Mark D. Johnston

title.none: Camargo, Medieval Rhetorics of Prose Composition (Johnston)

identifier.other: baj9928.9703.008 97.03.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Mark D. Johnston, Illinois State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Camargo, Martin, ed. Medieval Rhetorics of Prose Composition: Five English Artes Dictandi and Their Tradition. Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 115. Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1995. Pp. xiv, 257. $28.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-866-98168-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.03.08

Camargo, Martin, ed. Medieval Rhetorics of Prose Composition: Five English Artes Dictandi and Their Tradition. Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 115. Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1995. Pp. xiv, 257. $28.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-866-98168-3.

Reviewed by:

Mark D. Johnston
Illinois State University

Scholarship on medieval rhetoric has enjoyed a tremendous, but uneven development in the past thirty years. The research in this field is sufficient to ensure that every medievalist today probably knows about the ars poetriae, ars dictaminis, or ars praedicandi and can readily find editions of representative treatises from each genre. At the same time, the respective contribution of these arts to the overall development of medieval culture remains unclear. Literary historians too often imagine great influence for the handful of better-known texts--such as Geoffrey of Vinsauf's Poetria nova or Robert of Basevorn's Forma praedicandi--while medieval library catalogs show that many other guides to rhetoric circulated in this era, perhaps rivalling or surpassing the influence of Geoffrey or Robert. Scholars interested in understanding better the broader contribution of the rhetorical arts to medieval literature and learning are certainly indebted to Martin Camargo for providing this representative selection of five English arts of letter-writing, all previously unpublished and dating from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. These texts, and Camargo's extensive commentary on them, should particulary interest historians of education, since the ars dictaminis was evidently a discursive craft exercised by many people besides university-trained clerics. It's especially intriguing to ponder the level of literary skill and sensibility imparted by Thomas Sampson's Modus dictandi (1396) to the future accountants, stewards, and estate managers who evidently comprised much of his student clientele.

Camargo's very comprehensive and thorough presentation of these texts begins with a short Preface (XI-XIV) that stresses the need to understand better the function of the artes dictaminis. Too many scholars, he suggests, continue to equate literary influence or importance with sheer originality and therefore ignore these treatises, because they are often highly derivative. Yet, this repetition of material from one treatise to another is a major reason that the artes dictaminis form such a strong and important tradition of literary practice.

His Introduction (1-34) reviews the development of this tradition in England, dividing it into three major phases. The first comprises the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, when several English authorities (most notably Geoffrey of Vinsauf) wrote artes dictaminis or general treatises on rhetoric that covered letter-writing. These broad works seem especially indebted to French authorities whose doctrines are highly literary, often based on imitation of Classical auctores and stressing the use of elaborate stylistic devices. In the second phase, beginning around 1250, English cultivation of the ars dictaminis steadily increased, becoming especially obvious in the heavy use of cursus (rhythmic prose) by the royal chancery. Many imported treatises on letter-writing also begin to appear in English libraries, with particular preference for Italian works, an emphasis probably fostered by Henry III's political adventures in that country. In the third phase, from 1350-1450, the native English production of artes dictaminis flourishes, especially at Oxford, where both university grammar masters and private teachers taught letter-writing and wrote textbooks for their pupils. Camargo finds that the manuals of university masters favor presenting the ars dictaminis as an exercise of rhetoric regarded as one of the liberal arts, often emphasizing style (following French precedents). The private teachers treat letter-writing much more practically (in the manner of many Italian authorities) as a companion craft to the skills of accounting or bill-collecting that they also taught. After this time the teaching of the ars dictaminis at Oxford declined, probably due to the advent of new humanist rhetorical ideals and the incorporation of letter-writing into the training offered at the Inns of Court in London.

A brief section on Editorial Procedures (35-6) explains the procedures used in preparing the five texts offered in this volume:

1) Peter of Blois (attrib.), Libellus de arte dictandi rhetorice (ca. 1181-1185), edited from Cambridge University Library MS Dd.9.38 (C), fols. 115ra-121ra (37-87). A very comprehensive and (perhaps for that reason) uninfluential work by one of the first English authors in this field.

2) John of Briggis, Compilacio de arte dictandi (late fourteenth century), edited from Bodleian Library, MS Douce 52, fols. 82v-88v (88-104). The loosely organized and very electic notebook, devoted chiefly to style, of an Oxford grammar master.

3) Thomas Merke, Formula moderni et usitati dictaminis (ca. 1390), edited from 11 English MSS (105-47). A highly organized, fairly comprehensive, and obviously popular text by this university master (later bishop of Carlisle), best- known as a favorite of Richard II.

4) Thomas Sampson, Modus dictandi (1396), edited from British Library, MS Royal 10B.9, fols. 424-48r (148-168). A typical work, consisting mainly of glossed examples, by this highly prolific Oxford teacher, who ran his own school for boys and men seeking instruction in practical subjects such as accounting, French, and even heraldry.

5) Simon O. (attrib.), Regina sedens Rhetorica (ca. 1400-1425), edited from three English MSS (169-219). Clearly the work of an Oxford teacher following French traditions, this text presents all its doctrine through allegorical personifications in a florid style.

For each treatise Camargo provides a full introduction describing its manuscript witnesses, text, author, and contents. Following each work is a complete Apparatus criticus and detailed notes regarding important terms, personages, or doctrines from the text. Medieval Rhetorics of Prose Composition concludes with a Glossary (222-33) of unusual Latin terms and spellings; a Bibliography (234-46) listing all primary and secondary works cited in the introductions and notes; and an Index (247-56) with entries for numerous technical terms, many of the authors cited, and a full list of the situations treated in the treatises' numerous model letters (e.g. "woman asks sister's help in evading an arranged marriage"). In short, Camargo has given these texts the fullest possible editorial treatment, carefully synthesizing nearly two decades of his own work in this field. The result is a resource of great value for scholars in literary, intellectual, and social history alike. It should serve as an admirable example and provocative stimulus for further research on the use, status, and influence of the ars dictaminis in late medieval culture.