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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

§ 7. The school curriculum

The practice of the better schools was to require that boys, on admission, should have had good grounding in accidence, know the concords and read and write English intelligibly. The curriculum was, almost exclusively, classical. A little mathematics, some smattering of astronomy, may have been added here and there; but neither logic nor English was taught, and history (Ocland, indeed, is an interesting phenomenon) simply as a comment on Livy or Plutarch. The four public schools followed a very similar order. At Westminster, apparently, Greek was carried further than elsewhere: for Xenophon, Isocrates, Demosthenes, Homer and Hesiod are expressly prescribed in the Elizabethan curriculum. Eton seems to have aimed no higher than the grammar. Shrewsbury makes no mention of any author harder than Isocrates. Thucydides and Euripides are never named. The grammar generally used was Clenard’s, until Grant, at Westminster, introduced his Spicilegium and Eton adapted it to its own use as the Eton Greek grammar. Efforts at Greek composition were exceptional. Chief stress was laid in every school upon exercises in Latin prose and verse. To lay the foundations of prose style was the object of every master. To this end, he began with the Colloquies of Erasmus, Cordier and Vives, and passed to Sturm’s selection of Cicero’s Letters. As early as possible, the pupil was turned on to Terence, whose pure Roman eloquence every humanist, Catholic or puritan alike, upheld for imitation. Caesar, properly, was not regarded as an elementary text. Sallust was commonly read, but Tacitus very rarely. There was no reluctance to put Juvenal and Martial into boys’ hands. The Figurae of Mosellanus, the Epitome Troporum of Susenbrotus, the grammars of Despauterius and Lily are commonly alluded to. At Ipswich, Wolsey prescribed the Elegantiae of Valla. Rhetoric, in the developed sense, was left to the university. The school-play took the place of the mystery, and the pageant competed with the play. Shrewsbury and Chester schools were famous for dramatic exhibitions. Henry Sidney, lord of the Welsh March, whose son Philip was a pupil of Ashton, was entertained, after a visit to the town, with a noteworthy river-pageant performed by the boys as he was rowed down the Severn on his journey home. In many schools, the performance of a scene from Terence or Seneca was a weekly exercise, the example of Melanchthon and John Sturm being herein followed. English writing was, probably, more cared for than directly appears. For the admirable training provided by exact construing, by essay-writing and by declamations, though these were never vernacular exercises, developed taste in words and some sense of the logical texture of speech. What natural history was imparted was given by way of notes to classical texts. Much attention was often given to singing. But the arts of writing and ciphering were relegated to separate and inferior schools. There was, inevitably, much repetition, and a harsh discipline enforced attention to uncongenial task-work. In the Elizabethan school, the hard edge of circumstance was never softened to the weak. The “big school,” in which all classes were held together, carried with it the idea of corporate life. Monitors were always employed for discipline and for aid in teaching junior forms. As a rule, foundationers, and these alone, received education free of all charges, except for “birch broom and candles.” The age of leaving for the university is hard to estimate; but the better taught schools tried to retain their promising pupils till their sixteenth year. In time of plague, a large school, like the colleges, had its retreat; Westminster had a house at Chiswick, Eton at Chippenham, Magdalen College, Oxford, at Brackley. Not a few schools began to acquire a library of merit, which, in the case of such a school as Shrewsbury, has, by happy neglect, survived intact to our own day.