Caption: Misericord, New College, Oxford
Kathryn Kerby-Fulton
(University of Notre Dame)


‘Oxford in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries offered an education in abstract thought, a process of mind-sharpening rather than mind-broadening, which had little ostensible relevance to the needs of the outside world. Yet kings and popes protected it; the lay and ecclesiastical aristocracy patronized it; its graduates found employment in all spheres of English life’. Jean Dunbabin,  History of the University of Oxford, ed. Catto, I: 565

Oxford was home to a large and largely specialized literature in the Middle Ages, much of it not ‘literary’ in any recognizable sense.  According to the Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles the list of medieval literary authors with Oxford associations is fairly short: the great Latin poetic satirist, Walter Map (or Mapes) was archdeacon in 1197 of the priory of St. Frideswide (now the chapel of Christ Church, and cathedral of the diocese). Geoffrey of Monmouth, to whom Arthurian literature owes so much, likely studied at Oxford c. 1129. The multi-talented theologian and polyglot, Robert Grosseteste, eventually chancellor of the university, also wrote the long poem Le Chasteau d'Amour there. Although to the Oxford Literary Guide's perfunctory list we can and will offer more, including some long-neglected associations with women authors, it is fair to say that, unlike Florence, Oxford boasts no Dante; unlike London, it has no Chaucer. But from the earliest days, the sheer density of the clerical population in the city attracted authors who sought a serious audience. So, for instance, Gerald of Wales chose Oxford in 1187 or 1188 to publish his Topograpia hibernica (a work certainly as "literary" in its flagrant use of travel fiction as one could wish). Following Pliny's letters about readings of new works to select audiences in ancient Rome, Gerald flamboyantly staged a three-day reading: the first day he read to the poor, the second day to doctores diversarum facultatum, and on the third day to the remaining scholars, knights and burgesses. This little incident, with its conscious imitation of the classical, its acknowledgement of the importance of the non-academic community, and its social mixing of scholars and gentry is an invaluable window on the complexity of Oxford life.

Although we have a shortage of such events on record later in the Middle Ages, Oxford's ‘education in abstract thought’ did have a powerful impact on the literary; in fact, many of our most treasured Middle English literary works would have been unthinkable or unrecognizable without the intellectual influence of ‘non-literary’ Oxford.  Bacon, Grosseteste, Trevet, Ockham, Bradwardine, FitzRalph, Wyclif - to name but some of the most obvious - also left their marks on poetic culture of their period. Langland scholarship, for instance, has at one time or another invoked the name of most of these Oxford intellectuals in efforts to unravel Langland's complex thought or allegory (the latter especially in Grosseteste's case). Chaucer scholars normally think in terms of Continental influences, especially French and Italian (more rarely Spanish) on the poet's oeuvre, but influences and parallels originating closer to home, just up the road at Oxford, are also demonstrable: many of these same thinkers have been cited to explain aspects of Chaucer's thought, and some of them even appear in Chaucer's own verses (recall, for instance, the Nun's Priest's citation of Bradwardine (476)). Moreover, as J.A.W. Bennett and more recent scholars have shown, Chaucer's links to Merton College's unique expertise in astronomy are tantalizing (with or without the attribution to him of The Equatorie of the Planetis), as are his links to the career of Mertonian Ralph Strode, to whom, of course, Chaucer dedicated the Troilus.  Even the comedy of The Miller's Tale, Chaucer's most accomplished fabliau - a genre no one would expect to be freighted up with Oxford erudition - is heightened by Nicholas's inventive use of student astronomy, and by allusion to Absoloun's ‘business’ skills (I.3327), likely acquired in the schools for more pragmatic learning on the periphery of the university. Further enriching the Oxford fabric of the poem is Chaucer's colourful portrayal of ‘town and gown’ rivalries, so vivid that it provoked even a sober scholar like J. A. W. Bennett to try to trace Absoloun's pre-dawn journey through Oxford streets to the smithy. Oseney was the suburb, so to speak, of Oxford created around Oseney abbey, where Absoloun goes to disport himself with friends (perhaps to watch bull-baiting and other attractions on Bulstake Mead). The Austin canons there, who employ the luckless carpenter John of the tale, were known in real life as book-binders, and more ominously as the largest corporate landowners in Oxford, at times taxing the university's fledging hall and classroom systems with high and unbrotherly rents. Whether Chaucer knew Oxford personally is not absolutely certain, but his grasp of university town and hall interaction is remarkably sure, as is his awareness of intellectual fashions.   

Fabliaux, however, even in Chaucer's masterful hands, are not socially adventurous texts, and we have to look to other sources to understand the multi-dimensional issues of social class interaction and mobility among town and gown.  One of them is nicely epitomized in a little-noticed late fourteenth-century misericord (numbered S24, and pictured here) surviving in New College chapel. It shows a lector in action wearing a scholar's beret and gesturing with an extended index finger, a common iconographical attribute of authoritative speech. The student beneath him is holding up what may be a wax tablet for note-taking (such as is mentioned by the university- student speaker in the Harley 2253 lyric, Dum ludis floribus, writing his song ‘in tabulis’). On either side of the lector are two prominently placed men who, judging by other contemporary illustrations, must be bedels, those officials in charge of various practical functions in the university, including maintenance of classrooms, and interactions with townsfolk (e.g. monitoring false weights and measures used among trades-people dealing with the university). They carried distinctive sticks of office, accurately reproduced by our carver. Tiny heads poking into the scene between the bedels and the lector show a tonsured man with a book, and a hooded man respectively (a half - hearted attempt to show a representative of both the regular and secular clergy?). The supporter on one side shows a rather garrulous, barefoot hooded man reading a book in his lap, while the other supporter shows a much more sympathetically portrayed man literally bent over under the weight of enormous books strapped to his back: this must be, to the best of my knowledge, a rare image of a book-bearer, one of those hired to bear the books of a wealthy student. The book-bearers were one of the many peripheral groups whose physical labour made the academic work of the university possible (Cobban, 140), perhaps not literate but nevertheless enjoying certain wider university privileges.  What is intriguing about this view of Oxford is that this is a town view of the university's 'gown' sector at work, created from the perspective of a misericord carver (a job normally for layman), and making the underside of this choir bench rather a treasure of social history.

This essay will cover a range of representative topics pertinent to the literary history of Oxford: among them, the unique Z text manuscript of Piers Plowman, which new evidence links firmly to Oxford for much of its medieval life.  The poetry of Walter Map and other goliardic poets whose texts were bound (at least by the early 15th century if not before) with the Z text of Piers Plowman in Bodley 851 form a now complicated manuscript collection that was almost certainly associated with the Ramsey camera at Gloucester College, Oxford. Gloucester was the Benedictine college at Oxford run as a conglomerate of various prominent abbey houses (loosely under the headship of the abbot of Abingdon), several of which, including Ramsey's, are still extant as part of modern Worcester College.  The goliardic portion of this manuscript (if not more of it, including the Z text) was owned by John Wells (d. 1388), prior of students for Gloucester College. Wells is now most famous as an early and vehement opponent of Wyclif, but he should also figure prominently in Oxford's literary history, at the very least as the owner of a sophisticated collection of Latin poetry, including the only full extant manuscript of Map's famous De nugis curialium. The role of Oxford masters both in publicly supporting Wyclif, as did Nicholas Hereford and Phillip Repingdon in the watershed Blackfriars' Council of 1382, or opposing him, as Wells did on the same occasion, is immortalized in a Latin broadside poem with a macaronic Middle English refrain (Heu quanta desolacio), a text that names these Oxford men and others in vivid, partisan satire. It, too, has a revealing manuscript history: in one instance it survives in the academic anthology (MS Digby 98) made in part by Peter Partriche, a faculty member who was allegedly a follower of Wyclif early in his career. In another case it survives in a now fragmentary anthology, British Library Cotton Cleopatra B. II, also containing unique texts of radical Middle English poetry in a Hiberno-English dialect, perhaps a survival of the ‘Irish nation’ at Oxford (Ireland was not allowed to have its own university, and Irish students therefore came in significant numbers to Oxford).  

Other ‘nations’ at Oxford, as university sources formally refer to them, include the ‘northerners’ and ‘southerners’ (of England), the Scottish, Cornish (including Devon), and Welsh. Among the Cornish was John Trevisa, whose extensive and important oeuvre of Middle English translations is discussed elsewhere on this website (see Berkeley Castle). Among the Welsh, importantly, is Adam Usk, whose chronicle of this period records the rioting of the Welsh students at Oxford in 1389, an event in which he was involved as a ring-leader. He afterwards only narrowly escaped royal justice, and according to the entry in his chronicle for that year, thereafter imposed upon himself a firm silence in matters relating to the king (per maxillis meis frenum imponendo (Given-Wilson, 16).  Lest Usk seem too 'unliterary' to count here, it must be added that intertextual connections between Usk's chronicle and the alliterative Morte d'Arthur (likely written in the 1390s) offer a rare glimpse of specific shared political, prophetic and geographical or travel themes (Given-Wilson, lxiii).  

In fact, Oxford had an astonishing array of controversial censored academics in the later Middle Ages. Before the time the present essay covers, but noteworthy for his brilliant work in astronomy, Joachimism, Hebrew studies and other contentious fields, is Roger Bacon, who c. 1250 -57 lived in the Franciscan House at Oxford until his researches grew alarming and he was sent away to Paris, later dying back in Oxford in 1294.  As late as 1668 Pepys was able to climb the tower over the New Gate to see 'Roger Bacon's study' (Oxford Literary Guide, 268). The huge legacy of Ockham (d. 1349) represents, in Gordon Leff's words, 'the final separation of faith and natural reason', giving rise to the amorphous body of scholastic thought often called 'Ockhamism'. Ockham's thought, distinct, as Leff notes, from the 'heterodox Aristotelianism of the 1260s and 1270s' that also impacted Oxford, ran into inquisitional difficulties in 1323-4, and eventually resulted in his fleeing Avignon in 1328.  The Oxford Dominican theologian, Thomas of Waleys, was imprisoned by Pope John XXII in 1331-2 for disagreeing with his Beatific Vision doctrine, though the pope's own views were subsequently condemned by his successor. During this turbulent period issues of eschatalogical vision, beatific or otherwise, were much debated by academics, and these were formative years for the greatest Oxford Benedictine of the next generation, Uthred de Boldon, whose thought has often been linked to Langland's. Uthred's unique and generous salvation theology, which postulated an eschatological clara visio that would allow even Jews and Muslims to be saved, was condemned in 1368, largely at the instigation of the friars. In this, they were helped along by a visiting German scholar, John Klenkok (or Kleinkoch), a man with serious inquisitorial ambitions, who later wreaked havoc on heretics abroad. All these cases (and more) pre-date Wyclif, and, as various scholars have argued over many decades, have implications alongside his, direct or indirect, for literary writing in the period, including Chaucer's, Langland's, and other visionary poets (among whom was Strode, author of the now lost Phantasma Radulphi). The role the religious orders played in sending continental scholars to work at Oxford, of which John Klenkok is but one case, was crucial even during the period when the wars with France left Oxford more isolated. As Bennett notes, Strode's Consequentiae and Obligationes were set texts in Padua in the fifteenth-century, one of many links with continental universities generally, a process made easy (easier than it is for us) by the use of Latin as an international academic language. 

Extant manuscripts and library lists from colleges like Merton and Balliol show in spades that such academic controversies permeated the self-made manuscripts of late medieval academics, and works of censored writers were even commissioned for Oxford (such as John Whethamstede's lovely copy of Peter Olivi's Matthew Commentary, made for New College).  Oxford was a crossroads for intellectual work of all kinds (whether it was Czech scholars traveling there seeking Wycliffite texts, or John Wells' trip to Perugia, where he died trying to gain Adam Easton's release from papal prison - his epitaph, apparently sent back from the tomb in Perugia, is scribbled into Bodley 851, likely by some hand in the Ramsey camera at Gloucester). A bird's eye view of the brilliant range of writing, both controversial and 'ordinary' on offer in late medieval Oxford libraries can be glimpsed in the catalogue of a famous Bodleian Library exhibition: Manuscripts at Oxford: an exhibition in memory of Richard William Hunt (1908 -1979), Keeper of Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library Oxford, 1945-1975). Here one finds some of the most interesting and memorable of the manuscripts from medieval Oxford still extant in Oxford libraries, containing everything from a copy of Wyclif's theology lectures (given in the 1370s at the university) to humanist texts, Greek grammars to late fifteenth-century fragments of music for the New College choir. We know as yet far too little about vernacular texts and their associations with Oxford, but codicological work is gradually revealing more for us, as in the famous Middle English lyric, 'Sumer is icumen in', which survives with its music in a manuscript from nearby Reading Abbey. Reading, however, did not have a scriptorium, and the specialized work of copying music would therefore have been done at Oxford - a perfect instance of Oxford's likely importance in vernacular book production where we might least expect it. 

But what even the marvelous Hunt exhibition catalogue does not show is evidence of women writers' books available in the medieval city. 

In fact, women's works were not wholly absent from Oxford libraries, nor was their presence as authors there apparently even controversial: Merton had a large, very early and complete copy of Hildegard's Scivias in the Middle Ages (Merton MS 160), likely acquired, I would suggest, because of her international reputation in cosmology. Indeed, appended to the long Scivias text itself in the manuscript are a few further astronomical diagrams. Wyclif read Hildegard's works at Oxford, and they were initially rejected by him not because they were by a woman but because they were visionary texts, written 'extra fidem Scripture', as he said. He later came to regard Hildegard with admiration, having happened upon polemical Hildegardiana against the mendicants (perhaps in a then Queens College manuscript, Bodleian Library Lat. misc. c. 75). Adam Easton, later a cardinal and a great defender of Bridget of Sweden, was trained at Oxford, and used his training to write a formal scholastic defense of those who opposed her canonization (now Bodleian Library MS Hamilton 7).  A complete search of medieval Oxford libraries and still extant manuscripts would tell us even more about the permeation of women writers into the inner sanctum of academia. 

The proximity of Godstow nunnery to the university is also an under-appreciated resource for women's influence in Oxford's literary history. About 1404 the prioress of Godstow had a Latin cartulary drawn up at her own expense as a gift to the abbess, a gesture that implies at least a pragmatic value for Latin literacy in the nunnery into the early fifteenth-century. It wasn't until about 1467 that someone, calling himself a well-wisher ('welwyllere') of the nuns, translated the lengthy cartulary into English, providing one of the earliest such ventures in vernacularization, as the editor of the 1911 edition recognized (Clark, 23). What the English translator chose to translate for the nuns before beginning the cartulary is a now fragmentary set of key liturgical texts and poetry, including, interestingly, a translation of the standard sentences on excommunication emphasizing restrictions on the role of regular clergy in parish life. Evidence in the cartulary proper shows close ties between Godstow and some of the colleges: in one case the principal of college becomes the nun's chaplain, suggesting at least steady opportunities for academic conversation and pastoral advice. The nuns were clearly quite aristocratic, and a grumpy visitation record of 1432 finds fault with the excessive number of visits of Oxford scholars to the nunnery for wine and conversation, which, however, suggests to the modern scholar possibilities for intellectual as well as social adventure. The cartulary also shows the nunnery to have been an active player in commerce and money-lending in the community (in the latter activity, indeed, sadly anti-Semitic, at least in records before 1290). A cartulary may not rank as a 'literary' document, but it can connect us closely with the culture of a now vanished group of literate women. Another book that still survives from Godstow is a Psalter containing various liturgical materials, hymns and the "Fifteen Oes of St. Bridget" (a popular text that promises to its faithful user the delivery of fifteen souls of relatives out of purgatory, and substantial pardons of all sorts (Bell, 35 and 139), shedding some light on the sense of purpose of Godstow nuns. We do not know the full extent of the Godstow library, but the fact that Canon John Walton of Oseney Abbey also made a translation of Boethius's Consolation for the aristocratic Elizabeth Berkeley, and likely also, as Heather Reid has shown, of Asneth (the story of the wife of Joseph), may indicate something about the quality of reading the nuns at Godstow enjoyed, being of a similar social class to Elizabeth. 

Recent attention to the role of women on the 'periphery' of the university by historians has been most welcome: as benefactresses (most notably Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III, after whom Queen's College was founded), and at the other end of the social scale, as laundresses, prostitutes and others in the service industries (Cobban, 137ff.). But the role of women in intellectual and literary interactions in Oxford remains something of a frontier, and I hope this contribution will go some way toward addressing that, alongside the extensive, often unmined evidence of codicologists and scholars of material culture.

Works Cited

Royal Commission on Historical Monuments: An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Oxford. London: HMO, 1939. 

Manuscripts at Oxford: an exhibition in memory of Richard William Hunt (1908 -1979), Keeper of Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library Oxford, 1945-1975). Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1980.

The Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles, ed. Dorothy Eagle and Hilary Carnell. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.

Bell, David. What Nuns Read: Books and Libraries in Medieval English Nunneries. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995. 

Bennett, J. A. W.  Chaucer at Oxford and Cambridge. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974. 

Catto, J. I. , ed. The History of the University of Oxford. Vol. I, The Early Oxford Schools. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984. 

Catto, J. I.  and Ralph Evans, eds. The History of the University of Oxford. Vol. II. Late Medieval Oxford. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992. 

Cobban, Alan. English University Life in the Middle Ages. Columbus: Ohio State, 1999.

Clark, Andrew, ed.  The English Register of Godstow Nunnery, near Oxford. EETS no. 129. London: Kegan Paul, 1911

Fowler, David. The Life and Times of John Trevisa, Medieval Scholar. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995.

Given-Wilson, C., ed., The Chronicle of Adam Usk, 1377-1421. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn. Books under Suspicion: Censorship and Tolerance of Revelatory Writing in Late Medieval England. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.

Leff, Gordon. Paris and Oxford Universities in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries: An Institutional and Intellectual History. New York: Wiley and Sons, 1968.