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.

In their collection of essays on 12th-century Latin, The Tongue of the Fathers (1998), David Townsend and Andrew Taylor confirmed Ong’s insight. Latin discourse, they wrote, ‘endlessly replicates tradition. It upholds a monological and orthodox consensus … To enter into this language is, par excellence, to enter into patriarchy. Medieval Latin, in short, is the Tongue of the Fathers.’ A team of female editors retaliated in 2002 with a three-volume anthology, Women Writing Latin: From Roman Antiquity to Early Modern Europe. Two more women, an American medievalist, Rita Copeland, and a Dutch classicist, Ineke Sluiter, have now edited the monumental Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300-1475, but it is populated exclusively by men even if two women write about them. Girls might infiltrate the clubhouse but men alone remain the teachers and theorists of Latinity.

In their heroic labour of translation and scholarship, Copeland and Sluiter provide an entrée to the millennium of pedagogy that formed countless priests, monks, bishops, intellectuals, courtiers and secular bureaucrats. Grammar, the foundation of the medieval curriculum, covered far more ground than moderns understand and (less and less) teach under that rubric. It extended from memorising phonemes through morphology, syntax, figures of speech, and the avoidance of solecisms all the way to ethics, poetics and literary criticism. Ethics figured as part of grammatical teaching because the course of study was heavily based on poetry, above all the Aeneid, chosen as much for examples of moral rectitude as for eloquent style. ‘Grammatica’ herself was personified as a matron, sometimes warm and nurturing but more often wielding the birch. In a bizarre but enduringly popular textbook, The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, Martianus Capella portrayed her as a dental hygienist with sharp metal instruments: ‘by gentle rubbing she gradually cleaned dirty teeth and ailments of the tongue’ picked up through careless speech. By the late Middle Ages grammar had developed at its furthest reach into a theoretical discipline, called ‘modist’ or ‘speculative grammar’, that treated the modes of signification. Akin to such contemporary fields as linguistics, semiotics and the philosophy of language, it anticipates the theory of a universal grammar, more controversially developed by Chomsky.

Few scholars other than elementary teachers remained grammarians for life. Together with rhetoric and logic, grammar formed one part of the ‘trivium’ constituting the arts of language. Beyond these lay the mathematical arts of the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. But many students passed straight from the trivium into the professional study of law, medicine or theology. By the 12th century, intellectual battles raged over the relative importance of these arts and the schools that taught them. In ‘La Bataille des VII arts’ (c.1230), Henri d’Andeli depicts a war between the logicians of Paris and the grammarians of Orléans, the last bastion of classical and literary studies. The daughter of Madame Astronomy predicts the date of the battle, Arithmetic counts the troops, and Canon Law rides haughtily in the vanguard. The grammarian Donatus deals Plato a terrible blow ‘with a feathered verse’, but Aristotle stands ‘firm as a castle on a hill’ for all that Horace, Homer and Virgil can do. In the end Logic tries to arrange a truce, but the effort fails dismally because her messenger, having fatally neglected the study of grammar, cannot speak plainly and never gets to the point. As the ‘authors and authorlings’ flee, Henri concludes glumly that the humanities are dead – something humanists have been lamenting for as long as they have existed.

If we were renaming the disciplines today, Grammar might be called ‘Latin as a Second Language’, for by the time of Charlemagne the language of Cicero had ceased to be anyone’s mother tongue. Even Priscian, who composed the most authoritative Latin textbook around 520, turns out to have been teaching native Greek speakers in Constantinople. So medieval pedagogues were in a sense like the fresh-faced college graduates who today fan out across the globe, teaching English as a Second Language in Tokyo, Budapest or Dubai. But where modern pedagogy stresses conversational fluency, the medieval curriculum emphasised proficiency in the rules of writing. Latin as a textual language always took priority over speech, even though a more colloquial Latin remained the sole lingua franca by which Germans and Irishmen, Parisians and Bohemians could communicate. The overwhelming predominance of texts gave the language much of its authority, its sense of timelessness. When early grammarians felt the need to compare a Latin construction with examples from another language, they chose Greek (though they seldom really knew it) rather than their own vernaculars. In fact, for much of the Middle Ages the vernaculars were scarcely thought to have grammar at all. In his pathbreaking De vulgari eloquentia (On Eloquence in the Vernacular) Dante distinguished between the mother tongue that we learn ‘by imitating our nurses, without any rules’, and the secondary language that Greeks, Romans and others call grammatica and acquire ‘over a long period of time, through diligent study’. Even though a major purpose of this treatise was to justify the vernacular Divine Comedy, Dante had to write his apologia in Latin. But in the 14th and 15th centuries, the increasing use of English and other modern languages as vehicles to teach Latin spurred the perception that these languages too were grammatical, just as modist teaching predicted. The first grammar of English itself was not published until 1586.

Copeland and Sluiter’s anthology traces the slow, sinuous movement of a tradition that seems not to have moved at all for centuries. Part of the fun – for those of a pedantic temper – lies in ferreting out the infinitesimal changes. For instance, the fourth-century Donatus explained in his elementary textbook that Latin has four genders: masculine, feminine, neuter and common. His sole example of common gender is the noun sacerdos (priest), as every Catholic priest in training learned for a thousand years – but I have yet to find the form haec sacerdos ‘this (female) priest’ in a medieval Latin text.

A whole chapter dwells on the ablative absolute, that bane of beginning students. Novices first learn to translate his factis as ‘these things having been done’, and later to distinguish among its possible meanings: ‘after’ or ‘because’ or even ‘if’ these things have been done, such and such an action may follow. Medieval theorists struggled to reconcile the ‘absolute’, or free and ungoverned, character of this distinctive construction with the regimen, or logical hierarchy, that ought to govern all syntax. The distinction matters. To take a famous example, the Latinate framers of the US constitution employed an ablative absolute in the Second Amendment: ‘A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.’ An interpreter who favoured regimen would argue that the ablative clause determines the sense of the main clause; hence, the state has the right to maintain an army. Those who favour the absolute, as American courts have done, bracket the militia clause and take the main clause to mean that citizens may own as many firearms as they choose. The difference between constructions amounts to roughly 12,000 murders a year.

Medieval habits of thought can bewilder moderns, a case in point being the passion for etymology as a way to organise knowledge. Isidore of Seville entitled his vast seventh-century encyclopedia Etymologies, or Origins; its influence was incalculable. From this branch of grammar we learn that lucus (‘sacred grove’) derives from a non lucendo (‘lacking light’), while cadaver is an acronym for caro data vermibus (‘flesh given to worms’). Cicero and Augustine both knew perfectly well that such etymologies were ‘a matter of each man’s ingenuity’, not a key to historical linguistics. But the method prevailed because it perfectly expresses the medieval conviction that language is a comprehensive, fully rational system, in which any part may be logically derived from the whole – just as ‘logic’ itself derives from Logos, the all-creating Word. Not so distant is the belief underlying genuine historical linguistics, a creation of the 19th century. Like its sibling disciplines of the same era (history of religions, comparative mythology, folklore studies), it posits that, to learn the deepest meaning of such phenomena, one must trace them back to their most ancient historical roots. In principio veritas.

Rhetoric, though still grounded in Aristotle and Cicero, changed more obviously than grammar because its purpose changed. Whereas ancient rhetoric centred on the political assembly and the law court, medieval rhetoric branched off into poetics, preaching and the art of letter-writing (ars dictaminis), at which Héloïse and Bernard of Clairvaux excelled. Despite these new contexts, medieval tracts on poetics still advocate a classicism based on Horace’s principle of decorum, which seamlessly fuses genre with class: high style befits tragedy and kings; low style, comedy and slaves. Faults to be avoided were above all those of incongruity: mixing incompatible styles was tantamount to placing a man’s head on a horse’s neck, or portraying feathered fish and birds with scales. The hybrid is the very figure of moral and stylistic sin. Strikingly, however, the most original, and most loved, genre devised in this period, vernacular romance, displays the precise opposite of this aesthetic. Revelling in all things marvellous, it not only dreams of monsters but portrays them in ‘monstrous’ style. No wonder a learned poet like Chaucer, steeped in the Latin tradition, saw the native English romances as material for satire. In his classicising Troilus and Criseyde, set with pagan aplomb in ancient Troy, he approvingly quotes the rhetorician Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s New Poetics. For all his fame as a master of the low style, Chaucer does not really breach decorum: the bawdiest Canterbury Tales are told by pilgrims of the lowest station, and incongruity is deployed with deliberately comic or satirical intent.

So firm was the hold of classicism that Thomas of Chobham, a noted teacher of homiletics, quotes Plato to prove that a preacher should begin his sermon with a prayer. By far the most influential branch of rhetoric, preaching affords a fascinating example of the relationship between Latin and the vernacular. Sample sermons were composed in Latin by learned clerics, circulated far and wide, then preached in assorted vernaculars, adapted as necessary for the local audience. Scribes in the congregation might record the actual sermon as preached, but even then, they were inclined to translate the vernacular back into a Latin textual form. So the preponderance of Latin sermons that come down to us hardly reflects the reality of public preaching, which would necessarily have been in the public’s language. In the model collections called sermons ad status, preachers addressed specialised audiences, such as knights, merchants or married women. These make excellent reading for the social historian with an interest in perceptions of class and gender.

Preachers had special reason to cultivate the aspect of rhetoric known as captatio benevolentiae, the technique of capturing an audience’s goodwill at the outset of a speech. Then as now, one of the best ways to do this was by telling spicy tales (exempla), ostensibly meant to illustrate a moral point. Notoriously, however, the tale had a way of wagging the dog. Listeners might remember the story but forget the moral, and if the preacher was a gifted storyteller, he could make these narratives more elaborate than their context strictly required. As a result, collections of exempla proliferated in all languages, a source of boundless material for writers as well as preachers. Sermon exempla supplied the germ of several tales in Boccaccio’s Decameron. But delivery, the fifth part of Ciceronian rhetoric, mattered as much as content. Writing around 1220, Thomas of Chobham allowed that a preacher should have a certain dramatic flair. He must adjust his voice to his subject, speaking now gravely, now softly, now ‘making his voice tremble like one who is afraid’. But Thomas sternly warned the pulpit orator against ‘flaming eyes or wandering hands’, lest he become merely an entertainer or, worse, arouse more lust than devotion. By the late Middle Ages, however, such advice was often observed in the breach and celebrity preachers gained the status of rock stars, giving emotive performances that could easily last an hour or more. Margery Kempe, the wandering 15th-century mystic of Lynn, was banned from her favourite preacher’s sermons (much to her dismay) because of her habit of shrieking and sobbing when deeply moved.

Despite the gradual rise of vernacular literatures, Latin retained its prestige and vitality well into the early modern period. This situation produced what Ong called ‘cultural diglossia’. The literary spheres of Latin and the vernacular were not hermetically sealed, but mutually imbricated. On the one hand, the laity could be stigmatised as idiotae, rustici or lewed folk – all terms that once meant simply ‘ignorant of Latin’. But since Latin was a whole universe of learning, not just a language, they came to imply stupidity or moral turpitude. Vernacular writers struck back by characterising Latin as the language of mere scientia (‘knowledge’) while linking English with sapientia or ‘wisdom’, the knowledge of the heart. In The Idea of the Vernacular: An Anthology of Middle English Literary Theory, 1280-1520 (1999), Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and her colleagues traced the theory of early English writing from its first, groping apologetics to a new rhetoric whose subtlety could rival Latin. Copeland and Sluiter have now provided an indispensable complement, enabling the ‘tongue of the fathers’ to give the mother tongue a run for its money once again.