Mythical university origins

There are plenty of myths about universities. Paul Greatrix captures some contemporary myths in this blog. But these are small beer compared to the semi-official myths that our oldest universities cultivated about their own origins.

The advantages to claims of longevity come from both pride and the status conferred by seniority. Many universities today trace their origins back to organisations that were founded long before they were recognised as universities. In some cases there is an established linkage; classes in a mechanics institute became the basis of a technical college which one day became a university. That’s not proper myth making. For that you need the audacity of our oldest universities, during the age of proper myth making.

The period that saw the development of these myths was perfectly happy with the notion that England was part of a sceptred isle, a precious stone set in the silver sea. Divinely appointed monarchs were descended from king David, the country was founded by noble stock, the Church the true inheritors of Christianity. The king’s universities, the bastion of the Church and educator of the latest noble stock, sprung from the same heroic background. These were extraordinary times, the monarchy, church and country were all under extraordinary pressure, and appeals to ancient heroes excusable, if unlikely to be true.

There was already a well established myth about king Alfred and the University of Oxford. University College happily acknowledged the king as its founder, helping to advance its claim to be the oldest college. The claims had been made in print, but William Camden’s 1603 edition of Asser’s Life of king Alfred included a new paragraph.

In the year of our Lord 886, the second year of the arrival of St Grimbald in England, the University of Oxford was begun … John, monk of the church of St David, giving lectures in logic, music and arithmetic; and John, the monk, colleague of St Grimbald, a man of great parts and a universal scholar, teaching geometry and astronomy before the most glorious and invincible King Alfred.

The story of king Alfred was plausible, involving St Grimbald, an adviser to the king and abbot of the new minster in Winchester. Unfortunately it had not appeared in any of the earlier transcripts of the oldest surviving manuscript. Neither had this from a later edition, revising the story further:

In the same year there arose a foul and deadly discord at Oxford, between Grimbald, with those learned men whom he had brought with him, and the old scholars whom he had found there, who, on his arrival, refused altogether to embrace the laws, modes, and forms of praelection instituted by the same Grimbald.. The substance of the dispute was this: the old scholars contended, that literature had flourished at Oxford before the coming of Grimbald, … They also proved and showed, by the undoubted testimony of ancient annals, that the orders and institutions of that place had been sanctioned by certain pious and learned men, as for instance by Saint Gildas, Melkinus, Nennius, Kentigern, and others, who had all grown old there in literature, and happily administered everything there in peace and concord; and also, that Saint Germanus had come to Oxford, and stopped there half a year, at the time when he went through Britain to preach against the Pelagian heresy; he wonderfully approved of the customs and institutions above-mentioned.

St Grimbald has lost his role as founder, now he is reformer. In this version there were already scholars in Oxford, and they were part of a tradition going back to St Germanus. Germanus had been a bishop who visited Britain after the retreat of the Roman legions in the 420s. Why would Oxford need to claim that a passing bishop found Oxford university in operation in the fifth century?

Here is the opening part of a history of the University of Cambridge from Edmund Carter from 1753:

I shall now proceed to give my readers an account of that famous UNIVERSITY, which is equalled by none in Europe, except it be by her Sister Oxford; and, even of her, she has the seniority by 265 years
Her first original is said to be about AD 536, when one Cantabers a Spaniard, was a governor under Arthur, king of the South Britains…
he procured Philosophers from Athens (where in his youth he had been a student) and placed them therin, by whose great care and dilgence, it was shortly after much noted for learned men

Carter proceeds to explain that he is ‘warrented by the authority of pure history’ to assert the priority of Cambridge over all foreign universities. As further evidence, he cites that Paris was founded in the reign of Charlemagne (it wasn’t) by disciples of Bede, and he has a letter from Alcuinus that says that Bede got his doctors degree from Cambridge in 692.

Even universities that no longer existed got in on this. Geoffrey of Monmouth was a source for many of the myths, and he mentions a king Bladud (the father of Lear). Embellished much later, in its final version Bladud returns from study in Athens, with four philosophers, and founds a university at Stamford, which flourished until it was suppressed by Saint Augustine of Canterbury.

So, time to set the matter beyond all doubt. In 1772 John Peshall publishes a History of the University of Oxford, focused on the period ‘to the death of William the Conquerer’, Peshall, who mentions the Bladud and Stamford story, provides this story of the first founding of Oxford.

Circ AM 2855, and 1180 before Christ, Gerion and 12 more learned Greeks accompanied the Conqueror Brutus, into this isle; – others, soon after, delighted with a relation of the country came and seated themselves with them, at a place, the most agreeable and convenient, at that time, for study, called in their native or mother tongue, Greeklade, &c – a word made upon the occasion.

Further details follow, including that the scholars wore a form of toga and a hat that developed into the mortar board.

Before the Roman Time this had been called the Literata, the learned city.  The most celebrated Athens, Inclytum Oxonium – the Theatre and Emporium of all Sciences, – the Seat of Muses, – the Fountain of Learning; with other such like honourable terms.  But in the Roman Times … this city was miserably burnt, and the university sunk and perished with it.

In this way, Oxford trumps Cambridge. You may say that you were founded in the time of king Arthur, we were founded by Trojans. We’re so old, the Romans burnt us down.

Although it’s hard to countenance these stories now, it would be have been harder for the universities to absent themselves from the national shared consciousness at the time, a time of profound crisis. Although these stories lost their credibility quickly, they reinforce our tendency to make our universities seem as old as possible. So, in Nottingham, if only we could find a plausible link to an heroic mythical figure…

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