Ailments of the Tongue
- Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300-1475 edited by Rita Copeland and Ineke Sluiter
Oxford, 972 pp, £35.00, May 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 965378 2
Fifty years ago, Walter Ong startled classicists with the proposal that learning Latin offered medieval and Renaissance boys a rite of passage not unlike Bushman puberty rites. Torn from the company of women, the initiate was sequestered with his peers in a clubhouse-like schoolroom, trained in the special language of an elite, disciplined by flogging, and formed by a regimen geared to inculcate moral and intellectual toughness. Unlike the Bushman, however, the medieval schoolboy underwent this rite at the age of seven. Not by coincidence, Ong concluded, both corporal punishment and the centrality of Latin began to fade at the same time as same-sex grammar schools.
Vol. 34 No. 8 · 26 April 2012
Barbara Newman writes that ‘for much of the Middle Ages the vernaculars were scarcely thought to have grammar at all’ (LRB, 22 March). In fact, vernacular grammar was studied in early medieval Ireland at an extremely advanced level, by means of a linguistic philosophy derived directly from the Latin grammars of Donatus and Priscian.
This high regard for the vernacular is perhaps best reflected in the Irish grammatical treatise Auraicept na nÉces (The Scholars’ Primer), the core of which is dated to the eighth century, and the study and transmission of which continued for centuries thereafter. Similarly, Newman’s account of Isidore’s Latin etymologising fails to note that his influence also extended into the vernacular, for example in the early Irish etymological glossaries, such as Sanas Cormaic (‘Cormac’s Glossary’), whose earliest strata are in Old Irish and therefore date from before c. 900 AD. In her concern to emphasise the gender imbalance of the early medieval Latin classroom, Newman neglects the geographical and political imbalance of her own account, thus obscuring the complex interactions between Latin and vernaculars to be found in the early medieval world. Medieval Ireland’s significant cultural achievements might have a better chance of being more widely known if the chairs of Celtic at the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh were not presently unoccupied, the former as a result of recent failure to raise funds to endow the post fully, the latter having been subordinated to the interests of the Modern Scottish Gaelic lobby.