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Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


History of the MML Tripos and Dutch at Cambridge

From 1918 to 2020, Dutch was taught at Cambridge as part of the Modern and Medieval Languages Tripos: from 1927-2011 it was a ‘Tripos language’, with a full suite of papers available to students who choose on Dutch on application to the University. The following piece is written in tribute to those who brought Dutch Studies at Cambridge to life for just over a century. 

The start of modern language studies at Cambridge

Formal studies of modern European languages at Cambridge date from the last quarter of the 19th century, in the second phase of the major Victorian university reforms which had started in the 1850s. Changes now came to the composition of the student body and to the subjects which would be made available for study, as the matriculation requirement that all students should pass an exam in Ancient Greek first began to be seriously questioned. 

The older universities’ insistence on a Classical education limited their expansion and modernization, and also tied school pupils to the pursuit of a traditional curriculum which no longer felt relevant. At grammar schools, there was growing pressure to offer able young men a broad, modern curriculum, defined as including mathematics, natural science, and modern languages – but not at the price of precluding admission to university study. 

In 1868 the Schools Inquiry Commission made unfavourable comparisons between the focus on Classics in England and the teaching of modern languages, including mother-tongue literature, on the Continent. It proposed that English schools should promote ‘modern’ departments offering English literature, French and German, and scale back ‘classical’ departments at most schools to offer only Latin.1

Cambridge and Oxford would, it was hoped, change their policies so that they could admit young men who emerged from these reformed grammar schools. At the same time, colleges for women were being founded at both Oxford and Cambridge, and special programmes of lectures were established for the new women students. Their very different educational backgrounds typically left them, too, without a sufficient grounding in Greek, but with strengths in modern languages. Lectures were offered for them in French from 1870 and, as demand grew, also in both German and Italian. 

In November 1870, the issue of requiring Greek in the ‘Previous examination’ (i.e. for admission to the University) was debated in the pages of the Cambridge University Reporter in response to a letter from Lord Lyttelton, Head of the Endowed Schools Commission, who urged reform on the University.2 

A number of letters to the Editor followed, both for and against Greek as well as making competing claims for other languages. In a trenchant contribution, T.G. Bonney suggested that it might be ‘better to demand a sound knowledge of German than to exact an imperfect knowledge of Greek.’ 

Yet despite some praise for German literature (‘fairly good’), and clearer praise for German universities, where there were ‘scholars of some reputation’, this was not in itself an expression of support for a modern languages degree course. The hope was rather to use German as the entry ticket to ‘recruit men of ability in mathematics and natural sciences.’3  

By this time the University was offering Tripos-level study in both Indian and Semitic languages alongside the traditional Classics degree, and the voices of those keen to offer modern European languages were strengthened by their association with the study of English. The philologist Walter William Skeat  – a Lecturer in Mathematics 1860-71 and Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1878 – argued passionately for the study of Old English, Chaucer, and Shakespeare as subjects worthy in their own right, with claims to scholarly interest ‘far higher than that of German.’4  

In 1878 a Board was established to supervise the study of Medieval and Modern Languages, although it was noted that no instruction in these languages was yet being offered. Four years later, in 1882, a scheme for a programme of study leading to an Ordinary B.A. was proposed, with extensive debates and revisions to the scheme reported on through the year. 

Discussion on the possible inclusion of Italian was heated: the Registrary claimed Italian was ‘the most important language in Europe’, but it was counter-argued that there was a risk of ‘encouraging a dilettanti element’.5 In the final version of the Report (December 1882) a scheme was set up to offer an Ordinary degree made up of English, French and German language and literature, the first to be required and candidates to choose whether to offer one or both of the Continental languages. The basis would be both literary and philological, focused on great writers and questions of etymology and language origin. 

Already by March 1883 it was proposed to add a full honours Tripos, in which both French and German would be required as well as English.6 A Discussion of May 1883 tackled questions of how to ‘obviate the advantages […] from residence abroad’: the Board wrote of the importance of requiring ‘some study of an academical character’.  

The proposal to have oral exams was hotly debated, (‘the power of speaking French and German was its own reward’), as was the possibility again of including Italian, or even Spanish. Yet it was thought best to start with ‘the two great languages’, especially as Italian, it was claimed, had not grown since the 14th century, and Dante could be studied in isolation as a ‘Classical’ author.7

In practice, the syllabus adopted was split into sections covering Romance (French; with Provençal and Italian) and Germanic (German; with Old Saxon and Gothic), alongside English (with Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic).8 Despite one objection that the men studying this Tripos would be no more than littérateurs, the plan was adopted. 

The next difficulty was the lack of capable lecturing staff. The first two lecturers, Drs Breul and Braunholtz, both graduates of German universities, started by offering lectures on Goethe, Molière, and Dante, Old and Middle High German and Provençal grammar, besides practical language classes in (modern) French and German, even though the University had insisted on reducing their salaries from a proposed £150 to £100. 

Women leading the way

The Board came back to this only two years later, reporting that the level of teaching and student interest (14 students over three years!) was such that the Tripos could be ‘regarded as having established itself’, and that both teachers should receive the higher salary.9 And indeed, besides the 14 students announced by the Board, there were also women, whose names would appear in a separate Class List, and who would very soon both outnumber and outclass the men. In the first ever set of Tripos examinations in the subject, two women were awarded Firsts while no man was. By 1894 six of the 15 women candidates gained Firsts in MML Tripos examinations alongside only one of the seven men.10  

The format set up from Michaelmas 1884 held its own for a time, with the same languages as at the start, though the selection of literary texts rapidly expanded. ‘German’ came to include Low German/Dutch texts as well as High German from 1886, though possibly the early set text Reinke de Vos is in a Middle Low German version rather than Middle Dutch. By 1894 the Romance text selection included Machiavelli alongside Dante, texts in Spanish (Poema del Cid, Cervantes, Calderon) and a little Portuguese (an anthology by Braga). In a further revision of the Tripos, marks of ‘proficiency in the pronunciation’ of French and German were introduced and recorded in the Class List. 

In March 1906, another Report envisaged developing the Tripos further: to offer Spanish, Italian, and now Russian, as separate languages in their own right, with oral examinations and written papers, from the 1909 Tripos examinations onwards.11 It is clear that what the Report proposed was to some extent already happening: at this point Dante had after all been taught at Cambridge for over 20 years. Contributors to the Discussion on the Report were somewhat critical, noting the lack of official teaching, especially in the ‘new’ languages, and hence the huge advantage to those students who could pay for private coaching, or travel. 

However, numbers continued to grow and in 1910 33 women and 29 men sat the Tripos examinations. In the same year, thanks to the generous donations of German bankers, Karl Hermann Breul became the first Schröder Professor of German. The expanded Tripos was agreed, and it ran from 1911. 

By the wartime examination season of 1915 there were, unsurprisingly, many more women candidates than men (33 to 18), but it is worth noting that the women were also offering a wider range of languages and a greater proficiency in them, with 13 Distinctions in the oral examination to only five amongst the men. This body of successful candidates, who were not awarded degrees at that time, were never mentioned in the Reports or Discussions, either as an overt or a covert reason for any changes to the Tripos.

‘Other languages’

It was in October 1917 that the first indications appeared of languages beyond the original five which, once established, have remained at the core of the Tripos ever since. In the proposed new regulations for the Modern and Medieval Languages Tripos, it was proposed that the Special Board would ‘have power to grant permission to students to present themselves for examination in other modern languages’.12  The Lecture List duly followed suit in October 1917, and for the first time indicated, under the main offerings, that candidates ‘wishing to read other languages for Part I of the Modern and Medieval Languages Tripos’ could make application to named individuals for Dutch, Modern Greek, Scandinavian languages, and , as a group, for ‘Serbian, Bulgarian and Polish’.13  

This is the first mention of any of these languages as part of the official Cambridge Tripos, and the first use of the phrase, later an institutional label, ‘other languages’. At Newnham College, the distinguished Classicist Jane Harrison had taught Russian and some Serbian to women working for the units of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals Group in Russia and Serbia, and another member of Newnham had offered some Scandinavian teaching: the named individuals in the Reporter are, however, all men. 

Dutch is present in this early list, and we may now turn to its place in the development of the next stage of Modern Languages at Cambridge. These first classes in Dutch were taught by a man who went on to have a distinguished career as a linguist, a literary scholar, and as the Master of Christ’s College (1950–63), including a two-year term as Vice Chancellor. This was Brian Westerdale Downs (1893–1984), who had graduated with first-class honours in Medieval and Modern Languages in 1915, choosing German, Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon.14 

How he acquired his knowledge of Dutch is not recorded, but according to the Lecture List he was teaching ‘Elementary Dutch’ from Michaelmas Term 1918, while his Christ’s colleague Henry Latimer Jackson, a clergyman and theologian, who had been the contact person for those interested in Dutch from 1917, was offering ‘Outlines of Dutch Literature’.

It seems clear that the early years of Dutch teaching at Cambridge were informal, with only a small amount of tuition available from men who seem to have been self-taught enthusiasts. Latimer Jackson was perhaps primarily a medievalist, since his Assize Sermon, preached on 28 May 1918, was on the Beatrice legend, a topic ‘furnished by the literature of the Netherlands, my own more particular field of research.’15 Together the two men published a Manual of the Dutch Language with CUP in 1921, comprising a brief literary history, a short grammar and a selection of text extracts, with the object of ‘kindling a deserved interest in Dutch literature’.16 Downs followed this with another CUP publication, Anglo-Dutch literary relations 1867–1900: Some Notes and Tentative Inferences, in 1936. 

Downs had an extraordinary linguistic range. He lectured and published on French, German and extensively on English, while his interest in drama and tragedy also led him to work on Strindberg, Ibsen and on Scandinavian literature more generally. With other young colleagues Downs hosted the foundation of the Modern Humanities Research Association in his rooms in Christ’s College in 1918,17 redefining the subject as one concerned mainly with language and modern literature, rather than with philology and language history. This lent a particular direction to the study of modern languages at Cambridge which, even at the time, was not universal.

In 1919, a Chair of Dutch Studies, the first in the UK, was founded at University College London, supported by the Dutch embassy and by Dutch business interests with a view to raising the profile of the Netherlands in the UK through promoting the study of Dutch history, former Anglo-Dutch relations and Dutch literary culture – that is, history and politics before literature.18  

The birth of Modern and Medieval Languages (MML)

The end of World War I brought new developments across UK universities, and at Cambridge growing student demand made the need for a separate English Tripos clear. Its first separate Class List was published in 1919, by which time the Mediæval and Modern Languages Special Board had also changed their name to Modern and Medieval Languages (MML). The Lecture List, however, continued to group the subjects together until 1926, when a new English Faculty was created, and MML took on a form recognisable from today, with simpler rules and a new consolidated list of languages.19 At Part I, candidates might take Danish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish and Swedish, at Part II a smaller range with the Scandinavian languages treated as one, and Medieval Latin and Provençal available as separate papers. 

Two omissions seem to have been immediately felt, and from Easter term 1927 candidates were also allowed to present themselves for Part I in Portuguese and Dutch, with a full suite of language papers as well as papers on topics from literature, so that both became full ‘Tripos languages’.20  

From this point onwards, the Statutes & Ordinances also determined that the departments of MML should be French, German, Spanish, Italian and Other, the last formalising into a title the label which had been used in footnoting the Lecture List for the previous decade.

The first Head of the Department of Other Languages was Peter Giles (Emmanuel), the second a distinguished Scandinavian scholar, Dame Bertha Philpotts (Girton), from 1929. Brian Downs continued to offer teaching in Dutch until the late 1940s and was Head of Other Languages in 1939-40, but by 1950 his interest seems to have shifted, and he was offering lectures in Norwegian Literature, but no longer in Dutch.

The published Lecture Lists show that the post-World War II period was when the language range offered in MML was at its widest. In 1949, besides the seven established languages, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish were all separately present, as were Afrikaans alongside Dutch, and Modern Greek, Polish, Serbo-Croat and Czech with, from 1950, Hungarian, though not all with full suites of papers.  

Dutch teaching was now taken up by Peter King, whose interest in Dutch had been sparked by his war service on a Dutch submarine. From 1952 King offered both an Introduction to Dutch at Part I and Dutch Literature at Part II. He continued to offer teaching on a series of papers in Dutch language and literature until 1976, when he left to go to the University of Hull to set up a new course in Dutch Studies there. It seems it was entirely coincidental that this was the university where Brian Downs had served on the academic court and council, Hull being his hometown. 

Interviewed by Verbaan and Vismans, King reported that while teaching at Cambridge had been at times a ‘complete joy’, he was frustrated by the focus on combining language with literature, and he wanted to develop teaching at Hull in line with the new discipline of Area Studies, and with a much greater focus on spoken Dutch.21 

The era of Strietman and Eagar

The development of Dutch studies after the departure of Peter King is best described in the words of Elsa Strietman and Erna Eagar who, between them, were responsible for teaching the subject over the next four and a half decades. 

Under Peter King’s inspired championing of Dutch Studies, the Tripos in Dutch had become wider ranging and included historical as well as modern language and literature areas. From 1975 to 2014 the Department continued to offer this range of topics, with Elsa Strietman concentrating on the literary and historical aspects supported by a range of colleagues: in the 1970s, the Lecture List notes Mrs Babcock-Kwint, Mr Zwalf and Mrs Champerknowne, but from 1990–2020, it was Erna Eagar who offered language teaching alongside linguistic areas and the introductory literature. 

The Dutch section also took part in teaching the Certificate and Diploma courses set up for students from all faculties in the university who wished to increase their linguistic range. These Certificate and Diploma courses in Dutch gave many students a fantastic opportunity to get familiar with a culture and language they otherwise would not have experienced, and their tributes are included in those who which follow this piece. 

Dutch remained within the Department of Other Languages until it was dissolved from October 2007, by which time its membership had been reduced to Dutch and Modern Greek as posts were not replaced, and Dutch was ‘rehomed’ in the Department of German and Dutch.22

At the same time, a new venture was launched, concentrating Dutch studies into one course, paper Du5, that MML students could take in their second year. Paper Du5 (Introduction to the Language and Literature of the Low Countries), taught by Erna Eagar, proved exceedingly popular. This was not only due to its content - learning the Dutch language as well as an introduction to its literature - but also the fact that the paper was taught by one teacher. This created a very fruitful learning environment, where the different skills of learning a language and getting to grips with its literature supported and fed off each other. 

The initial motivations of those students reading Dutch were almost invariably fired by the many and varied aspects of the courses offered and subsequently by an interest in the culture of the Netherlands and Belgium. Testimonies of, and contacts with, former students show that doing something in their Cambridge studies that was considered a bit outlandish enriched their personal and professional lives. 

The study of Dutch has enabled scholarly research and professional advancement where documents were only accessible through a knowledge of the language, be they of a historical, linguistic, art historical or legal nature. Careers in translation and in a variety of jobs connected with the European Union were enhanced by the practical skills and the cultural awareness which the study of any language would bring but which in the case of Dutch rather made people stand out.

With the retirement of Erna Eagar in 2021 Dutch will no longer be taught in Cambridge. We deeply regret this but are very encouraged by the many wonderful reactions we have had to our teaching and the subject of Dutch language and literature.

Sheila Watts
Erna Eagar & Elsa Strietman
Cambridge, June 2022
With thanks to Prof. Roel Vismans for sharing his own histories of Dutch Studies in the UK, and to Prof. Jo Whaley for invaluable editorial assistance and sympathetic reading

Read student testimonials


1. Report of the Schools Inquiry Commission (1868) (‘Taunton Report’) pp. 22-29. 

2. Cambridge University Reporter, 9 November 1870, pp. 75–77.

3. Cambridge University Reporter, 23 November 1870, p. 118.

4. Cambridge University Reporter, 16 November 1870, p. 102.

5. Cambridge University Reporter, 23 March 1882, pp.449– 450

6. Report of the Special Board for Mediæval and Modern Languages, Cambridge University Reporter 7 March 1883, pp. 5216–8. The proposed Tripos is described as being in ‘Modern Languages and Literature’ (p. 526). The naming of both the Board and the Tripos is prone to some variation in this period. 

7. Cambridge University Reporter 15 May 1883, p. 686–690.

8. Schedule for the Medieval and Modern Languages Tripos, Cambridge University Reporter 4 March 1884, pp. 500–502.

9. Cambridge University Reporter 12 May 1885, p. 678.

10. Cambridge University Reporter 16 June 1894, p. 943.

11. Cambridge University Reporter 21 May 1907 p. 898–9.

12. Cambridge University Reporter 2 May 1917 p. 750. At this point the title of the Board (‘Medieæval [sic.] and Modern’) was out of line with the title of the Tripos (‘Modern and Medieval’ [sic.]) and would remain so until the latter ordering became general in 1919.

13. Cambridge University Reporter, 10 October 1917, p. 91.

14. Downs, Brian Westerdale in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online 2016) 

15. From the foreword to the sermon, in a privately bound version in the papers of Brian Downs, Christ’s College archives.

16. Preface, A Manual of the Dutch Language 1921, p. vi.

17. David A. Wells, The Modern Humanities Research Association: A Brief History (online 2016) 

18. Roel Vismans (2020) ‘Interdisciplinary bridges. A history of Dutch Studies in the UK.’ In Paul Dimond, Jane Fenoulhet and Elisabet Salverda (eds.) North Sea Neighbours. British and Dutch Interaction over 100 Years. London: The Anglo-Netherlands Society, 87-97.

19. Cambridge University Reporter 2 March 1926 p. 721.

20. Cambridge University Reporter 9 November 1926 p. 342.

21. Eddy Verbaan and Roel Vismans (2008) ‘”It was prompted by the narrowness of the Lang-lit idea”: an interview with Peter King’. Dutch Crossing. A Journal of Low Countries Studies 32.2: 154-163 

22. Cambridge University Reporter 6 June 2007 p. 760. Some remarks on the history of the Department of Other Languages were made at the Discussion of this report on 10 July 2007, reported in the Cambridge University Reporter 18 July 2007.