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Cambridge at the Time of Newton

Cambridge was a complete dump. Professors skipping classes, etc.


Cambridge University is perhaps the most prestigious institution of learning on the planet.Home to Isaac Newton and Steven Hawking, its Trinity College is the third wealthiest entity in the United Kingdom. Until 1948, Cambridge even had its own representative in the House of Commons. The place fairly reeks of importance and respectability. Surely since its founding in 1318 (!) it has been so. A place producing so many concrete additions to the edifice of Western academia must truly provide an inspiring environment to its denizens. Or does it? This is the question to which Richard S. Westfall, Professor of English at the University of Chicago, applied himself in his essay appearing in Culture and Politics from Puritanism to the Enlightenment. After all, while at Cambridge, Newton invented two of the foundations of modern science: calculus and physics (he wrote the Principia there). What effect did Cambridge itself have on his studies?

The answer, in short: doodley-squat. Looking at the University registers keeping track of the population, Westfall notes that

Newton's career there roughly coincided with the most calamitous decline in the history of the University. Within the limits of my kowledge it is the most calamitous decline ever suffered by any university that has survived as an important institution.

In 1622 the University's population totaled 3050. By 1690 less than 200 people were matriculating each year. As the number of students dropped, it seems it was the professors who were skipping classes -- quite a switch from the situation in the twentieth century. Cambridge was adept at creating University Professorships, chairs endowed with patrons' money for the purpose of teaching and research in a particular field. The University was perfectly comfortable creating a gaggle of utterly extraneous chairs having little or nothing to do with the curriculum, like the Adams Professorship of Arabic in 1666. While Arabic had not been included in the university curriculum and would not be for over a century and a half, Cambridge felt it might as well create an Arabic position anyway rather than turn down the money. The incumbents of this chair, realizing they had no explicit duties, knew a free lunch when they saw it, and like the tenured septuagenarians in today's universities, had tons of fun just sitting on their thumbs. Things were getting on so famously that in the early eighteenth century, they created a second chair of Arabic studies. Westfall explains of the second chair, "from the beginning, its stipend was used to alleviate whatever distress might affect the holder of the Adams chair." Peachy. Another such chair, the Knightsbridge professorship of Moral Theology, was, from its inception in 1682, another form of welfare. This utterly lackadaisical attitude concerning phantom professorships really bugged some of the more virtuous faculty members:

Early in the 18th century Conyers Middleton, a fellow of Trinity College and a bitter opponent of the efforts of the Master [of the college] Richard Bentley, to reform the college and suck it dry at the same time, used Bentley's neglect of the Regius professorship of Divinity as a stick with which to beat him. Earlier professors of divinity, he claimed, had put up notices of lectures, showed up and 'actually read a theological lecture whenever they found an audience to attend them, which was sometimes the case.'

Bitter words from a righteous man. Well, sort of. The story goes on:

When the Woodwardian professorship of Geology was created shortly thereafter, the same Conyers Middleton, who knew nothing about Geology, did not hesitate to secure the chair for himself and, after an inaugural lecture (on the content of which it is impossible not to speculate), to enjoy the income for three years without further performance.
Cambridge Villa
Cambridge Villa

The facilities were also in poor condition. Traveling through England in 1710, a German scholar named Zacharius von Uffenbach popped by and recorded his assessment. As Westfall tells us, "Even when we compensate for Uffenbach's tendency to denigrate everything English, it is difficult to imagine an attractive reality behind his depressing account." Uffenbach poked through the libraries of the University and its colleges, and found them in a "state of neglect and confusion." Volumes were moldy, dusty, and falling apart. Uffenbach wound up wearing an apron to keep the detritus off of his clothes as the works of past scholars crumbled in his hands. He was unable to locate anything, and came to the conclusion that the library was in such a disarray it could not have seen scholarly use in years. He was also surprised to learn that no lectures were in progress over the summer. There were three or four given in the winter, he was told, "but to the bare walls, for no one comes in."

This phenomenon did not go unnoticed by contemporary observers. A Louis de Jaucourt, friend of French philosopher Denis Diderot, caustically remarked, "whoever is ignorant of the art of drinking a lot and smoking a lot is very unwelcome in this university." In a poetry collection enigmatically titled The Oxford Sausage, we find the following gem, actually about Oxford but equally applicable to our beloved Cambridge.

Within those walls, where thro' the glimmering shade
Appear the pamphlets in a mould'ring heap,
Each in his narrow bed till morning laid,
The peaceful Fellows of the College sleep.
The tinkling bell proclaiming early prayers,
The noisy servants rattling o'er their head,
The calls of business, and domestic cares
Ne'er roused these dreamers from their downy bed.
Oft have they basked along the sunny walls,
Oft have the benches bow'd beneath their weight;
How jocund are their looks when dinner calls!
How smoke the cutlets on their crowded plate!

Sounds like a laugh riot. Newton, in contrast, was fully immersed in his studies. He too occupied a superfluous chair (the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics came to the University unsought, rather like the Adams chair of Arabic) and exploited his position to its fullest. Westfall tells us that "Cambridge had supported him in solitude during his years of discovery. It had never entered his soul. He left in 1696 without perceptible regret."

Don't worry, excess is still alive and well at Cambridge. Academic enlightenment hasn't the mettle to stamp it out: to this day at Trinity College's annual formal ball, college members shell out exorbitant sums to drink with and vomit on the highest thinkers of the realm.


  1. Perez Zagorin. Culture and Politics from Puritanism to the Enlightenment. University of California Press, 1979.

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