A history of Merton College

The book A History of Merton College, by G. H. Martin and J. R. L. Highfield, was published by Oxford University Press in 1997. I have had a copy for some time but, to my shame, have only just read it. Roger Highfield was a senior colleague of mine at Merton.

The book is a feast of learning. Here are a few gleanings.

The words “university” and “college” could conceivably have interchanged meanings. Martin and Highfield say,

A college is essentially and simply an association, a group of people joined together for a particular purpose. The word university originally had similar connotations, and it is not beyond imagination that either could have taken on the other’s meaning. As it happens, and following the example set by Walter de Merton more than seven hundred years ago, colleges have come to be seen as constituents of universities, rather than the other way about. Largely for that reason they are commonly seen as embodied in the buildings which they occupy.

Curiously, the colleges in the University of London are now taking on the title and function of universities.

It is hard to imagine now the impact that Merton College had at the time of its foundation (the second half of the thirteenth century). Balliol and University Colleges are a few years older, but they were little more than boarding-houses for students; Merton had statutes, a Warden (Peter of Abingdon), a Visitor (the Archbishop of Canterbury), and, crucially, a substantial endowment. The founder intended it to be governed by its scholars, who would also have to take on the substantial task of administering its estates (and fighting legal battles over them where necessary). The statutes of Merton College were copied or adapted for several later foundations including Exeter and Queen’s.

The mediaeval dining hall, the first substantial building erected on the site, had the same proportions as the rebuilt modern hall, but must have dominated its surroundings to a much greater extent. And this at a time when the University had no premises of its own.

The College had an exchequer chamber which was furnished with a chequerboard table used as an abacus for doing the accounts; indeed, this is the origin of the word “exchequer”.

The mediaeval trivium consisted of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, as is well known. The use of rhetoric to an aspiring politician or churchman is obvious. “Dialectic” meant, roughly, “logic”, and was also a practical subject:

… dialectic could inform the techniques of administration, as it still does in the guise of critical path analysis.

Why grammar? There are tantalising hints at its importance:

As a conservative theologian [Kilwardby] moved in the following year to condemn some Thomist opinions current in the faculty of arts which he believed would over-heat theological debate and corrupt the faith. The positions condemned seem to have been manifestations of modistic thought, so called from expositions beginning De modis significandi, “the ways of signifying meaning”. Modism sought to relate the classical rules of grammar to Aristotelian philosophy, which Aquinas had striven to accommodate in Christian doctrine. The movement helped to establish the intensive study of grammar as a discipline of its own, rather than as a mere preliminary to the effective uses of languages.

The Merton mathematicians are rightly famous. The names of Thomas Bradwardine, William Heytesbury and Richard Swineshead are sufficiently familiar that they could be used as answers in a fairly recent crossword in the Oxford alumni magazine. But there were many more, Thomas Wilton, Walter Burley, John Maudith, John Ashenden, Thomas Buckingham, John Dumbleton, John Tewkesbury, Richard Billingham and William Rede among them. [I did find myself wishing that Martin and Highfield had said more about what they actually did.]

So strong was the tradition that several more famous logicians and theologians who worked in Oxford have been thought in later ages to have been part of the Merton school. These include Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Richard Kilvington, all of them friars rather than secular clergy. A more curious case was John Wyclif. He was educated at Merton, moved to Balliol and later (after a spell away from Oxford) to Queen’s. He began his career as a logician and a conservative theologian, but (like others before and after) doubts about transubstantiation led him to a change in his philosophical position; he came to advocate translation of the Bible into English and what might be called proto-Protestantism. In a later, more orthodox, time, Merton tried to deny its association with him, though there is evidence that Lollardy had substantial support in the College.

The North-South divide was already a feature of English society in the 14th century, and impinged on Oxford:

… it is permanently commemorated in the office of the university’s two proctors, who until the later sixteenth century were rigorously appointed to represent one the rugged and virtuous pastoralists of the north … and the other the effete cereal-growers, pluralists and usurers of the south.

Merton, though seen as a “southern” college because its original foundation was linked to Merton in Surrey (now part of greater London), had a foot in both camps because of its extensive estates all over the country. I once went on “progress” while I was a fellow, to College-owned farms in Leicestershire and Lincolnshire.

At the end of the fifteenth century there was a custom with hints of the liar paradox. At New Year, the City waits (probably a band made up of town officials) entertained the Merton scholars, and “were rewarded only if they did not insist on the reward as a right”. [Could you argue that, by pointedly not asking for a reward, they were asking for a reward?]

After that, the history of the College is no longer the history of the University, and it doesn’t hold my interest in the same way. There is a brief note in the final chapter that the number of mathematics tutors was increased from two to three in 1974; that is the nearest I get to an appearance.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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5 Responses to A history of Merton College

  1. Dima says:

    So, no professor’s ears cut, not fellows burned? Civilized, unlike Balliol? My wife is set to start as a non-teaching fellow (teaching in Dept. of CS) in October (yes, we’re moving to UK, it looks all set).

  2. The grandest quadrangle in Merton is the Fellows’ Quadrangle, immediately south of the hall. The quad was the culmination of the work undertaken by Sir Henry Savile at the beginning of the 17th century. The foundation stone was laid shortly after breakfast on 13 September 1608 (as recorded in the college Register), and work was complete by September 1610 (although the battlements were added later).

    • The sundial in the Fellows’ Quad is relatively recent. Geoffrey Bath, a contemporary of mine as a Junior Research Fellow at Merton (who had the distinction of living in Bath Place for a time) re-computed the remarkable sundial in Front Quad when the fabric of the chapel was being restored. The Fellows were so pleased with his work that they let him design a sundial of his own for Fellows Quad, where it is opposite the clock. (The sundial in Front Quad only works in the early morning, and the one in Fellows Quad only in the afternoon.)

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