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About the Chair of the Romance Languages and its origins

By Professor Maiden

Oxford was the first, and remains the only, university in Britain to have an established Chair of the Romance Languages. Courses on the origins of the Romance languages had been taught in Oxford as early as the 1850s, by Max Müller (later Professor of Comparative Philology), but the establishment of a 'Chair of the Romance or Neo-Latin Languages', was first proposed by the Selborne Commission of 1877. It was to be associated with, and funded by, Corpus Christi College. However, as Rebecca Posner writes (2000:417):

[...] the college proved unwilling to meet its commitment on this score. In 1887 Thomas Fowler, the President of Corpus 'without extravagant show of sorrow', according to the Oxford Magazine, informed Congregation that the Professor 'will certainly not be appointed in our time'. The financing of the chair 'pending the fulfilment by Corpus Christi College of its statutory obligation' formed part of the University Appeal in 1907-8, by which time it was reported that there were thirty-four students studying Old French, Old Provençal, and Old Spanish, and the historical and comparative grammar of those languages, with every prospect of an increase if teaching could be more adequately provided. A gift in memory of Cuthbert Shields, formerly Robert Laing, the Corpus fellow who had strongly supported the establishment of the chair, enabled the first Taylorian appointment to be made in 1909. The Oxford Magazine reported: 'In the future — the near future we may hope — his College is to endow a Corpus Christi Professor of the Romance Languages; in the interval the proceeds of the Cuthbert Shields benefaction are to be applied in relief of the Curators of the Taylorian Institute for their Professor in this subject. Hermann Oelsner, a Cambridge modern languages graduate with a German doctorate in Dante studies, was promoted from his post as Taylorian lecturer, served till 1913 without a college affiliation, and was succeeded [...] by Paul Studer, a specialist in Old French, as were successive professors until the 1960s, when the chair became more oriented towards linguistics.

A college affiliation for the Professor was slow in coming. The President of Trinity College, H.E.D. Blakiston (by all accounts, without extravagant show of enthusiasm!) accepted in 1925 that the Chair should be associated with Trinity. Since then, nearly all Professors of the Romance Languages have held Professorial Fellowships at Trinity. Until 2008, the Chair was associated exclusively with the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages; with the creation of the Faculty of Linguistics in that year, the Chair embraced both Faculties, a reflection of the fact that teaching and research in Romance linguistics deals on the one hand with the history and structure of medieval and modern languages, and on the other is continually informed by, and contributes to, general linguistic theory.

There have been nine holders of the Chair to date:

Hermann Oelsner 1909-1913;
Paul Studer 1913-1927;
Edwin Waters 1927-1930;
Alfred Ewert 1930-1958;
Thomas (Tim) Reid 1958-1968;
Stephen Ullmann 1968-1976;
Roy Harris 1976-1977;
Rebecca Posner 1978-1996;
Martin Maiden 1996-

Most of the Professors of the Romance Languages have had a strong interest in the French language and its history, and have produced a string of publications in which French holds a major place. The current Professor's interests, in contrast, focus rather more on 'eastern' Romance languages, notably Italian and Romanian.