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It often happens to writers, that they are known only by their works; the incidents of a literary life are seldom observed, and, therefore, seldom recounted: but Ascham has escaped the common fate by the friendship of Edward Grauut, the learned master of Westminster school, who devoted an oration to his memory, and has marked the various vicissitudes of his fortune. Graunt either avoided the labour of minute inquiry, or thought domestick occurrences unworthy of his notice; or, preferring the character of an orator to that of an historian, selected only such particulars as he could best express or most happily embellish. His narrative is, therefore, scanty, and I know not by what materials it can now be amplified.

Roger Ascham was born in the year 1515, at Kirby Wiske, (or Kirby Wicke,) a village near Northallerton, in Yorkshire, of a family above the vulgar. His father, John Ascham, was house-steward in the family of Scroop; and, in that age, when the different orders of men were at a greater distance from each other, and the manners of gentlemen were regularly formed by menial services in great houses, lived with a very conspicuous reputation. Margaret Ascham, his wife, is said to have been allied to many considerable families, but her maiden name is not recorded. She had three sons, of whom Roger was the youngest, and some daughters; but who can hope, that of any progeny more than one shall deserve to be mentioned? They lived married sixty-seven years, and, at last, died together almost on the same hour of the same day.

Roger, having passed his first years under the care of his parents, was adopted into the family of Antony Wingfield, who maintained him, and committed his education, with that of his own sons, to the care of one Bond, a domestick tutor. He very early discovered an unusual fondness for literature by an eager perusal of English books; and, having passed happily through the scholastick rudiments, was put, in 1530, by his patron Wingfield, to St. John’s college in Cambridge.

Ascham entered Cambridge at a time when the last great revolution of the intellectual world was filling every academical mind with ardour or anxiety. The destruction of the Constantinopolitan empire had driven the Greeks, with their language, into the interiour parts of Europe, the art of printing had made the books easily attainable, and Greek now began to be taught in England. The doctrines of Luther had already filled all the nations of the Romish communion with controversy and dissension. New studies of literature, and new tenets of religion, found employment for all who were desirous of truth, or ambitious of fame. Learning was, at that time, prosecuted with that eagerness and perseverance, which, in this age of indifference and dissipation, it is not easy to conceive. To teach or to learn, was, at once, the business and the pleasure of the academical life; and an emulation of study was raised by Cheke and Smith, to which even the present age, perhaps, owes many advantages, without remembering, or knowing, its benefactors.

Ascham soon resolved to unite himself to those who were enlarging the bounds of knowledge, and, immediately upon his admission into the college, applied himself to the study of Greek. Those who were zealous for the new learning, were often no great friends to the old religion; and Ascham, as he became a Grecian, became a protestant. The reformation was not yet begun; disaffection to popery was considered as a crime justly punished by exclusion from favour and preferment, and was not yet openly professed, though superstition was gradually losing its hold upon the publick. The study of Greek was reputable enough, and Ascham pursued it with diligence and success, equally conspicuous. He thought a language might be most easily learned by teaching it; and, when he had obtained some proficiency in Greek, read lectures, while he was yet a boy, to other boys, who were desirous of instruction. His industry was much encouraged by Pember, a man of great eminence at that time, though I know not that he has left any monuments behind him, but what the gratitude of his friends and scholars has bestowed. He was one of the great encouragers of Greek learning, and particularly applauded Ascham’s lectures, assuring him in a letter, of which Graunt has preserved an extract, that he would gain more knowledge by explaining one of AEsop’s fables to a boy, than by hearing one of Homer’s poems explained by another.