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Momentous days of Robert Grosseteste
Everyone knows that Oxford has a split personality, but the ‘Gown’ part of it is strange indeed: elusive; still evolving; and perpetually surprised at finding itself on this earth at all, let alone sitting by a river in an English city. For the university has long been a small kingdom of the mind, longing to be self-sufficient but in fact trapped in the body of a humdrum town.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, since it resembles so closely a human being with a big brain — and of a thoughtful disposition — that it has spawned far more than its fair share of astonishing characters among its sons and (latterly) daughters. First among them was Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253), whose name actually means Big Head in Norman French — the language spoken by 13th-century Gown, but not Town — and indeed we know that he really did have a huge head for the size of his body. He became one of the first Chancellors of the University, setting the scene for following generations. Not bad for a poor Suffolk boy, the son of humble parents.
Originally he studied theology in Paris, but he came to Oxford because the ecclesiastical storm, caused by some of the ideas he espoused, was less great here than there. Theology then, like science now, transcended national borders.
Those new ideas were gleaned from Arab texts that led to the rediscovery of Aristotle’s scientific works, some of which flew in the face of Christian teaching.
Whether he was the University’s first or second chancellor is debatable, but as historian A.L. Rowse pointed out in Oxford and the History of the Nation (1975) he was “the prime figure in the development of Oxford as a university”.
He adds: “He was an indubitably great man: on two counts, both intellectually and for his immense influence on practical affairs.” In other words, he was both an academic and an able administrator.
The first glimmerings of a university at Oxford date back to the mid-12th century when the college of canons of St George, within Oxford castle, began teaching students. They were followed by the arrival of the friars — with Grosseteste becoming both the first rector of the Franciscans and chancellor of the budding university in 1224. The Franciscan Friary stood where Paradise Square is today, named after their garden (Paradise being the Arabic for garden). He laid down remarkably democratic rules for the university and for the election of its authorities, thereby creating a paradox that has dogged the place for much of its life: on the one hand encouraging original, revolutionary thought; on the other all too often getting itself identified as the very authority against which those same rebellious minds rebelled — and then being forced to take stern measures to quell them. In 1235, he became Bishop of Lincoln, in whose diocese Oxford then lay. At Oxford he taught, administered, and planted the seeds for the University’s future importance in training and inspiring the nation’s leaders. As bishop he was able to oversee its growth. He usually took Gown’s side in their unremitting squabbles with Town. During a riot at Osney Abbey, where the papal legate was then staying, he offered his protection to the students. And during a serious dispute with the Jews of Oxford over money-lending and the price of student lodgings, he ruled that in future such matters should be settled in the presence of the Chancellor or his representative. Perhaps in attending to such details he had in mind a certain riot in 1209 that had resulted in some masters and students fleeing the city altogether. They subsequently set up shop somewhere else altogether. That place was Cambridge.