers in which judges and teachers of the law, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, received students as apprentices.
At Oxford, as at Paris and Cambridge, the colleges began as endowed residence halls for poor students. At an early date they became also lecture halls; masters dwelt in them with the students; and by the end of the thirteenth century the aulae or halls had become the physical and pedagogical constituents of the University. About 1260 Sir John de Balliol of Scotland (father of the Scotch king of 1292), as penance for an unknown crime, established at Oxford a “House of Balliol” to maintain, by a grant of eight pence ($8) a week, certain poor scholars called socii, “fellows.” Three years later Walter de Merton founded and endowed the “House of the Scholars of Merton,” first at Maiden, soon at Oxford, to care for as many students as its income could support. These revenues were repeatedly doubled by the rise of land values, so that Archbishop Peckham in 1284 complained that the “poor scholars” were receiving additional allowances for “delicate living.”55 In general the English colleges grew wealthy not only by fellowship grants and other gifts, but through the rise in the value of the estates with which they were endowed. About 1280 a bequest by William of Durham, Archbishop of Rouen, established University Hall, now University College; the modest beginnings of these famous colleges is shown in the terms of foundation, which provided for four masters and such scholars as might care to board with them. The masters chose one of their number as “senior fellow” to manage the hall; in time he or his successors appropriated those titles of “master” or “principal” by which the heads of the English colleges are known today. The University of Oxford in the thirteenth century was the association of these colleges under a “university” or guild of masters, themselves governed by regents and a chancellor of their own choosing, who in turn was subject to the bishop of Lincoln and the king.
By 1300 Oxford ranked next to Paris as a center of intellectual activity and influence. Its most famous graduate was Roger Bacon; other Franciscan monks, including Adam Marsh, Thomas of York, John Peckham, formed with him there a distinguished group of learned men. Their leader and inspiration, Robert Grosseteste (1175?—1253), was the finest figure in the life of Oxford in the thirteenth century. He studied law, medicine, and natural science there, graduated in 1179, took his divinity degree in 1189, and soon afterward was chosen “Master of the Oxford Schools”—the earlier form of the title of chancellor. In 1235, while still remaining head of Oxford, he became Bishop of Lincoln, and superintended the completion of the great cathedral. He energetically promoted the study of Greek and of Aristotle, and shared in the heroic effort of the thirteenth-century mind to reconcile Aristotle’s philosophy with the Christian faith. He wrote commentaries on Aristotle’s Physics and Posterior Analytics, summarized the science of his time in aCompendium Scientiarum, and worked for a reform of the calendar. He understood the principles of the microscope and the telescope, and opened many paths for Roger Bacon in mathematics and physics; it was probably he who acquainted Bacon with the magnifying property of the lens.56 Many ideas that we ascribe to Bacon—on perspective, the rainbow, tides, the calendar, the desirability of experiment—were apparently suggested to him by Grosseteste; above all, the notion that all science must be based upon mathematics, since all force, in its passage through space, follows geometrical forms and rules.57 He wrote French poetry and a treatise on husbandry, and was a lawyer and a physician as well as a theologian and a scientist. He encouraged the study of Hebrew with a view to converting the Jews; meanwhile he behaved toward them in an anomalously Christian way, and protected them as well as he could from the sadism of the mob. He was an active social reformer, always loyal to the Church, but daring to lay before Pope Innocent IV (1250) a written memorial in which he ascribed the shortcomings of the Church to the practices of the Papal Curia.58 At Oxford he established the first “chest” to make gratuitous loans to scholars.59 He was the first of a thousand brilliant minds whose achievements created the magnificent prestige of Oxford in the educational and intellectual world.
Today Oxford is a manufacturing center as well as a university, and makes automobiles as well as dons. But Cambridge is still a city of colleges, a medieval jewel brightened with modern wealth and British good taste; everything in it pertains to its colleges, and the medieval peace of mind survives in this loveliest of university towns. Apparently its intellectual eminence must be dated from a murder at Oxford. In 1209 a woman was killed there by a student; the townspeople raided a residence hall, and hanged two or three students. The university—i.e., the association of masters—suspended operations in protest against the action of the townsfolk; and, if we may believe the usually trustworthy Matthew Paris, 3000 students, and presumably many masters, left Oxford. A large number of them, we are told, went to Cambridge and set up halls and faculties; this is the first mention we have of anything higher there than an elementary school. A second migration—of Parisian students in 1228—swelled the ranks of the student body. Monks mendicant or Benedictine came and established colleges. In 1281 the Bishop of Ely organized the first secular college in Cambridge—St. Peter’s College, now Peterhouse. The fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries saw the foundation and embellishment of additional colleges, some of them among the masterpieces of medieval architecture. All of them together, embraced by the quiet winding Cam, constitute with their campuses one of the fairest works of man.