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The Origin of the Student Species

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Modern students study their early modern predecessors

This post has been kindly written for us by Dr Adam Crymble. Adam is a Lecturer of Digital History at the University of Hertfordshire and an Editor of the Programming Historian. He was also the Project Manager of British History Online in 2014.

Where did Oxford University’s 60,149 students from 1500-1714 come from in the first place? Thanks to British History Online and a talented group of students, we’re beginning to understand for the first time.

For many people, the extremely carefully digitized volumes in British History Online are a fantastic way to read about the past. The project calls itself a ‘digital library’, and I think that’s apt. For my undergraduate digital history students at the University of Hertfordshire, it’s also much more. It proved to be a source of digital data that we could map and experiment with.

This past year, a group of 18 students studying history were challenged with mapping the point of origin of all 60,000 students who studied at Oxford in the Tudor and Stuart eras. The task would be impossible if the records weren’t already available. We have two groups to thank for that. Firstly, mini-biographies of each of these students were compiled in the nineteenth century by Joseph Foster, and published in hardcopy, known as the Alumni Oxonienses. Secondly, and much more recently, and with the great care that we’ve come to expect from British History Online, those mini-biographies have been digitized and are fully-text searchable on the site.

For anyone related to one of these individuals, this proves to be a great resource to get some specifics on a life lived. But because British History Online’s texts are easy to download with a bit of cutting and pasting, I was able to convert the volume into a spreadsheet for my students to work with. They then extracted the place of origin from each entry using a step-by-step tutorial at The Programming Historian before mapping them using a free tool called Google Fusion Tables.

Alumni Oxonienses Dataset

Figure 1: The Alumni Oxonienses Dataset

All steps used free tools and free texts, so if you’re curious about the resultant map, I’d challenge you to have a go and find out for yourself using the steps above. You can see a teaser in Figure 2, which shows the origins of a subset of individuals who were knighted later in life.

Heatmap

Figure 2: Heatmap of place of origin of knighted Oxford Students, 1500-1714. Dataset compiled by Corey Albone, Jack Dunne, Namiluko Indie, Bethany Reid, ‘Oxford Knights’, The Oxford Knights Archive (2014-15).

These students were not like our university students today. Many were men of the gentry and upper classes, and probably include a large number of second sons, who would not have inherited the family fortune as would their older brother. University in the early modern era was largely a place for would-be clerics, but also lawyers, scientists, and a growing number of merchants. It’s where you got your religious or legal training before heading off for a life in the monasteries, or preaching the word of God, or as a lawyer in the Inns of Court.

In order to understand what the maps showed us, the class learned about the origins of the English gentry, clergy, and legal professions (among others of a similar sort), and were able to see first-hand what the digital nature of the records makes possible. Digital mapping, like graphing, provides us with a heads-up way to understand patterns in our historical records. It’s a way to see the forest for the trees, in a way that’s just not possible with Foster’s original printed volumes. Thanks to British History Online for making this resource available in a format that we could easily reuse. It’s been a great learning experience for us all.

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