In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Colet

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies and Reference Guides
  • Printed Primary Sources
  • Early Biographies
  • Seventeenth- to Nineteenth-Centuries Biographies
  • Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Biographies
  • Modern Biographies
  • Biographical Articles
  • Italy
  • Platonism
  • Erasmus and Oxford
  • The Mercers
  • Ecclesiology
  • St. Paul’s School

Renaissance and Reformation John Colet
Jonathan Arnold
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0185


Scholarship concerning John Colet (b. 1467–d. 1519), the humanist Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral (1505–1519) and founder of St. Paul’s School (1509) was, for many years, dominated by the notion that he was a heroic reformer, a forerunner of the Reformation, a proto-Protestant who proclaimed in deed, if not in word, the new Protestant age to come. John Foxe’s (b. 1516–d. 1587) polemically distorted version of Erasmus’s first-hand recollections of Colet’s life, in his Ecclesiasticall History, Conteynyng the Actes and Monumentes of Martyrs, 1570 edition (Foxe 1570, cited under Early Biographies), was repeated in various forms through the 17th and 18th centuries, and the 19th century brought a new fervor in Colet studies from evangelical Victorian antiquaries, such as Frederick Seebohm’s The Oxford Reformers (Seebohm 1867, cited under Dating of the Manuscripts) and the St. Paul’s School Sur-Master Joseph Lupton’s A Life of John Colet (Lupton 1909, cited under St. Paul’s School), who continued to portray Colet and a Protestant before his time as well as an educational visionary. Lupton’s account was the basis for most other scholarship, and the surge of interest in the first half of the 20th century led to many books and articles examining his intellectual, educational, or administrative significance. However, Colet’s place within history was not seriously reevaluated until revisionist historians, starting in the later 20th century, identified a different character to the pre-Reformation Church than had previously been accepted: that it was, in many ways, a loved and well-run institution, but that it was also often criticized, not by those who sought to destroy it and rebuild it along Protestant lines, but by traditional Catholics, such as Colet, who were not anticlerical, as had previously been assumed, but highly clerical and wished to see a perfected and purified Catholic body of Christ on earth. Above all, in 1989, Gleason’s John Colet (Gleason 1989, cited under Dating of the Manuscripts) rightly reclaimed the dean as a traditionalist pre-Reformation Catholic, a pious Christian humanist, who preached, worked, and wrote for his beloved Church. Gleason’s Colet sought no structural or doctrinal change to the existing order, but the renewal of people’s minds and a perfected Church for the glory of God. The most recent scholarship has built upon these revisions and we now find ourselves in a post-revisionist world that has stripped away the prejudices of past antiquarians and their heirs, but without relegating Colet to such a minor place in history that his significance is lost under the shadows of intellectual giants such as Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More, his friends. Thus, the nature of the relationship between Colet’s intellectual life and the Church, his ecclesiology, and his decanal administration of St. Paul’s Cathedral have been the focus of some of Arnold’s work in the 21st century, most notably Dean John Colet of St. Paul’s (Arnold 2007a, cited under Modern Biographies). With a growth in scholarly interest in Renaissance humanism, Colet’s significance within a circle that made a lasting impact upon European thought is now recognized.

Bibliographies and Reference Guides

The best general introduction to Colet is Trapp 2004 in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The online Bibliography of British and Irish History provides a very helpful guide to further reading on Colet and his circle. Arnold 2011 gives an overview of Colet’s life, humanism in practice, and legacy as well as a table of significant dates and events.

  • Arnold, Jonathan. The Great Humanists: An Introduction. London: I. B. Tauris, 2011.

    A survey of some of the most important scholars, priests, theologians, and philosophers of the Early Modern period, placing Colet within the context of Renaissance humanism and examining the impact of his humanist outlook upon his ecclesiological and educational work. See pp. 157–174.

  • Institute of Historical Research. Bibliography of British and Irish History.

    A subscription-only website with access to a partner website covering specifically London history. A useful facility update three times a year. Plenty of references to articles and books on Colet.

  • Trapp, J. B. “John Colet.” In The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in Association with the British Academy: From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000. Vol. 12. Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, 601–609. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Trapp studied Colet and humanism throughout his career and was the authority on Colet until the end of the 20th century. This is an insightful and authoritative overview of Colet’s life and influence.

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