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This article is taken from PN Review 213, Volume 40 Number 1, September - October 2013.

Vestiges 4: Roger Ascham Adam Crothers
Ascham's The Scholemaster

Photograph by Paul Everest.  Reprinted wih permission.

Among the Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge whose signatures adorn the arch of the Old Treasury's fireplace is Roger Ascham, whose distinctions include the tutoring of Elizabeth I. The occasion of Ascham's graffito invites conjecture: while the defacement is not the rebellion of a school pupil or undergraduate, there is a transgressive aspect to Ascham's exercising his 'regularity and precision' (as Malcolm Underwood has it) in cutting into and against the achievement of an architectural feature.

Ascham's The Scholemaster (1570) warns against 'an euill choice of words' and 'a crooked framing of sentences'. Yet he does not readily admire all practitioners of the best words in their best order. Arguing in favour of apparently slow students, he remarks that 'the quickest wits commonlie may proue the best Poetes, but not the wisest Orators: readie of tonge to speake boldlie, not deepe of iudgement, either for good counsell or wise writing [...]: of nature also, alwaies, flattering their betters, enuying their equals, despising their inferiors: and, by quicknes of witte, verie quicke and readie, to like none so well as them selues'. Such charges might be levelled today. Yet in Ascham's case they further complicate the imaginable motivations for setting his name and his coveted script literally in stone. Was that 'wise writing'? Ascham was also a poet, and inevitably conflicted. His widow Margaret dedicated The Scholemaster to his friend, and fellow Johnian, William Cecil, the Queen's ...


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