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Jacqueline Cousin-Desjobert, Richard Mulcaster c. 1531-1611
by Laetitia Sansonetti

Cousin-Desjobert, Jacqueline. Richard Mulcaster c. 1531-1611: Un Éducateur de la Renaissance Anglaise. Editions SPM, 2013. 433 pp. ISBN: 978-2917232095. $50.00 paper. 

It is never an easy task to write an intellectual biography. Should one proceed chronologically in order to trace an evolution, or should one rely on the traditional “life and works” outline? In her 2013 Richard Mulcaster c. 1531-1611: Un Éducateur de la Renaissance Anglaise, Jacqueline Cousin-Desjobert chose to start with an “introduction” to Richard Mulcaster’s environment and life (Part I) before turning to his views on education, focusing on the relationship between masters and pupils (Part II), the importance of the body (Part III), and questions related to writing (Part IV).

This is the first—and, to date, only—study on Mulcaster in French, and it was written for French readers: English quotations are sometimes given directly in French without the English original and most Latin ones are translated into French. While relying heavily on the work of Richard DeMolen (and more particularly his Richard Mulcaster and Educational Reform in the Renaissance), this study still has something to offer to non-French speakers willing to know more about Spenser’s school teacher—a man who was Headmaster at Merchant Taylors’ School (1561-1586) and later High Master of St Paul’s School (1596-1609), but also a clergyman, a poet, and a Member of Parliament.[1]

It should be made clear that the book is a reprint, under a slightly different title, of Cousin-Desjobert’s 2003 La Théorie et la Pratique d’un Éducateur Élisabéthain: Richard Mulcaster c. 1531-1611, itself the published version of her 1996 PhD dissertation. Apart from the title, few elements have changed since the 2003 edition: some typos have been corrected (but not all), the list of suggested reading has been updated, and the three annexes (comprising facsimile excerpts from A Comforting Complaint and Catechismus Paulinus, as well as a 1581 letter to Abraham Ortelius, now 40 pages long in total) are shorter—which makes the book more affordable, and causes little loss to the reader with an access to EEBO (Early English Books Online).

Cousin-Desjobert’s claim is to study Mulcaster’s career and ideas “from the documents that are still extant” (21: “le personnage de Mulcaster, tel qu’il apparaît à travers les documents encore existants”). Some of the documents reproduced (within the main body and in the annexes) are no longer as useful as they might have been fifteen years ago, with so many original editions, or indeed nineteenth-century reprints, now digitized and fairly easily accessible online. Others are purely illustrative (later maps or engravings, for instance), yet this should not make us forget that there is some very valuable material featured in this book, especially the manuscript notes and letters that help place Mulcaster in a European humanistic network of intellectual exchanges (see his contributions to Emanuel van Meteren’s “Album Amicorum,” and to that of Janus Dousa, Fig. 13 and Fig. 15 respectively, or Fig. 16 for a letter to Sir Peter Young, all in Latin).

The focus of the study is Mulcaster’s contribution to pedagogy, which explains why his poetry, although it is often alluded to, is seldom analyzed; for instance, a poem in Latin he contributed to the Kenilworth entertainments of 1575 is reproduced together with a French translation on page 170 but not discussed until page 324, and then only briefly, together with a few other poems written for public occasions (see Part IV, chapter 3 on the writing of history).

As no specific documents about his school curricula have survived, Cousin-Desjobert quotes extensively from Mulcaster’s two pedagogical treatises, Positions, wherein those Primitive Circumstances be Examined, which are necessary for the training up of children, either for skill in their booke, or for health in their bodie and The First Part of the Elementarie which Entreateth Chefelie of the Right Writing of our English Tung, insisting on the link between theory and practice.[2] She also (less frequently) refers to exam topics from the archive of the Merchant Taylors’ Company; the example given on pages 303-4 about exams bearing on Homer and Horace’s Odes in June 1572 is quite illuminating.

There are drawbacks inherent to this method (a few repetitions, a tendency to paraphrase the two main texts studied while other works are dealt with in less detail, a sometimes blurred sense of chronology and of the potential differences between Mulcaster’s experiences at Merchant Taylors’ and at St Paul’s, especially as both Positions and Elementary date from his time at Merchant Taylors’), but readers are given access to Mulcaster’s views on education in the context of his teaching activities, which is a helpful approach.

Starting with Mulcaster’s life, Cousin-Desjobert mentions briefly his years at Cambridge and Oxford, as well as his sitting as a Member of Parliament for Carlisle in 1559. After providing some contextual elements (Part I, chapter 1), she documents his relationship with a network of friends including Dutch men of letters Emanuel van Meteren, Janus Dousa, and Abraham Ortelius (Part I, chapter 2). She also repeatedly draws attention to his poverty (most prominently in Part I, chapter 3 and Part II, chapter 1), a lifelong companion well worthy of a humanist. Whether he was trying to secure pensions from Elizabeth (to whom Positions was dedicated) and Leicester (to whom Elementarie was dedicated) or to obtain a prebend (hence his becoming a member of the clergy), advocating a rise in salary for elementary teachers, or venturing his capital by opening a school ruled by his own educational principles, money was always at the core of his preoccupations.

A complex personality emerges throughout the book: of noble extraction himself, Mulcaster advocated granting access to education to pupils from underprivileged backgrounds (Part III, chapter 1); while insisting on the distinction between a rich man and a gentleman, he was grateful to his generous patrons (Part II, chapter 2). Respectful of authoritative predecessors such as Roger Ascham and Juan Luis Vives, whose works on education he quoted frequently (see for instance Part I, chapter 3 on Ascham’s authority), he voiced his own personal ideas regarding some potentially controversial topics: the education of girls (Part II, chapter 3), the need to teach mathematics and not exclusively grammar and rhetoric (Part IV, chapter 1), the role music ought to play in curricula (Part III, chapter 2), or the importance of physical education, for instance, as when he associated dancing with health, whereas Thomas Elyot had equated it with nobility (Part III, chapter 1).

His recommendations about education testify to his interest in children’s wellbeing (as appears from his balanced remarks on corporal punishment [Part II, chapter 1]) as well as his belief that good pedagogy helps shape a country, be it religiously (hence his opposition to home schooling by Catholic priests [Part II, chapter 2]) or socially (hence his promotion of acting as an activity where boys from different backgrounds could mix [Part III, chapter 3]). He also intended to promote England’s ambition in the world and to celebrate its prosperity, as appears from the documents dealt with in Part IV.

Both his balanced, common-sense views on pedagogy and his claims for a reappraisal of the work of teachers reflect his pragmatism: for the education of young minds to be successful, competent teachers should give pupils what they need according to their age, gender, and prospective occupation in life (Part II, chapter 2). Placing Mulcaster within a well-established tradition of humanistic pedagogy, Cousin-Desjobert’s sympathetic account of his contribution to this field will prove useful to scholars in the history of teaching practices.

Spenser is mentioned several times, but mostly only en passant, as the topic is Mulcaster himself, not his pupils, and the outlook is not literary. Regarding the identity of “E.K.” in The Shepheardes Calender, for instance, Cousin-Desjobert refers to DeMolen, who suggests E.K. might be Mulcaster himself (272). Some information about Mulcaster’s specific interests can nonetheless ring a bell, such as his teaching of vernacular and classical languages (Part IV, chapter 2), as well as his contribution to the debate over spelling reforms and his Latin poetry, although these points are not developed. To give one precise example, his discourse on digestion in Positions (summarized on page 188) can remind us of Spenser’s House of Alma in The Faerie Queene, II.ix, especially stanzas 23-32, a passage in which one might perceive the influence of Mulcaster’s teaching on his pupil. This book could therefore be a good starting point for young scholars wishing to trace the origins of Spenser’s representation of bodily activities, although much has already been written on the topic.[3]

More generally, the many allusions to Mulcaster’s former pupils whet the reader’s curiosity, as for instance when Sir James Whitelocke’s school memories are quoted from his Liber Famelicus (see 294 about the teaching of Hebrew), or when Thomas Hood’s navigation charts are mentioned (251). A list of “some of Mulcaster’s famous former pupils” features on pages 292-3, but no fuller information is provided. Here again, Cousin-Desjobert’s book might trigger fresh interest in major or minor literary, but also religious, scientific, and political figures of the Elizabethan-Jacobean era, and therefore prompt young scholars to investigate what might be called the Mulcaster circle, or legacy, with networks of friends and former pupils.

Laetitia Sansonetti
Université Paris Nanterre

[1] See Richard DeMolen, Richard Mulcaster and Educational Reform in the Renaissance, De Graaf, 1991.

[2] Positions, wherein those Primitive Circumstances be Examined, which are necessary for the training up of children, either for skill in their booke, or for health in their bodie, London, Thomas Vautrollier, 1581, and The First Part of the Elementarie which Entreateth Chefelie of the Right Writing of our English Tung, London, Thomas Vautrollier, 1582.

[3] To give just one example about Book II of The Faerie Queene, see John Wesley, “The Well-Schooled Wrestler: Athletics and Rhetoric in ‘The Faerie Queene,’ Book II,” The Review of English Studies, New Series, vol. 60, no. 243, Mar. 2009, pp. 34-60. The influence of Mulcaster’s teaching on Spenser’s own educational impulse is dealt with in detail in Jeff Dolven’s Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance, U of Chicago P, 2007, chapter 4.


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Laetitia Sansonetti, "Jacqueline Cousin-Desjobert, Richard Mulcaster c. 1531-1611," Spenser Review 47.2.28 (Spring-Summer 2017). Accessed March 21st, 2018.
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