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Attention Pedagogues and Classicists: A blog on Roger Ascham marginalia

Written by Lindsey Askin, library volunteer and PhD student in Divinity

Roger Ascham, Cambridge humanist

Roger Ascham, Cambridge humanist

Queens’ College Old Library has an association with Roger Ascham (1515-1568), the pupil of Sir Thomas Smith (Queens’ fellow and humanist, 1513-1577). Ascham was taught by Smith while a student, and then became his scholarly contemporary as a fellow at St John’s, Cambridge. They were both avid Classicists and dedicated humanists. According to Thomas Smith, Ascham lectured frequently on Isocrates, who was a major influence on Ascham in addition to Cicero.

Sir Thomas Smith, Queens' College fellow and humanist

Sir Thomas Smith, Queens’ College fellow and humanist

The Library possesses an annotated volume containing two of Ascham’s Classical books, bound together in limp Italian vellum (Andreas Dudito Pannonio, Dionysii Halicarnassei De Thucydidis historia iudicium (Venice: Aldus Press, 1560) and Paul Manutius, Demosthenis Orationes Quatuor contra Philippum (Venice: Aldus Press, 1551) – shelfmark: C.9.15) . We also have an excellent copy of schoolmaster James Bennett’s edition of Ascham’s own life’s works and letters, with an introductory life of Ascham by Samuel Johnson (The Works of Roger Ascham, London, 1771; shelfmark: D.3.26).

The Enlightenment edition of Ascham's complete works, including the Schoolmaster and Toxophilus, a book on the benefits of archery

The Enlightenment edition of Ascham’s complete works, including the Schoolmaster and Toxophilus, a book on the benefits of archery

Inscribed in the title page of the Dionysius text is Roger Ascham’s familiar and famously beautiful handwriting, for which he was almost as well-known as for his very readable English prose style. It reads: ‘Est hic liber, mea opinione, summae doctrinae, magnae diligentiae, gravissimi iudicii, sine quo, Grecus Thucyd. recte et facile intelligi non potest. R. Aschamus. 1568. 7o die Junii 1568. Londini in Aedib. Meis.’ – ‘Here is this book, which in my opinion is the sum of teaching, [in] great diligence, [and] in most serious judgment – without which the Greek of Thucydides cannot rightly and easily be understood. R. Ascham. 1568. 7th of June 1568. In my London house.’

It should be plain that Ascham’s inscription was written in his last year alive on earth, in London. Whether the rest of his annotations and markings are also only from his last year is unknowable – as only this inscription is dated. For those who remember their history lessons, in 1568 Queen Mary I (Queen of Scots) was imprisoned by her sister Elizabeth I. Ascham died 30 Dec 1568 from serious illness.

Ascham's inscription

Ascham’s inscription – click to enlarge

Ascham’s marginal notes comment on the Dionysius text. He mainly makes comments on how easy or difficult certain passages are, and underlines important passages. They are notes made with a teacher’s eye. The Dionysius of Halicarnassus text is a Latin translation by Andreas Duditus – ‘without which the Greek is unreadable’ – and the Demosthenes was translated by the third son of Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, Paul Manutius. There are no notes on the Demosthenes, but Ascham’s binding the two together by 1560 might be a good indication he approved of that translation, too.

Notes with an educator's eyes.

Notes with an educator’s eyes.

According to Smith, during Ascham and Smith’s time at Cambridge in 1542, there was a large debate in the University over the new pronunciation of Greek put forward by Erasmus, with which all students of Classical Greek today are still taught. Reportedly, Ascham was a staunch defender of the new pronunciation, but soon left Cambridge because he was becoming ill with worry over the matter.

Ascham was one of the first popular education theorists in England, and tutor to Elizabeth I when she was yet a princess, though for all of two years (1548-1550). He is most well-known for his book, The Scholemaster, finished in 1563 but published posthumously in 1570, which outlines a Ciceronian method of learning and a Montessouri-style model of discipline. He was wholly against the beating of pupils, and encouraged the use of praise as the largest assistant in learning, and encouraging a child’s love of learning. He wanted teachers to instil a love of learning in pupils, not terror. In his biography of Ascham, Dr Johnson – a man ever conscious of authors’ royalties and livelihoods – reckons that he did not publish it during his lifetime because the printers offered him too little in payment.1

The Ciceronian method described by Ascham involves the following:

‘First, let him teach the child, cheerfully and plainly, the cause and matter of the letter [of Latin Cicero] then let him construe it into English so oft, as the childe may easily carry away the understanding of it: lastly parse it over perfectly. . . . after this . . . let him translate into English his former lesson. Then showing it to his master, let the master take from him his Latin book, and, pausing an hour at the least, then let the child translate his own English into Latin again, in another paper book. When the child bringeth it, turn into Latin, the master must compare it with Tullies [Cicero translation] book, and lay them both together: and where the child doth well, either in choosing, or true placing of Tullies words, let the master praise him, and say, “Here ye do well.” For I assure you, there is no such whetstone, to sharpen a good wit, and encourage a will to learning, as is praise.’2

Ascham’s love of Classical languages, something he shared with Thomas Smith, who dedicated all of his Latin and Greek books to Queens’ College, formed the basis of his advice about what to teach young English gentlemen. And after a conversation with Sir Richard Sackville (Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1559-1566) on gentle schoolmasters fondly remembered, Sackville invited Ascham to write a book on the topic, and this formed the ‘how’ part of his teaching advice in The Scholemaster.

More marginal notes and underlining by Ascham.

Marginal notes and underlining by Ascham.

The works by Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Demosthenes in Latin and Greek may have accompanied him during his extensive travels (and occupational changes) around England and the globe. When Ascham fell out with Elizabeth’s steward he returned briefly to Cambridge in 1550, and Elizabeth is reported to have had fond memories of him. After some time he was appointed ambassador to the Spanish Emperor Charles V from 1550-1552, after which he returned to England, married a woman called Margaret Howe, and was tutor to Mary Queen of Scots for a year. In 1554 he became presbyter of York Minster until 1559, and MP for Preston in 1560.3 Sometime during these years he came to possess these two books, bound together, Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ De Thucydidis historia iudicium (Venice: Aldine Press, 1560) and Demosthenes’ Orationes (Venice, Aldine Press: 1551).

Famously, he also stumbled upon Lady Jane Grey, herself a budding humanist, in her rooms reading Plato’s Phaedrus. She complained to Ascham that she only found solace in reading and learning, ‘For when I am in the presence either of father or mother, whether I speak, keep silence, sit, stand or go, eat, drink, be merry or sad, be sewing, playing, dancing, or doing anything else, I must do it as it were in such weight, measure and number, even so perfectly as God made the world; or else I am so sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened, yea presently sometimes with pinches, nips and bobs and other ways (which I will not name for the honour I bear them) … that I think myself in hell.’ She also reported, ‘One of the greatest benefits that God ever gave me, is that He sent me so sharp, severe parents and so gentle a schoolmaster.’4

Marginal note and underlining by Ascham.

Beautiful handwriting and underlining by Ascham.

Because of his beautiful handwriting he was also appointed as writer of official letters during his time at the University of Cambridge. He was also a Greek orator in Cambridge. It is remarkable to have the books of so instrumental a humanist and educationalist, whose popular work on teaching influenced generations of English schoolmasters to be kinder and teach even more Latin and Greek, and who was an early advocate of nonviolent classroom teaching.


1. Roger Ascham, ed. James Bennett, The Works of Roger Ascham, preceptor to Queen Elizabeth, London, 1771.

2. Sir Thomas Smith, De recta et emendate pronuntatione Graecae linguae, 1568.

3. J. Venn and J. A. Venn, eds. “Ascham, Roger”, Alumni Cantabrigienses, 10 vols, Cambridge University Press, 1922–1958 [online edition].

4. Ascham, The Scholemaster.