History of Cambridge, part 2

hist_cam_bookThe best book about Cambridge University in the Tudor period is A History of the University of Cambridge. Volume II: 1546-1750, by Victor Morgan. (Cambridge University Press, 2004.) In fact, this is one of my all-time favorite history books. It costs a mere $160 at Amazon, for those who simply have to own. The rest of you may hie yourselves to your local university library, possibly to visit the interlibrary loan desk.

It’s worth the trouble, trust me. Dr. Morgan, a professor of history at the University of East Anglia, writes with clarity and wit. His scholarship is of the very highest quality (which is rather like me saying that Shakespeare turned a decent phrase or two.) I’m a linguist, not an historian, but I’ve read more books and articles in Elizabethan history now than in my former field. Linguists are rigorously trained in argumentation (high-grade bullshit detection) and those skills inform my judgment of the historical works that I read. So much for my qualifications.

Dr. Morgan’s work rings with the authority of comprehensive knowledge. He seems to have read everything, from student diaries to great dusty piles of official records. His style is clear and straightforward; his perspective refreshingly lacking in fashionable polemic. (I could swear that’s a quote from the preface by Christopher Brooke, but now I can’t find it. Perhaps a different volume?) This is a seven volume series, although my library only has I-IV. Vol 1. The university to 1546, Damian Riehl Leader; Vol. 2. 1546-1750, Victor Morgan; Vol. 3. 1750-1870, Peter Searby; Vol. 4. 1870-1990, Christopher Brooke.

Dr. Morgan has a keen eye for the situations and anecdotes that delight the novelist, although I don’t imagine that was one of his intentions. He simply has a deep understanding and sympathy for the people who made up the university — governors, faculty, students, patrons — and this lively interest shines through every page. His exploration of the actions and motivations of these people in this time and place is thorough and detailed. And the things these people did in that time and place! No novelist could get away with such antics.

The 1570’s were a particularly exciting time at Cambridge, thanks to the tensions among competing academic gangs of religious radicals. “In many respects the university became a cockpit in which were played out with a concentrated intensity the clashes between the old and the new religious ways. (p. 66).” Morgan notes that in those days, people were still half-expecting the religious tide to turn again. It had changed course three times in the past century, after all. The older professors would remember at least the reigns of Edward VI and Mary. The young ones wanted the newest intellectual trends from the Continent.

And most of the academics were young. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, wealthy persons wishing to ensure a lasting legacy endowed the universities. The rising middle class saw education as the path to advancement and sent their sons to university to obtain the rhetorical skills and foundation in humanist literature admired by all gentlepersons. The colleges were overflowing with eager, thrusting young men, many of whom were committed Protestants. Once at the university, that commitment turned to radical fervor. Academics are argumentative by nature and by training.

Morgan explains the constitution of the university from the Chancellor (Lord Burghley in this period) to the teaching masters. A later post will consider that hierarchy.  Morgan notes that in some ways the university government was a presbytery — a government of elders —  since many major decisions were made by the assembly of regent (teaching) masters. The university was thus a sort of proto-democracy, not at all a desirable state of affairs from the perspective of the Queen’s ministers. They wanted to increase the power of the heads of colleges, making them more like Lords Lieutenants, accountable upward to the vice-chancellor and chancellor. Traditionally, heads were elected from among the regent masters within a college and were thus primarily accountable to their own colleges.

The government wanted the universities to supply learned, loyal, Angliacn priests to replace the decadent remnants from earlier in the century. They wanted well-rounded humanists to staff their own offices and help build the centralized, document-heavy Tudor state. In short, they cared a lot about what was going on at Cambridge and Oxford and not only because their own sons were there. “Managing the universities became part of the portfolio of those in power, while riding post-haste to Court became second nature to academics in pursuit of their own interests in two otherwise sleepy English provincial towns.” Morgan supplies vivid portraits of ambitious college heads spending more time on horseback riding to and from London to solicit support or complain about their colleagues than in managing their own colleges.

Competitions among courtiers found their way into college conflicts. Courtiers vied with one another to provide patronage; the more generous your gifts, the more powerful you were. Collegians needed patrons to match them with comfortable livings in rich parishes, noble households, or government offices. If you wanted to be a great man’s secretary, you needed a couple of years of college and another couple at an Inn of Court. Regent masters needed influence to rise up the university ladder. A teaching master would use the connections made through his students to get the attention of the highest-ranking person he could. Low level courtiers would bolster their sense of power and worth by bringing such pleas to the attention of their masters. We call it networking and consider it a valuable social skill. It was an absolutely essential career-building skill in the sixteenth century.

We rely on influence and connections today, especially for getting in to graduate programs and even more especially for getting post-doctoral positions and tenure-track faculty positions. Letters of recommendation prove that you are who you say who are (a descriptivist, a computational theorist, a Chomskyan syntactician) as much as your publications do. They also crucially demonstrate your academic lineage. I, for example, am the grand-student of Mary Haas, the noted descriptive linguist who was my advisor’s advisor.  I’m related through my dissertation committee to the great historical linguist Terrence Kaufman. That combination tells people exactly what kind of work I did, without turning a single boring page of my dissertation. A strongly positive recommendation from my advisor tells anyone who knows anything that I also passed all the unwritten tests of behavior, political orientation, and ethics. That’s in addition to passing a bunch of very hard exams and writing a 450-page grammar of an undocumented language!

Letters from Tudor courtiers only told you that the petitioner had influential friends. Oh, and that he had good manners, probably wasn’t a religious lunatic, and could be more or less relied upon to behave correctly. Hm. That’s not all that different from my letters!


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