Roger Wright

title.none: Law, Grammar and grammarians in the Early Middle Ages (Wright)

identifier.other: baj9928.9801.006 98.01.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Roger Wright, Department of Hispanic Studies, University of Liverpool,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Law, Vivien. Grammar and Grammarians in the Early Middle Ages. London: Longman, 1997. Pp. xiv, 305. $41.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-582-21294-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.01.06

Law, Vivien. Grammar and Grammarians in the Early Middle Ages. London: Longman, 1997. Pp. xiv, 305. $41.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-582-21294-4.

Reviewed by:

Roger Wright
Department of Hispanic Studies, University of Liverpool

Academic life now requires every scholar to publish as often as is feasible, which means that it is all but impossible for an academic to produce a book of previously unpublished material. A good way around this restriction, and one used recently by a number of practitioners in Early Medieval Language studies, is to produce a collection of already published articles on a theme, reshaped where necessary for coherence. Vivien Law's book on Grammar and Grammarians in the Early Middle Ages comes into this category; and it works well despite its part-recycled nature, for it is organized into five thematically coherent sections with valuable brief updated introductions (which contain many of the most penetrating observations of the whole book, in the event). The focus is strictly on grammars throughout. Despite her admirable insistence on seeing all writers in chronological context, and on knowing who came before who as far as we can, the thematic ordering in the volume is not in fact chronological, which can be confusing (as when chapter 10 on Aelfric is followed by chapter 11 on Vergilius Maro). This book is thus not a rival to Martin Irvine's valuable The Making of Textual Culture: "Grammatica" and Literary Theory, 350-1100, but complementary. Vivien Law's book shows a magnificent grasp of technical and codicological detail, as well as the nuts and bolts of grammar, and concentrates largely on the British Isles, and the adventures of British scholars abroad (such as Boniface, or those who worked in Charlemagne's realms). Of course, she knows a great deal about Donatus, Priscian, Isidore, Julian of Toledo, etc., but their importance within this perspective lies in the way they are used in the Anglo-Saxon and Irish context rather than in their original milieu, and to this extent the title of the book is rather misleading. Not everything of importance in the field as a whole is British, and one day it would be illuminating to see her study of (for example) the Visigothic scholars on their own soil. Many of the studies show the way in which a tradition of the study of Latin as a native language was developed in the particular circumstances of the British Isles into a tradition of the study of Latin as a foreign language, which was ultimately transported by first the Carolingian and then the Twelfth- Century Renaissance into Romance-speaking Europe as well, until eventually Latin became a foreign language for all. They also show how essential it is for modern editors to publish texts as they are without any emendation.

The first section here is entitled "Historiography and Methodology." Chapter 1, "The Historiography of Grammar in the Early Middle Ages" justifies the study of the topic, and since the intellectual primacy of grammar in that period is so well known, maybe most readers of The Medieval Review will be tempted to skip it; but it is worth reading, if only to appreciate the extraordinary number of other reasons scholars have had for studying these works (other than a direct interest in the grammars themselves, that is). Besides, many insights need continual repetition anyway; in particular, the fact that originality was thought to be a defect rather than a virtue, such that part of the enterprising linguist's technique was to ferret out words in authoritative sources that expressed what he wanted to say himself. This has the important consequence, which Law could perhaps have stressed more than she does, that even if we find the same form of words used in two authors, it does not follow that the two authors meant the same thing by them (Alcuin and Isidore would be a good pair to investigate in this light). Chapter 2 gives us "Notes on the Dating and Attribution of Anonymous Latin Grammars of the Early Middle Ages" (first published in 1982; the same year as her excellent The Insular Latin Grammarians). The conclusion, reached after detailed argumentation, is that everything we may have thought about dating and localizing grammarians rests on shakier foundations than we may have realized, particularly since grammars are so often preserved in copies made many miles and many years away from the home of their original author; but also that the works of the linguistic scholars in mainland Britain have probably been undervalued, and those in Ireland overvalued, during the last few years: "it is, after all, blatantly false that the Irish were the only people in Europe with an interest in grammar in the seventh and eighth centuries: the named works of this period come from Spain and England" (44).

The second section is entitled "Cultural Transfer: Ancient Grammar in the British Isles." The brief introduction makes the central point clearly; grammars of the Later Roman Empire had been made by and for native speakers, mainly in order to help the student understand and appreciate great literature of the past, and were thus "far from ideally suited" to native speakers of other languages such as the Germanic and Celtic. Chapter 3 covers "Late Latin Grammars in the Early Middle Ages: A Typological History," where the grammars are divided into two types, "the Schulgrammatik type and the regulae type" (54). This distinction is made several times in the book (although "the boundary between descriptive and theoretical grammars was not as rigid as I have portrayed it here," 120): the first type of grammar was theoretically systematic, going through the parts of speech, and the second type essentially includes lists of paradigms, often giving "the impression of being reference works intended for consultation." Indeed, several are likely to have been in origin such reference works, compiled over a number of years by practising pedagogues; one such work which is not examined in this book -- along, unfortunately, with all other works with the same title -- is the De Orthographia of Bede, surely the most misleadingly named work of the period. Insular grammarians thus "showed themselves prepared to become innovators in response to contemporary needs" (58), and, as Law points out, the change in the nature of the grammar's recipient is not only from native-speaking student to foreign language-learner, but one that coincides with the increasing Christianization of literacy, a development that Vivien Law valiantly refrains from passing judgment on (unlike Michael Richter, whose recent works have seen this development as a cultural disaster). Donatus continued as the basis for linguistic study after the Carolingian renovatio as well; but in the ninth century Priscian's Institutiones came to be added to the curriculum as the textbook for higher- level linguistics, and the tradition of seeing Latin as a foreign language even in Romance-speaking areas was set. Alcuin's school at Tours was instrumental in this development, as in others, and "few, if any, pre- Carolingian grammars retained their popularity beyond c.850" (111). It might have been worth stressing further that Priscian had been writing for Greek-speakers in Constantinople, but for already educated speakers (probably with a knowledge of Greek linguistics), with the consequence that his approach was helpful for more advanced foreign-learners, but would have been baffling at initial levels. "As for works on grammar that were not intended for school use, scholarly works of a theoretical orientation such as those of Varro, Palaemon, Terentius Scaurus, Pliny's De Dubio Sermone, they had little chance of survival" (64).

Chapter 4, "Linguistics in the Earlier Middle Ages: The Insular and Carolingian Grammarians," once again shows a desire to defend the interest of the subject against uninformed modern criticism, and a demonstration of the changing nature of the genre. Vivien Law's historical instinct, and ability to see how the genre changes over time, is exceptional (there are still scholars who refer to "Vulgar Latin" out of any context, for example, as if it was the same in Plautus's day and in Charlemagne's). One comment probably deserves further thought, though: "As has often been remarked ... an Italian or Spaniard who had studied no grammar would write bad Latin: and Irishman or Anglo-Saxon without grammar could write no Latin at all" (75). The first part of this strikes me as misleading (and not only because the words "Italian" and "Spaniard" are anachronistic): inhabitants of the Italian or Iberian peninsula at that time would not write at all if they had not been taught any grammar; nobody can write their native language, even badly, without instruction. Even writing "bad Latin" was a considerable feat, only achievable after much teaching. Vivien Law's conclusion to this chapter is worth repeating: grammarians are not all the same. "If we were to characterise linguistic studies in the earlier Middle Ages, how would we do it? We would have to say at once that generalisation is impossible" (85).

Chapter 5 concerns "The Study of Latin Grammar in Eighth- century Southumbria" (originally 1983), on which she is bullish. Aldhelm is the main focus of this chapter, and is thought to have been already Latinate before 669; "That Theodore and Hadrian immediately found an appreciative audience implies that background training, adequate to enable the students to benefit from the more advanced instruction they offered, had been available for a sufficient period to permit the formation of a nucleus of literate and reasonably well-read men" (92); well, perhaps, but not necessarily. Men who wanted to be "literate and reasonably well-read" would have sufficed. Intelligent and motivated pupils can pick up a good reading knowledge of a new language in a few months, and there is no need to downplay Aldhelm's time as a pupil of Hadrian (even though she may well be right to do so, and has a fine passage of detective work on what he might have studied there). Aldhelm's work is also a useful source for reconstructing Visigothic pedagogical materials, of which he seems to have had a special supply. Indeed, his perspicacity in this respect is reinforced by the fact that "Aldhelm seems not to have consulted the Etymologiae for grammatical or metrical information, although he used the work heavily elsewhere in his oeuvre" (101), since the Etymologiae is not, and does not contain, a grammar. Vivien Law also here advertises the merits of the Ars Asporii, of which she has been such a capable proponent. Tatwine and Boniface are given a thoughtful comparative investigation, with the initially surprising indication that on the whole they do not have many common sources.

Section 3, "Grammar and Dialectic: the Carolingian Contribution," begins with "The Study of Grammar Under the Carolingians" (Chapter 6), which expands the detail of many topics touched on previously, such as Alcuin's interest in Priscian, and introduces others, such as Smaragdus's skillful use of Biblical authority for linguistic prescriptions. The brief Chapter 7, "Carolingian Grammarians and Theoretical Innovation," also seems partly repetitious in this context, but successfully makes its main point, that the grammatical renaissance often now attributed to the eleventh and twelfth centuries in fact began in the ninth (not to mention "the stuff of generative grammar and cognitive semantics," 161).

Section 4, "Grammarians at Work," first considers Boniface ("An Early Medieval Grammarian on Grammar: Wynfreth- Boniface and the Praefatio ad Sigibertum," Chapter 8), comparing what he did with what he said he was doing, and including an edition and English translation of this Praefatio. This illuminating account shows Boniface to be more intelligent and practical than he is usually given credit for. He also stars in the brief Chapter 9, "Grammars and Language Change: An Eighth- century Case," a paper originally given to one of the series of International Late and Vulgar Latin conferences; it would be useful if more Grammatica-specialists could come to these, for the interaction can be fruitful, as this little study shows. Chapter 10 presents "Aelfric's Excerptiones de arte grammatica anglice," and once again she allows the reader to see the grammarian refreshingly as a real human being rather than as a mere name appended to decontextualized texts. Aelfric is doing what many others have done over the centuries: "the filtering-down of doctrine originally at the forefront of research to the most elementary pedagogical levels" (206) ... "Aelfric came close to achieving an introduction to Latin perfectly geared to the needs of the native speaker of English" (211).

Then we move into the unfathomable; Chapter 11 is "Learning to Read with the oculi mentis: The Word- play of Virgilius Maro Grammaticus." Since the first appearance of this article, Vivien Law has produced a remarkable book on this author: Wisdom, Authority and Grammar in the Seventh Century: Decoding Virgilius Maro Grammaticus (Cambridge, University Press, 1995) which seems to have left most people working in the field even more unsure of what to think than before; is Vergilius Maro making a serious philosophical point behind all the humour? The work of Borges, a modern spiritual counterpart of Vergilius Maro (Vivien Law reasonably suggests Umberto Eco for that role), demonstrates that a pedantic sense of humour can be thought to be worth cultivating for its own sake; that would be at least a possible answer to the question "He was unquestionably a good and sensible teacher when he wanted to be; so how can we account for the outlandish aspects of his doctrine?" (230). There is no reason to think that all students were lacking in a sense of humour then, any more than they are now, but Law has shown clearly that this is not the only possible interpretation. She repeatedly compares his work to Book X of the Etymologiae, which is a further reason to hope that she will shortly turn attention to Isidore himself.

Section 5, "Ideas about Language," includes a new chapter, Chapter 12, "From Aural to Visual: Medieval Representations of the Word," with useful and illuminating manuscript reproductions to show, for example, how paradigms were laid out at different times; Chapter 13, "The Terminology of Medieval Latin Grammar," should perhaps have come at the start. There is, finally, a large Bibliography.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts; it shows how much is known about the individual grammarians, in particular in the British Isles, but also how much more research of a basic kind that there is waiting to be done. This is certainly not a closed area of research, and interested students looking for doctoral topics could do worse than follow up some of the many loose ends explicitly indicated here. There is always a real pleasure to be had in reading the work of a scholar who is in control of a complex field, and this is no exception.