This past May I had the double good fortune of being invited to give a paper at Oxford, and having it be an actually beautiful sunny day. So, since travel has prevented me from finishing my next historical post on time (it is half finished, and will address a question from the comments about why pre-modern European judicial systems used so much torture, and also why they stopped), I thought I would fill the gap by sharing some of my photography of Oxford at its most stunning. I visit universities and their libraries all the time, including very important ones and very ancient ones, but visiting Oxford always feels different. Intimidating. Special. The builders of the great universities set out to convince the world that they were the masters of culture and learning. Oxford and Cambridge succeeded. I know rationally how they rank relative to other universities: strong in some areas, weak in others, struggling from the effects of recent economic and political policy changes; but they still get me with their historical charisma, reinforced throughout my childhood in literature and film. Part of it is that I grew up Anglophone, and reading many British books. Part is that I grew up watching much too much BBC, since for most of childhood PBS was the only channel we got, and BBC mysteries and dramas are still just about the only entertainment both my parents and I will sit through. That combination left Oxford and Cambridge with an ineradicable cachet that no amount of modern awareness of university rankings can erase. I had expected that visiting the truly ancient Italian universities would diminish the effect: Bologna’s medieval classrooms, Padua’s operating theater, Galileo’s employment records. It didn’t. It remains true that “I’m giving a talk at Oxford” has a thrill unmatched by “I’m giving a talk at [frankly much more important venue]” for no reason except that those who worked to entrench Oxford at the heart of the Anglophone definition of “learning” did their work well. It’s more powerful at Oxford than at Cambridge too. Both give the thrill, but Oxford wins at one of the most visceral and permanent forms of propaganda: architecture. Enjoy!
And as a super bonus, Spot the Saint!
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