The Christian's ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England C.1530-1740

By Ian Green | Go to book overview
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Catechizing in Theory and Practice: In School and at Home

WHEN Hamlet protests to Guildenstern that he still loves him, he holds out his hands and swears by 'these pickers and stealers'--an odd phrase unless one realizes that in the Prayer Book catechism the child is taught to say that the eighth Commandment means that he or she must 'keep my hands from picking and stealing'. There is good evidence from a number of other references in the plays of Shakespeare that he became thoroughly familiar with that catechism and attendant material in the form in which it was taught in Elizabethan schools: The ABC with the catechisme.1 Although the main thrust of early modern English catechizing was undoubtedly made in church, the English authorities were all in favour of catechizing in school and home, especially the former, if it could be relied on to assist the minister's catechizing in church. 2 Catechizing in school was much the more common of the two in practice, and took various forms. In the first stages of formal education in dame or ABC schools or the first form of a grammar school, an elementary catechism such as the Prayer Book form was usually taught. In the lower or middle forms of a grammar school or perhaps the upper forms of a Charity School, either a larger catechism or an exposition of the Prayer Book catechism might be learnt, or a Latin translation of a shorter catechism studied. Finally, in the middle or upper forms of a grammar school or the first years at university, there was the study of yet more advanced catechetical forms, or of a middling or larger catechism in Latin, Greek, and sometimes Hebrew as well.

A number of exceptions to this general picture must be entered. First, there was regular overlap between students at different stages of achievement, for example, between those entrants to a grammar school who had not yet learnt the Prayer Book catechism properly and those who had mastered it years before, and between undergraduates fresh from provincial schools who might still be learning a catechism that

T. W. Baldwin, William Shakespere's Petty School ( Urbana, Ill., 1943), 173 and ch. 10, passim.
For royal injunctions, canons, visitations articles, and school statutes drawn up or approved by leading figures in church and state, see Frere, Visitation Articles, ii.48-9; iii.21, 71, 91, 96, 105, 114, 132, 153, 160, 214, 270, 291, 312, 333, 342, 371; D. Cressy, Education in Tudor and Stuart England ( 1975), 28-35; T. W. Baldwin, Shakespere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke ( 2 vols.; Urbana, Ill., 1944), i.296-7, 302-3, 345, 432-3; J. Simon, Education and Society in Tudor England ( Cambridge, 1966), 323-4.


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