Erasmus in Cambridge

Erasmus brought the Renaissance to Cambridge.
But ties between the Fens and Europe began
long before that and contagion followed.

Until the twentieth century, Cambridge was as famous for its pestilential air as for its icy winds and dust-ups between town and gown. Malaria was endemic in the Fens and it was in Cambridge too that typhus made its English debut, in 1522, scarcely a decade after the place had been hit by a mysterious sweating sickness so virulent you could be ‘merry at dinner, dead by supper’. Erasmus arrived at Queens’ still weak from it.

Most devastating of all was the plague. Half the people of Cambridge died when the Black Death struck in 1348, and lesser attacks punctuated the next 300 years. Henry VI refused to lay the foundation stone for King’s chapel for fear of succumbing, and the epidemic of 1630 proved so virulent that the vice-chancellor was reduced to hiring an itinerant German plague doctor to halt the contagion, and finally to hanging himself in despair. A generation later, it was the last gasp of the plague that forced Newton to abandon Trinity for his family home in Lincolnshire, there to observe the falling apple that gave the world the theory of universal gravitation.

What made Cambridge so vulnerable, killing off some 10 per cent of students before they ever managed to graduate? Almost certainly the mobility of the town’s population and the extent of its trade. Until the coming of turnpikes and railways, most men were shackled to agricultural labour in the parishes of their birth. But Cambridge scholars travelled; not just to and from their home towns and villages, but to London and the universities of Europe. Fluent in Latin, the Esperanto of the day, well heeled and without family commitments, they were unusually free to roam.

Its very foundation, in 1209, the University owes to itinerant scholars of East Anglian birth who rejected Oxford and returned home after two of their fellows were hanged, in defiance of university privilege, for killing a prostitute. From the first, Cambridge fashioned itself not after Oxford but after the University of Paris, one of a handful of schools for advanced study attracting students from across Europe. The earliest colleges of England - Merton at Oxford (1264) and its Cambridge offspring Peterhouse (1284) - were modelled on the Sorbonne. One Cambridge college, Pembroke, was even founded by a Frenchwoman. Left wealthy at twenty when her much older husband, the earl of Pembroke, died in France (of apoplexy on rising from table, as if in a medieval Grande Bouffe), the pious Marie de St Pol commemorated him 1347 by endowing a house for 30 scholars, all barred in perpetuity from ‘drunkenness, taverns, contentiousness, lechery and notable viciousness’. Fellows whose Latin was too shaky to converse were enjoined to use French and when it came to admissions the college was to give preference to Frenchmen.

For a remote Fen town, medieval Cambridge enjoyed remarkable links with Europe. Direct contact by water was possible from Roman times, when artificial canals were cut to link the Cam to the tangle of rivers draining into the Wash. From Duroliponte, Roman Cambridge, you could travel to the Low Countries without setting foot on dry land.

So important had the network become by the time the first colleges were founded that wharves lined the banks of the river from the Mill Pool to Magdalene Bridge. King’s Backs, where today you see gliding punts and students feigning revision in the sun, was no more than a jumble of hythes for unloading fish, wine, fuel and textiles shipped from King’s Lynn.

Water transport along the coast and across the North Sea was the key also to Cambridge’s summer fairs, internationally known and already thriving when the first scholars arrived. Garlic Fair was held in August, Midsummer Fair in June, and the greatest of them all, Stourbridge Fair, after the September harvest. In its heyday Stourbridge Fair ran for five weeks each year. You could buy silk from Italy, iron from Spain and timber from the Baltic. There was bulk fish, cheese, wine and hops, and every luxury from perfume, furs and linen to ceramics, toys and musical instruments. Newton bought books here as well as the prism with which he discovered white light can be split into the colours of the spectrum.

The fair was, insisted Daniel Defoe when he visited in the 1720s, ‘the greatest in the whole nation’, on a par with the great fairs of Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Leipzig. It was the Notting Hill Carnival of its day, loud and rumbustious, boasting ‘a Multitude of Gentry, Scholars, Tradesmen, Whores, Hawkers, Pedlars and Pick-pockets’. Even a century later the proctors were struggling to control ‘dwarfs and giants, conjurors and learned pigs’, not to mention a dog from Paris that could read, write and cast accounts. Only in the 1930s did the fair peter out.

Although it was only after 1500 that the University itself was drawn into the European mainstream, the elite ventured abroad long before that. Greek scholar John Gunthorp spent the 1450s in Ferrara, and the physician John Doket the 1460s in Padua and Bologna. Padua, Europe’s biggest and best medical school, was a particular draw. Doket’s successor as provost of King’s, John Argentein, studied there, as rather later did the Tudor physician Dr John Caius and the equally formidable William Harvey, the man who discovered the circulation of the blood.

After 1500, Cambridge scholars could be found at universities across Europe: at Louvain, Angers, Turin, Valencia, Freiburg, Cologne, and above all at Paris. It was in Paris that Richard Whitford of Queens’ first met Desiderius Erasmus, chief propagandist of the northern Renaissance, whose stay at Queens’ in 1511-13, put Cambridge on the European map. The great humanist scholar was not the university’s first foreign teacher, but his reputation was international and his impact in proportion.

Cambridge ‘really suits me fairly well’, Erasmus once confessed, but that did not stop him grumbling about the cold, his ‘grinding poverty’, the undrinkable beer and wine, and local people who ‘combine extreme boorishness with extreme bad faith’. He introduced Greek to the curriculum and laboured away at his edition of the Greek New Testament, discovering within the colleges ‘so much religion and so marked a sobriety in living that you’d despise every form of religious regime in comparison’.

Erasmus, so the saying goes, laid the egg that Luther hatched. Within a decade, the Reformation proper had reached Cambridge, fomented in the White Horse tavern off King’s Parade, popularly known as ‘Little Germany’. Here met students like Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, as the greatest bishops in the land all to be burned at the stake in Oxford during the reign of Mary.

Burned at the stake in Cambridge, albeit posthumously, was the famous German reformer Martin Bucer. Elected Regius Professor of Divinity in 1550, he was dead within a year thanks to the chill Fen climate, his funeral in Great St Mary’s attended by 3,000 people. Yet within five years his coffin was disinterred, chained upright to a stake and incinerated in the market place as if he were still alive, ‘a great sorte of books’ with him.

The warmth of this welcome seems to have frightened European scholars off Cambridge for more than a century.

Peter Richards


This is an extract from an interesting article entitled The Europeans which first appeared in CAM [Cambridge Alumni Magazine] issue no 31, 2001. We are grateful to the editor for allowing us to reprint it here.

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