Ailments of the Tongue

Barbara Newman

  • 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.

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