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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XIII. Scholars and Scholarship, 1600–60

§ 10. University studies

In the universities, theology was the chief subject, and, as J. Bass Mullinger says, with few exceptions, secured the attention of all those “who contended for intellectual distinction, for popularity and for the prizes of high office and social influence.” The colleges of the university, whether of medieval or of later foundation, were theological in their intention. The seven liberal arts still remained as a survival, the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy finding a centre in Gresham college, London, with gentlemen and, especially, physicians, as students. The trivium subjects of rhetoric and grammar were at least started at school, and were developed, together with logic, at the university; and the dialectical method was the acknowledged traditional and current discipline of academic training, whether in law, physic, or theology. Often, the student in law or physic took a keen interest in theology. Accordingly, theology had full sway in the universities, and, as students left the university, their knowledge of Greek and Hebrew became contributory to the great divinity stream. Venn has shown that, in 1630, one out of 3600 of the male population of England and Wales proceeded to Oxford or Cambridge as against one in 9000 to-day, and the influence of academic traditions may be judged by the fact that, in the admissions to one college (Gonville and Caius) in Cambridge, in ten years, as many as forty schools are to be found named in the country of Norfolk. Grammar schools (public and private) were particularly numerous in this period, and managed to cast a Scriptural and theological colour around ordinary instruction. Never was there in the annals of the English church a more eloquent, pious and erudite band of Anglican theologians than at this time. In fact, Selden tells us of his own time: “All confess there never was a more learned Clergy.” The university, however, in the time of the commonwealth, was held by some puritans to be a needless, and, indeed, harmful, training-ground. Milton, himself a university man, was disgusted with university methods and curricula. He saw no need for the training of ministers in disputations, to confute papists, involving the reading of Fathers and councils, “immense volumes and of vast charges.” A minister’s library could be adequately furnished for £60, though “some shame not to value a needful library at £600.” A minister can receive his education at any “private house,” instead of at the university. “Else to how little purpose,” he goes on, “are all those piles of sermons, bodies and marrows of divinity besides all other sciences, in our English tongue; many of the same books which in Latin they read in the university?” Already, the private teaching of men like Gataker, raising “schools of the prophets,” had begun, and, after the act of Uniformity, was to grow and prosper until, in the eighteenth century, it provided an education, which Milton had seen to be possible, better than the universities in their decadent state could afford.

Milton’s anti-university view, held, he suggests, by the “first reformers of our religion,” was the accepted commonplace, for the most part, of the various sectaries into which puritanism had been broken up in the commonwealth. The Calvinistic theocracy could be traced in the Word of God as revealed in the Bible, and all other knowledge was needless. The two parties of the learned supporters of patristic studies—those who felt the necessity of a scholarly background for Scripture teachings, and those who held all knowledge outside of the Word of God as “trash”—represented the whole body of the nation (with the exception of those who held that the true interpretation of the Bible was a direct inspiration from God apart from any human learning) and were united in requiring verbal knowledge of the Bible text, even if they looked for elucidation and commentary on the doctrines derived from it.