Sample Page of 'The Cambridge Story'

By Ian Cooper


The 15th C. saw what some have called the waning of the Middle Ages. The church, with its worldly wealth and power, lost prestige. The papacy, in particular, became discredited after the Avignon Captivity, when it was under the control of the French kings. Feudal ties began to unravel with the rise of the money economy. Trade and towns became more important and in the country more peasants started working for wages. Printing with movable type was introduced by Gutenberg in in 1453 and later by Caxton in England in 1476, creating a much larger reading public. This, along with the maritime explorations of men like Bartholomew Diaz, Christopher Columbus and Vasco Da Gama, started to open up new horizons. The cultural consensus began to be more open to change. In Italy, especially, there was a renewed interest in the writers of classical and Rome and a mentality which identified itself as ‘humanist’ took root. These influences gradually spread to England and were associated with men like Sir Thomas More the Lord Chancellor, Dean Colet of St Paul’s Cathedral, and John Fisher Chancellor of Cambridge University.


It is interesting to note that before the Reformation so many realised the need for church reform, chiefly through better education. This was not just in , but throughout Europe—witness the great work of Cardinal Ximenes in . Most, like Fisher, wanted no change to the basic teaching of the church, just better teaching and better living. Few realised where the 'new learning' and the desire for church reform might go. When Luther became angry over the sale of forgiveness and indulgences, he had no idea that he had started the Reformation. But the die was cast. Some, like Erasmus, were appalled and tried to remain above the fray. Others, like More, tried to stop the Reformation; More as Chancellor was a noted burner of heretics. Others, like William Tyndale, knew that the ‘new learning’ was to advance the Reformation. His ground breaking New Testament, translated into English from the original Greek, was produced while on the run in the Low Countries , where, after betrayal, he was burnt.


In 1441 the pious Henry VI founded King’s College and started building the magnificent King’s College Chapel. The extent of his piety might be questioned, however, when it is borne in mind that a quarter of the town was destroyed, including houses, workshops and churches, all for his grandiose project. It was hardly conducive to good town relations. It was also ironic that Cambridge was chosen by Henry VI for its being free from the taint of any Lollardry, given its future Reformation associations. However, his zeal for education was part of a movement that was pushing Cambridge into the cultural mainstream. Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s niece and mother of Henry VII, was similarly interested in education and church reform. With the help of John Fisher she founded both Christ’s College in 1505 and St John’s College in 1511. She also funded Erasmus’s crucial stay in Cambridge , where he produced the Greek New Testament in 1516. Erasmus was the leading scholar in Europe and also a brilliant satirist. He savaged the failings of the church, both in his Colloquies and in his In Praise of Folly. His Greek New Testament was part of his more serious scholarship. Up till then the standard Bible had been the Latin Vulgate produced by Jerome in the 3rd C. Erasmus’s Greek New Testament got closer to the original, sometimes with radical results. For instance, the Vulgate translates one passage as 'do penance', whereas the Greek is more accurately translated 'repent,' indicating an attitude of the heart rather than a superficial ritual.