A guest post by Nicholas Tyacke
Back in 2008, on the eve of directing a Faculty Weekend Seminar at the Folger, on “The University Cultures of Early-Modern Oxford and Cambridge,” I took the opportunity to consult the card catalog of manuscripts. As a result, and by a nice piece of serendipity, my eye lighted on Folger MS. V.a. 236, Musae Faciles or an Easy Ascent to Parnassus, written by John Crowther and dedicated to Ralph Verney.
Surviving correspondence, still in the possession of the Verney family at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire (UK), establishes the date of composition as November 1631 and that Crowther was the tutor of Ralph Verney at Magdalen Hall in Oxford. But Verney’s position was highly unusual: he was a married student and spent much time away from the university. This unusual status, in turn, probably explains why Crowther wrote his Musae Faciles, which combines the functions of a study guide and an annotated reading list.
Surprisingly little is known about the undergraduate curriculum followed by students at Oxford and Cambridge during the early-modern period. This is especially true of students like Verney, who did not plan to take a degree. At the same time, there has been a great deal of debate about the role of English universities in the intellectual life of the day. Are they best seen, as some have claimed (both at the time and since), as Aristotelian backwaters, offering a narrow classical diet and with their faces firmly set against change? Or alternatively, as the educators of the sons of the gentry ruling class, were the universities abreast of the exciting new ideas of the age—such as the writings of Francis Bacon? Here we need to remember that Verney’s Oxford had been the recent beneficiary of the great library founded by Sir Thomas Bodley, as well as a series of professorial endowments, most notably the chairs of astronomy and geometry created by Sir Henry Savile. All of which makes this small treatise by Crowther a potentially very important document.
During the 1630s the number of people in England going on to higher education were booming, but Crowther was strongly of the opinion that other European countries performed better. The English elite, by contrast, were much more interested in an early-modern version of hunting, shooting, and fishing than in “learning.”
Yet at least part of the problem, in the view of Crowther, was that many potential entrants to university were put off at the outset by the seeming intractableness of academic study. Accordingly, his task, as he saw it, was to remove unnecessary obstacles in their path by providing a user friendly guide for beginners, hence enabling them ultimately to become “perfect men, fitte for the managing the affaires in the state or commonwealth.”
Building on the foundations laid in the grammar schools or equivalent, further supplemented by the study of logic and rhetoric, Crowther picked out what he deemed the best examples of Latin literature, especially oratory and poetry. (Latin, of course, was still very much the language of international scholarly communication.) This, however, was leavened by a great deal of history, as well as geography, both modern and ancient. Crowther also introduced Verney to the thinking of Francis Bacon and his advocacy of the experimental method, via the Sylva Sylvarum and New Atlantis. Aristotle is no where mentioned.
Moreover, apropos of the big intellectual debate of the time between so-called “ancients” and “moderns,” Crowther backed the latter, as is evident from his belief in historical progress as championed by Jean Bodin. Bodin, writing in the mid sixteenth century, envisaged international commerce as currently transforming the world into one great trading state. From this Crowther made a remarkable creative leap, with his own apparently unique formulation of history as divided into “ancient,” “middle,” and “modern.” Middle, what we would call medieval history, constituted the first thousand years AD, in the Crowther version, followed by the beginning of modern times, conveniently marked, in the English case, by the Norman Conquest.
Crowther was so confident in the quality of what, educationally speaking, Oxford tutors like him had to offer that he contrasted this very favorably with all the expense and danger of the continental “grand tour” which was beginning to come into fashion. The serious study of geography and history, in his view, was a far more efficacious way of acquiring knowledge of the world than foreign travel.
Although Crowther makes no mention of attending lectures, there were in fact some first rate offerings available. Outstanding in this respect were the lectures of John Bainbridge, first Savilian professor of astronomy, who introduced his auditory to the telescopic discoveries of Galileo and the “new philosophy” more generally. Furthermore, if Verney was present at the Oxford Act in the summer of 1633—the high point of the academic year—he would have heard Edward Dawson maintain William Harvey’s theory of the circulation of the blood. Two years later, in 1635, had Verney revisited his alma mater, he might also have noticed on sale in the bookshops the newly printed university syllabus in diagrammatic form, which featured as its central motif a Copernican sun-centered universe. Clearly this was a very exciting time and place to be alive.
Nicholas Tyacke is honorary professor of history at University College London. He edited The History of the University of Oxford, volume IV, Seventeenth-Century Oxford (Oxford, 1997) and has published a version of John Crowther’s Musae Faciles in History of Universities, XXVII/2 (2013). Much of his current research focuses on the political activities of lay Puritans during the 16th and 17th centuries, about which subject he has produced a series of articles—most recently in The Huntington Library Quarterly 78/4 (2015).