King’s College London Medieval/Renaissance Latin Play 2018 – George Ruggle’s “Ignoramus”

This post reproduces the programme notes on the literary context to Ignoramus which Victoria wrote for the performance of the play at KCL in March:

Latin school and university plays were a typical element of secondary and tertiary education throughout the early modern period: Montaigne, for instance, acted in George Buchanan’s Latin tragedies while his pupil at the Collège de Guyenne in the 1540s. A large number of such plays are extant in manuscript sources, and many others are known to have been put on, although the texts do not survive; relatively few however were published in print and of these even fewer had anything like a ‘popular’ success. George Ruggle’s (1575-1622) Ignoramus, by contrast, was a major hit: first performed in 1615 at Cambridge for the entertainment of the visiting King James I, it was performed repeatedly well into the 18th century, reprinted multiple times (11 editions between 1630 and 1787) and also translated into English at least three times in the latter part of the seventeenth century.

The enormous and enduring popularity of the play is particularly evident in surviving manuscript material: excerpts, especially the prologues and songs from the play, appear in many commonplace books and miscellanies, and bespoke prologues – written to accompany later performances, with up-to-date contemporary jokes – are extant from as late as 1763. Unfortunately, there is no modern print edition, though an online text, translation and brief notes can be found at

Ruggle’s sprawling work – apparently running in its original performance to over five hours – satirises the character and (especially) the poor Latin of ‘Ignoramus’, the college recorder: that is, a common lawyer in a town of scholars. As such, it belongs broadly to the enduringly popular genre of legal satire – a kind of Better Call Saul for the early seventeenth century. (More closely contemporary examples include Donne’s Satires of the 1590s and the Trebatius scenes in Jonson’s Poetaster (1601).) The specifically dramatic tradition to which it belongs is that of Plautus’ Pseudolus (itself a popular school play), though Ignoramus is based most directly upon an Italian version of Plautus’ play (Giambattista Della Porta’s La Trappolaria). Tonight’s performance has been significantly cut to a running time of only around 40 minutes, but this too is traditional – several of the extant manuscript sources suggest that the play was regularly abridged in performance.

The most distinctive feature of the play is its linguistic inventiveness: Ignoramus’ hodge-podge of half-baked Latin, English and French is still very funny. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, ‘macaronic’ verse – that is, verse in a mixture of two or more languages – had strong satirical overtones. The frequent use of rhyming Latin verse in the songs is also associated, in this period, with satirical or humourous material. Though barely known even to scholars today, the popular Latin literary “hits” of the early seventeenth century almost all included similar elements to those found in Ruggle’s play: John Barclay’s Latin novel, Argenis (1621), for instance, has multiple romantic sub-plots and includes Latin songs which were widely excerpted; William Drummond’s (1585-1649) mock-epic Polemo-Middiana (‘The Battle of the Dunghill’) is macaronic to very similar comic effect to Ignoramus; and the enormously popular Barnabae Itinerarium (‘Drunken Barnaby’s Journey’) by Richard Braithwaite (1588-1673) is a long comic poem about the hapless exploits of the eponymous Barnaby, composed in rhyming Latin verse with a parallel English version. Ignoramus is therefore typical of a lively, albeit now forgotten, culture of popular neo-Latin literature.


Author: Victoria

I am an early modernist who works primarily upon the relationship between Latin and vernacular (especially but not only English) poetry between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. I am Senior Lecturer in Latin Language and Literature at King's College London.

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