The Browne Review and the coalition’s policies have left universities on the defensive about what they do and why. A new CEMS series on ‘The Universities in Historical Context’ aims to set these debates in perspective. It was launched on 3 November by Laurence Brockliss, a leading historian of education who is working on the ninth and final volume of the History of the University of Oxford, encouragingly subtitled The First 800 Years. In a paper that ranged skilfully and illuminatingly between past and present, Professor Brockliss drew a distinction between the traditional rationales for universities on the Continent, where the predominant model is vocational, and the emphasis in the Anglophone world either on a moral justification for higher education or on skills transferrable between many different occupation. This difference could be traced back to the early modern period, when the English universities, failed to conform to either the northern, Protestant or southern, Catholic patterns. Where elsewhere the arts course formed a relatively brief gateway to the higher faculties of law, medicine, and theology, in Oxford and Cambridge the proportions were reversed. Lest we take too much pride in a long tradition of liberal education, Professor Brockliss pointed out that the length of the arts course to a large extent reflected the deficiencies of English schools in bringing students to the necessary level. The lack of a vocational emphasis reflected not a higher moral purpose but the fact that entry to the church and the legal and medical professions did not depend on academic qualifications. The other major difference from the Continent was the collegiate structure, which through the early equivalents of the tutorial system had the necessary flexibility to bridge the gap between school and university. When the traditional system came under attack in the nineteenth century, rationales like Newman’s The Idea of a University gave a new moral or theological dignity to what had originally been more pragmatic arrangements, and the newer universities tended to absorb that ethos. There was a lively and informed discussion of the fortunes of the idea of the university today, with a series of reforms on the Continent to some degree producing a convergence with the Anglophone model even as the British government moves towards a far more utilitarian model. The series will continue on November 24 with a paper by Howard Hotson on ‘Markets, choice, efficiency and educational revolution in early modern German and neoliberal English universities: a strange instance of policy “impact” for early modern research?’


Professor Anthony Grafton delivered an enthralling plenary lecture to a memorable conference on ‘Historians and the Sacred: Late Medieval to Early Enlightenment’, organized by Felicity Heal and Paulina Kewes for the Centre for Early Modern Studies and the Centre for Early Modern British and Irish History (Jesus College, 19 June). Ecclesiastical history, he argued, was a distinctively innovative genre, bringing in new techniques of documentary research and also opening up the study of comparative religion, with deepening research into Hebrew studies and later into the religions of East Asia. The other papers were appropriately wide-ranging. Felicity Heal and George Southcombe discussed the languages of religious polemic in England, Diarmaid MacCulloch exposed a much-used source for ecclesiastical historians as a forgery, and Lori Anne Ferrell examined the role of the Parker Society editions in forming views of the English past. Peter McCullough demonstrated the breadth of Lancelot Andrewes’ scholarship including his Hebrew learning which, he concluded, prepared the way for Selden’s. Ian Maclean discussed the  role of church history in the European book trade. Nicholas Davidson explored reasons for the absence of ‘the sacred’ in Paolo Sarpi’s church history, while Irena Backus opened up the neglected area of Leibniz’s extensive writings on church history (her paper is available here). Discussing Alessandro Valignano, a leader of the Jesuit mission in Japan, M.Antoni J.Ucerler was struck by common concerns on the writing of church history with many of the other writers discussed in the conference. Such connections were a striking feature of a lively and productive conference. Originally planned to inaugurate Professor Grafton’s visit this term, in which he has been so generous in creating dialogue with Oxford scholars and graduate students, the postponed conference now formed a prelude to the swiftly-ensuing conferences on John Selden and on ‘Reading Hebrew and Jewish Texts in Early Modern Europe’.

John Selden, 24-26 June

June 10, 2010

There are still some places remaining for John Selden (1584-1654):

Scholarship in Context, 24th-26th June, 2010, Magdalen College, Oxford.

For details see

Gavin Alexander (University of Cambridge) introduced William Scott’s ‘The Model of Poesy’, an exciting recent discovery not just for its references to Shakespeare but as a systematic treatise developing Sidney’s arguments and bringing them to bear on a range of contemporary writers. His forthcoming edition is keenly awaited.

Peter McCullough’s ‘Text and Context: John Donne’s Sermon for the Funerals of Sir William Cokayne’ exemplified some of the priorities of the new Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne, of which he is General Editor.  Using the exceptionally well-documented events of the former lord mayor’s life and death – including Middleton’s pageants and entertainments , the Cokayne family papers (Northamptonshire Record Office) and the survival in the British Library of the herald’s processional for the funeral (naming all those present at the sermon) – McCullough’s paper reconstructed in great detail both the occasion, place, and auditory for which Donne wrote.  Long recognised as one of Donne’s literary best, the additional contextual evidence when combined with a rigorously close formal analysis of the text, revealed the sermon as an even more sophisticated masterpiece of occasional rhetoric.  The full version of the essay will appear in The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon (ed. McCullough, Adlington and Rhatigan, OUP 2011).

Is there a Shakespeare play waiting for readmission to the canon? The question has been revived in the media by the Arden Shakespeare edition of The Double Falsehood, the play Lewis Theobald published as adapted fron Shakespeare in 1728, and believed by some to be derived from Shakespeare’s lost Cardenio. In a stimulating session, Tiffany Stern, who will be contributing to a forthcoming book on the Cardenio question, pointed out that while scholars have been quick to look for analogues between The Double Falsehood and Shakespeare’s works, they have been markedly less willing to investigate parallels between the plays and other writings by Theobald – which, as she showed, throws the case for Shakespearean residue in the play into a new light. Bernard Richards discussed The Double Falsehood in the light of his own experience of adapting the play for performance. While both speakers agreed that the questions surrounding the play do not admit of a definitive answer, the controversy has raised fascinating issues. The Double Falsehood has challenged many critics, including Richards, Stephen Greenblatt and Gary Taylor, into dramatic composition, at times into emulation of Shakespeare’s style; if they could do it, why not Theobalds? but then, how unique is the Bard?

Good news  – the postponed conference will go ahead on 19 June at Jesus College.

Professor Jeroen Duindam (University of Groningen), author of Myths of Power: Norbert Elias and the Early Modern European Court (1994) and Vienna and Versailles. The Courts of Europe’s Dynastic Rivals 1550-1780 (2003), lectured on ‘Dynastic centres in early modern Europe and Asia: an attempt at comparison’ on 29 April. Professor Duindam argued that a focus on the household offered fruitful possibilities for cross-cultural comparisons that would avoid narratives of Western exceptionalism. Ranging across French, Austrian, Ottoman, Moghul and Chinese courts, he analyzed comparable patterns in understandings of the ruler’s role, problems of succession, the administrative role of the court, relations with urban centres, and other areas in which rulers faced common problems; illustrations strikingly brought out these commonalities. A very fruitful discussion explored the situation of religion and the differing models of aristocracy and bureaucracy, and the extent to which the role of the state as opposed to the monarchy in China might have offered a different kind of common ground with European developments now classed as modern.

Owing to volcanic activity in Iceland, several of our main speakers are unable to be in Oxford on 24 April and it has regrettably been necessary to postpone the ‘Historians and the Sacred’  conference: those who have registered or expressed interest will receive further information and any news of rescheduling will be posted on this blog and the CEMS website.

‘Pox on your flameship, Vulcan(Ben Jonson, ‘An Execration upon Vulcan’)