Connection between Oxford and Paris ~ Card. Newman

Today most universities, especially in large cities, have foreign students and teachers, but the extent to which this happened in the Medieval Universities was remarkable given the mode of travel and economic circumstances of that period of history. Newman recounts how the desire and commitment to learning was the impetus for this exchange of students and teachers, verified in the case of the Universities of Oxford and Paris.

Newman praised the achievement of the medieval university in the field of knowledge: “The revival of letters by the energy of Christian ecclesiastics and laymen, when everything had to be done, reminds us of the birth of Christianity itself, as far as a work of man can resemble a work of God.”

He compared the birth of medieval universities with the earlier expansion of Christianity: the spread of Christianity from city to city, endurance of hardships by the Apostles; and use of the natural desire for happiness. As kings and nobles advanced the Christian faith they too became patrons of education. Newman writes: “we may enumerate with honour Charlemagne, Alfred, Henry the First of England, Joan of Navarre, and many others, as patrons of the schools of learning, without being obliged to allow that those schools could not have progressed without such countenance.”

However, at first the schools had to create interest; it was the “supply” of learning that brought students. Newman cites the example of Bec, a small monastery in Normandy. There Lanfranc, later Archbishop of Canterbury opened a school of logic to attract students who might support the needy monastery. Soon wealthy and poor, laymen and clerics flocked to Bec. A century later another Abbot from Bec whose name was Vacarius (Bacalareus) became renowned for his study of law.

Vacarius was from Bologna where a university had begun shortly after the monastery at Bec. Newman writes how Bologna “affords us an observable instance, first, of the self-originating, independent character of the scientific movement,—then, of the influence and attraction it exerted on the people,—and lastly, of the incidental difficulties through which it slowly advanced in the course of many years to its completion.”

At the end of the eleventh century it had a school of civil law. The following century it had one of canon law and in the thirteenth one of grammar and literature, followed some years later by one of theology and another of medicine. That same century it had ten thousands students, some coming across the sea from England.

Whereas some Englishmen came to Italy, Vacarius traveled to England, and in fact became Archbishop of Canterbury before later retiring to Bec. At Oxford Vacarius gave impulse to the study of law, and at about the same time Robert Pullus or Pulleyne went to Oxford where he gave a similar impulse to biblical learning. Newman describes his fame: “”Multitudes” are said to have come to hear him, and his fame spread to Rome, whither Pope Innocent the Second sent for him. Celestine the Second made him a Cardinal, and Lucius the Second his Chancellor. He was an intimate friend of St. Bernard’s, and his influence extended to Cambridge as well as to Paris.” In Cambridge a similar intellectual movement was taking place, prompted by Jeoffred, or Goisfred, Abbot of Croyland, who sent four French monks to teach in Cambridge. One monk taught sacred verse and the others philosophy. They were so knowledgeable that the barn in which they begun to teach became insufficient for the students. Newman notes that Scripture verse was taught; only in the 13th century would Theology, properly speaking, would be taught by the Dominican friars.

The teachers came from afar and did not depend so much on kings but on the enthusiasm they created with their classes. With regards to learning at Paris, Newman quotes the Church historian Fleury: “The reputation of the school of Paris (…) increased considerably at the commencement of the twelfth century under William of Champeaux and his disciples at St. Victor’s. At the same time Peter Abelard came thither and taught them with great éclat the humanities and the Aristotelic philosophy. Alberic of Rheims taught there also; and Peter Lombard, Hildebert, Robert Pullus, the Abbot Rupert, and Hugh of St. Victor; Albertus Magnus also, and the Angelic Doctor.” Something similar had happened three centuries earlier when Charlemagne brought men from Italy, England and Ireland to France. Newman commented on the daring quality of the Medieval Scholars and Masters who traveled far and wide across dangerous waters for the sake of learning and teaching. He offers the example of John of Salisbury who spent twelve years in various lands learning from other scholars, supporting himself by teaching the children of nobles.

The center of learning and talent, however, was in Paris and Oxford. Antony Wood, a 17th century Oxford historian, gives a list of thirty-two Oxford professors who taught for some time in Paris. Among these “were Alexander Hales, and the admirable St. Edmund, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury.” There was an intimate connection between these two centers of learning. Bulaeus gives a list of important Englishmen who traveled to Paris to study: “St. Thomas of Canterbury, St. Richard, St. Gilbert of Sempringham, Giraldus Cambrensis, Gilbert the Universal, Haimo, Richard de Barry, Nicholas Breakspeare, afterwards Pope, Nekam, Morley, and Galfredus de Vinsalfe.” This continued until the time of Edward the Third and the wars with France.

Newman wrote that he could not tell the number of students at Paris in the 13th century, but records the following numbers for Oxford which he thought must have been similar to those for Paris: “We are told that there were in Oxford in 1209 three thousand members of the University, in 1231 thirty thousand, in 1263 fifteen thousand, in 1350 between three and four thousand, and in 1360 six thousand.” He understandably attributes the great change in numbers to wars that brought an end to “free intercourse of France and England” and was the beginning of a decline in the “ecumenical greatness of Universities.” He explains that they became national bodies with some advantages such as more order and comfort but lost the original international character they had (at least at the time when he wrote).

For those of us not familiar with this very close exchange between England and France the story of the intimate connection between Oxford and Paris is an inspiring story of Christian Medieval scholarship and teaching.