Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

"Courtesy" at Little Gidding

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

"Courtesy" at Little Gidding

Article excerpt

To find at Little Gidding a concern for worldly "courtesy" might surprise those who think of it as a monastic retreat from that very world. Yet, here in this summary statement, Nicholas Ferrar acknowledged its importance though at the same time carefully subordinating it to "the perfections of true Charity". What his first biographer Francis Turner characterised as his "mixt life" demanded that he exercise both worldly courtesy and the courtesy of true charity.2 Leadership of the Gidding household required him not only to foster within it a spiritual life that transcended the world but also to attend to those "ordinary affaires" in the world where courtesy was essential. And as he himself could not retreat from the world, neither did the world retreat from Little Gidding. Nicholas found himself, for example, having perforce to devise a strategy for dealing courteously but firmly with the numerous uninvited visitors and curiosity seekers who turned up at the door.3

If the ability to move within both of these spheres was important for him personally, so too was the challenge of preparing the next generation for those "mixt lives" that would enable them to be "in" the world but not "of" it. He knew that the "mixt life" required more than courtesy, even the courtesy approaching the perfections of true charity. But the carefully patterned life he established in the Gidding household, while it revolved around regular devotions in church and house, necessarily also included "ordinary affaires" such as managing the property, feeding and clothing the household, ministering to poor and sick neighbours and preparing children for an appropriate place in the adult world. This last task he undertook with characteristic thoroughness, establishing a variety of educational activities tailored to the needs of a younger generation that included the children of his brother John and his sister Susanna Collet and that ranged in age from adults to young children. Instruction in courtesy was but one aspect of that all-encompassing programme. Extensive and carefully designed as it was, however, it remained a plan for a particular household rather than a general call for educational reform. Nicholas was no Samuel Hartlib or Jan Amos Comenius.

For this programme, Nicholas prepared a variety of educational materials. From his own library and capacious memory, he assembled volumes of stories designed both to instruct and entertain. These were accounts not only of saints and martyrs (Foxe's Actes and Monumentes was already a staple of family reading) but also of historical figures: wise and wicked rulers, valiant warriors and intrepid explorers. He was a firm believer in the pedagogical value of stories, Christ's use of parables being the ultimate example. In addition, however, he compiled a more directly didactic book that he called "The Children's Prescripts".4 That volume has unfortunately long since vanished, but there survive in Francis Turner's notebook, now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, sets of admonitions, to which Turner gave the titles "Instructions to Pupils" and "Instructions to the Children". These texts, from which the opening quotation is drawn, afford unique and significant examples of a lesser known aspect of Nicholas' pedagogical style. Most, if not all, of the "pupils" would also have been the "children" and would have read and heard both sets of "Instructions". They differ in emphasis and tone, as we shall presently see, but in both, in contrast to those other materials he collected, Nicholas was writing in command mode rather than in his preferred persuasive style that relied on stories to capture attention and point a moral. What place did these "Instructions" occupy in Nicholas' larger educational enterprise?

When Isaac Walton called Little Gidding "a little college", he was probably thinking of its more unusual educational activities.5 These included making biblical harmonies and participating in the Little Academy, a family discussion group, that were aimed primarily at the older Collet nieces6 For the younger children, and especially the boys, there were their turns at meal times to deliver carefully chosen readings and recite memorised stories to the assembled family. …

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