Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.02.22


Martin Irvine, The Making of Textual Culture: 'Grammatica' and Literary Theory, 350 - 1100. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 19. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. Pp. xix + 604.


Reviewed by Gernot Wieland, University of British Columbia.

In his Introduction Irvine states that his book "is an attempt to describe the larger function of 'grammatica' in early medieval literary culture," and he intends "to disclose the broad social effects of the discipline and to recover the social and intellectual agenda that lies behind the often bewildering mass of sources" (p. 1). He actually does more than that: he traces the development of "grammatica" from its Greek origins (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics) through its adaptation by the Romans (e.g. Suetonius, Varro, Quintilian) to the Middle Ages, and demonstrates how grammatica was a relatively stable discipline, a long-lived and an all-pervasive one. This pervasiveness can be felt in the exegesis of a Clement of Alexandria or an Origen, in the Benedictine Rule or in the works of Gregory the Great, and in encyclopedic works such as Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae. It is also felt in the establishment of a Christian canon formed by the works of authors such as Arator, Sedulius, Juvencus, and Prudentius. It takes root in Anglo-Saxon England (e.g. grammars by Bede or Boniface) and in Carolingian Francia (e.g. Alcuin). It creates its own type of manuscript, namely the compilatio, in which artes and/or auctores are grouped together. And it even influences the very lay-out of manuscripts in which grammatical texts appear with their interpretational frames in the form of glosses. And finally, it transcends linguistic boundaries, shaping much of Old English literature. As this precis indicates Irvine's book is encyclopedic in its broad sweep from Greek antiquity to the eleventh century and in its examination of many more grammarians than have been mentioned above. He is doubtless correct in claiming that grammatica, by being the custodian not only of the ratio recte scribendi et loquendi but also of the scientia interpretandi, shaped, and was intimately linked with, the works of the canonical auctores. He is also correct in demonstrating that the close link between Vergil and the late imperial grammarians provided the model for the Christian grammatica, which in turn led to the retention of Vergil as the authority on correct Latin even in Christian authors. I shall not even try to do justice to all the arguments in Irvine's 604 page book; suffice it to say that his overall contention of grammatica's all-pervasiveness is well documented and persuasively argued. The book certainly succeeds in lifting grammatica from its relative obscurity and assigning it a more prominent place in European intellectual history than it has hitherto occupied.

Unfortunately, though, whereas Irvine's overall argument can be complimented, many of the details must be criticized. It is ironic that a book in praise of the ratio recte scribendi et loquendi should have so many violations against both English and Latin orthography, and that it does not always construe its Latin correctly. Let me give a few examples, first for English orthography: "postioning" for "positioning" on p. 41, "in such as way" for "in such a way" on p. 97, "decendants" for "descendants" on p. 163, "dissention" for "dissension" on p. 182, "complied" for "compiled" on p. 197, "elegaic" for "elegiac" on p. 290, "catlogue" for "catalogue" on p. 340, "the principle works" for "the principal works" on p. 393 and many more. Latin does not fare any better: "aliqem" for "aliquem" on p. 64, "huis" for "huius" on p. 65, "cuisque" for "cuiusque" on p. 66, "Litturaturae" for "Litteraturae" on p. 67, "tenius" for "tenuis" on p. 124, "verteris" for "veteris" on p. 147, "palingensia" for "palingenesia" on p. 151, "proprietatum" for "proprietatem" on p. 185, "distinctionum" for "distinctionem" on p. 224, and many more. On p. 420 Boethius' well-known work shows up as De consolatio philosophiae, and on p. 514, note 14 Aldhelm's work as De laudibus virginitate. On p. 407 Irvine produces two lines of hexameters attributed to Dunstan; a comparison with plate 20 on p. 408 shows that Irvine's "Tenerias" should be changed to "Tenarias" and his "sorbisse" to "sorbsisse." And surely the grammar of DINAMIVS GRAMMATICVS AD DISCIPVLVS SVVM AIT on p. 348 cannot be right.

Carelessness of this type spills over into translations as well. On p. 139, for instance, Irvine translates "qui semper tempestatibus turbinibusque volvuntur" as "who are always turning affairs by the right times and fortune's wheel" rather than as "who are always tossed by storms and anxieties." Or, on p. 201, he translates "ut ieiuniorum necessitate conclusi, Creatoris subdantur imperio" as "that the closing off of daily needs by necessity are [sic] subject to the power of the Creator" rather than as "so that, constrained by the necessity of fasting, they become subject to the power of the Creator." Or, to give one final example, "in quo libro primum nobis dicendum est de arte grammatica" (p. 205) is translated as "in the first book we must discuss 'ars grammatica'" rather than as "in this book we must first discuss 'ars grammatica.'" True, these errors do not topple Irvine's broad argument, but they do provide constant irritants, especially since they are grammatical errors.

There are other irritants as well. Much of the book is written in the now fashionable Derridean-Foucauldean jargon. In itself this would be acceptable if either the statements therein contained were proven or if terms were clearly defined. On p. 2, for instance, he writes: "'grammatica' also created a special kind of literate subjectivity, an identity and social position for 'litterati' which was consistently gendered as masculine and socially empowered." What does "socially empowered" mean? Vergil, we can assume, was "socially empowered" through his proximity to Augustus, Alcuin through his to Charlemagne, and Asser through his to Alfred. But what of a Bede? How much social power did the monk of Wearmouth and Jarrow wield? Did social empowerment help the hapless Boethius escape his prison? And if the anonymous author of Ad Cuimnanum was socially empowered, how come we do not even know his name? The statement is made, but neither a definition of the term "socially empowered" nor proof that all "litterati" actually were socially empowered is offered. On pp. 53 and 54 Irvine unwittingly even gives a counterexample; there he speaks about the grammarian Palaemon who "became wealthy through both teaching and business investments," and contrasts him to the other grammatici "who at this time ordinarily relied on a very modest income from tuition fees." Where in this "very modest income" is the social empowerment?

On p. 162 Irvine claims: "Early medieval monastic and cathedral centers became the dominant textual communities, the growth, power, and authority of which was sustained by 'grammatica.'" The first part of the sentence can easily be accepted, but not the second part. Did patronage not play a role in the "growth, power, and authority" of monasteries or cathedral centers? Is it not that grammatica could only flourish because secular patronage had provided power and authority to these places? Most legends narrating the founding of monasteries mention as the first salient fact the grant of land by a nobleman or a king; it is this economic basis which sustains the "growth, power, and authority" of the communities, not grammatica. Grammatica itself is an expression and an outgrowth of this economic base, and will, along with the economic base, periodically vanish.

In attempting to show the continuity of grammatica from Greek to medieval times, Irvine leaves certain large gaps in his argument. He is entirely persuasive in showing that imperial power, grammatica, and Vergil's works combined in creating a literary canon in which Vergil's works had "scriptural status" and which provided a justification for imperial rule. He is similarly persuasive when he argues that once Christianity was established as the Roman state religion, it displaced Vergil's works in favour of the Bible, but retained grammatica and its ideological fervour. What he does not make clear, however, is the mechanism by which one canon (Vergil's works) was replaced by another (the Bible). Canons, by their nature, are exclusive and conservative. How then can grammatica, the custodian of the canon, accept new canonical works? If a new canon can grow up in the shadow of the old, then it would seem that grammatica's social power is much more limited than Irvine would have us believe. Christianity, to be sure, does take advantage of grammatica once it is established, but despite grammatica's supposed "social empowerment" it plays no, or only a minor, role in establishing the new religion.

The other gap concerns the tradition from which the new canonical works, i.e. the Old and New Testaments, grow. Even before the Bible was subjected to the interpretational practices of grammatica, it had been interpreted by Jewish scholars, and in Christ's parables and some of Paul's letters it carried its own key to interpretation with it. At the very least one must admit that Jewish interpretational techniques, Christ's own interpretations of his parables, and Paul's instructions for interpretation do not arise from grammatica, but rather that they alter grammatica. Irvine, to be sure, briefly mentions the Jewish school at Nisibis (p. 196), which Cassiodorus wanted to rival by establishing a school in Rome, but we do not find out why he wanted to rival it, nor in what relation it stood to grammatica. Nor do we find out in what relationship Christ's interpretation of his parables and Paul's statements stand to grammatica.

Irvine has done scholars of the Middle Ages a tremendous service by providing, on pp. 395-404, a handlist of "compilations of artes and auctores." The descriptions leading up to this very useful handlist, however, are not always models of careful analysis. On pp. 348-9, for instance, speaking about Vatican Pal. lat. 1746, he claims: "The concluding sequence of artes (items 9-13 ...) represent a distinctively Insular corpus and indicate an Anglo-Saxon line of textual transmission." Items 9-13 are "9. Julian of Toledo, Ars grammatica; 10. Tatwine, Ars grammatica; 11. Julian of Toledo, Ars grammatica; 12. Ars Asporii; 13. Boniface, Ars grammatica." Irvine's statement can be accepted as far as Boniface and Tatwine are concerned, but the majority of the authors seem to be non-Insular; and does Julian of Toledo's work really appear twice in the concluding section?

Irvine argues that "a compilation implied a synthesis of knowledge and authority, open to reinterpretation and rearrangement in each concrete instance of a text's use" (p. 346). This certainly seems to be true of many compilations, but the "synthesis of knowledge and authority" is open to question when, as in the Vatican manuscript mentioned above, the same text is bound twice into the same collection. Naples, B.N. IV.A.34, another compilation, counts as item #7 "Agroecius, De orthographia" and exactly the same text as item # 18; and it repeats item # 14 "Maximus Victorinus, De finalibus metrorum" in item # 21. How does the duplication of a text help the "synthesis of knowledge and authority?" It would rather seem to indicate that an originally much slimmer compilation was expanded with the addition of grammatical texts, regardless of whether these texts were in the manuscript already or not. And because of the duplication we can conclude that the compilation was mechanical and automatic and not in order to achieve a "synthesis of knowlege."

On pp. 371 ff. Irvine makes the observation that grammatical texts are encoded with special significance by different scripts for text and gloss, by decorated letters, and by the page lay-out. He says, for instance, "the type of script in which a text appears thus provides an irreducible first context of reception and interpretation for a text" (p. 383), and what he says here of script also holds true for decorated initials and page lay-out. This seems entirely convincing until one actually examines manuscripts containing the same text. Thus we find Prudentius' Psychomachia with glosses and illustrations in a manuscript such as Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 23, but without glosses and without illustrations in a manuscript such as Bodleian, Rawlinson C 697, and with glosses but without illustrations in a manuscript such as Cambridge, University Library Gg.5.35. How "irreducible" is the context? Irvine is quite right in saying that decoration, script (and hence glosses), and lay-out are signifiers of one sort or another, but he needs to tell us what it means when one and the same text appears with or without these signifiers. Does the canonical status of the text suffer when these signifiers are absent? Is their social authority diminished in any way? Why?

On p. 384 Irvine claims that interlinear glosses are concerned with lectio, i.e. with lexical, syntactic, and metrical aids for reading, while marginal glosses are concerned with enarratio, i.e. with aspects of content and meaning. The distinction is so neat that it cannot be correct, and a quick glance at the plates on pp. 373-82 show that they are not. The marginal glosses of Auctarium F.3.6 on p. 380, for instance, contain the description of the saphire which "est ceruleus cum purpuraque [sic] refulgens aureos sparsos," while the interlinear gloss above "saphirum" reads: "est lapis erei coloris." Neither of these glosses belongs to lectio, but one is interlinear, the other marginal. Irvine's neat categorization breaks down. He would be right if he said that marginal glosses "usually" are concerned with enarratio and that interlinear glosses "usually" are concerned with lectio, but the modifier is omitted in favour of a categorical statement.

Readers of the book may be irritated by its unexplained Anglo-centrism. The Carolingian period merits no more than 28 pages (pp. 305-33), and most of that (pp. 313-33) is given over to a discussion of Alcuin, while the Anglo-Saxon period is privileged with 55 pages (pp. 405-460). Did the Carolingians not contribute anything of merit? The answer lies in the above-mentioned handlist, in which the great majority of manuscripts come from Carolingian centres; only 13 of 109 grammatica manuscripts originate from England, a figure which puts the Anglo-Saxon contribution into perspective. And while it is undoubtedly true that England was one of the first countries to have an extensive vernacular literature which was to a large extent based on grammatica, it is irresponsible to ignore the Old Saxon Genesis, or the Heliand, both of which owe their existence to Carolingian grammatica.

As a result of the Anglo-centrism Alfred's translations from the Latin are given great prominence, and Irvine argues that "Alfred invokes the assumptions and values of grammatica and transfers them to a written English culture" (p. 417). The problem with this statement lies in Irvine's own definition of grammatica: both artes and auctores form the discipline, and while Alfred's knowledge of the artes is implicit in his translations, he seems to pay very little attention to the auctores. Of his translations only Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae can be considered "grammatical" in Irvine's sense, while Augustine's Soliloquies, Gregory's Pastoral Care or his Dialogues, or Orosius' History all lie outside the canon of grammatica. All one need do is check the handlist to see whether Augustine, Gregory or Orosius appear there. They emphatically do not.

I have treated the faults of the book at greater length than its undoubted merits. I have done so because the book deserves a detailed criticism. Many of Irvine's ideas are new and provocative; many of them are correct. Irvine challenges us to think of grammatica in a new way, he brings it in from the margins to the centre, and he convinces us that it merits this central place. Unfortunately, at the same time he undermines his larger discourse with errors of detail and grammar, and inevitably in this Derridean universe the margin (=errors) takes its place in the centre (of this critical essay).