Frontispiece to Catachismus parvus (1573).

Tiny sketch

At school, boys sat on benches roughly grouped according to age and ability, as shown in this picture. The benches, which were called ‘forms’, were numbered, so the sixth form was the sixth bench where the older boys sat.

The schoolmaster, seated at the front and wearing an academic gown, is presenting an apple to a good student as a reward. On the floor lies a ‘switch’ of twigs to punish any lazy or negligent pupil.

Click on the apple to reveal another reward that a student might receive.

Click on the switch to reveal his punishment if he gets his lesson wrong.

School reward token [?]. British Isles, circa 1642-1675, Fitzwilliam Object Number: CM.BI.1600-R.

This seventeenth-century token that shows a figure studying at a desk with an hourglass on a shelf above is thought to be an early example of a school reward token; happy evidence that pupils were encouraged in their studies as well as threatened with punishment. As Tranio says in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew (1594),

No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en.
In brief, sir, study what you most affect.


Hans Holbein, marginal illustration in Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, c.1515. Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland

Holbein’s tiny sketch, next to the printed text ‘Tyrannis ludi magistorum’ (‘the tyranny of schoolmasters’), shows the corporeal punishment that was so familiar in the schoolroom in action. It was an experience that many of the authors who owed their eloquence to this kind of education would later remember with some bitterness:

From Pauls* I went, to Eton sent,
To learn straight ways, the Latin phrases,
Where fifty three stripes given to me,
at once I had:
For fault but small, or none at all…

Thomas Tusser, ‘The Author’s Life’ (1573)

*St Paul’s School, founded in 1509.