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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XIX. English Universities, Schools and Scholarship in the Sixteenth Century

§ 11. Roger Ascham

In 1548, Ascham, perhaps the ablest Greek scholar in England, and public orator of the university, was called to court as tutor to princess Elizabeth. But, while he enjoyed his task of teaching a pupil of Elizabeth’s acquisitive temper, his self-respect ill brooked a court position. Two years later, he made the tour of Germany, as secretary to a mission, touching Italy at Venice. He was alert to meet scholars, observe institutions and visit historic sites. Characteristically, the secretary taught his chief Greek grammar during their intervals of leisure. The Report and Discourse of the affairs of Germany, written in 1553, shows him a keen student of French and German politics. He has made Thucydides, Polybius and Livy his models. Commines has his favour, but, though he would not have allowed it, we may safely affirm that Macchiavelli’s Relazioni had taught him more than the ancients. Queen Mary made him Latin secretary at court, where his own caution, aided by Gardiner’s personal feeling for him, secured him from molestation on account of his opinions, and Elizabeth was glad to keep him in her service as Greek preceptor and courtier of the new style.

Much of Ascham’s classical writing—translation from Sophocles, studies in Herodotus, a tract de Imitatione—has disappeared. Probably, the three works by which he is now known adequately represent his powers. Toxophilus (1545), a treatise on the art of shooting with the long-bow, treats, in the accepted dialogue form, of the function of bodily training in education, with the urgent prescription of practice with the bow as the national exercise. There is not a little of Plato and the Italians in his concept of the place of physical grace and vigour in personality. Plutarch and Epicharmus, Domitian and Galen, are all called in to defend his argument. This was inevitable, given the time and place; but, in spite of the fanciful play made with Jupiter and Minos in this connection, the skilled English archer for more than a hundred years has made Toxophilus his text-book, and “Ascham’s Five Points” are part of the lore to-day.

Ascham’s nationalism, which inspires every paragraph of Toxophilus, is but characteristic of English humanism of the finer type. Elyot, Smith, Cheke and Hoby are Englishmen first and men of scholarship next. Learning, indeed, they win from every source; they are voracious readers, their interests are well-nigh universal. But, whatever the flowers, native or foreign, wholesome or poisonous, the sweetness drawn therefrom is the honey of English hives. The Scholemaster (1570) is essentially the work of a scholar who has no illusions on the subject of Erasmian cosmopolitanism. Like Elyot, he wrote in his own tongue—English matter, in English speech, for Englishmen, as he had said in his Toxophilus. He made, indeed, of a technical treatise a piece of literature, and that of no mean order. We may notice that writings upon education which were written or found welcome in this country had a note of reality which is often far to seek in German, or, still more, in Italian pieces of similar character. The starting point of The Scholemaster is, essentially, that of Elyot’s Governour. This is, that England loses much fruitful capacity through the ill-training of its youth of station. In the first book, Ascham considers the chief reasons of the ineffectiveness of the new education. From the text that news had reached court that Eton boys had broken school to escape the birch, he inveighs, in the vein of Erasmus, against the cruelty of school discipline, not realising that, given the curriculum and the mode of teaching it, harsh punishments were, in fact, in-evitable. He next considers the differing nature of “wits.” The schoolmaster is prone to hold precocity the singular mental and moral virtue: Ascham pleads for the slow but solid temper, and protests that, by contempt for late developed minds, Pedantius drives away many a fine intelligence from due opportunity of public service. He draws from Plato seven true “notes of a good wit,” which “he plainly declares in English”: in essence, these are industry, interest, curiosity, a good will, but never premature gifts of acquisition. Now, these are qualities which the “lewd and ignorant” teacher bars from their natural growth by his impatient pedantry. The second hindrance is the decay of home discipline. The youth of seventeen sent to court, left without a career, hanging idly about a great house, falls to gambling, and all licence, swelling that clan of the gentle unemployed for which relief was sought later in adventure and plantation. Travel, in the third place, has made shipwreck of many,

  • not because I do contemn either the knowledge of strange and divers tongues, and namely the Italian tongue, which next the Greek and Latin tongue I do like and love above all others, or else because I do despise the learning that is gathered in strange countries,
  • but travel meant a sojourn in Italy, and, in well remembered words, he proclaims his aversion to what he had seen in Venice, and the deep seated distrust with which he views the morals, the politics, the irreligion, the newer literature of the Italy of the Spaniard and the inquisition. Study will provide all the worthy fruits of travel, and manners can be learnt by all who care to read Castiglione’s Cortegiano, in its new English dress. Let a young Englishman be proud of his England, and, if he will see other manners, other minds, Strassburg or Frankfort will give him what he seeks, with no danger to faith and morals. The second book is largely concerned with the teaching of Latin. The method of Ascham, according to which a classical language is taught by the process of re-translation of construes, is, at least, as old as Cicero and is of slight importance in the history of instruction. But this section of The Scholemaster is of interest as evidence of the thoroughness and breadth of Ascham’s reading. He avows Greek to be the subject of his truest affection. He has a sound view of the function of historical writing, which far transcends the superficial aspect of it which confronts us in Italian humanists prior to the later Patrizi. Much space is given to the art of teaching rhetoric. Cicero is the accepted master; where Quintilian differs from him, he is to be disregarded. John Sturm he regards as unapproachable amongst neo-Latinists. Ascham pleads for style: “ye know not what hurt ye do to learning that are not for words but for matter, and do make a divorce betwixt the tongue and the heart.” The secret of true imitation is to read exactly and, at the same time, to read widely. English will have its fruit of such right imitation of classic models, for in them alone are the “true precepts and perfect examples” of sound writing. Upon poetic imitation only did Ascham lapse into pedantry. He will recognise no English metres. Much as he admires Chaucer, he apologises for his riming, an inheritance from the Goth and Hun.