The secular university?

The secular university?

A recent article for the Times Higher Education Supplement calling on universities to consider religion as a diversity issue brought a furious response from one reader:

In my view a university is a secular place of learning. If you want attention paid to your religion you should go to a theological college. It is not a university’s job to pander to superstition. Religion, unlike race, gender, sexual orientation and disability, is a choice and if you can’t modify your choice to cater for the university’s rules you should go elsewhere.

The comment interprets “secular” in the sense of excluding religion, rather than of a religiously neutral arena. It also displays little historical awareness: the university as a “secular” space is a relatively new phenomenon. In England, only after more than 600 years of universities did the first religiously neutral university appear, with the foundation of University College London. But rather than trace the overall history of the secular university, I instead want to use my own personal history to illustrate the difficulties of the concept.

In 1983, aged 18, I went to St Anne’s College, Oxford to study mathematics. During term-time, I spent substantial portions of the week in the lecture theatres at the old Mathematical Institute. Lectures were the main form of teaching mathematics and regular attendance at them was expected and required in order to do well.

But my time at Oxford was also expanding my experience in other ways. For the first time, I was exploring my Christian faith independently, away from the limits of attending the churches where my father was rector. I came to follow a regular routine on Sundays; the college Christian union met for breakfast and then parties of us walked down to the main student churches. In my case, I went to St Aldate’s, and after a long service (the morning service averaged about 90 minutes), then walked back to St Anne’s in time for lunch.

I was aware that religious commitment was out of fashion, so I was interested when I read an article in one of the student newspapers which quoted a mathematics student, Danielle, whom I knew slightly. She was a religious Jew, something that in my naivety I hadn’t realised, and she talked about observing the Sabbath, for example by not using her bicycle on that day. Later in the year, when we received the thick booklet with Oxford’s examination decrees and regulations, I noticed that there were provisions for Jewish students who felt unable to take examinations on the Sabbath to sit them at another time and presumed that such measures acknowledged the existence of students such as Danielle.

Fifteen years later, in 1998, I was off to Cambridge, this time to study for a master’s degree in medieval history. But as I looked at the general lecture lists, I noticed something odd about the mathematics lectures: some of them were held on Saturdays. Cambridge, like Oxford, also holds some exams on Saturdays. On their website, I can find information on special arrangements for examinations for disabled students, but not Jewish ones. A mathematics student like Danielle might have to make difficult choices if she went to Cambridge rather than Oxford.

So is Oxford “pandering to superstition”, while Cambridge is not? The question is misleading, unless you bring into the equation not only Danielle’s experience, but mine. As a Christian, every British university I’ve ever been to is set up to observe my main holy days. If they hadn’t been and I’d been expected to attend lectures on Sundays, I don’t know what I would have decided to do. Either my beliefs or my mathematical training would have had to suffer, and the suggestion that I should simply “go to a theological college” would also have excluded me from the highest level of academic education. Unlike Danielle, however, I didn’t have to make such choices, since I belong to the historically dominant religion of Britain.

The university that excludes religion then, is finally a myth, since it is inevitably embedded within wider systems that have already determined religious or non-religious parameters of acceptable behaviour. Making a university secular in the sense of religiously neutral, meanwhile, remains a difficult proposition; an awareness of the historical background is likely to be essential to doing so successfully.

The image is of Penrose tiling outside the Andrew Wiles Building, where the Mathematical Institute is now based in Oxford

Policing periodisation; or, the Carolingian poverty debate

When historians point out that something familiar in later periods was attested, and maybe quite normal, in the period they study too, they can find themselves accused of ‘precursorism’ – that is, the mechanical assertion that the antecedents of something really lie in a more distant past, in an anachronistic way (e.g. claiming that the Middle Ages were ‘democratic’, etc.). Sometimes the charge may be justified, but we should be careful that it isn’t being used simply as a means of discounting awkward evidence, evidence that poses a healthy challenge to conventional historical orthodoxies: that it’s not just policing periodisation, so to speak.

Here’s a case in point. Christianity was ambivalent about personal wealth from the very earliest days (as recently discussed by Peter Brown), but it’s generally agreed that calls for the medieval Church as an institution to return to a state of poverty only came somewhat later. The conventional chronology would suggest that this began in the eleventh and twelfth centuries with various heretical movements, developed in the Franciscan poverty debates of the thirteenth century, and culminated in the critiques expressed in the Reformation. That chronology implies these calls were a response to the growth in wealth, autonomy and self-consciousness of the post-Gregorian Church of the eleventh century. After all, as a thousand textbooks repeat, “there was no separation of State and Church in Charlemagne’s empire”, and so criticism of this kind wasn’t really thinkable earlier.[1]

However, a text in a manuscript from Auxerre suggests that it’d be worth rethinking some of these assumptions. I make no claim to have discovered this text myself (alas), which was edited by Guy Lobrichon in 2012, but it seems to me to be interesting enough to bring to the attention of a wider anglophone audience. It’s a treatise written in response to unnamed critics who were apparently pointing out that there is no biblical justification for a property-owning Church. At 30 pages long, it’s much too long to translate here in its entirety, but here’s a sample in English.

  1. There are many within the holy Church who assert in different ways but with a single aim that it [the Church] ought not to have accepted property or slaves or other gifts from the faithful, or if accepted, that it ought not to keep them. And they look in the holy scriptures for an authority justifying that the faithful should rationally have given these things, or the leaders of the churches should have accepted them, or their successors should have kept them without guilt. They say that the Church ought to be content with the poverty of apostolic times. But if that is so, then it will have the same small size [of those times] too. And just as the religious order has grown through the accumulation of time, so gradually the scarcity of the starting point will return …
  2. It is clear to all those considering it carefully, how in the Old and the New Testament the status religionis grew according to the words of the holy lesson. For Abel is read to have taken gifts to the Lord, but not to have put them on an altar. However Noah, growing a little further in religion, built an altar and made a sacrifice to the Lord from all his unstained flock…
  3. And whoever thinks that he can usurp church property consecrated to God and keep it and turn it to his own uses with impunity, let him be warned by the punishment of Achan who brought about a great disturbance of the people of Israel and a terrible fate for himself and his household, because he usurped things that had been consecrated to the Lord….”

As Lobrichon says in his excellent discussion, we might believe that we are reading a polemicist attacking the Waldensians or Francis of Assisi: were it not that the manuscript is from the ninth century.

Now, it can be doubtless be argued that the treatise is exceptional and unrepresentative. So it may be. Still, somebody (probably in Burgundy) put a great deal of effort into it, and painstakingly trawled through the Bible to find passages that supported his point (unless he relied on an already existing compendium, which is also possible). Perhaps he made up a debate with non-existent people – even so, the question of institutional poverty had crossed his mind.

To suggest on the basis of this text alone that there was a ‘Carolingian poverty debate’ comparable to that of the Franciscans would be precursorism, to be sure. Yet it surely also matters that people were thinking about what poverty meant, and whether the institutional church should own property, of what kind and how much, long before St Francis stripped off in Assisi, and even long before Pope Gregory VII started firing off his remarkable letters. If that poses a problem to conventional chronologies, then that’s something we need to think about, and not ignore.

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[1] This quotation is in fact drawn from Hoppenbrouwers and Blockmans’ Introduction to Medieval Europe, but it’s a typical sentiment to be found in many general textbooks of medieval Europe (especially those written by later medievalists!).