Air of liberty, light of truth

22 July 2016

William Whyte on the influence of Oxford’s blooming youth

© TRUSTEES OF DR WILLIAMS’S LIBRARY

Lost causes: from John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of defeat, by Crawford Gribben, in the Oxford Studies in Historical Theology series, this portrait is of Owen, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford (1652-57), “principal mover in the Cromwellian religious settlement”, and an apologist for Dissent after the Restoration (OUP, £47.99; 978-0-19-979815-5)

Lost causes: from John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of defeat, by Crawford Gribben, in the Oxford Studies in Historical Theology series, t...

The University of Oxford: A history
L. W. B. Brockliss
OUP £35
(978-0-19-924356-3)
Church Times Bookshop £31.50

 

FROM Chaucer’s clerk to the new Prime Minister, the products of Oxford University have had a long-running and undeniable impact on England’s history. Many of the great political and religious changes of the past 800 years have played themselves out in the streets and quads of the city: be that the heresies of Wycliffe (a Master of Balliol); the presumption of Laud (a President of St John’s); or the simple fact that when Mary I wanted to rid herself of the Cambridge-educated Thomas Cranmer, she sent him to Oxford to be tried and burned.

Why this should be so is somewhat mysterious. In the 12th century, it looked much more likely that Northampton would become the great English university. In the 18th century, Oxford was seriously outclassed by the Scottish universities and the Dissenting academies set up by those it excluded on the grounds of belief. Since the 19th century, Oxford has been faced with competition from abroad and from rival institutions at home. And yet its cultural impact is still strong, and it remains ranked — whatever that’s worth — among the top universities in the world.

Over the years, a huge number of books have been produced seeking to tell Oxford’s story and to explain its surprising longevity and unlikely success. Between 1984 and 2000, the university itself published an official history in no fewer than eight substantial volumes. Now, as the conclusion to that effort, it has chosen one of its own — Laurence Brockliss, a Fellow of Magdalen — to distil all that work into a single book.

It is an extraordinary achievement, resting on a staggering amount of research. Nearly 900 pages long, it covers nearly 1000 years of history. Professor Brockliss has processed a truly terrifying amount of material, and seems equally assured on medieval scholasticism, modern medicine, or the quantities of wine consumed by 18th-century dons (it was a lot — even more than you might expect). It is also a remarkably easy read.

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This is, I think it’s fair to say, very much the work of a historian of education. The focus is on the university as a place of teaching and research, and, although student life, sociability, and architecture are covered in great and illuminating detail, some other aspects of Oxford are left for other books to cover. Tellingly, for instance, the way in which most people encounter the university — I mean, of course, Inspector Morse — is relegated to a footnote on page 556.

It is also only reasonable to point out that this is a book which is written by an insider, and one with an evident fondness for the university. Although Brockliss is unafraid to explore failure as well as success, to expose scandal as well as triumph, and although he concludes with some mordant reflections on Oxford’s future, this is a history of an institution with a glittering past and much to celebrate. Those who are suspicious of Oxford, fear its dominance, or dislike its products should probably look elsewhere.

 

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

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