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  • Ramus and Reform: University and Church at the End of the Renaissance
  • Frederic J. Baumgartner
Ramus and Reform: University and Church at the End of the Renaissance. By James Veazie Skalnik. (Kirksville, Missouri: Truman State University Press. 2002. Pp. xii, 172. $39.95.)

This slim but important study begins with the statement: "Peter Ramus was a difficult man." The author proceeds to demonstrate the point thoroughly. By the time the reader has finished, it is easy to appreciate why a colleague in the University of Paris denounced him as "either rabid and demented or else perverse and criminal" (p. 1). Skalnik has well integrated the biographical details of Ramus's life into the account of his beliefs and goals, thereby making the analysis of his motivations and those of his many critics plausible and convincing.

Skalnik insists that Ramus had an ideology of reform, not so much of religion, as Ramus came to religious reform late in life, but of education and, more broadly, of society. As a self-made man himself, his ideal was a meritocracy of talent and learning, not one of birth. Brought up during the reign of Francis I, which Skalnik proposes was an era when the social structure of France was far more fluid than it had been for centuries and would be for centuries to come, Ramus sought to expand the opportunities for bright young men (his meritocracy did not extend to women), especially at the University of Paris. Thus his challenge as a new master of arts to the primacy of Aristotle in the university, which he saw as perpetuating the control of learning by a handful of men trained in scholasticism. Ramus moved on to challenge Latin as the language of learning, proposing the substitution of the people's French. In his offices as royal professor of mathematics, although he was not much of a mathematician, and principal of the College of Presles, Ramus sought to implement a reform of education that emphasized practical knowledge made available to bright young [End Page 320] men regardless of status or wealth. One of the strengths of this book is its detailed study of both the royal professorships, providing a valuable appendix on them between 1530 and 1610, and Ramus's college, especially its finances. Skalnik demonstrates that venality appeared in the University of Paris after 1560, and Ramus proposed to cure the ill by establishing royal salaries for the faculty members.

Given Ramus's unrelenting hostility to oligarchies in almost every aspect of French society, it came as a surprise to no one when he attended a Reformed service in 1569. Most everyone believed he was a Protestant long before, although Skalnik's examination of Ramus's will of 1559 shows that he still was a Catholic when that highly personal document was written. Once committed, Ramus brought his demand for meritocracy to his new church. Drawing more from Zwingli than Calvin, he challenged the leadership in the French Reformed churches exercised by Geneva and was deeply involved in the Congregationalist controversy at the time he was murdered during St. Bartholomew's Day. Skalnik concludes by analyzing Ramus's use of timocracy, which for Ramus meant more than oligarchy but less than democracy.

Painting often with broad strokes, Skalnik at times overstates his case both in the extent to which Francis I's reign was a period of social mobility even for the humble and how badly it declined in the following decades. In the late sixteenth century, there were still commoners with positions of authority in the army and the Catholic hierarchy, leading to complaints at the 1614 Estates. I also dispute the assertion that no one had Henry II "so firmly in hand as the Cardinal of Lorraine" (p. 70). Montmorencey, Diane de Poitiers, and Francis of Guise all had more influence than the cardinal in 1551, when Ramus was named a royal professor, although certainly the cardinal was Ramus's major patron at the court.

Such minor criticism aside, Skalnik makes his case for Ramus's ardent opposition to oligarchy in education, royal office, and religion. He has written a lively, succinct study of Ramus, which will be the...


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