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How a Paris brain drain ban boosted Oxford Uni

A ban on British scholars going to study in Paris helped shape the history of Oxford University.

During the Middle Ages, many of the best students from Britain went to study at the University of Paris, until Henry II instigated the ban in 1167.

“It would be an exaggeration to say that Oxford took off because of this incident, but it was certainly a stimulus,” said Hannah Skoda, a fellow and tutor in medieval history at St John’s College, Oxford. “The English students had all wanted to go to Paris.”

However, she added: “We know very little about this early period in the history of the university, and there is some dispute over this story because the evidence is marginal.”

In Laurence Brockliss’ renowned book The University of Oxford, he claims that student numbers at Oxford grew only after 1193, when the ‘uninterrupted 11-year war with France stopped English clerics from travelling to Paris as they had originally done.’

However, the number of scholars in Oxford at that time was still very small by today’s standards, and it was not yet officially even a university.

“When Oxford and Cambridge were in full swing there were not more than a hundred incumbents residing in the two universities,” wrote Henry Salter in 1929, although another book by Dr Hastings Rashdall had claimed there were ‘hundreds of masters and scholars’ from England studying in Paris.

Even while the ban was in place, Ms Skoda said, lines were not cut off with Paris.

“The communication did not stop. There was a time when students could not go to Paris, but later on that changed again.

“What was significant about Oxford from the start was that it enabled people from provincial backgrounds to engage in a wider European culture.”

Clearly, over 800 years before the birth of the Erasmus scheme, the cultural exchange between European scholars was already well under way – despite the temporary hiatus.

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