Sir Thomas Elyot on the Education of Aristocratic Children, from The Book Named The Governor (1531)

Sir Thomas Elyot drawn by Holbein
Sir Thomas Elyot drawn by Holbein

Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Book named the Governor was printed in 1531. It is a detailed discussion of how to be a good nobleman and ruler written from an explicitly humanist perspective. In this extract Elyot stresses the importance of noble children being taught Greek and Latin and in the process implies that reading classical descriptions of hunting is better for a child’s development then taking part in real hunts. Throughout The Book named the Governor Elyot advances a humanist agenda against what he saw as the uncivilised dated chivalric culture of the English nobility.

Some old authors hold opinion that before the age of seven years a child should not be instructed in letters, but those writers were either Greeks or Latins: among whom all doctrine and sciences were in their maternal tongues, by reason whereof they saved all that long time which at this day is spent in understanding perfectly the Greek or Latin. Wherefore it requireth now a longer time to the understanding of both. Therefore that infelicity of our time and country compelleth us to encroach somewhat upon the years of children, and specially of noble men, that they may sooner attain to wisdom and gravity than private persons, considering, as I have said, their charge and example, which above all things is most to be esteemed. Notwithstanding I would not have them enforced by violence to learn, but according to the counsel of Quintilian, to be sweetly allured thereto, with praises and such pretty gifts as children delight in. And their first letters to be painted or limned in a pleasant manner, wherein children of gentle courage have much delectation. And also there is no better elective to noble wits, than to induce them into a contention with their inferior companions, they sometime purposely suffering the more noble children to vanquish, and, as it were, giving to them place and sovereignty, though indeed the inferior children have more learning. But there can be nothing more convenient than by little and little to train and exercise them in speaking of Latin, informing them to know first the names in Latin of all things that come in sight and to name all the parties of their bodies, and giving them somewhat that they covet or desire in most gentle manner to teach them to ask it again in Latin. And if by this means they may be induced to understand and speak Latin, it shall afterward be less grief to them in a manner to learn anything where they understand the language wherein it is written. And as touching grammar, there is at this day better introductions, and more facile, than ever before were made concerning as well Greek as Latin, if they be wisely chosen.

...It shall be expedient that a nobleman’s son, in his infancy, have with him continually only such as may accustom him by little and little to speak pure and elegant Latin. Semblably the nurses and other women about him, if it be possible, to do the same, or at the least way that they speak none English, but that which is clean, polite, perfectly and articulately pronounced, omitting no letter or syllable, as foolish women often times do of a wantonness, whereby divers noble men and gentlemen’s children (as I do at this day know) have attained corrupt and foul pronunciation. This industry used in forming little infants, who shall doubt but that they (not lacking natural wit) shall be apt to receive learning when they come to mo years? And in this wise may they be instructed, without any violence or enforcing, using the more part of the time until they come to the age of seven years, in such disports as do appertain to children, wherein is no resemblance or similitude of vice.

At what age a tutor should be provided, and what appertaineth to his office to do.
After a child is come to seven years of age, I hold it expedient, that he be taken from the company of women, saving that he may have one year or two at the most an ancient and sad matron attending on him in his chamber, which shall not have any young woman in her company. For though there be no peril of offence in that tender and innocent age, yet in some children nature is more prone to vice than to virtue, and in the tender wits be sparks of voluptuosity which, nourished by any occasion or object, increase often times into so terrible a fire that therewith all virtue and reason is consumed. Wherefore, to eschew that danger, the most sure counsel is to withdraw him from all company of women and to assign unto him a tutor, which should be an ancient and worshipful man, in whom is approved to be much gentleness, mixed with gravity, and as nigh as can be such one as the child, by imitation following, may grow to be excellent...

In what wise music may be to a noble man necessary: and what modesty ought to be therein.
The discretion of a tutor, consisteth in temperance; that is to say that he suffer not the child to be fatigate with continual study or learning, wherewith the delicate and tender wit may be dulled or oppressed; but that there may be therewith interlaced and mixed some pleasant learning and exercise, as playing on instruments of music, which moderately used and without diminution of honour, that is to say, without wanton countenance and dissolute gesture, is not to be contemned. For the noble king and prophet David, king of Israel (whom almighty god said he had chosen as a man according to his heart or desire) during his life delighted in music, and with the sweet harmony that he made on his harp he constrained the evil spirit that vexed king Saul to forsake him, continuing the time that he harped...

But in this commendation of music I would not be thought to allure noble men to have so much delectation therein that in playing and singing only they should put their whole study and felicity, as did the emperor Nero, which all a long summers day would sit in the Theatre (a place where all the people of Rome beheld solemn acts and plays) and in the presence of all the noble men and senators would play on his harp and sing without ceasing. And if any man happened by long sitting to sleep, or by any other countenance to show himself to be weary, he was suddenly bobbed on the face by the servants of Nero, for that purpose attending. Or if any person were perceived to be absent, or were seen to laugh at the folly of the emperor, he was forthwith accused, as it were of misprision. Whereby the emperor found occasion to commit him to prison, or to put him to tortures. O what misery was it to be subject to such a minstrel, in whose music was no melody but anguish and dolour? It were therefore better, that no music were taught to a noble man, than by the exact knowledge thereof he should have therein inordinate delight, and by that be elected to wantonness, abandoning gravity and the necessary cure and office in the public weal to him committed.

What order should be in learning, and which authors should be first read.
Now let us return to the order of learning apt for a gentleman. Wherein I am of Quintilian’s opinion, that I would have him learn Greek and Latin authors both at one time, or else to begin with Greek, forasmuch as that is hardest to come by, by reason of the diversity of tongues, which be five in number, and all must be known or else uneth [scarcely] any poet can be well understood. And if a child do begin therein at seven years of age, he may continually learn Greek authors three years, and in the meantime use the Latin tongue as a familiar language, which in a noble man’s son may well come to pass, having none other persons to serve him or keeping him company but such as can speak Latin elegantly. And what doubt is there but so may he as soon speak good Latin as he may do pure French, which now is brought into as many rules and figures and as long a grammar as is Latin or Greek. I will not contend who among them that do write grammars of Greek (which now almost be innumerable) is the best; but that I refer to the discretion of a wise master. Always I would advise him not to detain the child too long in that tedious labours, either in the Greek or Latin grammar. For a gentle wit is therewith soon fatigate.

Grammar being but an introduction to the understanding of authors, if it be made too long or exquisite to the learner, it in a manner mortifieth his courage, and by that time he cometh to the most sweet and pleasant reading of old authors the spark of fervent desire of learning is extinct, with the burden of grammar, like as a little fire is soon quenched with a great heap of small sticks; so that it can never come to the principal logs where it should long burn in a great pleasant fire.

Now to follow my purpose; after a few and quick rules of grammar, immediately or interlacing it therewith, would be read to the child Aesop’s fables in Greek, in which argument children much delight. And surely it is a much pleasant lesson and also profitable, as well for that it is elegant and brief (and notwithstanding it hath much variety in words, and therewith much helpeth to the understanding of Greek) as also in those fables is included much moral and politic wisdom. Wherefore in the teaching of them, the master diligently must gather together those fables which may be most accommodate to the advancement of some virtue whereto he perceiveth the child inclined, or to the rebuke of some vice, whereto he findeth his nature disposed. And therein the master ought to exercise his wit, as well to make the child plainly to understand the fable as also declaring the signification thereof compendiously, and to the purpose; foreseen always that as well this lesson as all other authors which the child shall learn, either Greek or Latin, verse or prose, be perfectly had without the book [i.e. learned by heart], whereby he shall not only attain plenty of the tongues called Copia, but also increase and nourish remembrance wonderfully.

The next lesson would be some quick and merry dialogues elect out of Lucian, which be without ribaldry, or too much scorning, for either of them is exactly to be eschewed, specially for a noble man, the one annoying the soul, the other his estimation concerning his gravity. The comedies of Aristophanes may be in the place of Lucian, and by reason they be in metre, they be the sooner learned by heart. I dare make none other comparison between them, for offending the friends of them both, but thus much dare I say, that it were better that a child should never read any part of Lucian, than all Lucian.

I could rehearse divers other poets, which for matter and eloquence be very necessary, but I fear me to be too long from noble Homer, from whom as from a fountain proceeded all eloquence and learning. For in his books be contained, and most perfectly expressed, not only the documents martial and discipline of arms, but also in comparable wisdoms and instructions for politic governance of people, with the worthy commendation and laud of noble princes, wherewith the readers shall be so all inflamed, that they most fervently shall desire and covet, by the imitation or their virtues, to acquire semblable glory. For the which occasion Aristotle, most sharpest witted and excellent learned philosopher, as soon as he had received Alexander from king Philip his father, before any other thing taught him the most noble works of Homer. Wherein Alexander found such sweetness and fruit that ever after he had Homer, not only with him in all his journeys, but also laid him under his pillow when he went to rest, and often times would purposely wake some hours of the night to take as it were his pastime with that most noble poet. For, by the reading of his work, called Iliad, where the assembly of the most noble Greeks against Troy is recited, with their affairs, he gathered courage and strength again his enemies, wisdom and eloquence for consultations and persuasions to his people and army. And by the other work, called Odyssey, which recounteth the sundry adventures of the wise Ulysses, he by the example of Ulysses, apprehended many noble virtues and also learned to escape the fraud and deceitful imaginations of sundry and subtle crafty wits. Also there shall he learn to ensearch and perceive the manners and conditions of them that be his familiars, sifting out (as I might say) the best from the worst, whereby he may surely commit his affairs and trust to every person after his virtues. Therefore I now conclude that there is no lesson for a young gentleman to be compared with Homer, if he be plainly and substantially expounded and declared by the master.

Notwithstanding, for as much as the said works be very long, and do require therefore a great time to be all learned and conned, some Latin author would be therewith mixed, and specially Virgil, which in his work called Eneidos [The Aeneid], is most like to Homer, and almost the same Homer in Latin. Also by the joining together of those authors, the one shall be the better understand by the other. And verily (as I before said) no one author serveth to so divers wits as doth Virgil. For there is not that affect or desire whereto any child’s fantasy is disposed but in some of Virgil’s works may be founden matter thereto apt and propise. For what thing can be more familiar than his Bucolics, nor no work so nigh approacheth to the common dalliance and manners of children, and the pretty controversies of the simple shepherds therein contained wonderfully rejoiceth the child that heareth it well declared, as I know by mine own experience. In his Georgics, lord what pleasant variety there is; the divers grains, herbs and flowers that be there described, that reading therein, it seemeth to a man to be in a delectable garden or paradise. What ploughman knoweth so much of husbandry as there is expressed? Who delighting in good horses, shall not be thereto more enflamed, reading there of the breeding, chasing and keeping of them? In the declaration whereof Virgil leaveth far behind him all breeders, hackney-men and coursers. Is there any astronomer that more exactly setteth out the order and course of the celestial bodies, or that more truly doth divine in his prognostications of the times of the year in their qualities, with the future estate of all things provided by husbandry, than Virgil doth recite in that work?

If the child have a delight in hunting, what pleasure shall he take of the fable of Aristeus, semblably in the hunting of Dido and Aeneas, which is described most elegantly in his book of Eneidos [The Aeniad]. If he have pleasure in wrestling, running or other like exercise, where shall he see any more pleasant... [examples] than that which was done by Eurelus and other Trojans which accompanied Aeneas? If he take solace in hearing minstrels, what minstrel may be compared to Iopas, which sang before Dido and Aeneas, or to blind Demodocus, that played and sang most sweetly at the dinner that the king Alcinus made to Ulysses, whose ditties and melody excelled as far the songs of our minstrels, as Homer and Virgil excel all other poets?

If he be more desirous (as the most part of children be) to hear things marvellous and exquisite, which hath in it a visage of some things incredible, whereat shall he more wonder than when he shall behold Aeneas follow Sybil into hell? What shall he more dread than the terrible visages of Cerberus, Gorgon, Maegera and other furies and monsters? How shall he abhor tyranny, fraud and avarice, when he doth see the pains of duke Theseus, Sisiphus, and such other, tormented for their dissolute and vicious living? How glad soon after shall he be when he shall behold in the pleasant fields of Elysius, the souls of noble princes and captains, which for their virtue and labours in advancing the public weals of their countries, do live eternally in pleasure inexplicable? And in the last books of Eneidos, shall he find matter to minister to him audacity, valiant courage and policy to take and sustain noble enterprises, if any shall be needful for the assailing of his enemies. Finally (as I have said) this noble Virgil, like to a good nurse, giveth to a child, if he will take it, everything apt for his wit and capacity. Wherefore he is in the order of learning to be preferred before any other author Latin.

I would set next unto him two books of Ovid, the one called Metamorphosis, which is as much to say, as changing of men in to other figure or form; the other is entitled De fastis: where the ceremonies of the gentiles, and specially the Romans, be expressed; both right necessary for the understanding of other poets. But because there is little other learning in them, concerning either virtuous manners or policy, I suppose it were better that as fables and ceremonies happen to come in a lesson to be declared abundantly by the master, than that in the said two books a long time should be spent and almost lost which might be better employed on such authors, that do minister both eloquence, civil policy and exhortation to virtue. Wherefore in his place, let us bring in Horace, in whom is contained much variety of learning and quickness of sentence. This poet may be interlaced with the lesson of Odyssey of Homer, wherein is declared the wonderful prudence and fortitude of Ulysses in his passage from Troy. And if the child were induced to make verses by the imitation of Virgil and Homer, it should minister to him much delectation and courage to study; ne the making of verses is not discommended in a noble man, since the noble Augustus and almost all the old emperors made books in verses.

The two noble poets, Silius and Lucan, be very expedient to be learned, for the one setteth out the emulation in qualities and prowess of two noble and valiant captains, one enemy to the other, that is to say, Silus writeth of Scipio the Roman and Hannibal, duke of Carthage. Lucan declareth a semblable matter, but much more lamentable, forasmuch as the wars were civil, and as it were in the bowels of the Romans, that is to say, under the standards of Julius Caesar and Pompey. Hesiod in Greek is more brief than Virgil, where he writeth of husbandry, and doth not rise so high in philosophy, but is fuller of fables and therefore is more illecebrous [alluring]. And here I conclude to speak any more of poets necessary for the childhood of a gentleman, for as much as these (I doubt not) will suffice until he pass the age of thirteen years, in which time childhood declineth and reason waxeth ripe and apprehendeth things with a more constant judgement...

Here I would have remembered, that I require not all these works to be thoroughly read of a child in this time, which were almost impossible, but I only desire that they have in every of the said books so much instruction that they may take thereby some profit. Then the child’s courage, enflamed by the frequent reading of noble poets, daily more and more desireth to have experience in those things that they so vehemently do commend in them that they write of ...And when a man is common to ripe years, and that reason in him is confirmed with serious learning and long experience, then shall he in reading tragedies execrate and abhor the intolerable life of tyrants, and shall condemn the folly and dotage expressed by poets lascivious.


Thomas Elyot, The Book Named The Governor (London, 1531) fols. 18-23, fols. 30-36.