… yong gentylmen ought to avoyde and eschewe Idlenes. For it is … the very mother and noryse of all evyls and myscheves & is the occasion wherby a man doth lerne to do many grevous offences and synnes.
The Boke of Noblnes c. 1550
Received tradition in America has identified the Puritans with the “detestation of idleness” and tended to denigrate them as the originators of this value judgment. Although scholars have written extensively about the Puritan work ethic and the theological framework undergirding the stress on diligence in one's calling, little has been said about the conceptual and cultural background for Puritan opposition to idleness. According to historian Perry Miller, a likely source for such views is England rather than New England. Miller has asserted that, when considering Puritan culture as a whole, “ninety per cent of the intellectual life, scientific knowledge, morality, manners and customs, notions and prejudices, was that of all Englishmen.” The sixteenth-century courtesy literature, that body of treatises intended for the instruction of the aristocracy, confirms that abhorrence of idleness was indeed a hallmark of the ideal advocated for the English Renaissance gentleman. The courtesy treatises demonstrate that the Massachusetts Bay settlers had inherited from their English ancestors a century-old written tradition, wherein idleness had been defined and its sinful consequences unequivocally denounced by those who assumed the task of educating the well-born and the governing classes. Concurrent with the denunciations, courtesy treatises exhorted the gentlemen to good stewardship of time, i.e., to a life primarily of worship and work. Hours spent in recreation were approved, he was told, only for “honest” pastimes taken in moderation. An analysis of these sixteenth-century conceptions begins with a review of the educational ideals portrayed in the courtesy literature.