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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XIX. English Universities, Schools and Scholarship in the Sixteenth Century

§ 3. Civil law at the universities

The place of civil law in the English universities needs brief mention. Sir Thomas Smith claimed it as a branch of humanism. In Elyot’s vein, he will have it broadly based upon philosophy, ethics and history. This, the doctrine of Cujas and Alciati, he had imbibed at Padua and Bologna. For a short time, he succeeded in winning minds of distinction to study in this spirit a jurisprudence from which, in respect of precision and authority, English lawyers might learn much. But the uncertain professional demand for civilians, the academic temper of the Cambridge school, the suspicion attaching to the subject as Italian and, therefore, inevitably, papal, the growing sense of nationality and the unassailable place of English law which accompanied it, rendered Smith’s hopes ultimately fruitless. Yet there was felt in high places some need for civil lawyers to advise upon international usages, to draft treaties and conduct diplomatic correspondence. In 1549, visitors were instructed to set apart, at both universities, colleges for the exclusive study of civil law, but the proposal had no countenance. Fellowships, specifically allotted to this subject, as at All Souls, were, in very many cases, held by theologians.

Oxford possessed, in Albericus Gentilis (1552–1608), a civilian of Perugia, elected regius professor of civil law in 1587, the most learned lawyer of the Elizabethan time. In his hands grew up a system of international law to serve the needs of a world in which church and empire alike had ceased to be the dominant powers. His chief works were De Legationibus (1584), in which he defined the basis and limits of diplomatic privilege, and De Jure Belli (1588–98). This standing monument of Oxford civil studies exhibits a masterly examination of international historical precedents of the sixteenth century, utilised to reconcile the Bible, the protestant doctrine of natural law and the essential principles of the imperial code. Grotius, a century later, was deeply indebted to Gentilis, from whom, indeed, international law, as a systematic body of doctrine, is, ultimately, derived. Gentilis, a man of wide interests and of great learning, exercised profound influence in the university and was highly regarded at court. His method of teaching differed from that of Smith and his successor Haddon, in that he concentrated attention upon the development of civil law in its direct application to modern use, with entire indifference to it as a branch of humanist study; for so to regard law could, in the England of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, only end in its relegation to “polite learning.” The supremacy of English law was, indeed, already secured. The activity of the Inns of Court and the genius of Coke did but serve to enforce the inevitable trend of things. Trinity Hall, however (especially under its master, Cowell, 1598), All Souls and Broadgates were, more or less, frequented by civilians. But, to Stuart parliamentarians, Roman law was identified with absolutism and high prelacy.

The lines of classical study were, nominally, determined by requirements for degrees. But the colleges were already dominant in teaching and in administration. The more strenuous exacted entrance tests. Rhetoric, in the wider humanist sense, philosophy, ethical and “natural,” and logic were the accepted subjects for the degree. Oxford logic was strictly Aristotelian. Elsewhere, as at Cambridge and St. Andrews, it began to be taught on lines which Ramus elaborated from Agricola, and this, in turn, developed into the logic of Port Royal. Greek, as a university study, steadily declined from the standard set up by Cheke. None of his successors could arouse the old enthusiasm. Whitgift, the strongest force in the university, knew no Greek. Under Mary, it was reputed to have disappeared from Oxford. Sir Thomas Pope’s lament concerns this. Leicester, as chancellor, complained, in 1582, that the Oxford professor “read seldom or never.” Indeed, it may be affirmed that no work in classical scholarship was produced at Oxford or Cambridge during the period under review which is remotely worthy of comparison with that turned out by Scaliger, Estienne, Nizolius, Casaubon, Turnebus, or a hundred industrious, but now half forgotten, scholars in French and German lands. Nor can English learning show a scholar, unless it were Henry Savile, to rank with George Buchanan. In Greek, not one of the translators, Savile excepted, but works through a French version, like North. There was, on the other hand, a large output of Latin plays—evidence, no doubt, of careful study in school and university of classical or neo-Latin models. Trinity statutes (1540) prescribed performances of Greek and Latin plays by fellows and masters. Acting was the accepted mode of training youth in speaking Latin and in grace of gesture, wherever humanists controlled education. Shrewsbury, in this matter, held the pre-eminence amongst English schools; but at none of any pretension was the practice neglected, though in West-minister alone has the tradition retained its vitality to our own day.