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History 2: The Expansion

The great new priory – the model for the Oxford colleges

In 1238, the friars acquired land outside of Oxford city walls to build their new priory. The new priory could have accommodated 100 friars in choir and a further 300 laypeople in the nave. It began to be inhabited from 1245 and it is significant that it was only after this date, in 1249, that we see the first foundations of the Oxford colleges.

The ground plan, based on archaeological digs, and the scale model created by George Lambrick, give a sense of the size of this priory, and indeed show how religious houses like Blackfriars became the model for the Oxford colleges.

The large size of Blackfriars meant that it was used for national assemblies. Royal patronage meant that such religious houses were expected to play host to the king’s entourage as it toured the country. The First English Parliament, led by Simon de Montfort, also met here in 1258.

Theology at the University of Oxford

The theological learning of the friars attracted men to the Order, and in turn, the Dominicans began to become influential in the Theology scene. The friars were instrumental in shaping the Oxford theology curriculum.

At this time the Dominicans dominated the life of Oxford University along with the Franciscans, as well as the intellectual life of the country as a whole. From 1261, Blackfriars Oxford (and later, Cambridge too) served as an international study centre for the Dominican Order.

This is also the period in which the great Dominican theologian and philosopher, St Thomas Aquinas OP, first rose to prominence, and the English Dominicans became the champions of his then controversial methodology of systematically explaining the Christian faith by drawing also upon non-Christian thought, especially Aristotle and his Arabic commentators.

Nicholas Trevet: A masterly medieval scholar

Nicholas Trevet was a master scholar.

He serves as a reminder that medieval Dominican scholarship wasn’t just about the production of commentaries on the Sentences or on Biblical books, or the writing of theological summa.

Trevet’s father, Sir Thomas Trevet, had been a circuit judge under Kings Henry III and Edward I, so a member of a rising social elite distinct from the great baronial families but connected to the royal court.

Nicholas Trevet’s theological works were impressive, from commentaries on books of the Bible to a commentary on Books 11–22 of Augustine’s magnum opus, ‘The City of God’. This alone was an impressive academic achievement. However, Trevet also wrote commentaries on numerous classical texts, on Boethius, on the elder Seneca’s ‘Declamations’, on Livy, and on Virgil’s ‘Eclogues’.

Trevet was often commissioned by well-placed patrons to write particular works, or dedicated them to such patrons: the treatise on the Mass was dedicated to John of Drokenfords, former Master of the Wardrobe and Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was made Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1309. Pope John XXII commissioned the commentary on Livy. His Anglo-Norman historical chronicle was written for a royal nun, Princess Mary of Woodstock, sister of King Edward II.

Trevet thus points to the friars’ integration into a European cultural, as well as political or ecclesiastical, elite.