Roger Ascham Essay - Critical Essays

Ascham, Roger


Roger Ascham 1516?-1568

English essayist.

Roger Ascham's works stood for centuries as models of English prose style. His treatise on archery, Toxophilus, The Schole of Shootinge (1545), and his guide to pedagogy, The Scholemaster (1570), were admired and imitated both for their precepts and their prosody. Through his works, and as Latin secretary and private tutor to Elizabeth I, Ascham exerted a decisive influence on the development of classical humanism in Renaissance England and on the pattern of education for the English aristocracy.

Biographical Information

Ascham was born in Kirby Wiske, Yorkshire, in 1515 or 1516. His father, John, a steward to Baron Scrope of Bolton, placed him in the household of Sir Humphrey Wingfield of Suffolk, where he received an excellent education, particularly in Latin and Greek. Sir Humphrey also encouraged Ascham's interest in archery, the subject of his first published work, Toxophilus. With the support of Wingfield, Ascham attended St. John's College, Cambridge, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1534 and a master's degree in 1537. He studied classical languages as well as religious reform, and he developed a reputation for being boldly antipapal but nonetheless brilliant and accomplished. The master of the college, Nicholas Metcalfe, supported his election as a fellow of the college upon his completion of the bachelor of arts degree. Ascham stayed at Cambridge as a lecturer and reader, and he was eventually elected to the office of the university's public orator in 1546. During that time he began work on Toxophilus. His biographer Lawrence Ryan suggests Ascham wrote the work to demonstrate his erudition and to get the attention of a possible patron, who would allow him to leave his Cambridge post. In 1548 such an opportunity came when the Princess Elizabeth selected Ascham as her private tutor. He held this position for two years, though he maintained a relationship with Elizabeth for the next twenty years. In 1550 he returned to Cambridge, then traveled throughout Europe, including a three-year tenure as secretary to Sir Richard Morison, ambassador to Emperor Charles V. Through his contacts he began a relationship with the education writer Johann Sturm of Strasbourg, who was among his chief influences when writing The Scholemaster. His travels also provided the material for his Report and Discourse … of the affaires and state of Germany and the Emperour Charles (1570; commonly called A Report on Germany). In 1553 Queen Mary chose Ascham for the post of Latin secretary, an office entailing the composition of official state letters and documents in Latin prose using elegant penmanship, another skill for which Ascham had developed a strong reputation. On June 1, 1554 Ascham married Margaret Howe, with whom he had two sons: Sturm, named after his humanist peer and mentor, and Dudley, named after his friend Robert Dudley, the first Earl of Leicester. When Elizabeth took the throne in 1558, Ascham retained his position at court and also acted unofficially as her private tutor in Latin and Greek. In the preface to The Scholemaster Ascham recounts a story placing the genesis of the work in an experience from his time at court. According to Ascham, in a December 1563 conversation with Sir William Cecil, Sir Richard Sackville, and other courtiers, the subject of beating schoolboys as a standard method of discipline arose, and Ascham spoke out strongly against it. Sackville was impressed with Ascham's opinions in finding a tutor for his son; Ascham's response was to begin his treatise on the ideal schoolmaster. Ascham worked on the piece for years, completing a draft of the first book and beginning the second, but his work was slowed by illness and financial troubles. In a 1568 letter to Sturm, Ascham indicates that he had nearly finished the work, but whether or not he actually completed it is unknown. Ascham died from a wasting fever on December 30, 1568; his widow published The Scholemaster in 1570 as an incomplete manuscript.

Major Works

Toxophilus and The Scholemaster constitute Ascham's major works, although his Report on Germany still receives some scholarly notice. For decades after his death, Ascham's familiar epistles in Latin were also widely read as exemplars of brilliant rhetoric; Disertissimi viri Rogeri Aschami, Angli, Regiae maiestati non ita pridem a Latinis epistolis, familiarum epistolarum libri tres, magna orationis elegantia conscripti went into four editions after its publication in 1576, and English translations of selected letters appeared in A Panoplie of Epistles, Or a looking Glasse for the unlearned (1576). But he is best remembered as the author of those two treatises expounding decorum, eloquence, and the values of English humanism. The first, Toxophilus, addresses the topic of archery, promoting its benefits as a wholesome physical activity and arguing for the importance of shooting in English history. A dialogue between Philologus, a rhetorician, and Toxophilus, an archer, the essay compares archery and rhetoric as acts requiring mental discipline, precision in choosing one's words or weapons, and regular practice through imitation of the best models. Toxophilus was also an example of the decorum and eloquence called for in the dialogues, providing a model for imitation in itself. The second treatise, The Scholemaster, provides a guide to educating children. Along with Sir Thomas Elyot's Boke Named the Governour (1531), Ascham's treatise was the most important guide to educational theory and practice of its time, neatly capturing a humanist spirit of learning that emphasized elegance in rhetoric, the proper use of imitation, and the importance of decorum for the aristocratic youths the schoolmaster would be fashioning into courtiers. Ascham's Scholemaster is also significant for being published in English, making a classical model of education available to more students than ever before. While many of the ideas were not original to Ascham, his effort to put those ideas into the vernacular made him the standard-bearer for English humanist education. A final distinction of The Scholemaster is the work's condemnation of beating pupils to inspire them to learn. While a modern reader may consider this position commonplace, it was unusual and even controversial in Ascham's time; Ascham's argument for reform may be reflective of the changing patterns of aristocratic education.

Critical Reception

Though Ascham died in relative obscurity, with one of his most prominent works as yet unpublished, he enjoyed a posthumous reputation as an exemplary rhetorician. Although Sir Francis Bacon famously blamed Ascham for bringing into vogue an excessive admiration for Ciceronian imitation, the critique itself indicates the extent of Ascham's influence. Nor was Bacon's opinion that of the majority: The Scholemaster enjoyed multiple editions and a wide readership, and in the eighteenth century Samuel Johnson declared that Ascham was among the primary models for his own prose style. For subsequent scholars, however, Ascham's major works were often considered minor examples of humanist trends in prose and education. In retrospect, Ascham's treatises on rhetoric, archery, and Renaissance pedagogy appeared for some time as cultural documents preserving a piece of English history. Not until the 1970s did Ascham begin to receive renewed attention from scholars of English literature, as several critics attempted to reconsider his works from new perspectives. Thomas M. Greene, Robert Strozier, Linda Salomon, Kenneth Wilson and others have observed in both Toxophilus and The Scholemaster Ascham's insistence on the connection between rhetorical eloquence and precision and proper civic actions, a connection that confers on Ascham's work a broader importance than most earlier critics acknowledged. Following the first wave of new Ascham scholarship, several critics began to focus on the link between English national identity and Ascham's advocacy for humanist learning. Alvin Vos was among the first modern readers to address this issue in the context of Ascham's Ciceronianism and his English prose style, highlighting Ascham's role in the debate over vernacular English and in shaping humanism as an English phenomenon. Later critics, including Richard Helgerson, have observed the relationship between Ascham's prosody and national identity, while Melanie Ord has examined Ascham's writing about Italy to argue that Ascham attempted to make England the new seat of classicism. Such studies have shifted critical focus away from Ascham as simply a brilliant prose technician and onto his prescient understanding of the importance of character formation and self-presentation in Renaissance English society.

Principal Works

Toxophilus, The Schole of Shootinge. 2 vols. (treatise) 1545

A Report and Discourse written by Roger Ascham, of the affaires and state of Germany and the Emperour Charles his court, durying certaine yeares while the sayd Roger was there (history) 1570

The Scholemaster Or plaine and perfite way of teachyng children to understand, write, and speake, the Latin tong, but specially purposed for the private brynging up of youth in Ientlemens and Noble mens houses, and commodious also for all such, as have forgot the Latin tonge, and would, by themselves, with out a Scholemaster, in short tyme, and with small paines, recover a sufficient habilitie, to understand, write, and speake Latin (treatise) 1570

*Disertissimi viri Rogeri Aschami, Angli, Regiae maiestati non ita pridem a Latinis epistolis, familiarum epistolarum libri tres, magna orationis elegantia conscripti (letters) 1576, revised 1578

The Whole Works of Roger Ascham, Now First Collected and Revised, With a Life of the Author. 3 vols. [edited by J. A. Giles] (treatises, history) 1864-65

Toxophilus. 1545 [edited by Edward Arber] (treatise) 1868

English Works: Toxophilus, Report of the Affaires and the State of Germany, The Scholemaster [edited by William Aldis Wright] (treatises, history) 1904

The Schoolmaster (1570) [edited by Lawrence V. Ryan] (treatise) 1967

*English translations of selected letters by Ascham first appeared in A Panoplie of Epistles, Or a looking Glasse for the unlearned, compiled and translated by Abraham Fleming, 1576.


Samuel Johnson (essay date 1763)

SOURCE: Johnson, Samuel. “Life of Ascham.” In Two Great Teachers: Johnson's Memoir of Roger Ascham and Selections from Stanley's Life and Correspondence of Thomas Arnold of Rugby, edited by James H. Carlisle, pp. 11-34. Syracuse, N.Y.: C. W. Bardeen, 1890.

[In the following excerpt, from an work originally published in 1763, Johnson considers Ascham primarily as a great teacher, one who advocated the value of experience as a means of education.]

Ascham is said to have courted his scholars to study by every incitement, to have treated them with great kindness, and to have taken care at once to instil learning and piety, to enlighten their minds, and to form their...

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C. S. Lewis (lecture date 1944)

SOURCE: Lewis, C. S. “Drab and Transitional Prose.” In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, pp. 272-316. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954.

[In the following lecture on early Renaissance prose style, originally given in 1944, Lewis characterizes Ascham's work as full of life and practical information, distinguished by a clear style that is straightforward and free from excessive ornament.]

On the whole it is difficult (though not impossible) to understand why Hall receives from most critics so much less attention than either Elyot or Ascham.

As regards Elyot and Ascham in common, the explanation presumably lies in that...

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Linda Bradley Salamon (essay date spring 1973)

SOURCE: Salamon, Linda Bradley. “The Imagery of Roger Ascham.” Texas Studies in Language and Literature 15, no. 1 (spring 1973): 5-23.

[In the following essay, Salamon discusses Ascham's use of metaphors in The Scholemaster, Toxophilus, and A Report on Germany, marking his emphasis on the mundane and simple aspects of life. Salamon interprets Ascham's imagery as a reflection of the author's own tastes and interests, as an indication of his genial personality, and as a suggestion of the egalitarian potential of his humanism.]

Sackville: “Seeing God did so bless you, to make you the scholar of the best master, and also the...

(The entire section is 9200 words.)

Robert M. Strozier (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Strozier, Robert M. “Theory and Structure in Roger Ascham's The Scholemaster.Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 74 (1973): 144-162.

[In the following essay, Strozier attempts to place Ascham in the Renaissance intellectual tradition, highlighting Ascham's concept of imitation as a method for learning and for action. Strozier examines the structure of The Scholemaster as it supports the development of that theme, arguing that the organization of the work is more coherent and purposeful than early commentators have allowed.]

Scholars of the sixteenth century have always been grateful to men like Sir Thomas Elyot and Roger Ascham. They move with a...

(The entire section is 8370 words.)

Kenneth J. Wilson (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Wilson, Kenneth J. “Roger Ascham: Ciceronian Archery.” In Incomplete Fictions: The Formations of English Renaissance Dialogue, pp. 109-35. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, a revised version of an article originally published in 1976, Wilson discusses the connection between Ascham's prose style and his subject and themes—not merely archery but also knowledge, learning, order, and perfection. Wilson sees in Ascham's work an example of the humanist love for learning par excellence, for the realization of knowledge in the practical application of it.]


Roger Ascham's...

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Alvin Vos (essay date summer 1976)

SOURCE: Vos, Alvin. “Form and Function in Roger Ascham's Prose.” Philological Quarterly 55, no. 3 (summer 1976): 305-22.

[In the following essay, Vos focuses on the use of parallelism and antithesis as structuring elements in Ascham's prose, giving it force and clarity. Vos corrects the critical notion that Ascham's emphasis on style in his treatises overshadows the content to be learned, arguing that Ascham employed specific rhetorical forms to underscore the practical and moral lessons of his works.]

Nearly all modern students of Renaissance prose have been of a divided mind concerning Roger Ascham's style. On one hand, virtually everyone has agreed that he...

(The entire section is 7357 words.)

Richard Helgerson (lecture date 1984)

SOURCE: Helgerson, Richard. “Barbarous Tongues: The Ideology of Poetic Form in Renaissance England.” In The Historical Renaissance: New Essays on Tudor and Stuart Literature and Culture, edited by Heather Dubrow and Richard Strier, pp. 273-92. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

[In the following lecture, originally presented in 1984, Helgerson looks at the connection between language and national identity, considering Ascham's The Scholemaster as an influential text in the history of Renaissance literary self-fashioning. Placing Ascham between Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson, Helgerson discusses Ascham's role in the search for new national prosody.]


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Karen Cunningham (lecture date 1990)

SOURCE: Cunningham, Karen. “‘She Learns as She Lies’: Work and the Exemplary Female in English Early Modern Education.”1Exemplaria 7, no. 1 (spring 1995): 209-33.

[In the following lecture, originally presented in 1990, Cunningham takes a historicist approach to Ascham's Scholemaster, comparing it to Richard Mulcaster's Elementarie and demonstrating how the authors used the idea of woman to support the idea of intellectual work. Cunningham also addresses how Renaissance pedagogues like Ascham contended with the figure of Queen Elizabeth in imagining an exemplary female.]

The impulse toward social engineering in education has been a...

(The entire section is 9939 words.)

Alan Stewart (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Stewart, Alan. “‘Traitors to Boyes Buttockes’: The Erotics of Humanist Education.” In Close Readers: Humanism and Sodomy in Early Modern England, pp. 84-121. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Stewart considers Ascham's place among pedagogical writers of the period, focusing on the issues of violence and eroticism in the relationships between teachers and pupils. Stewart suggests that the relationship between student and master—and many models were advocated by Renaissance scholars—is a function of humanist learning and its imagined uses in English society.]

… whilst I should haue...

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Melanie Ord (essay date June 2002)

SOURCE: Ord, Melanie. “Classical and Contemporary Italy in Roger Ascham's The Scholemaster (1570).” Renaissance Studies 16, no. 2 (June 2002): 202-16.

[In the following essay, Ord analyzes Ascham's use of Italy as both classical ideal and, in its contemporary state, an example of barbarity. Ord sees in Ascham's construction of Italian culture an effort to establish England as the new center of humanist learning.]


Roger Ascham's The Scholemaster (1570) is an extended contribution to a debate held at Windsor Castle on 10 December 1563, on whether it is preferable to be ‘allured by love, [or] driven by beating, to atteyne...

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Further Reading


Dees, Jerome S. “Recent Studies in Ascham.” English Literary Renaissance 10, no. 2 (spring 1980): 300-10.

Narrative bibliography focusing on works published since 1960; identifies major themes in Ascham criticism.

———. “Writings About Roger Ascham.” In Sir Thomas Elyot and Roger Ascham: A Reference Guide, pp. 67-156. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.

Annotated bibliography organized by date.

Tannenbaum, Samuel A. and Dorothy R. Tannenbaum. Roger Ascham (A Concise Bibliography), New York: Samuel A. Tannenbaum, 1946.

Includes editions and early...

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