University Life in the 18th century
One cannot be both a gentleman and a scholar.
We often hear about our heroes attending Oxford or Cambridge either after being tutored at home or attending Eton (or one of its competitors), but what did our heroes do at university? Did they earn degrees? What would the degree have been in? Where does the Grand Tour fit into that mixture? This research exploration will dig into the higher education goals, curriculum, and more (as it pertains to our heroes. We'll talk about the heroines in a future post). To whet your appetite for our hero in A Touch of Romance, he is not a student at university rather a professor.
The focus of this research discussion is on Oxford and Cambridge specifically, not on the education prior to university (which can be found in a previous research discussion--check it out here), education at other universities (such as the University of Edinburgh, which was a popular choice), or even the Grand Tour (we'll explore that in far more depth in a future newsletter). I clarify this only because the pedagogical approach at "Oxbridge" was (and still is) entirely unique, so if we want to understand what the majority of our heroes experienced, it is important to focus on these two giants. (I'll be leaning more towards Cambridge with the research links since our hero in A Touch of Romance happens to be a professor at Cambridge.) While the curriculum at "Oxbridge" was similar to other universities at the time, it was a wee bit behind the times, for schools like the University of Edinburgh were pushing advancing sciences even as Oxford and Cambridge were still focused on a Classical education.
As we know from my previous research discussion on A Gentleman's Education (Yes, I linked that twice in a row), the education of the heir (and potentially the second son, "the spare,") differed from that of the younger sons, since the heir would inherit but the younger sons would need an education that prepared them to make their own way in the world. The heir (and spare) would need specific at-home training on how to run the estate. The heir (and spare) would more often than not be homeschooled by tutors for the entirety of their educational experience (including university). The younger sons would more than likely be sent to Eton (or a competitor like Winchester, Westminster, or Aberdeen) for their formative education and then to university after that, be it Oxford, Cambridge, or otherwise. There were parents who chose to send their heir/spare to school in order to help them socialize with children of other ranks and means, but more often than not, this socialization would have been discouraged rather than encouraged, but we'll certainly find progressive-minded nobles in the history annals!
The goal of education from an aristocratic standpoint wasn't to learn scholarly material or even to succeed in a profession. The goal of education was to attain social graces: polish, good manners, and civility. Academic scholarship was snubbed by aristocracy, for the belief was someone could not be both a scholar and a gentleman. Scholars recite useless information, which never does a gentleman any favors. The focus of an education was to gain experience--be exposed to civil company, practice diplomacy, display good manners, learn how to converse--to prepare them for a world that based everything on socializing, social behavior, and social connections. Homeschooling from start to finish was preferred, for what can a schoolmaster really teach that a private tutor cannot? A personal tutor could pace the material to the skills of the young man, tailor the material to the family's needs, customize the teachings to pertain to the estate, title, and social connections, and so much more that a school education could not.
Should our heroes find themselves in a position to attend university, they had the tough choice of selecting which university, which college within the chosen university, and if they would take a degree (not which degree, but if they planned to graduate or simply attend for the sake of attending). The sons of peers most often chose Christ Church at Oxford and Trinity or St. John's at Cambridge, although pupils who attended Eton typically chose King's College at Cambridge. Not to say there weren't plenty of other options, but those were the preferred selections of the peerage. Trinity College, Cambridge would have been the most popular choice for those interested in joining the clergy. Oxford or Cambridge? While nowadays we might choose based on program of study, that wasn't the case for our romantic heroes. More Tories than not attended Oxford; whereas, more Whigs than not attended Cambridge. The political alliances of our heroes' families would likely influence which university they attended, assuming they did not choose to go elsewhere, such as the University of Edinburgh. (Not sure on Tory vs Whig? Here's the world's most basic explanation of the difference (it is far more complicated than this): Tory = Crown supporter; Whig = Commoner supporter.
The most academically promising students were offered a scholarship, but everyone else had to pay their own way or find a patron who would support them. While other universities were known for their arduous professional training, Oxbridge was not, as these two universities focused on those ever important social graces vital to British imperialism. As difficult as it might be for us to believe now, scholarly students were unpopular, not only among fellow students (what a stick in the mud!) but also among their instructors (how pesky to find a dedicated student who might question your own knowledge and take up your planned visit to the coffeehouse). Those most likely to take their education seriously would be the younger sons of aristocratic families who knew they would not be supported by their families and would need a profession of some sort (law, medicine, or church), sons of landed gentry in the same situation, and sons of the labor class who had the means or patronage (or scholarship) to attend to improve their family's financial situation. Of course, if the family had enough money, even younger sons needn't worry about completing a degree.
It would be more likely that our traditional hist rom heroes would attend university for only 1-2 years than it would be for them to graduate with a degree (a degree took 3 years). Some would attend briefly then stop to travel with their friends on the Grand Tour, while others would simply stop attending. There could certainly be good reason to stop attending before finishing a degree: imagine the hero who inherits his title (or needs to attend to family matters) before graduation--family business and inheritance was far more valuable and important than a degree. Although the degree served little purpose for our traditional hist rom heroes (i.e. aristocrats), it was, from this humble person's point of view, silly not to graduate because (a) the only barrier to graduate was to pass the Senate House Examination, and (b) men of noble birth were allowed to graduate with a degree without taking the exam if they resided at university for six terms (2 years).
While we'll save the Grand Tour for another discussion, know that it was considered a capstone for their degree. It served a curricular purpose. Sure, anyone could go traveling the continent, but that wasn't the point of the Grand Tour. This was intended to occur at the completion of the terms when they would travel with their tutor to apply the social graces, civility, manners, etc. they learned over the course of their education. There were specific routes the gentlemen would take, specific interactions they would engage in, specific historic landmarks they would visit, etc. to complete this capstone.
During the 18th century, the Grand Tour was taken seriously for those intending to complete their degree, but as we move into the early 19th century and then into the Regency, the idea of the Grand Tour became more important than attending university, so gentlemen were either attending for a term or two then heading straight for the continent (on what they called the Grand Tour but didn't actually have anything to do with it), or they would skip university altogether and just travel the continent with their friends. We don't see this so much in the 18th century, but we do see this (in spades) during the Regency. Given the importance of the Grand Tour in completing one's education, it is a shame it was not taken seriously in the early 19th century, turning from a study of historic sites, diplomacy, and more, to a holiday abroad. I want to save the Grand Tour details for another research discussion, but I will point you to a fantastic source that is rich with detail on the Grand Tour.
Before we leave the Grand Tour, I do want to mention a little something about Greece, as I see it mentioned in quite a few blogs that it was a popular destination for the Grand Tour (which would make sense given the love of Ancient Greece we see during the era). It's a little more complicated, however. In the 18th century, Greece was not part of the Grand Tour. Absolutely, positively, not. Not only was it deemed unsafe and unfit for travel by Britons at the time, there were strict travel restrictions imposed by the Ottoman Empire. Instead, Rome was considered the most important site visited on the Tour (along a route that included France, Germany, and the Low Countries). That said, the destinations of the Grand Tour changed drastically with the Napoleonic wars. After the turn of the century, the original route was unsafe and war torn with skirmishes across the continent. At that time, Greece became the safer location to travel, along with the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa--thus beginning a new obsession not with Ancient Greece but with "the Orient." The image included here is one of the best I've seen to showcase the difference in routes between the 18th century and 19th century. The blue route marked on the map is the route that would have been taken by our 18th century heroes. The yellow route is the domestic tour that would have been undertaken during the height of the Napoleon wars. The red route is the new Grand Tour of the 19th century post-Napoleonic wars (only then do we see travel to Greece occur during the Grand Tour, but by then the whole route has changed).
As a quick reality check on ages, gentlemen graduated with their B.A. at 16-17 years of age and would be off on their Grand Tour at 18 years of age. There are cases, of course, when a gentleman might stop attending university only to return later to finish his B.A. or leave for the Grand Tour early, but the ages we're looking at for the majority of gentlemen are 16-17 for completing university and 18 for completing their capstone with the Grand Tour. The travelers we would have seen in the 18th century would have been around that 18 year mark, but the travelers we would have seen in the early 19th century and Regency would have been younger since so many gentlemen skipped university to travel, putting them at the oh-so-mature age of 16 or so.
Let's get back to our discussion of earning a degree and why there was little to no appeal to earning it. University in the 18th century offered two purposes:
complete a B.A. in order to enter the clergy,
complete a B.A. in order to enter the M.A. program.
There was only one undergraduate degree, for clarification: B.A. Let's suppose you had no interest in entering the clergy. That means the only point of completing the degree was to enter the M.A. program (also the only graduate degree available). What was the purpose of earning an M.A.?
complete an M.A. to become a teacher, be it a fellow, a private family tutor, or a local village tutor (although village schools were mostly taught by clergymen),
complete an M.A. to enter the Doctoral program.
Before we look at the benefits of the Doctoral program (assuming you don't want to be a teacher), let's first establish that the M.A. was not earned by merit rather by time--4 years after being awarded the B.A., you would have the M.A. Now, what was the purpose of earning a Doctoral degree? There were only 3 Doctoral tracts: Medicine, Law, Theology
Medicine: funnily enough, if you wanted to enter the medical profession as a physician, you would have to complete your training at a European, Scottish, or Dutch university that specialized in advanced scientific methods, for the schools in England, and specifically Oxford and Cambridge, did not since they were Classical schools.
Law: much like with medicine, you could not complete the legal training at Oxbridge, but it would benefit you to start there, for if you earned the Doctorate at one of the two universities, then when you began your legal training at the Inns of Court, 2 years of study would automatically be cut from your training. While the goal of a law degree was to become a barrister, there are cases in aristocratic families where a younger son earned the degree just to help administer the family estate (talk about dedication!).
Theology: the Crown wanted as many Doctors of Divinity as it could get, so much so that during the 17th century, a hefty number of those awarded a Doctor of Divinity had not actually attended university rather were awarded by royal mandate. This practice (supposedly) ended in 1689, so we can assume (hope) that those earning a degree in theology in the 18th century (and early 19th century) earned the degree by merit.
With this understanding of the degrees available, it helps make more sense why so many gentlemen did not finish their university education, leaving after only 1-2 years. Let’s remember that the goal of education for (most of) our hist rom heroes was the social graces. Degrees in medicine, law, theology, and teaching offered little advantage to heirs, spares, or the wealthy. Plenty did finish their degrees, but let’s not judge too harshly those who didn’t because they attended for the goal they had set out to accomplish—an education on social graces. Our heroes (at least those who took their education seriously) would be fluent in Latin, Greek, and other languages (French, Arabic, possibly Italian…), would be well versed in classics, logic, mathematics, astronomy, and the other elements of the curriculum (which we’ll explore in more detail shortly).
A unique aspect of Oxford and Cambridge was the pedagogical approach, which used (and to great extent still uses) the tutorial system. One of the best sources to consider for a complete exploration of the history of this system and how it changed leading up to the 18th century and beyond can be found here. Why are we exploring the tutorial system in this research discussion? Because it offers a clear image of the daily life of our heroes while attending university.
The tutorial system in the 18th century meant there were no classes to attend and no professors lecturing. This was an independent study approach where "fellows" (tutors) would be assigned 1-3 students and would host 1-hour weekly discussion sessions with those students. These sessions were not to teach or lecture, as education and study was the responsibility of the student. The contents of the Senate House Examination to earn the degree was well known, so it was a matter of studying what one needed to take the exam. The sessions with the "fellow" were meant to share ideas--defend, analyze, critique, question, recite. A good fellow would guide students on what to study, how to study it, and when to study it, but not all fellows were so helpful. There are journals and diaries and letters and such of some truly exquisite fellows who shaped their pupil's education and encouraged their scholarly pursuits, but there are also records of fellows who never bothered to host a session much less offer helpful information. The (good) sessions offered an opportunity to assess authentic learning. At Oxford, the sessions are called "tutorials," and at Cambridge they're called "supervisions," but the meaning is the same. There were no lecturing professors, just the tutors/fellows and the weekly discussion group. The "professors" were subject chairs whose primary duty was to moderate the Senate House Examination. Who were these tutors? They were the resident M.A. students, clerics, resident Doctoral (medicine, law, or theology) students, or M.A. holding fellows who made their livelihood on the fellowship money. Interesting to note: while serving as a fellow, they were prohibited from marrying.
In the 18th century, the fellows focused their "tutorials" or "supervisions" on helping students pass the Senate House Examination. A shift occurred, however, in the middle of the century where Cambridge (not Oxford) increased its standards, emphasizing mathematics over the Classical studies, which meant students were wholly unprepared for the examination unless they hired a private tutor. Two issues resulted from this: (a) private tutors were exceedingly expensive, (b) if a student used a private tutor within two years of taking the examination, they were not allowed to graduate with honors.
The fellows' role shifted with the rise in standards. Their work became more important in helping students pass the exam, their tenure became more permanent (although if they were in Trinity College, Cambridge, they would be required to take holy orders to earn their tenure), and their numbers decreased. As an example of how the numbers decreased, there were only 2 fellows at Trinity College in 1755 compared to previous decades--8 fellows in 1745 and 12 in 1725. Each college at the university had a different number with some having only 1 fellow. The fact that these fellows were the sole "instructors" for the students attending that college and yet only had 1-3 students assigned to their weekly sessions might tell you a great deal about university enrollment. It should be noted that this was a problem in the 18th century but not prior. In the 17th century, enrollment was high, and there were around 12-17 fellows per college with each fellow assigned 1-4 students (none having more than 4).
Let's talk enrollment and terms, then we'll move into daily university life. Two fantastic sources for this can be found here and here. Enrollment plummeted in the 18th century. Plummeted. In the 17th century, we see enrollment at Cambridge at around 30,000 (with about 50 new enrollments per annum) and Oxford at around 31,000. Graduation rates were at about 450 per annum. In the 18th century, however, we see enrollment drop to 16,000 for Cambridge (with about 25 new enrollments per annum) and 25,000 for Oxford with the graduation rates dropping throughout the century--190 graduates in 1700, 150 graduates in 1750, etc. During one year, there were only 75 graduates, and the majority of those were for the clergy. In 1784, at Cambridge, only 3 new students enrolled to attend, 2 of whom were rumored to be illiterate.
There were (and still are) 3 terms per year, each term lasting 8-weeks: Oct-Dec, Jan-March, and April-June. 10 terms would earn a degree. The terms each have names. At Cambridge, they're Michaelmas Term, Lent Term, and Easter Term. At Oxford, they're Michaelmas Term, Hilary Term, and Trinity Term. Students were admitted during the Easter/Trinity Term but would not begin residence until the Michaelmas Term. The 10th and final term of a student's education would be during his 4th year of the Michaelmas Term. He would take his Senate House Examination and graduate in January.
The examination was 4 days in length with 2-4 moderators dictating questions. As a demonstration of not just what the examination covered but more to the point the increased standards at Cambridge, compare the before and after. During the first part of the 18th century, all answers were orally given by the student, but during the latter half of the century, all answers were written. During the first part of the century, examination questions were on natural religion, moral philosophy, and Locke's Essay. During the second half of the century, the questions were on Euclid, trigonometry, algebra, mechanics, hydrostatics, astronomy, conic sections, optics, spherical trigonometry, Newton's Principia, problems on extractions of roots, solution of algebraical equations, bookworm on fluxions, Locke's Essay, Butler's Analogy, and Clarke's Attributes. (And we can surmise from these differences why private tutors became popular.) Depending on the examination results, prizes could be won, such as classical awards, scholarships, gold medals, chancellor's medals, fellowships, etc. Depending on a student's professional and academic goals, these could be quite the boon to future success (although probably not for the heirs and spares).
Daily university life was about as lax as you can imagine it would be for those who weren't independently studious and focused. In a world of autonomous research, what's there to do if you're not really interested in studying? How might you spend your time if you are interested in studying? A day's itinerary, since not filled with scheduled classes, was for the student to devise. There are countless journals, diaries, letters, tutor manuals, and more that point us in the direction of what these itineraries looked like. A few such sources can be found from William Stukeley, Ambrose Bonwicke, William Reneu, and Abraham de la Pyrme. This is a rich source on learning the details! In general, a student might spend their morning studying philosophy, their afternoon studying the classics, then Sunday devoted to divinity. The materials studied might include Virgil, Horace, Caesar, Cicero, Terence, Ovid, Juvenal, Sallust, and Livy (all in Latin, of course, not in English), then Homer, Sophocles, Isocrates, Demosthenes, Hesiod, Theocritus, Euripides, and Xenophon (all in Greek, of course, not in English), followed maybe by arithmetic, trigonometry, astronomy, Euclid, Rohault's Physics, Newton's Optics, Locke's Human Understanding, Pufendorf's Law of Nature, Grotius's de Fure Belli et Pacis, and then ethics and metaphysics. So, let's look at a few very real examples of student itineraries:
(a) Student rises at 5am, reads for an hour, takes a walk, then attends chapel at 7. At 8am, he enjoys breakfast, then studies between 9-12:30 before eating dinner. For his afternoon, he visits a friend, takes tea, then visits a coffeehouse to read the newspaper before spending the evening at 6pm at chapel, followed by another walk, and then supper.
(b) Student divides his time between logic, Greek prose and translation, Latin prose and verses, Hebrew, holy duties during the first 3 years, then studying Taquet's Euclid and Rohault's Physics.
(c) Student is graduating soon, so faces 4 days straight of examinations on rhetoric, logic, ethics, physics, and astronomy, followed by spending 3 days straight at local public schools being cross-examined by anyone willing to test his knowledge.
(d) Student attends back-to-back supervisions/tutorials covering on one day classics, ethics, divinity, metaphysics, and logic, and the next day covering trigonometry, astronomy, philosophy, geometry, algebra, and arithmetic.
What of the students who weren't so studious? The coffeehouse was the place to be! (Along with taverns...and brothels...) As the previous source I linked discusses, coffeehouses rose in popularity, especially in college towns. Rather than being a positive aspect of the university culture, it was negative, for rather than students spending time discussing their studies with other students (or tutors), they wasted their time gossiping, twiddling their thumbs, fraternizing with riff-raff, and so forth. But if they're not earning a degree, what's the problem? Well, if the primary purpose of an education, for the elite who weren't earning a degree, was to learn social graces, the gentlemen would fail to accomplish that goal if they wasted their time gossiping with friends instead of at least taking some aspect of their education seriously. They would leave university as uncouth boors. Biographers who recalled the success of their studies at university in the 17th century lamented the state of education and the popularity of coffeehouses in the 18th century. In the History of Cambridge article I previously recommended, it points specifically to North's 1725 biography (North being a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge in 1664), as well as von Uffenbach's journals from when he visited Cambridge in 1710. Both North and von Uffenbach shared their observations of youth wasting their university experience.
The general atmosphere, both on campus and off, was lax. The fellows had low attendance to their sessions, thus during some terms they did not bother to hold sessions. The professors had no duties outside of moderating the examination--their salary was little more than a sinecure with some professors not even living in or near the university. This was not the atmosphere in the 17th century, but it was the atmosphere in the 18th century. In the early 19th century, it worsened before it improved. Through 19th century reform, we see a monumental change in everything related to higher education. That doesn't help our heroes who are primarily 18th century and early 19th century! Would your favorite hero be at the coffeehouse or pouring over Newton's Optics?
If you've made it this far in the discussion, kudos! Let's talk about the curriculum (I saved the ugliest for last). To reward those who stuck with the post, I'll end with a brief look at what it meant to be a university professor during this time so we get a glimpse into the life of our hero in A Touch of Romance.
During the 18th century, both Oxford and Cambridge were Classical/Liberal Arts universities. That began to change at the end of the 18th century and on into the 19th century, along with pedagogical practices, which began to include lectures in addition to the tutorials/supervisions. By the 19th century, Cambridge was known for mathematics, and Oxford was known for politics and humanities. The curriculum took a drastic turn in the 19th century, leaving the Classical focus behind, but our heroes from the 18th century and Regency eras would have known only the Classical education (or *cough cough* the inside of a coffeehouse). In the 17th century, mathematics was unpopular, and Aristotle was popular. In the 18th century, this reversed with mathematics being exceedingly popular and Aristotle binned. The further we progress in the 18th century, the more popular became not only mathematics but also the sciences and especially astronomy. Galileo, Descartes, and Bacon were studied heavily.
Before the curriculum changeover in the 19th century, the curriculum relied on the Trivium for primary education (echoed during higher education) and the Quadrivium in higher education. The Trivium is grammar, rhetoric, and logic: (a) Grammar--reading and writing and memorizing. (b) Logic--thinking about arguments critically. (c) Rhetoric--articulating arguments persuasively in the fashion of Classical poets and rhetoricians. The Quadrivium is arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The study of these would later (1822) not be the education but instead would be a program of study known as the Classical Tripos and Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge and the Literae Humaniores at Oxford. During the 18th century, however, it is the educational experience (in its entirety). Latin was the predominate focus exceeding all other subjects since Latin was the international language. It was a necessity for all societal leaders to be able to read, write, speak, and understand Latin, especially if they were to do any kind of traveling, socializing, or business outside of Britain. Also of high educational importance were the three philosophies (natural, moral, and mental), languages, Hebrew, and theology.
Now, at last, regarding professorships. The term "professor" referred to a subject matter chair, not to a teacher (and to some degree it still does, although the duties have changed considerably). The fellows were the teachers, even if they did not lecture or hold class during the 18th century (although they do now). What professors were intended to do and what they actually did were vastly different at times, for the majority were simply paid to hold the rank and do little else. What they were intended to do was be a researcher/scholar in their subject matter, thus modeling for students how to conduct research and be a scholar. They were also intended to guide the graduate students, but for that to happen, one's subject would need to have graduate students. It was possible for a professor to simultaneously hold a fellowship with a specific college if he wanted more direct interaction with the students, such as being the Regius Professor of Divinity and holding a fellowship at Trinity. Outside of holding a fellowship (a possibility but a rarity), the only interactions professors had with students would be overseeing the final examination during that final year of study.
While Classical studies was the focal point of the curriculum, the more it moved to the wayside towards the end of the 18th century, the less distinguished became any classically focused position (which also meant a change in salary). The professors in such positions--especially since they had little to no duties and were not distinguished--may not even reside at the university. The Regius Professor of Greek in the 1790s, for instance, lived in London. There were professors who did not like this kind of idleness and fought reform to require professors to reside for at least half of every term and give at least one lecture per year and produce scholarly work, but such ideas were staunched by those enjoying their sinecure (or at least these ideas would be staunched until the 19th century when the reformers would get their wish--a little late for them, though. The current description, credentials, and duties for these professorships are quite different now! Check out the current job description for the Regius Professor of Greek.).
The salaries for professors ranged widely, depending on how much the position was favored by the Crown. The highest paid was the Regius Professor of Divinity. This was a highly respected position. The middle paid were the Regius Professor of Greek and the Regius Professor of Hebrew (and although professor positions were supposed to be elected, not only did the Crown have a tendency to place their choice in the position, but specifically the Greek and Hebrew positions were given first claim to fellows of Trinity since it was Trinity College that provided the stipends for the positions). The lowest paid was the Regius Professor of Arabic since the subject did not appear on the examination.
When you see the professor's salaries, put into perspective that the average wage-earner of the era earned about £23 per annum. Let's not consider the landed gentry whose earnings were not from labor but from rental income, agriculture, and investments--with an estate of 10,000 acres or larger, a gentleman could earn between £1,000-100,000 per annum, although the average for gentry was £30,000. The typical laborer in a wage-earning profession took home a lowly £23 per year (although it could certainly be lower!). With that in perspective, let's see the salaries of the professors, remembering that their salary was determined by their subject's importance to the Crown. Of 25 professors, only 8 earned more than £400 per annum. Six professors earned less than £100, and 7 earned between £100-300. The Regius Professor of Divinity (the most valuable to Crown and university) earned between £1200-1900 per annum. The Regius Professor of Greek earned £650, as did the Regius Professor of Hebrew. The Regius Professor of Modern History earned £400 per annum (just a quick perspective: a £400 salary in the 18th century would be equivalent to about a £63,000 salary in the 21st century).
Our hero of A Touch of Romance is the Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge, a newly acquired position for him after serving as a fellow for a number of years. The best part about his promotion? While fellows are not allowed to marry, the professors have no such constraints--how lucky for our heroine! While our hero Jules has his own story to tell, the development of his character is influenced by the real holder of this position during the 1790s--Richard Porson--as well as to some extent the Regius Professor of Modern History--Thomas Gray.