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

I. Englishmen and the Classical Renascence

§ 12. Sir Thomas Elyot

Among those who, following Erasmus, strove to make use of the writings of antiquity for the instruction and edification of their contemporaries were Sir Thomas Elyot and Thomas Wilson. The former is best known by his treatise, The Boke named the Governour, and the latter by his Arte of Rhetorique.

Elyot had no university training. He was educated at home and, at a comparatively early age, had acquired a good knowledge of Latin, Greek and Italian. He says that, before he was twenty, he had read Galen and other medical writings with a “worshipful physician,” conjectured to have been Linacre.

His earliest work, The Boke of the Governour, the best known of his writings, made him famous and probably proved his introduction to the career as a diplomatic agent in which he spent the greater part of his life. It is a lengthy and exhaustive treatise on the education which those who are destined to govern ought to receive. It begins with a discussion of the various kinds of commonwealths, and sets forth the advantages of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. The author decides that monarchy is the best form of government; but it demands the appointment of subordinate rulers over the various parts of the kingdom who are to be the eyes, ears, hands and legs of the supreme ruler. They ought to be taken from the “estate called worshipful,” provided they have sufficient virtue and knowledge, but they must be carefully educated. It is the more necessary to insist upon this as education is not valued as it ought to be. Pride looks upon learning as a “notable reproach to a great gentleman,” and lords are apt to ask the price of tutors as they demand the qualification of cooks.

The author then proceeds to map out what goes to make the thorough education of a gentleman fit to rule. He begins with his birth. Up to the age of seven, the child is to be under the charge of a nurse or governess. He is then to be handed over to a tutor or carefully selected master, and taught music and its uses, painting and carving, and is to be instructed in letters from such books as Aesop’s Fables, “quick and merrie dialogues” like those of Lucian, or the heroic poems of Homer. When he attains the age of fourteen he is to be taught logic, cosmography and “histories,” and, although “this age be not equal to antiquity” (the classics), he is, nevertheless, to make a beginning therein. His bodily frame is to be exercised in wrestling, hunting, swimming and, above all, in dancing, which profits much for the acquirement of moral virtues. Shooting with the crossbow is also to be practised and tennis, if not indulged in too frequently and if limited to brief periods of exercise, but football is to be “put in perpetual silence” because “therein is nothing but beastly furie and external violence, whereof procedeth hurte, and consequently rancour and malice do remaine with them that be wounded.” In his second and third books the author sets forth the lofty ideals which ought to inspire the governor and describes the way in which he can be trained to a virtuous life.

The whole book is full of classical reminiscences taken either directly from the authors of antiquity or borrowed from the humanists of Italy. It discourses on the methods of hunting practised among the Greeks and Romans, and the dances of the youths of Sparta are not forgotten. It is also interesting to notice that the education portrayed in the first book is almost exactly what had been given to the young Italian patrician for more than a generation; while the second and third books add those moral ideals which the more seriously-minded northern nations demanded. It is the unfolding of a plan of education which Wilibald Pirkheimer, the friend of Erasmus, describes as having been his own, and it is the attempt to introduce into English life an ideal of the many-sided culture which the classical renascence had disclosed.

Elyot’s reputation among his contemporaries rested on more than his Boke of the Governour. He wrote The Castel of Helth, full of prescriptions and remedies largely selected from Galen and other medical authorities of antiquity. His two tracts: A swete and devoute sermon of Holy Saynt Ciprian, of Mortalitie of Man and The Rules of a Christian lyfe made by Picus, erle of Mirandula, both translated into Englyshe, provided food for the soul. His translations from Latin and Greek into English, made at a time when all were anxious to share in classical learning, and only a few possessed a knowledge of the classical languages sufficient to enable them to share its benefits, were very popular and were reprinted over and over again. To this class belong: The Doctrine of Princes, made by the noble oratour Isocrates, and translated out of Greke in to Englishe; The Bankette of Science (a collection of sayings translated from the Fathers); The Education or Bringinge up of Children, translated out of Plutarche; The Image of Governance, compiled of the actes and sentences notable of the moste noble Emperour Alexander Severus, late translated out of Greke into Englyshe and others of a like kind. Henry VIII himself encouraged Elyot in the compilation on his Latin-English lexicon: The Dictionary of Syr T. Eliot, knyght, with its later title, Bibliotheca Eliotae. This dictionary and his translations continued to be appreciated in a wonderful manner for two generations at least. If Erasmus popularised the classical renascence for scholars, Elyot rendered it accessible to the mass of the people who had no acquaintance with the languages of antiquity.