restricted access Terrae-Filius or, the Secret History of the University of Oxford (1721; 1726) (review)
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Reviewed by
Nicholas Amhurst. Terrae-Filius or, the Secret History of the University of Oxford (1721; 1726), ed. William E. Rivers. Newark: Delaware, 2004. Pp. 9–500. $65.

In the terrae-filius tradition at Oxford, a “son of the earth” tried to translate the value of the life of the mind to the less educated, especially the parents of graduates, by explaining in English topics students disputed in Latin. Initially sanctioned and staid exercises, they quickly grew ripe for parody as Oxford’s sarcastic sons flagrantly exposed their alma mater’s flaws. Banned for all but two years between 1702 and 1726, these subversive speeches ruffled the dons, but at least what happened in Oxford stayed in Oxford—until Nicholas Amhurst. Although this fascinatingly misplaced and angry young man, a free-thinking Whig in High-Tory land, nominated himself to speak for the humble sons of the earth, his university instead considered him to be “a turbulent, contumacious, ungovernable wretch, an undutiful son.” Deprived of his fellowship in 1719 by Dr. William Delaune, Head of St. Johns College, Amhurst lost any opportunity to complete his degree, but gained reasons to write: literary fame and revenge.

In these fifty biweekly periodical essays in 1721 (collected and reissued 1726), Amhurst strove to emulate the wit and social satire of Addison and Steele. Mostly he managed only a more predictable and direct satire that wittier Augustans would have eschewed. Although Amhurst is described by Mr. Rivers as an “Augustan satirist, not an Oxford wag,” Amhurst’s value for scholars lies more in his being a speaking witness to a turbulent and deeply divisive time for education, one rather like our own, when questions about how education is politicized involved complex negotiations between individual freedoms, institutionalized education, religious beliefs, and national politics.

As a document of cultural history, the edition is most useful for showing how national events, like the succession of George I, were experienced by those who lived through them. Mr. Rivers rightly notes that “the tensions at Oxford between Whig and Tory, Low Church and High Church, reflected national tensions and anxieties as England felt its way toward orderly change mediated by Parliamentary moves and not by civil war or revolution.” Effecting such change, however, was difficult, and Amhurst stares in wide-eyed Whiggish disbelief as his professors and many classmates refuse to toast the new king and instead declare openly for the Pretender. Amhurst’s writing thus supports J. C. D. Clark’s belief that Whig history tended to erase important tensions in the early eighteenth century, for Terrae-Filius shows how Jacobitism was a vital, vocal presence at Oxford, and how it coincided with strident [End Page 83] anti-intellectualism and class snobbery among the dreaming spires. If a wit’s life was warfare on earth, an aspiring intellectual son-of-earth’s life at Oxford was a battle royal. As a personal barometer for party politics in the 1720s, Amhurst also shows how and why the Opposition took root. Even Amhurst, most loyal of Whigs, grew disenchanted enough with Walpole’s rule over that party to join the largely Tory and Jacobite Opposition writers to become an editor of Bolingbroke’s Craftsman.

Mr. Rivers’s Introduction efficiently and clearly explains the issues most relevant to Amhurst’s signal themes: Oxford’s unholy trinity of intellectual intolerance, abuse of authority, and violations of oaths of allegiance. His political, intellectual, and religious roots are identified and untangled as they snake through traditions unique to Oxford, like the Whig minority’s Constitution Club there, to events well-known beyond it, including the South Sea Bubble and the schisms between Low and High Church, from Sacheverell to Atterbury. The only disappointment after reading Mr. Rivers’s enjoyable and enticing introduction to Amhurst is that Terrae-Filius itself is not skillfully written; most will quote from it, not read it. Luckily, Mr. Rivers recognizes this and offers brief summaries as the first note to each number. Nevertheless, we see the value of Amhurst’s work as just the kind of mediocre literature Raymond Williams recommended to literary historians for its greater ability to reveal dominant and emergent ideologies.

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