King's College London
Online Exhibitions
'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

Grammar school education

Opening showing a passage on the accedence, or inflections, of LatinOpening featuring a passage on the accedence, or inflections, of LatinJohn Brinsley (1566-1624) graduated with an MA from Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1588, becoming schoolmaster at Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire, only a few years after Shakespeare putatively attended the grammar school in Stratford, 50 miles away. These schools were a burgeoning feature of local education in the 16th century, catering to the children of a growing middle class in market towns across England and often endowed by successful merchants or, as in the case of Stratford, newly formed town councils.

Brinsley’s Ludus literarius (first published in 1612) was intended to guide ‘the younger sort of teachers, and of all schollers’ in a tried and tested application of conventional pedagogical theory. The author advocates an increased use of the vernacular in learning that parallels the contemporary divergence from the original purpose of the schools (to teach Latin grammar), alongside a familiarisation with traditional Latin texts such as those of Ovid, Cicero and Virgil.

The text takes the form of a dialogue between two schoolmasters discussing the most effective teaching methods; the pages displayed feature marginal maniculae (pointing hands) and contemporary ink marginalia. They refer to perfecting ‘the accedence’ or inflections of Latin, an emphasis later echoed by John Milton in his Accedence commenc’t grammar (written ca 1640), which stresses the importance of familiarisation with the language first, and its grammatical rules second, in order to understand and imitate the classical literary canon. 

Shakespeare’s infamous ‘small Latin and less Greek’, in the words of his friend Ben Jonson, is commensurate with a formal education not necessarily extending to a university degree; yet his familiarity with classical authors, along with other supposedly advanced literary training, would not have been beyond the reach of a diligent grammar school boy developing his reading and classroom exercises in later life.

In this exhibition


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