The University Cultures of Early Modern Oxford and Cambridge (seminar)

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For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a fall 2008 faculty weekend seminar led by Nicholas Tyacke.

In scholarship, the case of universities is like that of religious denominations: genealogical pieties and affiliations have prevailed in institutional histories. In the last few decades, religious historians of the early modern period have wholly revised this approach, however, and reinvigorated their field of studies. With the recent completion of multi-volume histories of Oxford and Cambridge, this is an opportune moment to take a similarly fresh look at the university cultures of early modern Oxford and Cambridge. This weekend seminar, therefore, aimed to tease out some new critical approaches to the topic in two days of intensive and speculative conversation. Faculty applicants with fully developed research projects in this field were welcomed to frame their own inquiries in their applications. Others positioned their hypotheses or interests within the following critical debates, which are also surveyed in Professor Tyacke’s introduction to Seventeenth-Century Oxford. In the 1960s, for instance, historians studying sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Oxford and Cambridge were preoccupied with counting the growing numbers of students and analyzing their social composition, as part of what Lawrence Stone dubbed an “educational revolution.” A contemporary debate between Mark Curtis and Christopher Hill concerned the education on offer at English universities. For Hill, universities were essentially Aristotelian backwaters which failed to respond to the changing needs of society. Curtis responded by assigning them a vanguard role both in propagating the studia humanitatis and the training of youth. In the decades since, the focus has increasingly been on the curriculum–including the role of universities in scientific change and the contribution of puritanism–while somewhat neglecting the creation of new educated elites, lay as well as clerical, and the cultural diffusion of classical learning at the hands of graduate schoolmasters.


Director: Nicholas Tyacke is Honorary Professor of History at University College London and editor of Seventeenth-Century Oxford (The History of the University of Oxford, volume iv, 1997). His two most recent publications are Altars Restored: the Changing Face of English Religious Worship, 1547–c.1700 (2007), co-authored with Kenneth Fincham, and an edited collection The English Revolution, c.1590–1720: Politics, Religion and Communities (2007).