Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.10.23

Vivien Law, Wisdom, Authority and Grammar in the Seventh Century: Decoding Virgilius Maro Grammaticus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pp. 170. $49.95. ISBN 0-521-47113-3.

Reviewed by James E.G. Zetzel, Columbia University (

The Roman ars grammatica is, for the most part, not a source of great delight to the modern reader. The methods of instruction used are extremely traditional and fairly relentless: progressing from letter to syllable to word, from the parts of speech to barbarism and solecism, books like those of Donatus or Diomedes or the string of commentaries on Donatus that stretches from late antiquity through the ninth century and beyond are serious and functional works. The grammatical tradition may be made to yield fascinating insights into the social world of late antique education, as Robert Kaster has done in Guardians of Language, but in themselves the texts, for the most part, are anything but fascinating, and the few exceptions to the constant morphological didacticism -- at the beginning of the tradition, the curious archaisms collected by Julius Romanus and included in his grammar by Charisius, and at the end the extensive discussion of syntax based on the Greek grammatical tradition in Priscian -- are of great interest precisely because of their rarity. For the most part, however, then as now, grammar is -- grammar.

Within the predictable medieval tradition of grammatical works based on, or commenting on, Donatus' artes, however, one author stands out for sheer strangeness, the mysterius Virgilius Maro, who was probably Irish and probably writing in the middle of the seventh century. His Epitomae and Epistolae are formally based on the ars maior and ars minor of Donatus; but within that framework, everything is unexpected. Virgilius makes up words; the authorities he cites are either fictitious (at least, both unknown and improbable) or endowed with works or statements that could not possibly be theirs; instead of the normal austere and tedious lists of forms, there are reminiscences, conversations, and debates. Terrentius and Galbungus are found arguing for fourteen days and nights over the vocative of ego; there are two lists (which do not match one another) of the twelve kinds of Latin, of which only one is that familiar to the average student of the language; the history of the grammarians begins with a Donatus -- which would be at least some link to the normal grammatical tradition, if Virgilius' Donatus had not come from Troy to Rome, known Romulus, and lived for a thousand years.

What is one to make of an author like this? For a long time, it was thought that Virgilius' oddity was the result of sheer ignorance, that he was a benighted figure of the dark ages who did not understand the grammatical tradition at all. Paul Lehmann then proposed an alternative explanation, that the work is a parody of the grammatical tradition, a far more appealing approach. In this brief study of Virgilius, Vivien Law, an expert on the medieval grammatical tradition, attempts to go further, to argue that beneath the lunatic and parodic exterior lurks a serious purpose, that Virgilius is offering a concealed plea for multiplicity and plurality, a hidden revolt against the increasing dogmatism and narrowness of the early medieval church.

Law argues that the works of Virgilius are both too long and too complex to be simply parody, and that the unusual mixture of traditions and genres within his works suggests that he is concerned with more than just grammar. In her first chapter, she gives examples of the extraordinary allusiveness of his language: his plays on the meaning of names drawn from St. Jerome's exegesis of biblical names, his oblique references to the church fathers and to the grammatical tradition. She also draws attention to his inventions of technical terminology: vidare is coined from videre to indicate the difference between seeing with the mind's eye and normal ocular vision; fonum is used to indicate the word as a formal unit as opposed to verbum, the word as a semantic unit, and quassum is similarly distinguished from sententia. She concludes from this (21) that Virgilius is a serious metalinguistic thinker and -- from the fact that Virgilius uses these distinctions consistently without ever making two of the three explicit -- that the reader is supposed to find such hidden distinctions a sign that there is further meaning hidden in the text.

To find that hidden meaning, Law turns in the succeeding chapters to the traditions of wisdom literature. Virgilius, she points out in Chapter 2, is preoccupied with wisdom, and indeed his first chapter, instead of being "De Voce" as in Donatus, is "De Sapientia". She rightly emphasizes the importance of wisdom in many popular forms of medieval literature (e.g. riddles, the Disticha Catonis, and the like), and the concern with the nature of divine wisdom and our access to it in theological literature as well. Of particular importance are Virgilius' constant references to cosmology and to creation, which appear not only in his own voice, but in his quotations from some eleven different "sources". He is also concerned, as she shows in Chapter 3, with avarice as an obstacle to the acquisition of wisdom. In Chapter 4, she relates this material to the ecclesiastical controversies about the means of acquiring wisdom, and to the growing dogmatism that required individuals to see in the teaching of the church the sole source of truth and wisdom. "To speak in the seventh century of a plurality of routes to the truth, to stress the power of the individual to attain wisdom by his own efforts, was to challenge the position adopted by the Western Church" (49). But Virgilius, as Law shows, emphasizes in his teaching the themes of plurality and difference, the various types of wisdom, and the importance of filosophia; he is less interested in the transmission of a fixed doctrine than in the nature of man himself.

An instance of Virgilius' indifference to church doctrine is discussed in Chapter 5. By the seventh century, ecclesiastical dogma in the west had settled on an analysis of the human being as bipartite, divided into body and soul; the alternative (which became viewed as heretical) was tripartite -- body, soul, and spirit. Law argues that Virgilius uses both types of division, and that his use, in his discussion of "celestial Latin" in Epit. 15, of his own coinage spiridon (he never uses spiritus) for the spirit is a covert plea for doctrinal multiplicity. She further argues that the use of the symbols of fire and sun -- one of the lists of Latins is entirely based on the word ignis -- is extremely important in Virgilius, and links him with a whole set of esoteric traditions. "All Virgilius' preoccupations -- intellectual pluralism, seeing with the mind's eye, the fire of the spirit, the sustained effort needed to reach one's goal -- are shared with the traditional paths of inner development" (76).

Following this statement of her major thesis, Law argues (Ch. 6) that the Epistolae are in part evidence for Virgilius' dismay that his covert message of plurality in the Epitomae was not understood or not well received, and is made more explicit in Epist. 3, while the inconsistent views he expresses in the Epistolae on the theme of authority are meant to undermine the very notion of authority itself. She then turns in Chapter 7 to one of the central features of Virgilius' style and argument, his outrageous language, and links it to the traditional need to conceal mysteries. She offers a careful discussion of the notion of scinderatio fonorum 'the scrambling of words' in Virgilius, a detailed analysis of the Twelve Latins, partly in terms of mystical or neo-Pythagorean models, and compares Virgilius' discussion of nonsense words to Jerome's insertion of Hebrew words -- which would have appeared nonsensical to most readers -- into Latin text. She contrasts the secrecy and hermeticism of Virgilius with the traditional openness of grammatical writing, and argues that his work is a reflection of the obligation, in the esoteric tradition, to conceal mysteries. Chapter 8 and the conclusion both argue that Virgilius' text is deliberately difficult, an enigma by choice; she compares his ideas, as she has reconstructed them, to those of Isidore before him and Aldhelm after him, and views Virgilius as an anti-Isidore and Aldhelm as an anti-Virgilius. The book concludes with two appendices, giving translations of the debate on the vocative of ego from Epist. 2 and the catalogue of grammarians from Epit. 15.

Law's attempt to find some sense amidst the lunacy of Virgilius' writings is stimulating and praiseworthy, and some of what she says is genuinely valuable. The explanation of Virgilius' proper names through the use of Jerome, the exploration of an ecclesiastical context, not just a grammatical one, for his ideas, the emphasis -- absolutely right, so far as I can see -- on the importance of creation and cosmology in Virgilius -- all these are valuable. That he is making in some way a plea for variety, multiplicity, and plurality against the narrow dogmatism of his day is something I find very appealing as an interpretation, and that he should take the ars grammatica -- one of the most restrictive of all literary forms -- as the vehicle for exotic and expansive argument seems to me to harmonize entirely with the peculiar sense of humor revealed by his writing.

Nevertheless, there are serious problems with Law's interpretation. One of them is unavoidable, and she is aware of it: once it is asserted that Virgilius has written an esoteric text the true meaning of which is found in hints and riddles, then there is no possible way to disprove the hypothesis -- and therefore there is no possible way to prove it either. Law's interpretation takes inconsistency and hidden messages as the key to the reading of Virgilius, and asserts that the primary message of the text is an exhortation to plurality and multiplicity -- but that in itself means that no one interpretation can be asserted over any other. The secret meaning can only be read by those who know what it is already, and nowhere can Law find a key to this secret meaning that is verifiable by any means outside her own interpretation. Thus, even if her reading is a possible one, her own argument shows that it is not the only possible one.

In the second place, when she moves her argument from the suggestion that Virgilius is making an argument for pluralism and multiplicity -- which is itself ingenious and makes a great deal of sense as at least a partial interpretation -- to the suggestion that Virgilius is conveying an esoteric and mystical message, and draws a parallel between his purpose and that of (among others) Qabbalah, Buddhism, the Rosicrucians and Rudolf Steiner, she takes a step that I find very hard to follow. Some of the themes that she identifies -- fire, seeing with the mind's eye, and the like -- simply do not seem to me as important in the text or as significant as she would wish; the only defense of her argument for Virgilius as a mystical writer is the hermetic riddling that she finds throughout; but that is, as I suggested above, circular, and my own sense is that she exceeds the bounds of probability in taking it.

Finally, there is the question of the context in which Law places Virgilius. Although he is obviously writing in the grammatical tradition rather than a theological one, almost everything that she has to say deals with theology or epistemology, and although she is surely right to identify his debts to Jerome and Augustine, she has curiously little to say about classical models. It is perhaps indicative of her lack of interest in this aspect of his work that when she gives (13f.) Jerome's etymologies for the names Julius and Aeneas in identifying Virgilius' allusions to them, she does not even bother to mention that these names have fairly obvious significance in the classical tradition too. That Virgilius names as his principal teacher one Aeneas does not lead her to mention that there are other connections between people named Virgil and Aeneas in the classical tradition. If Virgilius the grammarian is, as I am quite willing to believe, alluding to theological literature and controversy, he is also alluding to the nature of the secular grammatical and literary tradition, to Donatus the commentator on the Aeneid, to the author and the hero of that poem. And it might be pointed out that the cosmological interest that Law rightly finds in Virgilius Maro is also at home in the tradition of commentary on the poetry of the one Virgil all classicists know -- and the one whom Virgilius Maro leaves out of his list of the three Virgils. In this context, one might do well to consider the ancient commentaries on the cosmological passages of Aeneid 6 and above all the long, learned and strange note of Pseudo-Probus on Eclogue 6.31.

By making Aeneas Virgilius' teacher, by making Donatus' home Troy and connecting him to Romulus and giving him a life-span of a millennium, by having the two earlier Virgils come from Troy and Asia, and by other jokes on the content and tradition of the Aeneid, Virgilius the grammarian is -- if one wishes to take him as a serious writer -- considering the relationship of text and commentary, of author and character: which one is the creator, which the interpreter? And here too, as in Law's reading, it is perfectly reasonable (given the strangeness of the text) to find a plea for multiplicity and plurality. Virgilius is exploring the creation of meaning as much as the creation of language, the plurality of interpretations of text as well as the plurality of paths to secret wisdom. But I fear that my own suggestion can no more be proven than can Law's.

Virgilius Maro is a strange author, and Law's is a strange interpretation; in that sense, they match one another. The virtue of her book is that it recognizes Virgilius' greatness -- and he is, in his own peculiar way, a brilliant writer -- and tries to take him seriously. If her book draws readers to this fascinating text, it will have done a great service; but in emphasizing a deadly serious subtext over the wit and play of the surface, she seems to me to lessen the literary merit of the book. The parallels that are truly appropriate for Virgilius are not the guides to inner wisdom and development, but books like Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds (another Irish genius with language) or, perhaps even more, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire (which, despite the fire in its title, has nothing to do with esoteric lore). A novel in the form of a poem with commentary, that constantly and deliberately blurs the boundaries between the two and between the commentator's imaginings and the poet's words may be the clearest guide, in its structure as well as its puns and ambiguities, to a textbook of grammar that keeps transforming itself into autobiography and reminiscence, that eclipses the distinction between word and world.