the education of john donne -- 11/29/22

Today's selection -- from Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell. The state of education in the time of John Donne (1572-1631), the famous English metaphysical poet, scholar, and soldier:

"Donne was not sent to school. He was missing very little; the schools of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England were grim, ice cold metaphorically and literally. Eton's dormitory was full of rats; at many of the public schools at the time, the boys burned the furniture to keep warm, threw each other around in their blankets, broke each other's ribs and occasionally heads. The Merchant Taylors' school had in its rules the stipulation, 'unto their urine the scholars shall go to the places appointed them in the lane or street with­out the court', which, assuming the interdiction was neces­sary for a reason, suggests the school would have smelled strongly of youthful pee. Because smoking was believed to keep the plague at bay, at Eton they were flogged for the crime of not smoking. Discipline could be murderous. It became necessary to enforce startling legal limits: 'when a schoolmaster, in correcting his scholar, happens to occa­sion his death, if in such correction he is so barbarous as to exceed all bounds of moderation, he is at least guilty of manslaughter; and if he makes use of an instrument improper for correction, as an iron bar or sword ... he is guilty of murder.'

A portrait of Donne as a young man, c. 1595, in the National Portrait Gallery, London

"Instead, Donne was educated at home. Walton tells us that he learned fluent Latin -- as would have been requi­site, for a gentleman's son -- though he makes no mention of Greek; Donne learned that later, under his own tute­lage, with a tenacity that is characteristic of him. In 1584 he enrolled with his younger brother Henry at Hart Hall, Oxford University; their ages were given as eleven and ten respectively, although in fact they were both a year older. All students over sixteen were required to take an oath acknowledging royal supremacy over all questions of religion: but it was thought that a child under sixteen couldn't be expected to understand the nature of the oath, and therefore the young brothers could live under the radar in Hart Hall, a place with a reputation for nurturing and protecting Catholics. There was less burning in the quiet streets of Oxford than in London (at least since Arch­bishop Thomas Cranmer, condemned under Mary for re­fusing to acknowledge papal supremacy, had met a fiery death in 1556). There were more books in Oxford, more people his own age, less dying.

"Both Oxford and Cambridge were, at the time, just edg­ing into fashionability: until shortly before Donne arrived, both places had been looked at with sceptical eyes by any­one with claim to any class. In 1549, Oxford students were 'mean men's children set to school in hope to live upon hired learning'. It was only as the century wore on that more gentry started to pass through the doors -- by the time Donne came to live there, it had started to have a little cachet. There were various attempts to give it more of a gleam: when the antiquary William Camden published the Life of King Alfred by the medieval monk Asser, he added notes of his own, putting into the mouth of the monas­tic the fake claim that the University of Oxford had been founded by Alfred the Great. And the city would have been very beautiful in 1584, yellow-stoned and with the River Isis nearby. Its spires soared less ecstatically skywards than today, as most of the colleges were not yet fully formed, and the great Bodleian Library did not open until 1602, but it was still a place worth loving. "



Katherine Rundell


Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2022 by Katherine Rundell


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