Oxford Figures, Chapter 1: 800 years of mathematical traditions

John Fauvel

If the Elizabethan antiquary William Camden is to be believed, the teaching of mathematics at Oxford, along with the foundation of the University itself, dates from the time of Alfred the Great in the ninth century:

In the year of our Lord 886, the second year of the arrival of St. Grimbald in England, the University of Oxford was begun ... John, monk of the church of St. David, giving lectures in logic, music and arithmetic; and John, the monk, colleague of St. Grimbald, a man of great parts and a universal scholar, teaching geometry and astronomy before the most glorious and invincible King Alfred.

By such a reckoning, we could now be celebrating over 1100 years of mathematical traditions at Oxford. Alas, the founding of the University by King Alfred is but one of the stories of Oxford's mythical past for which there is now considered to be insufficient historical evidence. The University of Oxford can, however, safely trace its existence back over at least 800 years, which confirms its respectable antiquity while recognizing it as younger than the universities of Bologna and Paris.

The University seems to have come into being gradually during the twelfth century, as groups of scholars gathered to learn and study together at `that catarrhal point of the English Midlands where the rivers Thames and Cherwell soggily conjoin', in the evocative words of Jan Morris. In 1188, the historian Gerald of Wales visited Oxford and recorded the existence of several faculties of study. This date may stand for the start of the University as well as any, not least because it happily matches that of a major fund-raising appeal by the modern University launched in 1988. Throughout the succeeding eight centuries, the mathematical arts and sciences have been pursued at Oxford, taught, used, and explored in a variety of ways.

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