Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 22. Changes in the Universities, jobbery in Schools and Universities and in the Church

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 22. Changes in the Universities, jobbery in Schools and Universities and in the Church

To all appearance, in the middle of queen Elizabeth’s reign, Oxford and Cambridge were in a flourishing condition; their joint attendance of students was reckoned at 3000, and, according to modern notions, it may seem a healthy sign that, in far larger proportions than in earlier times, the sons of the nobility and gentry were resorting to these places of learning in common with a poorer class of young men or boys. As a matter of fact, however, more especially at Cambridge, which, for the better part of two generations, had taken the lead in the intellectual life of the country, learning, after having, as elsewhere, become largely absorbed in theology, was, in the latter half of the century, exposed to a new danger. The sons of the gentry, whose importance in the general social system of the country and in its government was, as has been seen, steadily rising, now frequented the universities for the purpose of acquiring what may be called “general culture” rather than theological or other professed learning. In a word, a new conception of the work of the national universities was forming itself which, in more ways than one, was to become of great importance for the future of the nation as well as for that of the universities. On the one hand, the risk was being run that deeper study and research would be elbowed out of existence by endeavours to gratify the wish for a higher education which should suit a young gentleman desirous of making his mark in some recognised public or professional capacity and which should not take up too much of his time. And this risk was materially increased by the introduction into the colleges of the universities and into the schools which were their feeders of the system of jobbery which was one of the bad features of the age: both school and college elections were packed or otherwise influenced in favour of the well-to-do against the poor, and, more especially, the best prizes of the university, fellowships, were awarded in obedience to mandates obtained by fair means or other at court, or as the result of other corrupt methods. This endeavour to appropriate the universities and their endowments for the advantage of particular sections of society had many unsatisfactory consequences—among them an increase of riotous living at college, in deference to gentlemanlike tastes. Against this was to be set the fact that a very considerable proportion of the classes whose sons now frequented the universities was tinged with such general culture as was to be found there, while many of these young men acquired something of a real love of learning—and a few something of learning itself—into the bargain. The later Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists take little or no notice of these results—the academical enthusiasm fostered by the “university wits” died out with them, and the usual playhouse type of the university student was now the feebler variety of undergraduate, whose chief occupation was to spend his father’s money. At the same time, the public interest benefited directly by the encouragement given by the queen’s government, desirous of attracting nobility and gentry into the service of the state, to the study of law at the universities, scholarships being instituted for the support of favoured students of this subject. The class of students whom these changes hit hard were the poorer youths, especially those who intended to devote themselves to the study of theology, with a view to ordination, and on the training of whom the universities, for some time previously, had concentrated their activity. Complaints are constant that, in the bestowal of livings, the same system of corruption prevailed, in favour of the dependents of nobility and gentry, or of those who had gained the goodwill of patrons by illicit means.