Oxford, England – A University and a City, An Introduction

There are some things so famous that practically anyone you meet would have heard of it, Oxford is one of those things. We hear that someone studied in Oxford and we immediately view that person as one of the most intelligent and brilliant people of their generation, a leader of the future.

Radcliffe Camera, University of Oxford

Oxford a special place where geniuses are groomed, Oxford…. ahhhh….

Just that no one really knows about the city of Oxford do they?

Oxford the city is essentially a university town, not unlike Lund and Uppsala, just that the university part is a lot more emphasized because of the global preeminence of Oxford University. And why not? Oxford the University is frankly a gateway to worlds, not just our world but the world of Narnia and Mordor, because it was here that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien worked and wrote their books. Oxford also calls literary giants such as Oscar Wilde, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, Lewis Carroll, Joseph Heller, TS Eliot, WH Auden among a larger pantheon of literary geniuses. You could limit your reading to works written by Oxford alumni and you would still have too many classics to read over a lifetime. This barely scratches the surface of the vital findings that have been done in this institution that have advanced the human condition.

While the university is the one of the oldest in the English-speaking world (with a foundation year that can be traced back to the late 1000s), the early history of Oxford was completely different. Oxford was founded by the Anglo-Saxons earlier (900s) and was named such (at the Ford of the Oxen) due to its location north of the River Thames – a ford is a water body that can be crossed or waded through easily and the Anglo-Saxons used Oxen in their agriculture living.

It didn’t take too long, for the location to take on more significance as it was located on the frontiers and borders of the two Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex. However it wasn’t just about war between the two kingdoms (though they did fight) as it was an site for the invading Danish Vikings to raid.

Then came a second stage of destruction during the Norman Invasion of England, where Oxford was badly destroyed.

After the Normans successful conquest, the city was handed over to a nobleman and a castle was built to dominate the local populace.

But it was also from this time on that things changed for the city of Oxford. The Norman Invasion of England concluded in 1066, and the castle came up relatively fast. But Norman control was so strong, that Oxford was relatively free of wars. Instead of soldiers, the nobleman set up a small monastery on the site of the castle, within 30 years the first record of a teaching taking place in the city was recorded by the monks. Knowledge and education in the Western World comes from a religious tradition of philosophy and debate, that is why the earliest universities all emerged from monasteries.

Clear evidence of a university began in the 11th century, although the oldest still living college is St Edmund’s Hall (1255). The earliest institutions were halls or Aulas, in which lectures and speeches were given, this model however gave way to the collegiate one with the establishment of the first colleges in the university University (1249), Balliol (1263) and Merton (1264). These colleges were important and supported by the church because they were seen as vital to reconciling the Greek philosophy and Christian theology work that was successfully accomplished by religious priests/professors such as Thomas Aquinas. It’s academic reputation has continued to grow and grow reaching this global prominence because of the global spread of the British Empire.

The old traditions and buildings have remained to give Oxford an idyllic look and feel with its medieval buildings and beautiful spires – barely a modern/skyscraper in sight. A feeling captured brilliant by Matthew Arnold in his poem Thyris:

“And that sweet City with her dreaming spires, She needs not June for beauty’s heightening, Lovely all times she lies, lovely to-night!”

The town and university have had a rather testy relationship with each other, and residents and students (also known as town and gown) have at times come to blows. Something that goes way back in history, one of the most notorious being the St Scholastica Day Riot where around 93 people died because of a confrontation of two drunk students with the tavern owner about lousy beer. It was in fact this town versus gown problem that lead to another fact of history – the establishment of the University of Cambridge. Two Oxford scholars were hung by town authorities for the death of a woman without consulting the religious authorities (and probably without really due process). The university shut down in protest and may dissenting scholars moved to Cambridge, Reading and Paris where the tensions between town and gown were not as strong to carry on their work. After the university was reestablished, enough scholars remained in Cambridge to form the core of a new university.

The relationship between town and gown has improved considerably.

Oxford continues to be a magnet to the world, the city and its beauty hidden in the background. Join me over the next few posts as I explore this university town and try to do both the city and university justice.

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