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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

§ 4. English learning in the sixteenth century

As the humanism of the sixteenth century became more strictly literary in its range, so surely did mathematics and natural philosophy sink to a lower place in English learning.

Their affinity was with navigation, architecture or military science, not with the learned professions: a typical and very popular hand-book was Blundeville His exercises … in Cosmographie.… Methods of observation and experiment, working to practical ends, superseded authoritative appeal to Aristotle or Ptolemy. Recorde’s The Castel of Knowledge (1553) had a vogue for half a century as a manual of the new mathematic, harmonised to the Copernican astronomy. The English Euclid (1570) would seem to have had but a poor sale. Original work, like Gilbert’s De Magnete (1600) kept its Latin dress, and, apart from this, nothing of first rate importance in the field of pure science was produced from an English press during the period under discussion.

It is an interesting, though difficult, task to realise the actual range and level of the work of a studious undergraduate coming up from Westminster or Shrewsbury to Christ Church at Oxford or St. John’s at Cambridge. Statutes, in effect, lend little or no help. Colleges ordered and gave the instruction and, apparently, were powerful enough to secure dispensation from the formal university exercises. A large, though varying, number in every college never graduated at all. Though the age at matriculation tended to rise, Bacon (who, himself, entered at twelve years and three months) complained, in the closing years of the century, that a prime cause of the futility of university education lay in the immaturity of the undergraduate. We may remember that Bentham, two centuries later, went up at twelve. Magdalen (Oxford) wisely put raw first year “men” to the learning of rudiments in its own admirable grammar school. Yet, there is ample evidence that ambitious and well-prepared boys—precocious, perhaps, to our seeming—not only found helpful teaching in classical letters, but developed broad and abiding interests. Bodley, Wotton, Savile, Sidney and Hooker at Oxford, Spenser, Downes, Fraunce and Harington at Cambridge, are typical of different groups of men who owed much to the universities for the shaping of their bent. But that single-eyed devotion to scholarship which marked the circle of Cheke, Smith and Ascham at the outset of this period is far to seek as it draws to a close. Theology attracted the strongest intelligence as it has done at certain epochs since. The way to secular advance lay at court or in adventure. Wotton, indeed, wrote his Latin play like many another. But he found his enjoyment at Oxford in reading law with Gentilis, in learning Italian and in working at optics. Donne had read enough for graduation by the time he was thirteen: and he then left to spend four desultory years at Cambridge. Henry Savile, warden of Merton and, later, like Wotton, provost of Eton, whose rightful repute for scholarship even Scaliger allowed, translated the Annals of Tacitus (1592), wrote on Roman warfare, edited Xenophon (the Cyropaedia) and produced the first substantial work of English patristic learning since the revival. He stands for the “courtier” as developed on English soil, a man of the world, versatile and travelled, “the scholar gentleman.” Before the queen died, the English universities had already begun to realise their national function as the breeders of men of talent for affairs, of divines and schoolmasters, with here and there, as a “sport,” a man of letters and, yet more rarely, a leader in scholarship.