04.01.23, Black, Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy

Main Article Content

Davd Marsh

The Medieval Review baj9928.0401.023


Black, Robert. Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy: Tradition and Innovation in Latin Schools from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xv, 489. ISBN: 0-521-40192-5.

Reviewed by:
Davd Marsh
Rutgers University

Based on an impressive array of codicological evidence, this is a major study that will change our views of Italian education in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Robert Black is the author of books on the humanist chancellor Benedetto Accolti and on education in Arezzo; and he is co-author of studies of Renaissance comedy in Siena, and of the role of Boethius's "Consolation" in medieval and Renaissance schools..

Chapter 1, "Italian Renaissance education: an historiographical perspective," reviews twentieth-century interpretations of late medieval education. Black describes the Crocean positivism of pioneers like Sabbadini, the "humanistic" interpretation of Garin, and the reaction of Grafton and Jardine against what they perceive as the elitism of classical training. In Black's view, all of these scholars lend too much credence to Quattrocento propaganda, when in fact even humanist education was predominantly "philological" (grammatical) rather than moral.

Chapter 2, "The elementary school curriculum in medieval and Renaissance Italy: traditional methods and developing texts," outlines what we know about elementary Latin instruction from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, with particular emphasis on the evolution of Ianua, a twelfth-century reduction of Priscian which was later modified and simplified in numerous versions.

Chapter 3, "The secondary grammar curriculum," describes more advanced Latin instruction, and stresses the importance of twelfth-century French logicians in rethinking the basis concepts and terminology of Latin grammar and syntax. Their reforms inspired to the two most influential grammars in verse--Alexander of Villedieu's Doctrinale (1199) and Evrard de Bethune's Graecismus (1212)--which in turn served as models for the prose grammars of Pietro da Isolella, Tebaldo, and Francesco da Buti, among others. By the early fourteenth century, moreover, Italian schoolmasters began to use the vernacular in teaching Latin.

Strikingly, Black characterizes the Quattrocento as an "era of failed reform" (124). He notes, for example, that Guarino of Verona's Regule remained quite traditional, and served merely as an introduction to the Doctrinale. While a few educators like Niccolo Perotti introduced some new material, and Pomponio Leto sacrificed coherence to innovation, most schoolmasters used or recycled existing manuals. If we hold the erroneous view that medieval grammars disappeared during the Quattrocento, this is the result of humanist polemics which in fact could not dislodge manuals whose utility survived well into the age of print.

Chapter 4, "Latin authors in medieval and Renaissance Italian schools: the story of a canon," exhaustively reviews what we know about the role of Latin authors in the schoolroom from late antiquity to the fifteenth century. Although monastic education initially threatened to eliminate "pagan" texts, they were gradually reinstated by the Carolingian revival and subsequent reforms. As Black's detailed listings of manuscripts indicates--the chapter is nearly 100 pages in length--it was only in the latter half of the Quattrocento that humanist educators began to reject medieval compilations in their more advanced teaching.

By tabulating and describing specific manuscripts, Black argues for general trends in schoolroom practice which may be summarized as follows. During the twelfth century, there was indeed a sort of "Renaissance," while the rise of universities in the thirteenth century apparently caused schoolmasters to scale down the use of Latin classics. (Scholars like Dante read the classics on their own, not in schools.) The fourteenth century saw the introduction of various "new" poetic texts, like Ovid's Metamorphoses; but Cicero was largely supplanted by Boethius. In the fifteenth century, Black finds more continuity than innovation in elementary instruction, and he rejects as naive the claims of Garin and Grendler that the humanists effected a pedagogical revolution. At the same time, humanist educators seem to have re-established major authors like Cicero and Virgil, and discarded texts like Boethius's Consolation. By the arrival of printing in Italy in the 1460s, humanist preferences seem to predominate.

Chapter 5, "Reading Latin authors in medieval and Renaissance Italian schools" examines the kind of notes students entered in their manuscripts, transcribing numerous comments on grammar, rhetoric, history, mythology, philosophy. Black adds some specific remarks on the teaching of Boethius's Consolation, on which he and Gabriella Pomaro have published a separate study (Florence, 2000). As universities became more specialized, Black maintains, lower school tended to explicate even philosophical texts like Boethius in a more purely grammatical fashion.

Chapter 6, "Rhetoric and style in the school grammar syllabus," examines how students learned the finer points of Latin prose. Various grammars derived from pseudo-Cicero's Ad Herennium, as well as the immensely popular Geoffrey of Vinsauf's Poetria Nova (1208-1213), largely served in Italy to teach prose composition. During the Quattrocento, the study of epistolography shifted from the traditional ars dictaminis to the example of Cicero's letters. Yet even Perotti and Dati, whose grammars appeared in over 100 incunabula, owed a debt to Geoffrey of Vinsauf, whose Poetria Nova was not printed until 1721!

In his "Conclusion," Black observes that "it was at the upper levels of the grammar syllabus that the humanists were able to operate with greater effect" (367).

There are four Appendices: "BL Harley 2653: the earliest known manuscript of 'Ianua,'" "A handlist of manuscripts of Ianua," "Manuscripts of Tebaldo's Regule," and "Handlist of manuscripts of school authors."

The entire study demonstrates an extraordinary command of sources both primary and secondary. And with the exception of some gray prose in the Introduction, Black writes clearly and forcefully while marshaling vast amounts of documentation. In sum, this is a work that nicely balances Grendler's Schooling in Renaissance Italy, and one which will remain definitive for many years.

Article Details

Author Biography

Davd Marsh

Rutgers University