‘Latine, & Oratory: without those you will be disgraced, & vilified’: Learning and Performing Latin at the Early Modern Universities

Sarah Knight

My title quotes from the manuscript ‘Directions for a Student in the Universitie’ (dating to c.1620s/30s), authored by the Cambridge University tutor and preacher Richard Holdsworth (1590–1649). Holdsworth proceeds year by year and even, at times, day by day through the undergraduate curriculum, and we are fortunate to possess the diary of one of his students, Symonds D’Ewes, which gives us some sense of how the ‘Directions’ were put into practice. Holdsworth’s ‘Directions’, together with the lively ‘Rules for Students’ (mid-1630s- mid-’60s), written by James Duport (1606–79), a well-liked tutor, college head and notable Hellenist, constitute distillations of pedagogical advice with the right practice of rhetoric at their heart. Several of Duport’s students’ learning materials also exist in manuscript and demonstrate how seriously his advice was taken by those he taught. Holdsworth, Duport and their students, as well as many other ambitious and diligent young men at the early modern universities, offer thoughtful and illuminating perspectives on how Latin was perceived as both ‘goal’ and ‘instrument’ in the higher education of the period.

Taking as its point of departure such manuscript and print evidence from the late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English universities, this paper will examine the Latin competence students were expected already to possess on matriculation, reflecting how they had been taught at school; how they cultivated and ruminated on their Latinity during their undergraduate careers; and how contemporary student Latin writing debates and often presents satirically correct and incorrect uses of Latin, while pondering its intellectual and professional function and value.


Sarah Knight is Professor of Renaissance Literature in the School of Arts at University of Leicester, U.K. Her main interests are in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English and Latin literature, particularly works written at or about early modern institutions of learning (schools, universities, Inns of Court). She is the editor and translator of several Latin works, including Leon Battista Alberti’s prose satire Momus (1440s) for the I Tatti Renaissance Library (Harvard University Press) and the accounts of Elizabeth I’s visits to the University of Oxford (1566 and 1592) for the new five-volume critical edition of John Nichols’s Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth I (Oxford University Press). She is currently working on an edition and translation of John Milton’s Prolusions, and an edition of Fulke Greville’s plays Alaham and Mustapha. With Stefan Tilg, she co-edited The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin (2015).