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Teaching natural philosophy and mathematics at Oxford and Cambridge 1500-1570

By James Hannam


The syllabus in natural philosophy and mathematics was radically changed in the course of the sixteenth century with new subjects, textbooks and methods introduced. Education became more practical and less dependent on medieval antecedents. Printing technology improved textbooks and made it possible to replace them with newer versions. Following sweeping syllabus reform around 1500, the Cambridge Master of Arts course was heavily slanted towards humanism. The old scholastic textbooks were rejected and replaced with modern authors. The purpose of natural philosophy was explicitly to illuminate the providential work of the creator, especially through natural history (a newly developing subject in the sixteenth century thanks to newly translated and promulgated Greek texts) where examples of God’s work were there for all to see. Oxford remained wedded to scholastic texts although the trivium was reformed along humanistic lines. Cromwell’s visitors in 1535 outlawed scholasticism by decree but gave little indication of the alternative (their white list stipulating only Aristotle). The solution adopted by the Oxford masters was to import the Cambridge syllabus and textbooks wholesale. When the evangelical regime of Edward VI reformed the universities in 1549, the humanist natural philosophy syllabus was adjudged appropriate, especially those parts promoted by Philip Melanchthon at the University of Wittenberg. However, the visitors’ background at court meant they valued ethics and politics more highly. The Reformation itself left natural philosophy largely unaffected although the barrier preventing Catholics from entering clerical careers after 1558 appears to have encouraged some to remain philosophers. In mathematics, the 1549 visitation was highly significant. Cambridge University’s initiative in 1500 in employing a university lecturer in the subject was in danger of stagnating due to inappropriate appointments. However, John Cheke’s statutes in 1549 promoted the use of modern textbooks of practical arithmetic, finance and surveying useful to the centralised Tudor state. He also introduced the new subject of geography as a result of his contacts at court with merchants and explorers. The thesis concludes that during the second half of the sixteenth century, English students could expect a mathematical and philosophical education comparable to that of their Italian peers. This was sufficient to provide graduates with the knowledge they needed to carry these subjects forward in the seventeenth centur

Topics: University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, History of Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Reformation, Humanism, Scholasticism, John Fisher, John Cheke, Thomas Smith, Roger Ascham
Publisher: Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Year: 2008
OAI identifier:
Provided by: Apollo

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