Education in Excess: The Folger Institute’s “Theatres of Learning”

by guest contributor Timothy Lundy

When Erasmus began to compose his authoritative textbook on style, De copia, during the last decade of the fifteenth century, it’s highly unlikely that he envisioned a gathering of twenty-first century scholars in a reconstructed Elizabethan theater in North America taking great pleasure in parodying his virtuosic ability to generate playfully excessive forms of simple expressions, such as his 195 variations on the Latin sentence “Tuae litterae me magnopere delectarunt [Your letter pleased me greatly].” The astonishing ability of educational forms to exceed the expectations and intentions of their creators is, of course, one of the great delights of education: teachers never know for certain how students might make use of the lessons they learn and the abilities they develop in the classroom. The excesses of education, however, also pose a problem for historians seeking to understand how educational theories and intentions became pedagogical practices; and, in turn, how these practices engendered social and cultural effects.

Between affectionate jokes about Erasmus, historians of education and literary scholars took up precisely this set of problems at the Folger Institute’s recent conference “Theatres of Learning: Education in Early Modern England (1500-1600).” Scholars from throughout the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada gathered to reexamine, in the words of the conference program, “the transmission of knowledge and expertise in formal and informal settings, between and among institutions and pedagogical practices, and across a wide range of intellectual communities.” This broad conception of education allowed attendees to grapple both with the formal constraints of early modern education and with the constant flow of ideas and practices beyond those constraints.

The tone for the weekend was set by a sweeping overview of “the ends of education in early modern England” in a lecture delivered by Keith Thomas. Thomas’s talk examined a number of the more or less explicit goals of early modern education while also calling attention to the sheer range of subject matter that discussions of early modern education have addressed: from the grammar schools to the Inns of Court, from Cambridge and Oxford to the London guilds, and from the Republic of Letters to the private household, the transmission of knowledge at all levels of English society held some aspects of that society in place while greatly transforming others.

In the conference’s second plenary lecture, Peter Mack pursued a complementary examination of the means of education in the humanist grammar school, a theater of learning that has long been a privileged site of engagement between historians and literary scholars. Mack argued that the rhetorical skills grammar-school students were taught allowed them to elaborate and reformulate conventional wisdom, enabling them to think in new ways, not merely recycle old ideas. By teaching students how to read as “fellow-practitioners” of the art of writing, the grammar schools trained men who were conscious of how the material they read could be reused and revised in new arguments and for new audiences.

The capacity of old rhetorical forms to engender new creative effects was also an important theme for Lorna Hutson, whose book Circumstantial Shakespeare was released on the conference’s opening day. Drawing on her new research, Hutson argued that the imaginative evocations of reality for which Elizabethan popular drama has long been praised owe their existence not to a break with the neoclassical tradition, as is commonly suggested, but to the curriculum of forensic rhetoric taught in English schools. Emphasizing the effects of more ephemeral modes of rhetorical education, Ursula Potter turned to the performance of Terentian drama as a central practice of grammar school education, with a significant role in the creation of a London audience for popular drama. Similarly, Heidi Hackel took up a discussion of gestural literacy in rhetorical education, highlighting the irony that gesture is the most visible form of rhetorical eloquence in person, but nearly invisible in the textual record. Turning to the universities, Richard Serjeantson argued that the performance of disputations has been unjustifiably neglected as the central practice of university education and began to reconstruct these performances by examining university notebooks, one of the few sites where written traces of the practice can be found.

Though the institutions of early modern education demand attention and study, Keith Thomas was careful to emphasize at the conference’s opening that scholars miss out on a great deal if they focus only on formal institutions and their explicit theories and practices. Elizabeth Hanson illustrated this point brilliantly in a close examination of the register of students in attendance at Merchant Taylors’ School at the start of the seventeenth century. The register, Hanson observed, can be read as a record of institutional ambitions, mapping a trajectory in which students advanced through the school’s curriculum year by year, reading new Latin authors along the way. However, a quite different story emerges when one attempts to follow an individual student’s annual progress and notices how few students actually remained in the school for more than a handful of years. Our understanding of early modern education, Hanson suggested, must account for both the form that institutions give to education as well as the practices and contingencies that exceed it.

Marking a decisive turn away from school education, Ian W. Archer attempted to outline a new account of the transfer and production of knowledge in relation to apprenticeship and the guilds of early modern London. Like Hanson, Archer emphasized the informal features of apprenticeship as a flexible educational system, calling into question the significance of the guilds’ regulatory framework to the way knowledge transfer occurred through apprenticeship. Likewise turning to the practical applications of education, Nicholas Popper’s examination of the production of minutely-detailed and politically expedient European travel guides and Jean-Louis Quantin’s account of the evolution of ecclesiastical histories over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries both suggested the varied political ends to which early modern learning and scholarship could contribute.

Still further beyond the reach of most institutional records, education that occurred in private households or local communities left very few traces. Thus, the exclusion of girls and women from grammar schools, universities, and educated professions makes their learning particularly difficult for scholars to characterize—although many are up to the challenge. Elizabeth Mazzola drew a contrast between our increasing knowledge of the circles and communities of female learning that existed in early modern England and the way that female learners chose to portray themselves in their own writings: as isolated and entirely self-taught individuals. She then considered the productive function of this sort of intellectual biography for writers from Marie de France and Hildegard of Bingen to Martha Moulsworth and Margaret Cavendish. Carol Pal also examined the intellectual lives of early modern women, delivering an incandescent talk on the place of women within the seventeenth century Republic of Letters, the subject of her 2012 book Republic of Women. In particular, Pal traced the remarkable intellectual influence of an “ephemeral academy” of female scholars that formed around Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia at the English court in exile in the Netherlands. The fact that later scholars have forgotten this intellectual network is not only a problem of gender, Pal suggested, but also one of institutional memory. The decentralized, polyglot environment at the exile court that made such intense intellectual exchange among women possible also, by its nature, left few traces in any formal institution.

By pursuing the history of early modern education from the perspective of both institutions and individuals, the Folger Institute’s “Theatres of Learning” conference investigated the complex intellectual traditions of education in the period as they were refracted by practical concerns and produced new, and sometimes unexpected, thought. As a final complication, conference organizer Nicholas Tyacke raised the question in the conference’s last session of how scholars should account historically for the sheer pleasure of learning and education in addition to its other, more utilitarian, ends. For an audience of scholars who still take great pleasure themselves in understanding the intellectual exchanges of the early modern period and their cultural effects, this was no small question indeed.

Timothy Lundy is a PhD student in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He studies early modern English literature and culture, and is particularly interested in theories and practices of translation.

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