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The “New Learning”: a Semantic Note

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 January 2019

Allan G. Chester*
University of Pennsylvania
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Modern scholars are well aware of the inexactitude and ambiguity of the terms “Renaissance” and “humanism”. We continue to find the words useful, but we have adopted the practice of employing them cautiously, with precisely stated qualifications. It is the purpose of this paper to point out, especially to students of the cultural history of England, that contradiction and ambiguity also lurk in the equally useful term “the new learning” and to urge a similar caution in employing it.

Historians of English literature commonly identify the New Learning (usually capitalized) with the revival of classical learning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They may use the term narrowly to mean the revival of interest in the language and literature of ancient Greece, or somewhat more broadly to include the revival of “classical” Latin. Some writers will also include the Biblical scholarship of such men as Erasmus and Reuchlin.

Research Article
Copyright © Renaissance Society of America 1955

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1 See, for example, C. S. Lewis’ careful limitation upon his use of the terms humanism and humanist in his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, excluding Drama (Oxford, 1954, The Oxford History of English Literature, Vol. III), 18.

2 It is so used by Tilley, Arthur in his valuable “Greek Studies in England in the Early Sixteenth Century,” EHR, LIII (1938), 221239, 438-456.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 Lewis, loc. cit.

4 The Literary History of England, ed. A. C. Baugh (New York, 1948), 326-335. The work of Sir Thomas More is the subject of the next chapter, called “The New World”.

5 Pollard, A. F., Wolsey (London, 1929), 26, n. 2.Google Scholar

6 Fisher, H. A. L., The History of England from the Accession of Henry VII to the Death of Henry VIII (London, 1906), 383.Google Scholar

7 Daiches, David, The King James Version of the English Bible. An Account of the Development and Sources of the English Bible of 1611 with Special Reference to the Hebrew Tradition (Chicago, 1941), 76.Google Scholar

8 Smith, H. Maynard, Henry VIII and the Reformation (London, 1948), 353, 354.Google Scholar

9 Chambers, R. W., Thomas More (London, [1934]), 84.Google Scholar

10 For example, Lacey Baldwin Smith, Tudor Prelates and Politics 1536-1558 (Princeton, 1953, Princeton Studies in History, vol. 8), 50-51, 289.

11 For a detailed account of Latimer's quarrels with Hubberdin, see the present writer's Hugh Latimer, Apostle to the English (Philadelphia, 1954), 68-69, 88-93.

12 Harleian MS. 422, ff. 88-89. The letter, in Latimer's own hand, was evidently written in haste. I have omitted cancelled words, expanded the contractions, and slighdy modernized the erratic punctuation.

13 See below, p. xx.

14 S. T. C. 20,036. For the attribution of the preface to Tyndale, see Mozley, J. F., William Tyndale (London, 1937), 346.Google Scholar

15 Sig. Aiir—A iiv.

16 S. T. C. 20,840.

17 S. T. C. 24,566.

18 Sig. A iiiir.

19 Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, vol. vii, No. 1608.

20 Ibid., vol. ix, No. 1059.

21 Ibid., vol. ix, No. 846.

22 Ibid., vol. xii, Nos. 6, 900, 901.

23 Ibid., vol. xvi, No. 101.

24 Roger Ascham, English Works, ed. William Aldis Wright (Cambridge, 1904), 279.

25 Ibid., 281, for a characteristic passage.

26 I feel sure that there are earlier examples. But at any rate, this one is a century earlier than the earliest cited in the NED, which is from Green's Short History of the English People. In spite of this date the NED gives the revival of classical studies as the primary meaning of new learning, although its citation for the earlier meaning is from Latimer.

27 The Works of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. A New Edition in Twelve Volumes (London, 1792), xii, 309. These sentences might even suggest that Johnson had misread the passage from Ascham quoted above.

28 The Works of Hugh Latimer, ed. George E. Corrie (Cambridge, The Parker Society, 1844-45), i, 30.

29 , R. M. and Carlyle, A. J., Hugh Latimer (London, 1899), 9.Google Scholar