Oxford University Not As Old As It Pretends To Be. Still Old, Though.
Sherman Oaks, California
When I was reviewing Jan Morris' book Oxford, I noted that, in the words of the University of Oxford's web page, "teaching existed at Oxford in some form in 1096" -- wording that seemed too slippery to be entirely accurate.
The 1096 date is bogus, according to historian R.W. Southern, whose essay "From Schools to University" appeared in the multi-volume The History of Oxford University.
A man named Theobald of Etampes was the principal schoolmaster in Oxford from 1095 to 1125. But his endeavor was far more in the tradition of an elementary or high school than a college or university.
The reality, according to Prof. Southern, is that the university grew organically over the course of the twelfth century as an offshoot of the ecclesiastical courts which were located in town. Parishes in the English Midlands repeatedly sued each other over property and tithes; the lawsuits attracted lawyers, who set up shop and made extra money by tutoring law students and apprentices. Thus, the Faculty of Law is the oldest component of the university.
The 1190s were the key decade. Emo of Friesland was the first foreign student and arrived in 1190, while Nicholas of Hungary was the second and arrived in 1193. The same year, war erupted between England and France, cutting off would-be scholars from the prestigious University of Paris. The English were forced to build their own institutions for the instruction of arts and theology, and they expanded upon the existing legal teaching infrastructure in Oxford. By 1200, there were perhaps 200 to 300 students in the city, a large number by the standards of the day.
About December 1209, a student killed his local mistress, and inflamed citizens hanged two of the student's roommates in revenge. Riots ensued, and most of the teachers and students fled. (Some decided to found a new university to the east, at a safer spot where a bridge spanned the River Cam.)
The Pope sent a delegate to negotiate a truce, and the settlement of June 20, 1214, is the first formal recognition of the university. By the terms of the agreement, the local merchants agreed to price controls for student rents and meals, the payment of certain fees to finance scholarships for the poor, and to offer penance at the graves of the two hanged students. Perhaps most importantly, the Bishop of Lincoln was granted the authority to appoint a Chancellor, who had nominal control over the entire affair.
The University of Oxford was born -- but not as early as the university likes to hint it was.
Pictured: Another ambiguity. The dining hall at Merton College, Oxford, was built in 1277, making it the oldest academic building in the city, but it has been rebuilt so many times there might be little to nothing left of the original structure.