R. H. Darwall-Smith (ed.): Early Records of University College, Oxford (= Oxford Historical Society NEW SERIES; Vol. XLVI), Woodbridge / Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer 2015, XXV + 414 S., ISBN 978-0-904107-27-2, GBP 35,00
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University College was one of the first Oxford colleges to be founded, owing its beginning to a 1249 bequest by a northern English theologian, William of Durham, to support Masters of Arts studying Theology. William was likely inspired by his own experience of Paris, but as is made clear here by the editor of this collection of the College's earliest records, the College Archivist, Robin Darwall-Smith, his thinking was too advanced for the early University and it wasn't until the 1280s that a serious attempt to establish a set of statutes for these Masters and this foundation was made (some of the money having been spent on other things in the intervening period).
In some ways this earliest history set a pattern: the College's first century was halting, difficult and often financially very messy. Indeed, its name itself wasn't finally settled on until the late sixteenth century and in the late fourteenth century a major legal dispute led to the College claiming King Alfred as its founder and Bede as one of its earliest scholars, with the former accepted by many well into the nineteenth century, and engaging in a series of highly imaginative forgeries purportedly relating to twelfth and thirteenth century property transactions.
The volume is divided into two parts. Part I presents full texts and translations of material relating to the governance, fellows and masters, fabric and benefactors of the College with a date range of 1280/1 and its first statutes to a 1587 Inventory of the College and a 1575 benefaction. These last two are outliers to some extent included because of the utility of the former and the 'colourful' history of the last benefactor, William Holcot, who had got into trouble at one time in his life for turning up to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's prison to lend him a book in 1554 and whose instructions to the College Robin Darwall-Smith rightly describes as 'egotistical'.
This is a very diverse and eclectic mix of material, but that in itself instructive - it's too easy to describe the early history of institutions as coherent processes of development. Most important of all for those who'll make most use of this work, and core to the editorial rationale, is the provision of English translations of material. In publishing the early records of this College, Darwall-Smith is heir to a great tradition of previous editors for the Oxford Historical Society, especially Herbert Edward Salter. Salter edited the records of Balliol College as early as 1913 and those of numerous Oxford and Oxfordshire religious houses as well as producing, with other collaborators, a fundamental survey of the city. Salter though could assume good Latin in his readership, and that is now very rare. If students and non-specialists are to be able to access this kind of source material, in the British Isles at any rate, translation is essential. Here, that work has been careful and thorough, but not at the expense of intelligibility. Darwall-Smith also provides fulsome introductory material, including a useful glossary, and contextualises these texts within the broader history of the university and the city.
Part II is in the main a Calendar of the property records held by the College by 1550, most predating the College's acquisition of the properties concerned. The earliest of these date to the late twelfth century. These deeds are arranged here by the Oxford parish in which they lay, starting with the College's original site and chronologically within that structure. A useful map of the core of the College is provided which helps considerably in making sense of the material. While a lot of this material has little to do with the College itself it has considerable value as urban social history, especially of Oxford of course, but also more generally, and the calendaring is so thorough and full that much can be learned from it. Throughout too, very useful cross referencing is made to Salter's survey. Many an undergraduate dissertation could be written based on this material!
I have only one quibble with the organisation of the volume - there is no overall numbering system for the documents. Each section has its own numbering system, and in the calendar of property records it is by date and by archive reference. Citation will then, I think need to be by page number - my personal preference would be for an overall numbering scheme.
Regardless, this is fascinating and worthwhile volume, but who should use it? Historians and students of the history of universities of course. The struggles to build and also to conceptualise the College, and the financial, property and legal material here are a very valuable complement to the common focus on the bigger picture, teaching, learning, and intellectual developments. Needless to say historians and students of Oxford too, and all graduates and fellows of University College will find material of considerable interest here, but this volume deserves a broader audience among historians, students, and interested amateurs as well for these very same reasons, and the sheer diversity of the material, and because Darwall-Smith has done such an excellent job of bringing it all together, in English and within a broader consideration of the development of a medieval institution in a vibrant medieval town, bringing to life too a number of individuals engaged in both.