Feature of the month: remembering Roger Ascham and archery

Roger Ascham
London: A. Jeffes, 1589
[Q.M.L.] Y13 [Ascham] SR

Roger Ascham (1515-1568) was born 500 years ago this year. He was the tutor of Elizabeth I when she was a princess and the author of two well-known educational treatises, The Scholemaister(1570) and Toxophilus (1545). Senate House Library’s Quick Memorial Library, a collection of early educational books, includes sixteenth-century editions of both works, in addition to Ascham’s Familiarium epistolarum libri tres (1590).

[Ascham Toxophilus 1589]

Toxophilus is presented as a dialogue between Philologus and Toxophilus about archery, a sport practised by Ascham and also favoured by Henry VIII, the book’s dedicatee. (Henry consequently gave Ascham a pension of £10 per year on the basis of it.) It is a publishing landmark as the first book on archery to have been published in English. Philologus loves study; Toxophilus, like Ascham, is an irreproachable scholar, but also a fan of archery. The book is seen as a standard authority on physical training, and was known to its contemporaries partly as the defence of a pastime. But it was also a model of English vernacular prose writing, in terms both of the plain, vivid, colloquial style of the dialogue and the organisation of the subject matter – although the clarity may be obscured for modern readers through the layout, whereby one speaker’s words run into the next, without a line break.

Toxophilus was printed thrice during the sixteenth century, in 1545, 1571 and 1589. After a century of obscurity, it was printed twice within Ascham’s collected works in the 1760s, and independently in Wrexham in 1788. Edward Arber edited it in the nineteenth century – one of a vast number of Arber cheap reprints of literary works – and it was reprinted several times. For the sheer variety of printings, it has had its heyday in the twentieth century, with an edition by the literary scholar William Aldis Wright in 1904, facsimile reprints of various earlier editions, and even a German thesis on it, with a German translation, by Harald Schröter in 1983. The 1589 edition featured is currently recorded on ESTC as present in eleven other institutions in the United Kingdom (four of them in Cambridge, where Ascham taught) and in seven in North America. An early reader has marked some passages of the Senate House Library with red asterisks.

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