The History of the University of Oxford - Vol. 5

The History of the University of Oxford - Vol. 5

The History of the University of Oxford - Vol. 5

The History of the University of Oxford - Vol. 5

Excerpt

By long and hallowed tradition the description of Oxford University in the eighteenth century that has carried the greatest credibility has been that given by Edward Gibbon in his autobiography. An impressionistic account of dissipated undergraduates failing to be taught or examined by college fellows sunk in port and prejudice has hardened into historical fact. The eighteenth-century university would appear as a sluggish stream meandering between overgrown meadows, contrasting sharply with the torrents of intellectual activity that came before and would follow after.

Gibbon can no longer be allowed to dominate the field. He came up to Oxford young, and was perhaps young for his age. As a result of these considerations he was, according to his contemporaries, a rather solitary undergraduate, with few friends or close associates. He was taken up by some gentlemen-commoners, slightly older than himself, who led him to the reading of Bossuet and to that conversion to Roman Catholicism which later so gravely embarrassed the historian of the Roman empire. When indifferent health is also taken into account, it is not surprising that Gibbon should have looked back on his Oxford days with undisguised hostility. No one is perhaps neutral in his observations on Oxford, but Gibbon was undoubtedly partial in his testimony.

If, however, the historian looks hard for Gibbon's Oxford, it can be found. No one would claim, though some did, that eighteenth-century Oxford could rival Leiden or Göttingen, Edinburgh or Glasgow as a centre of intellectual dynamism. As Oxford has always been worth a paragraph in London newspapers, so its critics can be found at all times and at all levels of society. Jane Austen, for example, early in Sense and Sensibility records a young man as boasting that

as there was no necessity for my having any profession at all, as I might be as dashing and expensive without a red coat on my back as with one, idleness was pronounced on the whole to be the most advantageous and honourable . . .

Author Advanced search

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.