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Thomas Smith and the Advancement of Humanism in Cambridge

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Even before Erasmus’ stay at Queens’ in 1511–14, the college had been at the forefront of the new humanist movement that sought to discover and promulgate Greek and Roman learning and languages. At the time of Smith’s birth in 1513 Erasmus’ iconic project to publish his ground-breaking New Testament translation (from early Greek sources) was coming to fruition. It is unsurprising, therefore, that with his education at Queens’ (1526–30) and subsequent employment as lecturer in natural philosophy and teacher of Greek, Smith became such a strong proponent of the humanist agenda. The wide range of his learning clearly dazzled fellow colleagues and students, some of whom included figures synonymous with Tudor scholarship, such as John Cheke, Roger Ascham and William Cecil.

Having been appointed to the much-coveted position of Regius Professor of Civil Law in 1540, Smith’s inaugural lecture alluded to an extraordinarily wide reading in logic, rhetoric, philosophy, and ancient and modern history. Although in these interests Smith’s engagement with the humanist agenda was clear, his most symbolic contribution to the tradition of Erasmus was to join his friend, John Cheke, in adopting Erasmus’ proposed return to ‘authentic’ Greek pronunciation. Based on a close attention to Greek literature and informed by the assumption that single letters were intended to express single sounds, this venture did much to place Smith within the Erasmian avant-garde. In May 1542 it was, however, forbidden by the University Chancellor, Stephen Gardiner, and Smith’s readiness to abandon the venture reflects his propensity to yield to authority rather than jeopardise prospects of career advancement.

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