In the twelfth century, on the verge of the origin of this institution, it was unlikely that Oxford would become Oxford. It was unlikely, that is, that this medium-sized town in the British midlands would become the site of the institution that is Oxford University. As the renowned medieval historian R.W. Southern points out in his essay in The History of the University of Oxford, the continental schools had a head start, established reputations and more prestigious scholars. Moreover, if there were to be a great university in England, it seemed that cathedral cities, such as London or Winchester, had a natural advantage in attracting leading minds. Finally, in the twelfth century, on the verge of the founding of the great universities, Oxford could not boast of a large academic presence. Although there is evidence of scholars and students in Oxford, Northampton, just 40 miles away, seems to have had more robust academic activity.
Oxford, nevertheless, had a central location and was a key crossing point of the river Thames. Perhaps because of this location, it became--at the end of the twelfth century--a center for ecclesiastical courts and, as such, for leading jurists and consequently for those who wished to pursue a career in law. Oxford also had several prominent monasteries and parish churches, and was a center for clergy. The war between the kings of England and France from 1193-1204, moreover, made travel to the Continent difficult, so more talented scholars and students were looking for a place to study and teach in England at the dawn of the 13th century.
Evidence of the numbers of teachers and students at Oxford and other towns is not available to us, but it seems that, because of these factors, Oxford gradually grew as a center for study at the end of the twelfth and beginning of the 13th centuries. A crisis was precipitated in 1209 when a student killed a woman, presumably his mistress, and fled. The mayor and townspeople searched for the killer, found two other students (who denied knowledge of the killing), seized them and hanged them. This tragic event led to a dispute about jurisdiction in the case of students, which in turn led to scholars and students departing from Oxford, some to found that other place on the river Cam (which will go unnamed). Eventually the resolution of that dispute through the intervention of a papal legate led to the return of the scholars and the first steps toward the creation of a corporate structure for the institution in distinction from the city, Church and crown.
It was, then, a conspiracy of a number of independent, contingent factors that led to the establishment of the university in this place. For this reason, then, as Professor Southern puts it, Oxford University “was not created; it emerged."
So we could imagine an alternative history in which another city might have become the site of the first great university in Britain. Once established, however, Oxford University has endured for eight centuries. What, we might ask, was established in the 13th century? What contributed to its staying power after such a precarious start?
Several factors seem key. First, of course, is that a sufficient collection of superior scholars and students were gathered in this place. Initially, Oxford’s most distinguished scholars and practitioners were lawyers, but theologians and scholars of the arts soon followed. The best scholars, in turn, attracted the most talented and ambitious students.
Second, is the creation of some rudimentary self-governing structure. The crisis of 1209 led to the first steps toward such a structure, but that would be developed and strengthened over time. Because the evidence for the existence of an identifiable self-governing structure is somewhat nebulous and it seems to have taken shape only gradually over time, the date when we declare Oxford University to have been established is somewhat unclear. Still, the existence of some identifiable self-governing structure is the critical factor.
A third element, I contend, is also essential: it is the establishing of practices of common inquiry at the highest level that serve both to advance knowledge and understanding and to train the minds of students through participation in such inquiry. From its earliest days, Oxford followed continental schools in establishing a course of studies that would enable a student with the talent and persistence to complete it to participate in the common inquiry of the university community. In the Arts and Theology faculties—the largest and most prestigious faculties of the time—that common inquiry was conducted through the disputed question. In this academic exercise, the master (i.e., a faculty member) would pose a question. More advanced students would formulate objections to problems arising from the position the master was to adopt. The master would then respond to the questions with the appropriate distinctions and clarifications, drawing from authoritative works. He would then respond to the objections posed and resolve any problems.
The course of studies at Oxford and the other medieval universities was intended to prepare a student to become a full participant in such communal inquiry. He—of course, the students were all men at this time—would begin with three or four years of sitting in required lectures on key texts from the tradition. Having completed that sequence and having become a bachelor, he could take a role in disputed questions. The attainment of the degree of master required that he satisfactorily conducted a disputed question himself. Completing such a “determination,” as it was called, was a matter of great prestige and it would admit the student to the faculty of the university.
"For essential to the creation of a university is the establishment of practices of communal engagement with questions at the highest level that served both to advance knowledge and to train students in such inquiry."
The Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, with its series of questions, objections, “respondeo” and replies to objections reflects this form of inquiry. Although it is not a record of actual public disputations, it is clearly derived from the practice of public disputations and reflects this form of inquiry. The same is true of the works of Duns Scotus, William of Ockham and other great medieval masters. The point I wish to emphasize here is that, even when these great thinkers wrote their own works, the form of writing expressed the communal nature of inquiry that characterized the medieval university. The communal exercise was undertaken primarily to broaden knowledge and deepen understanding, but it served at the same time to train students in conducting such inquiry themselves.
To sum up, three components were critical in the emergence of Oxford as a great university: 1) a concentration of superior scholars and students who, in reality and reputation, were preeminent; 2) the establishment of offices and structures for the self-governance of the institution as distinct from the city, Church and crown; and 3) the development of accepted practices of common inquiry at the highest level that served at the same time to extend knowledge and deepen understanding and train students in such inquiry.
The necessity of the first two of these is obvious. You do not have a university unless you have scholars and students and have some offices and governing structures to guide the teaching and learning. Oxford and other universities are thought to have come into existence as such when there is some recognizable self-governing structure. It is important to see, however, that these are not enough. There were at the time schools in many cities with scholars who individually instructed students in Latin literacy and numeracy. We could imagine them coming together to form some sort of a corporate body that set standards for teaching and evaluation of learning. You would then have some sort of association, but you would not thereby have a university. For essential to the creation of a university is the establishment of practices of communal engagement with questions at the highest level that served both to advance knowledge and to train students in such inquiry. Universities arose and flourished in the medieval world not simply because scholars and students gathered in a place and structures of corporate governance took shape, but because such communal practices of inquiry arose and students were trained in these practices.
Over time, of course, these practices of inquiry evolved and were adapted. A great intellectual revolution occurred with the advent of the empirical sciences. For these sciences, inquiry was not a matter of citing authoritative texts and dialectical give-and-take of a disputed question. It was rather a process of observation and induction, the formation of hypotheses and the development of theories with explanatory power, and the testing of such hypotheses and theories through experiments. This was a different method, but it was a form of inquiry that had a communal character. Similarly, for the various social sciences, each developed a method within their own area of study.
The forms of inquiry and delineations of disciplines changed over time. Whatever they were, however, these factors remained present: a community of scholars and students, structures of corporate governance and the establishment of communal practices of inquiry. We have universities when these three components are present.
A further point is relevant not only to the emergence but to the continued existence of these institutions: once these three factors were in place, they became a magnet that attracted other scholars and students of superior ability to the institution. Because of the communal character of inquiry and training, anyone with talent and ambition wanted to be part of the community where the best inquiry and training went on. Anyone with even a passing familiarity of universities knows that they are built on the talent of scholars and students, and the quality and reputation of this group matters tremendously. Once a community with such practices is established, there is a magnetic pull to others of talent, and a virtuous circle is created—a talented community of scholars attracts more talented scholars. A great British university might have arisen in a town other than Oxford, but, once established in this city, the institution pulled in superior scholars and it became an even stronger center of learning. It then became difficult for competitors to emerge.