February 06, 2004
Samuel Pepys learns Latin – and nothing but Latin

The Internet is paying quite a bit of attention to Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), now that you can read his diary on line. So around now was a good time for a new Pepys biography, and Claire Tomalin's Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self has attracted further attention to Pepys. Today I bought it in paperback. Here (pp. 30-31) is one of the more striking passages concerning Pepys' schooling, which took place during the time of the English Civil War:

As a boy with a sense of his own worth, whose schooling so far had been meagre, he must have been avid for education; and serious teaching is what you got at a grammar school, all day long, from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon. Two hours were allowed for lunch in the middle of the day, time to walk to Brampton and back, although the Hinchingbrooke kitchens would have been handier. Huntingdon School had a reputation, made under its headmaster Thomas Beard, who had sent his best pupils on to Cambridge, Oliver Cromwell among them. Latin was the chief subject, and the master's job was to put Latin into the heads of the boys, so forcefully that they could think and write in Latin as easily as in English. Very little else was studied except for some Greek by those who did well with their Latin and a bit of basic Hebrew for the exceptional pupil. Mathematics was hardly mentioned, beyond learning the Roman numerals, which took precedence over the Arabic ones, and Pepys had to learn his multiplication tables when he was twenty-nine.

Once past elementary grammar and vocabulary, Latin was taught largely by translating classical texts into English and then back into Latin, the object being to finish as close to the original as you could. It was common for boys to be punished if they failed to talk to one another in Latin, and parents occasionally complained of their sons forgetting how to read English. In any case they did not study English writers — no Chaucer, Bacon, Shakespeare, Jonson or Donne. They learnt instead to compose verses, essays and letters in Latin, and became familiar with a list of ancient authors that included Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Terence, Juvenal and Livy. The aim was admirable for anyone who wanted to correspond with foreigners, since Latin was used by all educated Europeans; Milton was appointed 'Latin secretary' to Cromwell when he became lord protector, in order to compose diplomatic correspondence for him in that language. Pepys was a good scholar, able to read Latin for pleasure all his life; and that very skill may have helped to leave his English free and uncluttered for the Diary, the language of life as opposed to the elaborately constructed formulations of the classroom and study.

I guess that in all sorts of places around the world of now, there must be young people experiencing something similar, but this time it is English that is to them what Latin was to young Sam Pepys. English now being the official public language of large tracts of the world.

There is something more about Pepys' education here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:01 PM
Category: Famous educationsHistory