The University of Oxford: A New History

G.R. Evans

I.B. Tauris 2010
A book review by Danny Yee © 2015
A New History focuses on the University of Oxford's changing relationship with the state, on the formal and informal content of its teaching, and on its place in the broader history of ideas. It is easy to read, with chronological chapters made up of thematic sections and subsections that are just a page or two long: potted biographies of key figures, first-hand accounts by members and visitors, and short histories of ideas. (These do occasionally seem to wander off on tangents: there's half a page on Charles Lyell, for example, even though Lyell had no direct connection with the University of Oxford.)

Evans begins with the 20th century, looking a little backwards: the Inklings "lived the life of the mind and lived it socially", but "were not entirely comfortable in the modern world", while Maurice Bowra was a "left-over Victorian who vociferously regretted the modernization of Oxford". Among the topics tackled are the impact of the First World War, post-war state funding and block grants, the shift of power from Convocation (graduates) to Congregation (staff), the introduction of university lecturers and graduate colleges, the arrival of women and later mixed colleges, academic freedom and debates over Thatcher, and library unification and modernisation. Evans ends with the rejection at the end of 2006 of proposals to move Oxford towards a more modern governance.

Jumping back to the origins of Oxford in the medieval period, Evans provides mini-biographies of key figures such as Grosseteste, Kilwardby, Roger Bacon, Fitzralph, and John Wyclif. These help to illustrate the development of a constitution and syllabus and formal qualifications, lodgings and the transformation of halls into colleges, and some of the controversies and debates. "Students can sometimes be seen to be moving in and out of the vernacular in joky macaronic pieces in the late Middle Ages, but in essence what they studied they studied in Latin."

There is a whole chapter on "the interfering Tudors", covering the series of Visitations and Visitors and Statutes foisted on the university by Thomas More, Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, Edward VI, and queens Mary and Elizabeth, among others. This took place against the background of the Reformation and associated controversies, such as Peter Martyr and the debate over transubstantiation in 1549. "Duke Humphrey gave Oxford two hundred books. Only two survived the Reformation."

The 1600s and 1700s are covered in "Oxford Keeps up with the Times". Politically, this encompasses the King James Bible, William Laud's provision of new statutes, the Civil War, Protectorate and Restoration, and the Glorious Revolution. On education, there are vignettes illustrating student life, early science and new forms of scholarship as well as the endurance of the liberal arts, and developments with the colleges, the Bodleian Library and the University Press. "Thomas Hearne was a non-juror and pedant who rose to become second librarian at the Bodleian ... [but] was locked out of the Library when he would not take the Oath of Allegiance in January 1716."

"The nineteenth-century transformation" covers Newman and the Oxford Movement, state interference through a series of University Commissioners, the growth of the University Press (with a vignette of one employee's life), reform of the syllabus in the liberal arts and classics (Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty illustrates the persistence of medieval ideas in language and logic), the rise of history and geography and the natural sciences (the Origin debate, museums, ethnography), and changes to examinations (with concerns about cramming replacing broader learning). Evans concludes with Hardy's Jude the Obscure, touching on vocational training and social mobility and offering what is essentially an apologia for the university against accusations of exclusiveness.

Evans is a professor of medieval theology at Cambridge (who has also written a history of the University of Cambridge) and hers is very much an insider's perspective. It will help readers if they have some idea how the collegiate universities and the Oxbridge tutorial system currently work. The broader town of Oxford only makes occasional appearances, whether violent in the St Scholastica Day riot, pecuniary with Lord Nuffield (William Morris) founding Nuffield college, or literary in the depiction in J.I.M. Stewart's novels of "an Oxford society conscious of the proximity of the car factories at Cowley". And, more generally, relations with the outside world are mostly viewed as a series of intrusions. Wide-ranging within the limitations of this perspective, however, A New History is accessible and involving, bringing to life individuals and episodes as well as illuminating the broader history of institutions and intellectual life. Eighteen pages of black and white photos mostly feature people (including some fictional characters) and buildings.

May 2015

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%T The University of Oxford
%S A New History
%A Evans, G.R.
%I I.B. Tauris
%D 2010
%O paperback, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9781780764948
%P 356pp