Highs and lows amid the groves

A History of the University in Europe - A History of the University of Oxford - A History of the University of Cambridge
July 31, 1998

The universities of early modern Europe have a bad name or none at all - which is partly justified and partly the result of (until recently) scholarly inattention. The three centuries from 1500 to 1800 have often been treated as an interlude, a mere intermission between the two great flourishings of the university in the medieval and modern periods.

Universities had been among the most distinctive, and novel, institutions of the Middle Ages. Medieval civilisation was unimaginable without them. Historians of that period, therefore, have been unable to ignore the universities. It is no accident that many of the great works of university history centre on this period. All too often in these histories, accounts of the early modern university are merely an afterword, even a dying fall.

In a similar, but perhaps less categorical way universities in the 19th and 20th centuries played a central role in the creation of modern society. They were key agents in the process of modernisation, whether defined in terms of the advance of science and technology or the extension of democratic rights. Contemporary historians may have been less interested in recording the achievements of the universities, and these key connections, than their medieval colleagues. Spoilt for choice presumably. But, again, modern society is unimaginable without universities.

However, the early modern university, which is the subject of these three books, has often been regarded as a marginal, even moribund, institution. The three great intellectual waves of these centuries - the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, then the scientific revolution and finally the Enlightenment (succeeded at the very end of this period by revolution) - originated, and largely occurred, outside the university. In the last years of the 18th century, its very survival seemed in the balance. As an institution of the Middle Ages and ancien regime the university almost appeared to have run its course.

Furthermore, the early modern university lacked a grand "truth", unlike the Catholic faith of the medieval university and the scientific objectivity of the modern university. It confronted powerful and more vigorous rivals such as the Inns of Court in England in the later 16th and early 17th centuries (Cambridge taught only civil law until after 1800 and Oxford's first common law chair was established as late as 1753) and, everywhere in Europe in the later 17th and 18th centuries, the scientific academies and literary salons. Subordinated to princely courts and dynastic states, the university seemed still gripped by an arid scholasticism only slightly relieved by a more recent humanism (itself, perhaps, as antithetical to the growth of a truly scientific culture).

For too long these have been the favoured cadences of university history - medieval brilliance and modern significance separated by a period of stagnation. All three books dispute this periodisation - valiantly but not with complete success. The first is the second volume in a four-volume history of the university in Europe under the general editorship of Walter Ruegg, a sociologist and formerly rector of the University of Frankfurt, and is sponsored by the Conference of European Rectors (CRE). Of the four volumes, two so far have appeared both edited by Hilde de Ridder-Symoens, professor of history at Amsterdam and Ghent. The first on universities in the Middle Ages was published three years ago. Ruegg himself is editing the third volume on universities in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, and Asa Briggs the final volume on universities since 1945.

The 15 chapters in the present volume, like the first, are arranged under four headings. The first offers an overview or conspectus. The second, on structures, provides more detailed accounts of universities by type and region (including the Europe-beyond-Europe in the Americas - here Harvard is a "European" university), and also discusses their internal and external governance, their resources and their teachers. The third focuses on students, their origins, experiences of the university, graduate destinations and - a recurring theme of European universities from the first studium generale to the European Union's Erasmus and now Socrates programmes - student mobility. The last covers learning, addressing the most important and difficult questions - the connections (or lack of them) between universities and the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment.

The series of which this volume is part is in no sense an "official" history of the European university, the view so to speak from the rector's desk. Nevertheless it has been written and edited within certain constraints. The first is that it is a history of the European university. In the medieval and early modern period that may not present much of a problem. The university, after all, was first a European and only later a world institution. But already in the period covered by this volume, there are signs that the university cannot be contained within Europe. Harvard was founded in 1636, and universities had been established in Lima and Mexico City 85 years before. Even in Europe, the university spread out from its western European heartland, north into Scandinavia and east to Russia.

The second constraint is that the editors and authors of this series, like all historians of the university, cannot completely escape from the shadow of the university's later success. They, and we, know the end of the story. A teleological tendency is hard to evade, especially because historians work in the triumphantly successful institutions they are describing. Overall the lack of critical distance is a slight disability. But in the early modern period it may be more serious. Here there is almost a case for a counter-factual history. Suppose the university had not survived the Enlightenment, and the political and industrial revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th century - what difference would that make to its preceding history?

The third constraint is that, although not an "official" history, this series is committed to a linear, limited and rehabilitatory view of the development of the European university. It is obliged to emphasise continuity, rather than disjuncture, between successive institutions that have borne the university title, although medieval, early modern and modern universities may have little in common apart from this nominal continuity. It can be argued that in many countries (not just France where universities were formally abolished in the 1790s) universities effectively "disappeared" in the late 18th century, to be refounded virtually as new institutions in the next century. Significantly perhaps, the capital cities of the new states of Europe (London, Stockholm, Madrid, Berlin) did not acquire universities until the 19th century. This suggests that universities were not yet seen as central to the formation of these nation states.

The series is also obliged to exclude other institutions, whether scientific and scholarly or concerned with higher professional training. This may have the unfortunate effect of creating dichotomies, even rivalries, between universities and these other institutions (such as the Royal Society) which were not apparent to contemporaries. The perverse result is that in this book the scientific revolution and Enlightenment are encountered partially and obliquely, and almost as rivals. Finally, the whole series is bound to be an exercise in rehabilitation. In the medieval and modern periods that hardly matters; the university requires no rehabilitation. But in the period covered by this volume it is the nub of an unresolved historical debate. In 1500 the university was still a medieval institution. The University of Wittenberg established six years into the new century was just the latest in a long succession of medieval universities, despite the drama to be enacted there 13 years later. By 1800 many universities, in effect, had become "high schools" that trained state functionaries. Medieval corporations had been transformed into public institutions, whatever their label. The foundation of the ecole Normale Superieure in 1794 and the Ecole Polytechnique in the following year was as much an attempt to modernise, and regularise, as to subvert, the university tradition and is best seen perhaps as analogous rather than antagonistic to Humboldt's reform of the University of Berlin a decade and a half later.

This radical shift in the nature of the university as an institution over the three centuries covered by this volume creates difficulties for its contributors. To what extent are they entitled, or expected, to claim coherence for the development of universities - or does the "early modern" simply come between the medieval and modern periods when the coherence of university development was much clearer? Did Calvinist and Catholic universities really have much in common? Or the universities of autocratic Russia, secular from the start, and those of ancien regime Italy?

De Ridder-Symoens and her fellow contributors offer three broad answers to such questions. First, expansion. The number of universities greatly increased between 1500 and 1800 (although, significantly, only one-and-a-half universities were founded in Britain during this period - Edinburgh in 1582 and Marischall College in Aberdeen 11 years later). However, two qualifications are necessary. First, universities were very unevenly distributed across Europe. Scotland had 3.3 universities per million inhabitants and the United Provinces 2.4, but France had only 0.9 and England 0.2. Second, if the number of universities increased, that of students stagnated. The age participation index, if such a neologism is allowed, halved in England between 1575 and 1700 from 1.2 to 0.6 per cent. Oxford admitted 450 students annually before the civil war; by the middle of the 18th century this had fallen to 182. Similar, although less dramatic declines were recorded in many other countries.

The second answer they offer is differentiation - between Protestant and Catholic Europe and between universities in a strict sense and a growing number of specialist schools. This is important. It is too easy to be dazzled by the Leidens, Gottingens and Edinburghs during this period. But two-thirds of European universities were in Catholic Europe - not necessarily, of course, evidence of somnolence (especially in Jesuit foundations). Nationalisation may be as good a word as differentiation to describe what happened to universities between 1500 and 1800, because they ceased to be "European" in a medieval sense. But contributors to a history of the European university can perhaps be forgiven not failing to emphasise this aspect of their development, although Maria Rosa di Simone from the University of Trieste does acknowledge that the homogeneous culture of the medieval university was superseded by more diverse, and national, cultures after 1500.

Their third answer is professionalisation. Willem Frijhoff of Erasmus University in Rotterdam writing on graduates and their careers points out that during this period social reproduction through a process of meritocracy (based on qualifications rather than status) became more usual - although far from universal; and that the growing influence of the state led to the development of a more professionalised curriculum and the "nationalisation of study circuits". The Grand Tour of the 18th century was very different from the peregrinatio academica of the Middle Ages. However, the full impact of professionalisation was probably not felt until the 19th century. Up to 1800 the university's links to urbanisation and industrialisation remained weak.

Its connections to the great intellectual currents of early modern Europe, although stronger, were ambiguous. The case is put by two British contributors. Roy Porter, in a chapter on universities and the scientific revolution, merely asserts that "the university proved immensely durable as a prime site where the new (mechanical and mathematical) philosophy could be pursued and spread". Laurence Brockliss defends the university by pointing out that the new scientific ideas became influential because they were embedded in the consciousness of the social elite, which only happened because that elite encountered these ideas as they passed through the universities in their formative years. Both true - but both rather back-handed defences of the university.

The two other books, on Oxford in the 17th century and Cambridge between 1750 and 1870, do not significantly modify this broad picture of ambivalent achievement. Nicholas Tyacke, editor of the Oxford volume (the fourth in a history of the university) tells a story of decline and fall. The extraordinary neo-humanist achievements of Oxford before the civil war had already been undermined by the end of the century "as the ideal of the general scholar degenerated into that of the gentleman scholar and erudition came to be regarded as pedantry or worse". Two parallel movements appear to have been at work at Oxford, and elsewhere in the universities of Europe. First, as a more stable aristocratic order succeeded the turbulence of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the university's role in social integration probably declined. Other processes of social stabilisation and stratification became available. Second, the integrative scholarly culture of medieval and Renaissance Europe was undermined by the reductionist dynamics of the scientific revolution and also, confusingly, of the emergence of an increasingly commercial and professional society.

Peter Searby, author of the Cambridge volume (only the third out of four projected volumes; the Oxford history will require twice that number), tells a story of stability, although not stagnation, followed by overdue reform. It was only at the very end of the period covered by his book that Cambridge really began to respond to new social and scientific demands - and only, one suspects, because not to have done so would have been to acquiesce in a permanent loss of its old pre-eminence first to the Scottish universities (although somewhat in decline by the middle of the 19th century) and to London. In the event both Oxford and Cambridge recovered magnificently and, without abandoning all their annoying idiosyncrasies, became the leading scholarly and scientific institutions of 20th-century England.

In retrospect their recovery seemed inevitable - but less so at the time. Perhaps there is a lesson here somewhere. The present dominance of Oxford and Cambridge, which in the RAE age seems unassailable, may not be inevitably and indefinitely sustained into the 21st century. Both universities, as these two books demonstrate in relation to earlier periods, have a capacity to resist reform and modernisation, to be wrong-footed by revolutions in science and society. Both books also demonstrate this capacity in a less conscious way. Although the Oxford volume begins with a fine chapter by Stephen Porter on the university's wider place in 17th-century society, the overall impression is of inward looking. In early modern Europe, certainly after 1660, universities mattered less in England (although not Scotland) than in other European countries - a deficit that may never have been made good more than three centuries later.

Peter Scott is vice-chancellor,Kingston University.

A History of the University in Europe: Volume II Universities in Early Modern Europe (1500-1800)

Editor - Hilde de Ridder-Symoens
ISBN - 0 521 36106 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £65.00
Pages - 693

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments