Roger Ascham Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.