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In the year 875 C.E., the city of Cambridge, located in what we now refer to as the United Kingdom, was well on its way to becoming a substantial area. It was in 875 C.E. that Cambridge is first found in written records, and it is seen that the bridge across the River Cam or Granta (the river from which the town adopted its name) had been built, so the city was therefore accessible from nearby areas, allowing it to grow. Slowly but surely, the population rose, and commerce increased with it. By 1086 C.E., Cambridge had already become an important trading center for the area, and by 1100 C.E., the town had become more easily accessible by way of the river systems, so it attracted a multitude of both traders and clergymen, eventually leading up to the year 1200 C.E., when Cambridge became established as a thriving community. It had a distinct commercial community and had at least one school of some degree of merit.

Although Cambridge was blooming from its somewhat humble beginnings to a flourishing society, the town of Oxford nearby was not doing as well. In 1209 C.E., the city was riddled with hostile townsmen. Although this was bad for the citizens of Oxford, it was an important factor leading up to the founding of the University of Cambridge (known mainly today as Cambridge University in slang terms). It was in 1209 that scholars from Oxford fled to Cambridge in search of a safe haven from the hostility of their former home. By 1226 C.E. there were enough students residing in Cambridge that an organization was founded. The organization was taught by its own members who had previously completed the courses, and was led by a head member known as a Chancellor. It was this expanding group of scholars who, unknowingly, allowed for the slow but sure formation of what is now one of the world’s oldest universities. The University of Cambridge is the school that paved the way for universities, as we know them today to come into existence.

In the early years of Cambridge, the students were typically young men in the age range of the mid-teen years, and just as many college students do today, were known to sometimes wreak havoc in the city. They were only allowed to stay in the city if they paid tuition, and took basic courses in logic, rhetoric, and grammar, but they ultimately obtained either bachelor’s or master’s degrees upon taking additional classes in the areas of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. This is a lot like what most major colleges and universities in the United States do—they charge tuition and require students to take a pre-determined set of basic class requirements. Once these are completed, students proceed to take additional classes and obtain a bachelor’s degree in the field of their choosing. Some students, upon gaining a master’s degree, continued even further to study other subjects, such as civil law and medicine, similarly to what we see in graduate schools today.

In those same early years of Cambridge, there were no actual professors. Students were taught by older members of the group of scholars, then referred to simply as “the organization,” who had previously completed the coursework, and were determined by their colleagues to be fit to teach the material. It was the collective group of colleagues who became known as the “universitas,” or “university.” Later on, this system changed itself into something more like what we see amongst modern-day university professors. Instead of merely accepting people who had completed the coursework to lead the classes, it became apparent that it was essential that scholars received written degrees to prove that they had, in fact, completed the courses of the university, and that these students should partake in a ceremony following the completion of their studies. This ceremony came to be known as graduation, and is a practice still observed not only in universities, but also in high schools. It was also in these old graduation ceremonies that the wearing of colored robes and hats be worn to indicate completed levels of education. After getting a written degree and going through the graduation ceremony, a scholar now had proof that they were a graduate of the university, and could thus apply their new skills, be it as a professor or work as an academic in the field they studied for. ("University of Cambridge")

Cambridge University also had a major effect on how colleges and universities run today in that it founded the Cambridge University Press in 1584. In medieval times, acquiring texts and manuscripts was an extremely difficult matter. Universities had to trade and barter to get the materials required for teaching classes. It wasn’t until the early processes of printing came along that obtaining written materials became easier. Previously universities, even those aside from Cambridge, kept what were called university chests. These were essentially collections of written works the schools had acquired and saved, and could be used to check for accuracy when copying. It was these university chests that in time grew to become libraries, and Cambridge had a huge part to play in the process.

Although Cambridge, as well as most other universities, relied on the spoken word to educate students, it was well recognized that those words needed to be backed up, and the best way to back up what one said was through books. Prior to printing, books had to be traded, and the person whose job it was to get books was known as a university stationer. This was the person who was familiar with the trade organization of the day, and many were often licensed to have a sort of membership with the university they traded for, and as a result could enjoy the perks of being under the protection of such a large establishment, as well as being allowed to live on school grounds, but also ran the risk of being disciplined by the school should things in the trade business go sour. A university stationer had a very important and delicate job—books were required to properly run a school, but they were also excruciatingly valuable, making their acquisition a semi-difficult process. In fact, books were so valuable that at Cambridge, some poor students would give the school a book rather than taking out a loan to pay for various fees. All of this meant that books were expensive and hard to get. Although universities designated a specific person to get hold of various printed materials, something more practical was needed in order to better the educational process, and that is where printing comes in.

The process of printing actually originated in Germany, so it was one that slowly spread throughout Europe, eventually reaching England in 1450 C.E.. The moveable printing press was an invention developed in Germany by Johannes Gutenberg. Prior to this invention, books had to be copied by hand. It took a long time and a lot of effort, so books were very expensive and hard to come by, but the Gutenberg press allowed for written materials to be printed, produced, and distributed much faster and cheaper. (Batchelor 368-369, 2010) Since printing originated in foreign countries, many of Cambridge’s stationers began being foreigners as well, often being of Flemish, Dutch, German, or French descent. Since they came from different parts of the world, they were very useful in gathering books from other countries, since they were familiar with the trading circles there. As time passed, printers themselves began venturing away from their home countries. One such man was Johann van Laer of Siegburg (near Cologne) in Germany. Siegburg brought both his equipment and his skill to Cambridge, where he changed his name to John Siberch and became the university’s first printer. However, Siberch wasn’t at Cambridge long enough to print many books (some estimates guess that he may have printed as few as ten books during his time at the University), so historians don’t date the organization known as the Cambridge University Press until much later.

The Press was slow coming about due to legislation reducing the number of foreign printers allowed, so England had to foster its own printing industry. In 1583 C.E., the University passed a Grace to appoint printer and bookseller Thomas Thomas as an official printer of the University. Shortly afterward, it was his work as a printer at Cambridge that led to the birth of Cambridge University printing and publishing, which later became an organization known today as the Cambridge University Press.

Although the school often had to deal with legal troubles regarding what was being printed, once Cambridge had its own official press, it was much easier to get hold of the books necessary for learning. If one examines a University today, books are found everywhere. Campuses have their own bookstores and extensive libraries. Students have their own textbooks, which are relied on both inside and outside of the classroom to aid in their studies. At most college bookstores, students may buy and sell used books, and college textbooks are notorious for being very expensive, just as regular books were back in England in the 1500s when the Press was founded. Many schools even have their own custom publishing groups, which print materials specific to the needs of the school. This is similar to what Cambridge University Press did. Cambridge University helped shape the method of obtaining books, as well as the method of materializing texts for the use of education. The University of Cambridge formed their own press and emphasized the importance of books in education, which further shaped how universities are today. (Black 6-35, 1984)
Since books were becoming easier to come by, and their importance in the educational process continued to be recognized, it soon became necessary for the books to be stored and organized. This is where the now famous Cambridge University Library comes into existence. Previously, when the books owned by a university were so few that they could be stored in a mere chest, accessing the works wasn’t very difficult, but as their collections grew, scholars at Oxford and Cambridge required easier and more frequent access to books, so the need for university libraries arose. Oxford had its university library created for them by Bishop Cobham in the early fourteenth century, but Cambridge did not get a library of their own until about a century later. No specific person can be clearly associated with the formation of the library, and there is also no specific date to which its founding can be assigned, although some rough records date it to around 1350 C.E.. However, it wasn’t until around the second decade of the fifteenth century that its collection appears to have been significant. (Oates 1-37, 1986)

The Cambridge University Library may have started out small, containing only the books that were previously stored in a giant chest, but the library collection, now hundreds of years old, has grown into one of the largest and most well-known book collections in the modern world. There are now more than one hundred libraries at the University of Cambridge. According to the University of Cambridge Library’s website, the libraries “house rich and diverse collections of information resources to support the teaching and research of the University.” ("Cambridge Libraries Gateway") Today, libraries are a staple of all college campuses. Although technology has advanced and things like ebooks, websites, and online databases exist, it remains necessary to this day to have a safe, organized place where a scholar (be they student or faculty) can have access to the books and other written materials necessary to teach, learn, and do research.
By at least the fifteenth century, the University of Cambridge had established itself as a university, obtained and maintained a steady stream of students and instructors, created its very own curriculums, ceremonies, and traditions, developed its own press, and began fostering a library that is now world-renown. However, in the era of the Enlightenment, Cambridge underwent a paradigm shift that would forever change not only Cambridge itself, but it would also have an effect on how other universities developed curriculums. Near the end of the seventeenth century, the curriculum at Cambridge changed. Although many schools kept the same system of scholastic instruction for quite some time, Cambridge moved towards a more dynamic system that cleared out classical logic and instead opened up studies in the areas of things like mathematics and science. By the time the eighteenth century rolled around, Cambridge had changed its curriculum so much so that the study of classic works was nearly all that was left of the old program of study, and was essentially surpassed by the Enlightenment-era studies of mathematical sciences. (Gascoigne, 6-9, 1989)
At many of today’s research and science-driven universities, this is still the case. Things that are considered to be traditional studies (like the study of classic works) are still maintained, but a lot of emphasis is placed on things like calculus, physics, chemistry, etc. Cambridge was, and still is, one of the world’s major universities, so when it adopted the shift from scholasticism to dynamic study it influenced universities all over the world, and helped shape the way universities run today.

Both the quality of the education that can be received for a student at the University of Cambridge and the prestige of its faculty are enough to make it successful university, but when one takes into account the amount of profound research done at the university over the course of the over 1000 years in which the school has been in existence, there is no questioning that it is an impressive school. Throughout history, Cambridge University has been one of the world’s leading universities in the field of mathematical sciences. Large groups of scholars have conducted research on everything from thermodynamics and electromagnetism to billiard balls and bicycles. (Warwick 7, 2003) When a school becomes this prestigious, it can’t simply accept just anybody. Standards for admittance had to be set, so Cambridge did just that. Today, it is required for one to go through an application and selection process in order to enter nearly any university, but Cambridge has made a name for itself as a school that you must be extremely qualified for to get in.

In the United States, to apply for a college a student typically takes the well-known SAT exam, sends their scores to a school, typically along with an essay and letters of recommendation, and hopes that they are accepted. However, the University of Cambridge has developed such a high-quality reputation that if an American student wishes to attend the University, getting in is significantly more difficult than applying to an average American school. Today, one must not only get extremely good grades throughout all of high school, but they must also do well on the SAT exam—typically, Cambridge will look at SAT scores and make individual offers to students who get high scores. This means that if they don’t offer you acceptance right away, it is highly likely that you will be rejected. Also, the University’s admission standards claim that students who are granted admission are usually ones who have scored 5’s on at least five Advanced Placement tests in appropriate areas of study. Advanced Placement tests are exams that students in college-level high school classes may take for potential college credit—the highest possible score is a 5, and the exams are known amongst many high school students as being notoriously difficult. The University of Cambridge has set its standards, and has set the bar high for other universities to get good students. Their admission standards have shaped how other universities allow students to come to their schools. (“University of Cambridge”)
Upon looking at the University of Cambridge, it is not difficult to see the myriad of effects the school has had on the way universities work today. Today, in general, students in their teens enter a university. They pay tuition and take a set of basic class requirements, then proceed to take additional classes and earn a degree, which is written on a diploma, and finally they go through a graduation ceremony. The role of books in the university is crucial as well. Many universities have their own sort of publishing, just as Cambridge has the Press. Extensive libraries are a regular sight at universities, and many schools have strict admission requirements. So many schools share these traits, and they all have roots back to the University of Cambridge. The University exhibited these traits as far back as the medieval times, and over a thousand years later, the school is still running, as are the thousands of schools it has helped mold into what they are. By looking back on Cambridge’s humble beginnings all the way up to its current state, one can see that it was the organization of Cambridge University, as well as its innovations in dynamic teaching, printing, university libraries, and admission standards, that lined the path for modern universities to succeed.



The University of Cambridge and the Formation of the Modern University


Page Author: Nichole Slack

Sunday, 4 March, 2012 19:13



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Batchelor, Stephen J. Medieval History For Dummies. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. (UK), 2010. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 15 Feb. 2012.

Black, M.H. Cambridge University Press 1584-1984. Melbourne: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1984. 6-35. Print.

Gascoigne, John. Cambridge in the Age of the Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. 6-9. Print.

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"Undergraduate Admissions: Cambridge Admissions Office- Entrance Requirements." University of Cambridge. N.p., 2011. Web. 17 Feb 2012. <


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