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What is the historic basis and/or context for "Honoris Causa" degrees? What were the original reasons for granting these?

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    For those interested in current reasons, see academia.stackexchange.com/questions/27618/…
    – jvriesem
    May 2 '17 at 15:35
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    Note: Wikipedia does have a bit of information on this (including a claim for the earliest honorary degree, though I'm unable to verify that without access to the original source), if you are okay with a very cursory overview.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 2 '17 at 17:45
  • I'm not making this an answer, as I can't point to any concrete evidence. However, the earliest universities did not have the formalised 'graduation requirements', 'syllabuses' and 'passing grades' that we are used to today. Instead, your degree was awarded once you had convinced your teachers that you had reached the requisite standard. One imagines that this 'convincing' could take various forms, and so I suspect it is difficult to identify a point at which 'examined' and 'honorary' degrees split apart.
    – avid
    Jul 19 at 13:52
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    Also note that historically holding a degree was a mark of membership, as well as educational attainment: it gave the holder certain privileges within (and without) the university. (There are still vestiges of this in e.g. Oxford & Cambridge, where all graduates are allowed to vote on certain aspects of the university's business). As such there was an obvious benefit in being able to confer this status on, say, established scholars who had arrived from elsewhere.
    – avid
    Jul 19 at 14:01
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They have quite a long history and although customs gradually changed over time, it was basically always related to the influence of powerful people (typically nobility).

One of the earliest examples was by Oxford to gain favor with an influential nobleman in the late 15th century, shortly before making him chancellor. The university continued to give them out (mostly voluntarily) for a while, but it really took off under pressure from King Charles I who, in the mid-17th century, requested hundreds of honorary degrees for his acquaintances.

https://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/The-University-Year/Encaenia/Honorary-Degrees-Early-History

The earliest honorary degree (in the sense which we would understand it today) appears to have been offered to Lionel Woodville in 1478 or 1479. Woodville, Dean of Exeter and the brother-in-law of Edward IV, appears to have already held the degree of Bachelor of Canon Law; the University offered to confer the degree of Doctor of Canon Law on him without the usual academic exercises. It was thus an offer to dispense with the usual requirements, but was apparently unsolicited and clearly an attempt to honour and obtain the favour of a man with great influence. Woodville was shortly afterwards elected Chancellor of the University, a post he held until the death of Edward IV in 1483.

When Charles I moved his court to Oxford in 1642 the University was prevailed upon by the King to award about 350 honorary degrees (in all faculties, including doctorates where applicable) between November of that year and the following February. The University responded by presenting the King with a petition arguing that the practice of conferring large numbers of honorary degrees was damaging to the University: not just to its reputation as a seat of learning, but also financially. It asked the King not to present any scholar for a degree unless he was 'capable by our Statutes, & give Caution to performe his Exercises, and pay all usual fees' (OUA NEP/supra/Reg Sb, pp21-2). The King agreed to the request.

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  • Thanks for the history lesson.
    – Buffy
    Jul 19 at 13:06
  • Hmm... Lionel Woodville's sister, Elizabeth, is said to have given Queens' College Cambridge its first set of statutes in 1475. I idly wonder whether, by doing that, she had met the then-extant "usual requirements" for a doctorate of canon law. Jul 20 at 12:22

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