“A Classical Education”: A British Student’s Outlook, 1808-1812

Posted on
June 25, 2019
Page spread from student's commonplace book, featuring "Dog and Cat," and the accompanying handwritten text that is transcribed in the blog post.
"Dog and Cat"

This summer we're publishing a series of blog posts written by students for the class HIST 211 Books: Technology and Culture. Their posts are based on materials in the Special Collections Research Center. Check out their bright insights every other week. Today's entry is written by Chela Aufderheide.

One of the first pages in an unidentified student’s commonplace book (Mss. MsV Co10), first dated 1808, begins with the caption “Dog and Cat.” The student goes on to copy out a snippet from Pindariana; or, Peter’s Portfolio, a work by the famous English satirist John Wolcot: “I do not love a Cat – his disposition is mean and suspicious. A friendship of years is cancelled in a moment by an accidental tread on his tail or foot…” The Dog, on the other hand, “is my delight.”  

This commonplace book serves as a window into the life and preoccupations of a student who lived near Scotland in Great Britain in the early nineteenth century. A worn, cracked volume with torn pages and a cheap cardboard binding, the book was clearly designed for regular use rather than prestige or durability, which is reflected in its contents. Used to store notable passages for later reference, this student’s commonplace book contains a smattering of love quotes and entertaining stories – the sort of thing that might appeal to students today. Most pages, however, deal with school life. 

From class timetables to the application process for a job as “an Attendant…for a respectable grammar school in the Country,” the commonplace book creates a picture of British education in the nineteenth century.

A page from the student's commonplace book, featuring a Classical Greek writing exercise.
Greek writing exercises

For the student who kept the book, the concept of classical education was of paramount importance. Those who achieved such an education garnered respect and a higher social status. “A Doctor in Divinity,” the student copied diligently, must have a command of French, Italian and Spanish, “and [have] added to them the advantages of a classical education.” Along the same lines, at a grammar school examination, a Scottish young woman well-versed in Homer “comfortably demonstrated the fitness of the female faculty for receiving a classical education.” The same classical texts figured heavily in the student’s own schoolwork. The commonplace book contains writing in both Latin and Greek, and its owner was assigned “exercises for writing Greek” and “The Birds of Aristophanes.” Moreover, he took extensive notes on “Tacitus, Treatises of the Germans.”

The reference to Tacitus is especially intriguing. Centuries prior to this student’s Greek homework, processes of contact were set in motion around the Atlantic. Classical texts, like Tacitus’ Germania, played a key role in European understandings of the different peoples they encountered. Tacitus describes the customs of the “barbarian” German tribes in contrast to, and from the point of view of, the Roman Empire. In the same way, Europeans framed themselves as empire and civilization, with the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas as their opposite. Christopher Hagerman has outlined the ways classical education was key to the articulation of the British imperial project in particular, as well as elite identity in Great Britain. This student’s commonplace book thus provides us with an idea of what cultural and educational influences would have shaped this individual’s worldview, and how that specific experience fits into broader historical trends.

Written by Chela Aufderheide as part of the class HIST 211 Books: Technology & Culture (Fall 2018).

References and More to Explore:

Hagerman, Christopher A. “Muse of empire? Classical education, the classical tradition and British attitudes to empire, 1757–1902.” PhD. diss., University of Toronto, 2005.

Student's Commonplace Book, 1808-1812, Special Collections Research Center, William & Mary Libraries. https://scrcguides.libraries.wm.edu/repositories/2/resources/7227 Accessed November 19, 2018.

Wolcot, John. Pindariana; or Peter’s Portfolio. Dublin: P. Byrne, 1795.