The Medieval University Monopoly

From History Today

(not really to do with books, but PG found it interesting):

In June 1686, a small family – a clergyman, his wife, and their daughter – disembarked from a ship at the docks of Boston, Massachusetts. They had just finished a long journey of a month or more across the Atlantic, escaping from England. The clergyman, a scholarly, 60 year old named Charles Morton, was fleeing prosecution. His crime? Teaching students – or, more specifically, teaching students in north London.  

From 1334 onwards, graduates of Oxford and Cambridge were required to swear an oath that they would not give lectures outside these two English universities. It was a prohibition occasioned by the secession in 1333 of men from Oxford to the little Lincolnshire town of Stamford. They were escaping the violence and chaos which often attended medieval university life – the frequent battles between students, and between students and other communities within the town – the same conditions, in fact, which had led an earlier generation of scholars to up sticks and leave Oxford for Cambridge. But their action now threatened both universities, and so the Stamford experiment had to be suppressed. The sheriff of Lincoln, the lord chancellor, even the king, Edward III, were all called into play and the result became known as the ‘Stamford Oath’; an oath which Oxford and Cambridge graduates continued to swear until 1827.

It is true to say that Charles Morton was unusually unlucky in being prosecuted for breaking this oath by establishing his own academy at Newington Green in London. His evident success in recruiting numerous and impressive students, like Daniel Defoe, was part of the problem, as were his staunchly Presbyterian religious beliefs and his radical, republican political views. But the depressing effect of the Stamford Oath was undeniable and its symbolism inescapable. Repeated at each graduation and reinforced by successive revisions of both universities’ statutes, it made their determination to preserve a duopoly in higher learning absolutely plain.

This was in sharp contrast to the European experience. Just as Oxford and Cambridge were establishing and policing their unique right to produce graduates, ever growing numbers of universities were being founded across the Continent. In the 14th century new institutions appeared in towns from Pisa to Prague; from Kraków to Cahors. In the years that followed, the gap in numbers between English universities and those on the Continent grew even greater, with over 100 founded or refounded in Europe after 1500. Oxford and Cambridge remained the only universities in England. Indeed, even as Morton’s teaching career began in the mid-17th century, universities were springing up in such unlikely places as the small towns of Prešov in Slovakia and Nijmegen in the Netherlands. The English experience was also very unlike that of the Scots, who acquired five universities between 1451, when Glasgow opened, and 1582, when Edinburgh was established.

. . . .

In the first place, there is the question of why it was that Oxford and Cambridge were so keen to suppress other universities. Secondly, there is the question of how they succeeded. Finally, just as importantly, and perhaps even more interestingly, there is the question of what changed to make them reverse this position so comprehensively in the years after 1827.

In some respects, the question of why Oxbridge was so jealous of its status seems the easiest to answer. In the most general terms, it makes sense for the providers of an exclusive product – a university degree, say – to take action to preserve their exclusivity. Universities were originally little more than a sort of trade guild, a separate group of masters and their students, who controlled admission, regulated quality and negotiated with the local authorities. Just as butchers and bakers sought to restrict the supply of their skills, so masters within the university hoped to protect their distinctive rights. These privileges were threatened by rivals. Oxford and Cambridge continued to act like guilds long after they lost or forgot their origins. Thus it was that even in the 17th century they fought off attempts by places as various as Carlisle and London, Ripon and Shrewsbury to establish their own institutes of higher learning. Thus it was that they crushed the nascent Durham University in 1660. And thus it was that they pursued poor Charles Morton.

. . . .

The answer is control. Just as the two universities wanted to control the supply of teachers and students, so the English Church and state wanted to control the universities. Universities could be – indeed, were – the source of dangerous heresies, where people learnt to think the wrong things. Oxford gave birth to the reforming, proto-Protestant Lollard movement in the 14th century. Cambridge was home to an alarming nest of evangelicals – humanist-inspired converts to church reform like the martyrs Robert Barnes (c.1495-1540) and Thomas Bilney (1495-1531) – 200 years later. With only two universities it was easier to control theological debate and even to use one of the institutions to oversee the other. It is no coincidence that the Cambridge-educated bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, together with the Cambridge-educated archbishop Thomas Cranmer, were sent to loyalist, Catholic Oxford to be tried and burnt in the 1550s.


Link to the rest at History Today

26 thoughts on “The Medieval University Monopoly”

  1. It may not be really to do with books, but in some respects Oxford and Cambridge in those centuries remind me of the Big Five publishers.

    The two universities crowded out the competition and established themselves with what seemed to be an ironclad oligopoly. But it came at a high price. Having made themselves the sole providers of educated clergymen in the Church of England, they unfitted themselves for any other purpose; and having armoured themselves against any further change of religious doctrine, they made themselves unable to cope with any other great change. When the Industrial Revolution came, it was largely the work of self-educated men, partly of workingmen, and the English universities played virtually no role at all.

    I’m sure you can do the necessary search-and-replace to complete the analogy with the Big Five.

    • It’s a common effect. Institutionalized orthodoxies are unable to deal with change, mostly because by armoring up they lose the skills to safely deal with challenges.

      It’s a result of protectionism, the creation of barriers to keep out competitive (products, thoughts, attitudes). Their “safety zones” don’t stop the outside world from changing freely only increase disparities. Irrelevance is the least of the eventual outcomes.

      In business it often ends with bankruptcy since protectionism only delays the reckoning until the disparity between the free market and the protected zone becomes untenable. Irrelevance is deadly.

      In politics the repression typically leads to revolts, in the ballot box or in the streets. The Reagan and Trump elections, the collapses of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia being examples. Institutional irrelevance is just as deadly as in business for the same reason: people seek solutions elsewhere.

      In publishing the symptoms are all over, well known here: declining peak sales. Declining “quality” submissions, etc.

      It’s much like in physics: growing pressures *will* be relieved, either through safety valves or explosion. Rmoring up and pretending everything is under control doesn’t last.

      • Felix – I think free competition in nearly everything (I can’t think of an exception, but I don’t want to say a dumb thing) is a very good idea for the benefit of all or nearly all.

        • Me neither, but the competition has to be truly free and honest, not merely unfettered.
          Some operators promote versions of “free” that are merely tilted playing fields rigged to protect the politically connected. It can occasionally be hard to identify when some players (usually on a global scale) are only giving lip service, while dumping product or restraining competition in the name of security, fairness, or “quality”. Japan in the 80’s was notorious for protecting their domestic auto and electronics markets from imports with absurd regulationsm

          Right now, Apple is the poster child:

          • We should remember that the free market and open competition are great for society, but the larger the producer the less popular they find those free markets. (Note retailers are not producers.)

            Price controls? Limited entry? Subsidies? Tariffs? That’s much easier for the established producer than having to continually fight against every upstart in a garage with a better idea.

          • I haven’t got time to get into details, but in fact it was Epic, not Apple, that violated the contract between them, in a deliberate attempt to pick a fight. Now they are orchestrating a PR war against Apple. Don’t be fooled by their propaganda. They, too, run what is effectively an app store, and they don’t treat their developers any better than Apple treats them.

            • Of course they did and of course they are.

              They needed to raise enough of a stink for the rest of Apple’s victims to come out of hiding. And the list is long.

              They did it because they smelled blood after Apple killed xcloud for iOS on ridiculous grounds. Microsoft just shrugged off the Apple buyers since they don’t need them enough to go to war but Epic has a history of fighting to the death. (Just ask SILICON KNIGHTS.) And unlike most of the other victims that pioneer a category only to be kicked out they have the deep pockets to fight on Apple’s preferred battleground: PR.

              Think of it as a #Metoo campaign to force full disclosure of how Apple arbitrarily applies the TOC.

              Look what they did to Kobo, for one.
              After they forced Agency on them, limiting their cut on ebooks to 30%, they demanded…30%. Leaving Kobo with nothing.

              When Kobo took the signup feature out of the app and relied on customers signing up via the web, they forced them to take out all references to the website, even for customer support.

              (Then tbere was the ebook on creating ebooks they wouldn’t allow because it mentioned Kindle.)

              Or how about the time they refused the Random House app until RANDOM HOUSE joined the conspiracy? That was among the emails submitted by the DOJ at the conspiracy trial, btw.

              And yeah, they charge everybody the same 30%. Except when they don’t. After Amazon stopped selling Apple products they wrestled for a while and eventually they got a more “friendly” rate of 10% or so. TOC says 30% for all, but reality is it isn’t when the owner of the app can afford to fight back.

              That’s the whole point of the lawsuit: to force discovery and raise enough of a ruckus the DOJ has no choice but to step in.

              Cause saying pretty please wasn’t going to hack it.
              This campaign is long overdue.

              They’ll not find many *willing* defenders in the app store.

              • Amazon gets a 10% rate for physical merchandise, and so does anyone else who sells physical merchandise through an app on the Apple app store. There are various other exceptions. None of them apply to Epic. This does not entitle Epic to do what they did—namely, to embed code in one of their apps that changed its behaviour in response to a setting on Epic’s own servers, causing the app to violate Apple’s terms of service from that moment onward. A violation is a violation, and they are not entitled to do that. Whatever you may think of Apple’s tactics, Epic is in blatant and deliberate breach of contract and has none of my sympathy.

                • Like I said: they were baiting Apple and Google.

                  Just because it was deliberate doesn’t mean it is wrong. The provocation serves a deeper purpose: proving the TERMS *as applied* are anti-competitive.

                  Let it play out.

                  And don’t let Apple fondness blind you to the fact that lockdown systems and predatory patform access practices aren’t just an Apple issue. The Epic lawsuits are targetting Apple and Google but Amazon and Roku are also at risk of getting called called on tbe carpet for similar pracfice on their streaming app “stores”. Tbey already have public staredowns ongoing with WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal. And the demanded terms of the platform holders are decidedly unreasonable. (Roku demands are particularly eggregious.)


                  The rules of walled gardens are about to be regulated. No more “the contract is the contract”.

                  And once government regulators get involved all bets are off.

                  The splatter potential here, for all digital distribution platforms, is very high. eBooks included.

                • Watch for the idea that if one thing is changed, all will be wonderful and nothing else will change. There will be no response to the change, and everybody will simply accept and continue on as before. One change will not lead to another and set off a cascade of unanticipated changes.

                • Their tactic is working where it matters, getting the snowball rolling. Also chipping in, the major news organizations:

                  For news apps that offer subscription services, the App Store normally takes a 30 percent cut in the first year, then a 15 percent cut thereafter. However, DCN is arguing that Apple gave more favorable terms to Amazon with its Prime Video iOS app, taking only a 15 percent commission from the start — as revealed during recent congressional hearings. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, which is part of the DCN group fighting Apple’s fees.)

                  “We would like to know what conditions our members — high quality digital content companies — would need to meet in order to qualify for the arrangement Amazon is receiving for its Amazon Prime Video app in the Apple App Store,” Kint wrote. “I ask that you clearly define the conditions that Amazon satisfied for its arrangement so that DCN’s member companies meeting those conditions can be offered the same agreement.”

                  Yeah, shutting EPIC up is all that matters. Nobody else is going to take note and start squawking…
                  No siree…

                  The snowball is growing.

    • Nice parallel analogy, Tom.

      While, per a comment on another post, smart people can say (and do) dumb things, collections of smart people are prone to the same weakness. Groups of smart people assuring one another that they are smart and, therefore, whatever they collectively say or do will, to a certainty, be brilliant.

      And wise.

        • “The collective IQ of a committee is inversely propotional to it’s size.”
          Apple to political parties.
          Apple to “wisdom of crowds”.

          • Uh, autocorruption feature at work: Should be Apply, of course. Although Apple’s attitude towards trivialities like anti-trust shows it fits them, too.

  2. Some Universities Are About to Be “Walking Dead” | Amanpour and Company

    The main point that Galloway was making in the Amanpour episode, is that parents saw their kids classes online while they were home, and they were outraged that they were paying 50k for classes that have not changed since the 1980s.

    This is the video that sparked the discussion:

    The Rant: The College Implosion | NO MERCY, NO MALICE

    This is a longer interview:

    The Coming Disruption to College

    BTW, without going into details, for decades I saw that any University was one class action suit away from being asset stripped, bulldozed and turned into Yuppie condos. I can think of six class actions to do that. And that was before the pandemic.

    The same way that a system has been set up to put a business through bankruptcy/reorganization, they will set up a process to put Universities through reorganization. Reorganizing a business generates huge amounts of money for the law firm. The same will happen with putting Universities through reorganization.

    – All that is sitting in my Story folders for when it comes time to write about The Billionaire.

    What’s interesting, is when I started writing about The Billionaire, a billion dollars was a ridiculous amount of money. Now, after twenty years, not so much.

    Compare the two versions of the same movie and see how that has changed.

    The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) trailer

    The Thomas Crown Affair Official Trailer #1 – Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo Movie (1999) HD

    In just 30 years they went from a Millionaire to a Billionaire. When they did the movie in 1999 they had no clue what a billion dollars even meant.

    Twenty years later, if you don’t have around a hundred billion, no one will talk to you.

      • The stories will be set in the 20th Century to avoid the inflated wealth caused by Billionaires who own “virtual” wealth rather than physical wealth. When you can have a company that is “worth” 50 billion one day, then have no value the next, there is something wrong.

        Wacky Waving – Airdancer Wales

        – Turn off the fan, and each of them collapse.

        That started with the Dot Com “nonsense”.

        • We are all reaping the rewards of the Dot Com nonsense. But we can’t forget the destruction that comes with the creative destruction is brutal.

        • It’s not necessarlly nonsense. It is a function of what money is in the post-gold standard era. Money is value. But Value in IP and network effects, both very real, is fluid.

          I can create a magic tech, say a real reactionless drive, and create a whole new economy around that proprietary tech and be worth zillions. Then a spy steals the critical IP and puts ot up on Wikileaks and everybody can do it. Collapse.

          Value today is a result of availability, usage, and perception.
          It is fluid and can be ephemeral.

          Damon Knight illustrated this decades ago, in his excellent A FOR ANYTHING, well before the dot com bubble. The bubble was the result of this, not the cause. Not the first collapse, either. There have been collapses before, there will be again.

          Look at oil: oil was expensive and seemingly rare (peak oil! Club of Rome!) until the decades old fracking tech was, overnight, refined and made practical. Suddenly the US has the biggest reserves and is a net exporter. Availability is up. Pandemic hits. Usage goes down. Value of extracted oil goes down. Even negative.

          Or look at rare metals. The US was the world’s primary source, from one big mine. Demand was low and fluctuated. The company went under. Then Tesla figured out how to make practical electric cars. Demand boomed. Beyond what the other sources can meet. Value zoomed. China is top supplier. Now the US mine is being reopened. Tesla has a battery design that can last millions of mikes. Some gas cars go decades. Electrics do better. With a lifetime battery, the market for rare earth metals might get flooded.

          Asteroid mining is coming. Not like in the movies, but rather finding a small metallic asteroid and capturing it to near earth orbit and dropping miner robots on it. One asteroid could provide a million tons of gold a year. Or platinum. Or rare earths. Trillions per year even after the prices collapse for ground based sources.

          All Value is fluid.

          It’s not just tbe market for services and IP that can vanish overnight.

          • In hindsight, the normal operation of a free market is often called nonsense, wasteful, unnecessary, etc.
            But, that unruly and chaotic system produced the benefits we and much of the world enjoy today.

            Many are convinced they know how to do it better. However, to date, they have all failed miserably.

            God Bless the nonsense, for we all live better for it.

          • Even supposing the ridiculous, that there is an asteroid in the solar system with a high enough concentration of gold to yield a million tons a year (short answer: there isn’t), the capacity to mine that much gold would be worth very little.

            The total amount of gold mined in all of human history is estimated at about 200,000 tons. It’s only a precious metal because it’s rare. Quintuple the world supply in 12 months, with the promise of equal increments to come, and the price would collapse permanently. It would be worthless as an investment or as a form of reserve currency, and probably would lose favour even for jewellery. Napoleon III gave his baby a rattle made of pure aluminium, which at the time was far more expensive than gold. Imagine anyone doing that now.

            • Actually there are lots of heavy metal asteroids out there.
              They’re the remnants of what would’ve been a Mercury sized world that never coalesced

              Blame Jupiter.

              On the other hand, the only reason we’re here is because of Jupiter. It evens out.

              Multiple types of asteroids have been identified but the three main types would include the C-type, S-type, and M-type asteroids:

              C-type asteroids have a high abundance of water which is not currently of use for mining but could be used in an exploration effort beyond the asteroid. Mission costs could be reduced by using the available water from the asteroid. C-type asteroids also have a lot of organic carbon, phosphorus, and other key ingredients for fertilizer which could be used to grow food.[24]

              S-type asteroids carry little water but look more attractive because they contain numerous metals including: nickel, cobalt and more valuable metals such as gold, platinum and rhodium. A small 10-meter S-type asteroid contains about 650,000 kg (1,433,000 lb) of metal with 50 kg (110 lb) in the form of rare metals like platinum and gold.[24]

              M-type asteroids are rare but contain up to 10 times more metal than S-types[24]

              A class of easily recoverable objects (EROs) was identified by a group of researchers in 2013. Twelve asteroids made up the initially identified group, all of which could be potentially mined with present-day rocket technology. Of 9,000 asteroids searched in the NEO database, these twelve could all be brought into an Earth-accessible orbit by changing their velocity by less than 500 meters per second (1,800 km/h; 1,100 mph). The dozen asteroids range in size from 2 to 20 meters (10 to 70 ft)

              S-types is where the money lies.

              Or you could see this:


              There are already a dozen companies in tbe US and Europe preparing the tech to identify exactly which asteroid to go after and how to move it to near Earth space. They’re not spending that money and lobbying their governments and the UN for nothing.

              First space mining is going to be on the moon, though. For water.

              Asteroids will take a bit longer, say the second half of the century.

              For all that Musk talks of Mars, the real rush for near term commercialization will be near Earth space. The moon, near Earth asteroids. Ca 2040 or so.

              And yes, just one asteroid can completely wreck the value of rare metals. Just be glad the moon is too light to have much of those.

              • To an astronomer, ‘heavy metal’ means iron-nickel alloy. That’s worth bearing in mind.

                A small 10-meter S-type asteroid contains about 650,000 kg (1,433,000 lb) of metal with 50 kg (110 lb) in the form of rare metals like platinum and gold.

                That’s interesting, since the S stands for siliceous and those asteroids are composed mostly of rock. The metals they do contain are primarily iron and magnesium, neither one of which is rare enough on Earth to be worth the trouble of mining elsewhere. As for gold and platinum, I’ll need some serious convincing and proper references to believe that anyone at this time has any accurate idea how much of those any particular asteroid contains. There are sound reasons grounded in the physics of nucleosynthesis why those elements are rare, and they should be expected to be rare everywhere in the universe.

                • Not as rare as people used to think.
                  The old theories are all being updated or replaced.

                  For example, there is a lot of evidence, and growing, that the Sun is atypical, the solar system is atypical, Earth is atypical. It’s called the rare Earth theory.

                  For another, we’re finding water everywhere. We’re finding oceans, everwhere.

                  And finally, we’re actually sampling asteroids and comets. We’re finding them to be very heterogeneous. They may be classified as silicon-based or carbon-based or whatever, but there are mixed chunks of a planetary core out there. The trick is finding them.

                  Longer ranged remote sensing telescopes are being designed. Internet access isn’t tbe only area where we’ll be building entire fleets of small cheap satelites.

                  The heavy metal asteroids aren’t canali on Mars: these are proper measurements. Check the Wikipedia piece for the scientific references.

                  Also, in this modern context, heavy metals are the periodic table heavy metals. Platimum group included.


                  Also, don’t be so quick to dismiss “mundane” materials like iron or silicon. Those minerals are *already* outside the gravity well of Earth. We may be closing in on $10 a pound launch costs (and all that means; not everything of that has sunk in to most people) but zero launch costs is even better. Not everthing mined in space will be coming down to earth; the primary uses for a long time are going to be in space.

                  When we get around to building space foundries (much later) those materials will be part of the output. The heavy metals might get shipped to earth but the rest will be put to use bootstrapping operations. Say, building the mining robots and solar mirrors on site out of native materials.

                  It may sound science fictiony but asteroid mining is within the horizon of economic forecasting. The enabling technologies–cheaper remote sensing satellites for exploration, cheaper launch services to get the starter gear onsite, and the robotics needed to separate the materials–exist and the needed devices are all being prototyped right now.

                  It’s next generation stuff but it’s no pipe dream.

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