Studying Renaissance History: An Interview with Eleanor Pettus Schneider

National Association of Scholars

Eleanor Pettus Schneider is a Fellow at the Liberty Fund and received her Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 2015. She received the 2018 Fraser Barron Memorial Scholarship in Renaissance & Western History from the National Association of Scholars. NAS interviewed Dr. Schneider so she could tell the NAS membership more about herself and her research.

How did you get interested in Renaissance history?

I was a Classics major and I was fascinated by the Renaissance humanists’ enthusiasm for the ancient world.

What is your research about?

I work on the schools of late Medieval England, the Humanist interaction with these educational structures, and finally how the coming of the English Reformation transformed attitudes about and funding for grammar school education. I argue that the education generally offered prior to the Reformation was fundamentally humanist—at least in aspiration, since most schools were underfunded and not very good. I also argue that the number of Latin schools was growing. The Reformation completely disrupted educational investment and access. A new type of school did emerge—the elite Protestant humanist Latin school under royal patronage. But these were really the survivors of an earlier humanist tradition, not new creations of the Tudor government.

How did you get interested in that?

I was at the University of Kansas for my master’s degree, studying with Prof. Jonathan Clark. I noticed that Latin grammar books experienced a disruption in their publication that coincided with the Reformation. Prof. Clark asked me: Why don’t you research that? And I did.

Does your research inform the way you look at America now?

My research has broad implications for the way we view schools and schooling in America today. The Renaissance humanists—especially the pre-Reformation movement—were clear that education ought to be given to every child who was not actively opposed to being educated, or at least to every boy. The challenge was how to pay for it. For this, they appealed to towns, church organizations and wealthy patrons. They never assumed that parents would be able to shoulder the whole cost, because education was not perfectly practical. Rather, it was soul-forming, and therefore it was good for society that children received it, but it might not give material benefit to the student himself. At least, it would not give enough material benefit to pay back the real cost.

I think the Renaissance way of thinking about education has a point, and that the modern laser focus on education as a means to job prospects or social cohesion misses the point of what education should be. Education then had a complicated relationship to virtue formation and the students and families that benefited from their neighbors’ largesse incurred a reciprocal obligation to those donors. We can learn from the humanists. In talking about education as job training, we lose both the sense that education is a good in itself and also that people who benefit from receiving an education have incurred an obligation to those teachers and donors who made it possible.

When you were teaching, how did your research inform your teaching?

On a thematic level, it certainly shaped the way I talk about the connection between the Renaissance and Reformation. A significant number of Reformation and Counter-Reformation leaders were taught by humanists, but my research shows both how popularly attractive the movement was and how the social unity that was encouraged by the humanists was shattered by the Reformation confessionalism. Humanism had to accommodate itself to that new reality to survive.

And then there are the funny stories you work into classes. One of my favorite episodes in English humanist history is the Grammarians’ War, during which two schoolmasters snuck through London by night to nail pieces of invective poetry on each other’s school door. When students ask for the fifth time “why do we need to study Latin?,” it’s a great story to bring out. Not that it entirely answers their question.

How will the Fraser Barron Scholarship help you do your research?

Looking at more individual schools. Many of my conclusions are guided by large document sets—the returns of the Henry VIII and Edward VI chantry commissions, the surrenders of the monasteries, and the Latin grammar publication records. But these documents need to be fleshed out through more local stories— individual school fights for survival. The Fraser Barron will let me visit three such institutions.

What excites you about your research?

I love teasing out the definition of “education”. What made Renaissance society invest so heavily in their schools? How did they understand the connection between education and the soul? The scholar and the community? And how did the Tudor government so misunderstand the actual school endowment structures that Reformation-era legislation threatened the whole project?

What can the younger generation of scholars—scholars your age—offer to the study of renaissance history?

One of the delightful aspects of the Renaissance is that so many important texts, by significant authors, have not received sufficient treatment. Excellent work is still being done on the thought of Erasmus because he was so prolific. I am working on an original project that touches royal policy during the English Reformation—and Henry VIII has been studied a lot! There’s just so much still to do to tease out the connection between the humanist movement and religious reform.

I see my generation of scholars as joining an ongoing conversation, uncovering sources that weren’t previously known or have been underutilized, to help us understand what the Renaissance humanists thought they were doing in their own terms. Following my advisor Brad Gregory, the late Sabine MacCormack, Anthony Grafton, Richard Rex, and Eamon Duffy, I aim to understand the Renaissance humanists on their own terms. When you do that, you can see a world that is simultaneously extremely different from our own and very familiar.

Familiar how?

These men could be incredibly nerdy. They wrote Latin invective against their rivals. Need I say more?

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