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Profiling schoolmasters in early modern England

In 2015 the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography introduced an annual research bursary scheme for scholars in the humanities. The scheme encourages researchers to use the Oxford DNB’s rich content and data to inform their work, and to investigate new ways of representing the Dictionary to audiences outside of academia. As the first year of the scheme comes to a close, we ask the second of the 2015-16 recipients—the early modern historian, Dr Emily Hansen—about her research project, and how it’s developed through her association with the Oxford DNB.

Can you introduce your research to a non-specialist audience and explain why it’s important?

My research is on the topic of schoolmasters working in England between the end of the fifteenth century and the middle of the seventeenth century. This project developed out of my PhD thesis, which was about grammar school education more generally in England during the same period. Focusing on schoolmasters who taught in grammar schools, my current project uses the Oxford DNB to build up a detailed picture of the biographical attributes of members of this profession. These include schoolmasters’ education levels, social background, how long they spent teaching, and whether they did anything else either before, during, or after their time as a schoolmaster—as well as how teaching was viewed and regulated during this time. This can tell us more about the occupation of teaching during a crucial period in the development of education in England, as well as increase our understanding of how wider religious, intellectual, and cultural changes during this period impacted on the lives of schoolmasters and the working of grammar schools.

The subject of education history, and by extension of teaching, is often under-studied; a very popular subject of study back in the 1970s, it has fallen under the radar somewhat, and current research on early modern education tends to focus more on the humanist curriculum of English grammar schools, looking at what was being taught; by focusing on the people who were doing the teaching (and there nearly 100 with entries in the ODNB), I’m to fill a gap in our knowledge of early modern education, as well as broaden our understanding of the history of teaching.

You’re undertaking a prosopographical approach to early modern schoolmasters: what is prosopography and what are its uses for understanding the past?

Prosopography is the study of individual members of a particular group of people, examining elements of their lives in order to better understand that group—in this case, those who worked in a teaching capacity. It is somewhat related to biography (and biographies can be a valuable source in prosopography), but differs in that the focus is on understanding the group collectively rather than on one specific person or select network of individuals.

How have you used the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for your research?

The Oxford DNB contains close to one hundred entries for men who are classified as ‘schoolmaster’, or as schoolmaster and something else (most commonly ‘writer’ or ‘clergyman’); a search by occupation will yield these results. The detailed nature of these entries provides information that’s helped me to build up a profile of the profession, based on this sample of notable practitioners.

The subject of education history, and by extension of teaching, is often under-studied

In addition, the Dictionary includes over a thousand entries which can be viewed through a full text search for ‘schoolmaster’ or ‘headmaster’. I have had to comb through these to some extent, as sometimes the search term will appear in an unrelated context; but in many other cases, it will bring up an entry for a man who might be better known as a writer, a clergyman, or something besides schoolmaster, but who in fact spent some length of time teaching at a grammar school.

What new information, or new lines of inquiry, has the Oxford DNB provided?

One of the strongest themes to emerge from these ODNB biographies is the sometimes transient nature of a teaching career during the early modern period. It was so often the case that one might spend only a short time teaching before opting for another profession—typically the clergy—and the ODNB entries have certainly demonstrated this: biographies for those who are classified by the Dictionary as ‘schoolmasters’ will often, though not always, show that the schoolmaster in question left to do other things besides teach; this typically involved writing or publishing, entering the church, or sometimes taking up medicine or becoming involved in local politics.

Those with entries in the ODNB who are principally classified as writer, clergyman, or some other profession, often spent time teaching during the first part of their adult lives. This is often an aspect of their biography that’s overshadowed by their later careers, but which tells us a great deal about where a teaching position might sit in relation to the development of their career. Reading these entries in an approximately chronological order gives some sense of change over time as well. In addition, ancillary references in ODNB entries, for example to wills held at the National Archives, have allowed me to expand on an individual master’s career—with reference to his family, material possessions and wealth at the end of his life.

What are the next steps for your research?

There is a great deal of scope for comparative work with a study like this, and I would like to compare English schoolmasters to those who taught elsewhere in Europe and in Scotland, focusing on the same questions: educational and social background, the ‘shape’ of a teaching career, and contemporary attitudes towards teaching.

I would also like to set this research in a wider chronological context, examining how early modern English schoolmasters compare to those working in medieval England, and to those of later seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England. The role of the assistant schoolmaster, the usher, is also an area I have begun to explore further.

While this project could stand on its own as a substantial article about early modern English schoolmasters, and will, I hope, contribute eventually to a monograph based on my PhD, I also envision it becoming a book chapter considering either the history of the teaching profession, or perhaps the professions more widely—with a focus on the biographical attributes, and life choices and trajectories, revealed in the Oxford DNB and other sources.

Featured image credit: School chalkboard. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay

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