Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford

The Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages at the University of Oxford, England, was established in 1903. It is part of Oxford's Humanities Division.

European languages (other than Latin and Ancient Greek, taught as part of classics) were first taught at Oxford in the 19th century. The Jesus Professorship of Celtic is the oldest of the chairs in the faculty, dating from 1877. A range of languages are studied at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

Historical overview

Modern languages, as opposed to ancient ones, were not taught in Oxford for much of the university's history. In 1724, a donation by George I was intended to provide teaching in French and German to train future diplomats, but the scheme soon failed.[1] Another endowment, by Sir Robert Taylor (1714–1788), was contested by his son so that the university only received the sum (of £65,000) in 1835. The money was invested, and it was only in 1844 that the Hebdomadal Board proposed that Modern Languages should be taught within the university. By then the construction of two contiguous, grandly harmonious buildings was almost complete. The first, the Randolph or ‘University’ Galleries, was to house galleries for statues and paintings, and is now called the Ashmolean Museum. The matching second building was designed to house lecture rooms and libraries for the study of European languages, and is now the Taylor Institution. The Faculty's administrative offices are situated in Wellington Square.

Initially there were only two Taylorian Teachers, one in French and one in German. In 1847, Jules Bué was appointed to teach French; he also produced the first French translation of Alice in Wonderland. In 1848, F.H. Trithen was appointed as the first Professor of Modern European Languages. He was followed by the Germanist and Orientalist Friedrich Max Müller (1854–68), who went on to become Professor of Comparative Philology.[2] A statute for the Founding of the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages was approved by Congregation in 1903. The University of Oxford also has the only established Chair of the Romance Languages in Britain, which dates back to 1909, though since 2008 this chair has been shared with the new Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics.

The Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages now offers various languages for study at (post-A-level) undergraduate level, including French, German, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Portuguese, Modern Greek, Czech, Polish and Celtic. Many of these, especially the less commonly taught languages, can be taken up at beginner's level, otherwise known as ab initio.[3]


The Jesus Professorship of Celtic is the oldest chair in the Faculty, established in 1877 with John Rhys as the first professor. It is the only chair in Celtic at an English university.

This unique undergraduate course is currently "under review". In light of the currently vacant chair in Celtic, there are concerns that the undergraduate course will soon be discontinued after more than a century of research into some of the most complex literature produced in the medieval world—a literary landscape savoured by Tolkien and ostensibly rejected as unprofitable by university administrators.


Oxford's French sub-faculty is the largest French studies department outside France, with over thirty permanent members of staff covering all areas of French literature and language. The quality and range of the department's research was recognised in two Research Assessment Exercises (RAEs). In 2001 the department received the top grade of 5*.[4] In the 2008 RAE, it performed better than any other French department in the UK.[5] The French department was said by The Times in May 2010 to be the best university French department for teaching in the United Kingdom.[6] The Chair of the Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature (held in conjunction with a Fellowship at All Souls College) was established in 1918 after a donation of £25,000 by Sir Basil Zaharoff.[7][8] The same ‘Zaharoff fund’ also provides for the annual Zaharoff Lecture, for which the Sub-Faculty of French invites an eminent figure from French literary studies.

The Sub-Faculty of French has ongoing links with other Oxford-based institutions, notably the Maison Française d’Oxford (MFO) and the Voltaire Foundation. The journal French Studies was founded in 1947 in Oxford and has its editorial office near the Faculty's central offices in Wellington Square.

Some notable past members of the Sub-Faculty of French include:


The Oxford German department is one of the oldest, largest and most active departments in England. There are 19 full-time staff members. The German department admits about 120 students a year from approximately 240 applicants. Students are taught in small groups or one-to-one throughout their course. The course combines a grounding in the four key language skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing with an extensive choice of options ranging from medieval studies and linguistics to contemporary German literature and society.

There are two chairs associated with German studies. The Taylor Chair of the German Language and Literature was first held by Max Müller, the previous incumbent was Terence James Reed and the post holder since 2010 is Ritchie Robertson.[9]. The chair in German Medieval and Linguistic Studies (previously Medieval German Language and Literature) was founded for Peter Ganz, then held by Nigel F Palmer and since 2015 by Henrike Lähnemann.[10]

Modern Greek

Oxford University is one of four universities in Britain where Medieval and Modern Greek can be studied as a major component of a B.A. degree and at graduate level.

A variety of undergraduate courses are offered in Modern Greek language and literature from the foundation of Constantinople (AD 330) to the present day, as well as additional courses in Modern Greek history, cinema, and culture.

Graduate courses in Medieval and Modern Greek literature include taught Master's courses and research degrees (M.Litt. and D.Phil.).

Some notable past members of the Sub-Faculty of Modern Greek[11] include:


Oxford’s Italian sub-faculty is one of the largest Italian departments in the UK, covering all areas of Italian literature and language. The department's research has been recognized as outstanding in the last two Research Assessment Exercises. In 2001 it was awarded the top grade of 5*, and in the 2008 RAE it maintained its position as one of the top departments of Italian in the UK, with 60% of its research output being classed as internationally excellent or world-leading. The Chair of the Serena Professor of Italian (held in conjunction with a Fellowship at Magdalen College, Oxford) was established in 1918 thanks to a donation of £10,000 by Arthur Serena. In 1990 the chair was renamed the Fiat-Serena Chair of Italian Studies and in 2009 the name was further modified to become the Agnelli-Serena Chair of Italian Studies, in order to reflect the generous benefaction given by Gianni Agnelli, Head of Fiat, at the end of the 1980s.

The Sub-Faculty of Italian[12] has strong links with the main research network at Oxford for scholars working on any aspect of Italy.

Some notable past members of the Italian Sub-faculty include:

  • Cecil Grayson, Serena Professor (1957–87), Alberti scholar
  • John Woodhouse, Fiat Serena Professor (1990–2001), expert on Castiglione and D’Annunzio


The chair associated with Portuguese studies is the King John II chair in Portuguese held by Phillip Rothwell since 2015.[13]

Russian (and other Slavonic languages)

The Sub-Faculty of Russian was awarded a top-ranking 5* grade in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise. The Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction was awarded for the authoritative biography of Pushkin by Dr T.J. Binyon (June 2003). The teaching of Russian in Oxford was established by William Morfill (Reader 1889, Professor 1900), the first professor of Russian and Slavonic languages in Britain.[14][15] The chair in Russian is currently held by Andrei Zorin.[16] The sub-faculty also teaches Czech (with Slovak) and Polish.


The Sub-faculty of Spanish at Oxford, which celebrated its centenary in 2005, is one of the largest departments of Spanish and Spanish-American studies in the UK, with 14 full-time permanent staff as well as part-time and temporary lecturers and native speakers. It offers courses in all areas of Spanish and Spanish American literatures and language, as well as options in the Catalan and Galician languages and literatures. It has maintained its position as one of the top departments of Spanish in the UK, with 60% of its research output being classed as internationally excellent or world-leading in the 2008 RAE.

The King Alfonso XIII Chair of Spanish Studies, held in conjunction with a Fellowship at Exeter College, was endowed in 1927 by a donation from Lord Nuffield and others. The Queen Sofía Research Fellowship in Modern Spanish Literature was founded in 1988 and is also associated with Exeter College, of which H.M. the Queen of Spain is an Honorary Fellow.

The Sub-Faculty regularly hosts lectures by prominent writers and academics in the Spanish-speaking world. A number of Spanish writers have been teachers in the Sub-faculty; these include Jorge Guillén from 1929 to 31, Dámaso Alonso from 1931 to 1933, José Angel Valente from 1955 to 1958, Vicente Molina Foix from 1976 to 1979, Félix de Azúa from 1979 to 1981 and Javier Marías from 1983 to 1985. The novel Todas las almas (1989; trans. All Souls, 1992) by Javier Marías is set in Oxford and alludes to several members of the Sub-faculty during his time there.[17]

Some notable past members of the Spanish Sub-faculty include:

  • Salvador de Madariaga, King Alfonso XIII Professor (1928–31), scholar, novelist historian and statesman. Variously ambassador to Washington and Paris, delegate to the League of Nations, and Minister of Education during the Spanish Republic. Early advocate of European integration and founder of the College of Europe at Bruges.
  • Sir Peter Edward Russell, King Alfonso XIII Professor (1953–82), expert in medieval and early-modern literature. Distinguished record in the intelligence services during World War II. The model for ‘Sir Peter Wheeler’, a major character in four novels by Javier Marías.

Studying languages at Oxford

Most students at Oxford study two languages, though some languages can also be studied as a sole-degree course, or as a part of a joint degree alongside a Middle-Eastern language, History, English, Classics, Philosophy or Linguistics. While most teaching takes place in the different colleges of the university, lectures are generally held in the Taylor Institution or Taylorian, where the modern languages library is situated. The four year B.A. degree includes a compulsory year abroad, spent either enrolled at a university or with paid or volunteer work in a foreign country where the target language is spoken.[18]


  1. Firth, Sir Charles, Modern Languages at Oxford 1724–1929, Oxford University Press, 1929.
  2. Baird, Liz, A Small Exhibition to Commemorate 100 years of French at Oxford 1905–2005 (Leaflet), Taylor Institution, 2005.
  3. "FAQs | Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages". Mod-langs.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 29 January 2018.
  4. "2001 Research Assessment Exercise: French". The Guardian. 2010. Retrieved 4 August 2010.
  5. "RAE 2008: French results". The Guardian. 18 December 2008. Retrieved 4 August 2010.
  6. "French: Introduction". University of Oxford, Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages. Retrieved 4 August 2010.
  7. "Foch Professorship at Oxford". The Times. 21 November 1918. p. 9.
  8. "Marshal Foch Professorship of French Literature". Oxford University Gazette. 2 October 2003. Archived from the original on 24 September 2012. Retrieved 3 February 2010.
  9. "Ritchie Robertson". Mod-langs.ox..ac.uk. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  10. "Henrike Lähnemann". gazette.web.ox..ac.uk. Retrieved 31 August 2018.
  11. Sub-Faculty of Modern Greek Archived 24 August 2010 at the Wayback Machine, University of Oxford, UK.
  12. Italian Studies at Oxford (ISO), University of Oxford, UK.
  13. "Phillip Rothwell inaugural lecture". mod-langs.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved on 2 September 2018.
  14. Blue plaque honours Britain's first professor of Russian, Oxford Mail.
  15. Stone, Gerald (October 2009). "Morfill, William Richard (1834–1909)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 5 August 2010. (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  16. "Andri Zorin". new.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved on 2 September 2018.
  17. "100 years". mod-langs.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 13 September 2018.
  18. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 3 April 2011. Retrieved 16 April 2011.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

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