When Did Cambridge Become a Studium generale?

Chapter 9
When Did Cambridge Become a Studium generale?1


Patrick Zutshi


The University of Cambridge almost certainly owes its origin to a migration of scholars from Oxford in 1208–1210.2 It is the virtually unanimous opinion of modern writers that prior to that event Cambridge possessed no schools of more than local significance. Roger of Wendover in the Flores Historiarum briefly describes how a disturbance at Oxford, which he dates to 1209, led to the hanging of three students by the town authorities and the members of the university dispersing to Cambridge and Reading.3 Historians of Cambridge might wish for a more reliable witness than Roger of Wendover to such a crucial episode in the university’s history.4 Yet there is some evidence attesting to academic activity in Cambridge in the early thirteenth century,5 and this accords sufficiently well with Roger’s account for the latter to have been generally accepted. It has been plausibly suggested that at least some of those who came to Cambridge did so because they were from the town or its region.6 The presence of ecclesiastical courts in Cambridge, which offered opportunities of employment for canon lawyers, may also have played a significant part.7 The emigrants from Oxford must have found Cambridge a satisfactory, perhaps even a congenial, place in which to live and work; otherwise they would all have returned to Oxford when the university there was re-formed in 1214. Some may have done so,8 but others remained, and the university was reinforced by later migrations from Oxford and perhaps also Paris.9 The university of Cambridge has had a more or less continuous existence since the early thirteenth century. If c. 1209 is the earliest possible date for the beginning of a university there, the latest possible date by which Cambridge had become a fully fledged university (or, to use contemporary terminology, a studium generale) is 1318. In that year, Pope John XXII formally conferred on Cambridge the status of studium generale (or, in the view of some commentators, confirmed it). The subject of this chapter is the status and development of the university between these two dates. I hope that it may be regarded as a not inappropriate contribution to a volume in honor of an outstanding scholar who, while working far from the university of Cambridge and pursuing many other research interests, has done much to deepen our understanding of its history.


It is necessary first of all to consider what should be understood by a university in this period. The university was essentially a distinctive and new type of school of advanced study, which emerged in western Europe in the second half of the twelfth century; it was not simply a development of cathedral or other schools.10 In the thirteenth century, universities became more complex and more sophisticated in organization, and greatly increased in number. Studium generale is the nearest to a technical term used to describe a university.11 Its first documented occurrence is apparently in 1224 in the context of the foundation by the Emperor Frederick II of a university at Naples.12 Papal letters in favor of universities employed the term from the mid-thirteenth century.13 What were the characteristics of the thirteenth-century studium generale and did Cambridge share them?


A studium generale was a place of higher learning which was open to students from throughout Latin Christendom and which was able to attract students from outside its own region.14 The term was aptly rendered by Rashdall as “a school of general resort.”15 The studium generale contrasts with the studium particulare, which was of only local significance. An intermediate category was what later jurists called the studium generale respectu regni, a studium which attracted students from within the kingdom in which it was situated but not from beyond. Certain Spanish universities, founded by royal authority, fell into this class.16 The highest studia of the friars were also called studia generalia, and the meaning of the term in a mendicant context is comparable: it was a school to which friars from all provinces of the order could be sent.17


It is clear that large numbers of men from outside the Cambridge region frequented the university of Cambridge. As early as 1231 a writ of Henry III refers to the presence of scholars from overseas,18 but the proportion of such men at Cambridge seems to have been very small. Only six men known to have been foreigners are recorded in Emden’s Biographical Register of the University of Cambridge for the entire thirteenth century, three Scotsmen, two Frenchmen and one Spaniard.19 The late Trevor Aston and his colleagues made a statistical analysis of the geographical origins of Cambridge alumni based on the same source covering the years down to 1500.20 The general picture which emerges is striking. Cambridge in this period may be regarded as a national university: it attracted students from all over England, although the proportions from the various parts of the country seem to have varied at different times. In contrast, only 1 percent of recorded alumni are known to have come from Wales, Scotland, and Ireland (compared with 6 percent at Oxford). The same percentage came from the continent (compared to 2 percent at Oxford). The small proportion of foreigners at both the English universities is reflected in the fact that they were not represented in the “nations” there. Each university had only two nations, southerners and northerners (australes and boreales).21 Many of the foreigners were friars. Each of the four mendicant orders present in Cambridge had arrangements for sending students from throughout the order to their Cambridge convents and many of these studied at the university.22 The Cambridge friars are very poorly documented;23 and it is likely that the figures understate the proportion of foreign friars in Cambridge.


The concept of the studium generale as “a school of general resort” is of particular importance in the first stages of the development of universities; but it is a vague concept. Even taking into account the possibility that the statistics underestimate the number of foreigners at Cambridge, we cannot say whether the number of students from outside England who came to Cambridge were sufficient for the university to fulfill this criterion.


The earliest universities, notably Bologna, Paris, and Oxford, emerged and grew almost spontaneously. It was their fame and reputation that enabled them to attract students from outside their own regions. Their standing did not result primarily from a concession made by a superior authority. This element of spontaneity is also evident in those universities which owed their origin to a migration. Scholars abandoned one place, normally in protest at some infringement of their liberties, and moved elsewhere. More often than not these migrations were temporary, but at Cambridge and at some other universities which appear in the first half of the thirteenth century their results were more permanent. In the thirteenth century it also became common for universities to be founded by an external authority and for universities which were already in existence to have their status confirmed or recognized by such an authority. The international or universal standing of the studium generale is reflected in the view of legal commentators that the only powers competent to do this were those possessing universal authority, that is, the pope and the emperor.24 Cambridge was not unusual among universities in being de facto a studium generale and subsequently having this status formally conferred on it, or at least confirmed, by the papacy.


The graduates of a studium generale received the licentia or ius ubique docendi, that is, the entitlement to teach at any other university without undergoing further examination. Like the studium generale itself, the ius ubique docendi did not originate in a concession from an external authority. Rather it seems to have resulted from the prestige and reputation of the earliest universities, notably Bologna and Paris, and to have applied to their graduates. Some of the newer universities sought the ius ubique docendi from the pope. It was granted for the first time by Gregory IX in 1233 to graduates of Toulouse.25 Then universities which already possessed the ius ubique docendi by custom, no doubt in order to reinforce their claim to it, obtained from the papacy a formal recognition of their right.26 Nicholas IV granted the ius ubique docendi to Montpellier, Bologna, and Paris within a few years of each other (1289–1292). There is ample evidence that in practice the licentia ubique docendi operated imperfectly.27


The sources concerning the ius ubique docendi at Cambridge are scanty. Probably Oxford and Cambridge recognized each other’s degrees. Relatively few graduates of Cambridge are found at foreign universities,28 and no doubt their reception varied from one university to another. A complaint made by the university of Paris in 1292 × 1316 indicates that Oxford and Cambridge were not accepting degrees from Paris, which would imply that Paris was not accepting those from the English universities.29 On the other hand, the section in the earliest statutes of Cambridge concerning the creation of masters suggests in rather vague terms that recognition might be accorded to the degrees and standing of scholars from other universities.30 Cambridge never received from the papacy an explicit grant of the ius ubique docendi, but it is generally considered that the right is implied in the terms of John XXII’s letter of 1318 concerning Cambridge’s status as a studium generale.31 The ius ubique docendi is thought to be by this date the most important privilege associated with the studium generale.32


The papacy was willing to relax, in favor of those engaged in study, the requirement that the clergy who held ecclesiastical benefices with cure of souls should reside in them. As early as 1219 Honorius III in his constitution Super speculam permitted teachers and students of theology to receive the revenues of their benefices for up to five years.33 Boniface VIII’s constitution Cum ex eo of 1298 modified Gregory X’s stringent requirement that anyone appointed to a parish church had to be ordained to the priesthood within a year and reside in the church. It permitted bishops under certain circumstances to dispense students from these requirements for up to seven years.34 Neither constitution referred explicitly to students in studia generalia. Yet, by the mid-thirteenth century already, the privilege of non-residence was being particularly associated with studia generalia. A letter of Innocent IV in favor of the university of the papal curia states that its students should enjoy the same privilege of receiving their ecclesiastical incomes as others studying in studia generalia. Innocent IV’s letter of 1247 to the doctors and scholars of Narbonne makes a similar stipulation. Grants of the right of non-residence in favor of the members of individual universities were fairly common in the thirteenth and fourteenth century. It is not until 1365 that we find the University of Cambridge petitioning for this favor. Pope Urban V did not accede to this request, but two years later he granted a similar petition and allowed members of the university to receive the fruits of their benefices in absentia for three years, without the need to seek episcopal permission. The favor was renewed on several occasions.35


The features of the studium generale which I have been considering—its attraction to students from a wide area, its foundation or recognition by a universal authority, the ius ubique docendi, the right of its members to receive the income from their benefices in absentia—reflect its international standing. It possessed other features which were more internal in nature. It is generally accepted that a studium generale needed, in addition to a faculty of arts, at least one of the higher faculties, canon and civil law, theology, and medicine. Hostiensis put it somewhat differently in stating, “[studium] dicitur generale quando trivium et quadrivium, theologia et sacri canones ibidem leguntur.”36 If Hostiensis is implying that every studium generale needed to possess a faculty of theology, this does not correspond to reality, for there were relatively few universities with such faculties in the thirteenth century. Indeed the pope could explicitly refer to a studium generale as possessing every faculty except theology.37


The Cambridge statutes of c. 1250 show the presence of both canon law and theology. It is not known when the faculty of canon law came into being, but it probably did so at an early stage, and the first recorded chancellor of the university, Richard de Leycestria or Witheringsett, who may have held office as early as 1222, was a canonist.38 Theological studies in Cambridge received impetus from the friars, notably the Franciscans and Dominicans, who had well-populated convents in Cambridge; and a faculty of theology was in existence by c. 1240.39 The presence of a faculty of theology so early in Cambridge is noteworthy. There is no mention of civil law in the earliest statutes of Cambridge, but their editor, Fr M.B. Hackett, suggests that a faculty of civil law emerged soon after their compilation, which he dates to c. 1250.40 Medicine appears later in the century, but it seems to have been the least important of the faculties.41 Cambridge, like Oxford, was highly unusual in possessing all four higher faculties by the end of the thirteenth century.


The word universitas was frequently applied to universities in the thirteenth century and later.42 It may be translated in various ways—association, corporation, Genossenschaft. When applied to a university it was normally qualified by one or more words in the genitive: universitas scolarium, universitas magistroroum et scolarium, universitas studii, and so forth.43 These terms imply that members of a university had formed themselves into an association possessing some measure of independence and organization, some power of self-government, and the right to own property and sue in the law courts.44 There is evidence of such developments from an early date at Cambridge. The first references to a chancellor of the university date from 1225–1226.45 In 1233 Gregory IX addressed a letter to the chancellor and universitas scolarium of Cambridge.46 It is above all in the university’s earliest statutes that its constitution becomes apparent. The statutes deal inter alia with the office of chancellor, the inception of masters, the convocation, congregation and court of regent masters, the duties of the rectors (or proctors) and of other officers of the university. They suggest that within about 40 years of the migration from Oxford a fairly elaborate organization had emerged at Cambridge. The statutes, according to their editor Fr Hackett, seem to have been collected together soon after 1250, but he argues that some of the sections are considerably earlier. For instance, the chapters on the curia magistrorum, the rectors, and hostels may date from before 1231.47 It is not surprising to find that the university soon came to dispose of its own seal. The first reference to the seal occurs in a document dating from between 1259 and 1267, and the earliest extant seal is appended to a document of 1291.48


The thirteenth-century University of Cambridge was more than a corporation; it was a privileged corporation. It looked to the ecclesiastical and secular authorities to strengthen its position in the town and in society as a whole. The letter of Gregory IX mentioned above for a period of three years forbad scholars who were willing to appear before the chancellor’s or the bishop’s court to be brought against their will before any court outside the diocese of Ely. In other words, it conferred the ius non trahi extra, a standard privilege enjoyed by the studium generale.49 Of great practical importance for the university’s position in the town was a series of royal grants, beginning with three writs of Henry III in 1231, which sought to establish good order among the students and moderate rents for them.50 Henry III’s support was crucial for the university, and it culminated in the suppression of the schools at Northampton, a potential rival to Oxford and Cambridge, in 1265.51 Royal grants for the university of Cambridge tended to parallel, but rather to lag behind, those for Oxford.


It should be stressed that there is no single overriding criterion for deciding whether a school was a studium generale.52 There is a range of criteria, of varying weight at different times. And one can find exceptions to virtually all the rules that one may try to establish. With these reservations in mind, we can attempt to summarize what can be said about the status of Cambridge in the thirteenth century. On the evidence at present available, it is unclear whether it should be seen as a university of general resort. Nor had the papacy, it seems, expressly recognized or confirmed its status as a studium generale.53 On the other hand, it fulfilled other criteria: by the middle of the century, it possessed more than one of the higher faculties, and it formed a privileged corporate body with its own statutes and organization. On balance, it seems reasonable to suppose that it was what the jurists called a studium generale by custom (ex consuetudine).


John XXII in his letter of grace Inter singula of June 9, 1318, according to the traditional interpretation, formally conferred the status of studium generale on Cambridge, and in doing so did not acknowledge that it already was a studium generale. This seemed curious. A.B. Cobban, in an article published in 1964, subjected John XXII’s letter for the first time to a close examination and proposed an ingenious solution to the problem. He argued that the letter did not in fact purport to establish a new studium generale; rather it confirmed an existing one.54 Dr Cobban repeated his views in his books on the King’s Hall and the medieval English universities.55 They have in general been accepted. John Fletcher, for instance, refers to “the famous award of John XXII … which, Dr Cobban persuasively indicates, simply confirmed the status of Cambridge as a studium generale.”56 On the other hand, the former interpretation of John’s letter has not been universally abandoned. Fr Hackett, for example, although he does not directly take issue with Dr Cobban, observes that the letter “reads as if the pope were creating something which in fact already existed, namely, a studium generale at Cambridge.”57 More recently Jürgen Miethke has questioned Dr Cobban’s analysis of the address and the dispositio of the letter.58 Professor Miethke’s comments are contained in a brief aside, and the question perhaps merits fuller examination.


Dr Cobban draws attention to a letter from Edward II of March 18, 1318 to the pope, in which he requests that the pope should “perpetuate” the university of Cambridge and confirm and augment its privileges.59 Dr Cobban believes that this letter is the petition which directly resulted in John XXII’s Inter singula of June 9, 1318. This assumption is unwarranted. The text of Inter singula, which is given in the Appendix below, makes it clear that it was issued in response to a petition from Edward. Referring to this petition, it states that the king “apud Cantebrigiam … desiderat vigere studium generale.” No corresponding passage occurs in the royal letter,60 and there are other grounds for believing that the letter cannot represent the petition for Inter singula