Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.03.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.03.32

Juanita Feros Ruys, John O. Ward, Melanie Heyworth (ed.), The Classics in the Medieval and Renaissance Classroom: The Role of Ancient Texts in the Arts Curriculum as Revealed by Surviving Manuscripts and Early Printed Books. Disputatio, 20.   Turnhout:  Brepols Publishers, 2013.  Pp. viii, 420.  ISBN 9782503527543.  €100.00.  

Reviewed by Tina Chronopoulos, Binghamton University SUNY (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume originates from a conference organized by Juanita Feros Ruys and John O. Ward at the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Sydney, Australia (27-29 July, 2006), entitled ‘The Classics in the Classroom: manuscript, incunable, cinquecentine relicts and pedagogical practice in the European classroom (AD 1000-1600).’ The essays assembled here aim to understand what happened in the medieval and Renaissance classroom by examining manuscripts and early printed books of Classical authors, along with extant commentaries and notes on them. They attempt to answer questions about pedagogical methods as well as what teachers valued in these authors’ writings. The selection offers a refreshingly wide array of contributors, including well-known scholars from North America, with the majority hailing from Europe and Australia.

An introduction is followed by seventeen essays arranged in chronological order and thematically, from the mid-tenth century to the early sixteenth, as indicated by the title of the original conference. Each essay is followed by a bibliography that includes manuscripts and archival documents (thus no index of manuscripts at the end). Some essays contain appendices that present editions of short educational treatises or catalogues of manuscripts (Knappe, Fredborg, Camargo, Kraus). Many of these bibliographies are veritable treasure-troves for those interested in tracking down the original manuscripts, primary texts, or important but little-known writings on education and learning in the period under consideration.

John O. Ward’s introduction lays out the questions, namely what occurred in the medieval and Renaissance classroom and how teachers and their students studied the Classics and why. One reason he advances for the timeliness of this enquiry, namely that ‘the modern humanities classroom is at present so universally under threat’, (2) does not seem very convincing. More vital, as he indicates, is our comparatively limited understanding of actual medieval and Renaissance pedagogical practice, despite an increased interest in annotations, glosses, and commentaries over the last thirty years. 1 The difficulty, as the work of Marjorie Curry Woods reveals,2 and one that this volume addresses, is the sheer volume of evidence, all of which requires careful sifting, elucidating, and putting together before a coherent picture can emerge.

Ward appropriately defines the Classics broadly to include authors who commented on, translated, and transmitted texts Classicists might today not consider Classical, such as Macrobius, Servius, or Boethius. This is a useful reminder for those of us not intimately familiar with the medieval and later transmission of Classical texts: it is often the interest accorded to authors such as Cicero or Priscian in the classroom or in an educational context that contributed to their survival. Ward also emphasizes that teaching in the period under discussion was about what one could learn from the Classical authors, not about them.

This book appeals especially because many of its authors and essays are in conversation with each other, due to the common theme, and also because of their shared material. For instance, Rita Copeland and Karin Margareta Fredborg write about rhetoric in twelfth-century France, the former by examining Thierry of Chartres’ Heptateuchon (an encyclopedic anthology of works from Antiquity) as a practical expression of a curriculum in the sense that the texts are arranged according to curricular practice, the latter by thinking about where and how John of Salisbury (bishop of Chartres in 1176-80) learned about rhetoric – Thierry was one of his teachers.

In the following, I discuss some of the essays that seemed to me the most engaging.

Gabriele Knappe (‘Manuscript evidence of the teaching of the language arts in late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman England, with particular regard to the role of the Classics’) focuses on manuscripts of instructional texts of the language arts (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) produced from ca. 950 to 1130. Knappe defines Classics as ‘pre-medieval instructional’ authors, such as Isidore of Seville or Martianus Capella, who transmit Classical knowledge to generations of later readers. Only a small fraction of manuscripts produced in England in this period contains material concerned with the language arts; mostly, the focus was on reading theological, biblical, and liturgical texts, including history and hagiography. Manuscripts that preserve texts concerned with dialectics often contain marginal and interlinear notes and thus reveal traces of usage. Such texts appear in dialogue form: for example, Isidore’s Etymologiae was excerpted and transformed into question-and-answer format, likely employed in an instructional setting. We can see the texts used to teach the language arts actually being transformed into the very thing they are supposed to teach, namely dialogues or debates. There follows an appendix of manuscripts written or known in England from the eight century to c. 1130, in four sections (A: Encyclopaedists: Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic. B: Grammar. C: Rhetoric. D: Dialectic), which offers a practical starting point for further research.

Martin Camargo (‘What goes with Geoffrey of Vinsauf? Codicological clues to pedagogical practices in England c. 1225–c. 1470’) scrutinizes the English manuscripts of Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s Poetria Nova, a textbook on the art of poetry and an example of poetic practice, prose and verse composition. Most of these manuscripts were copied either in the first half of the thirteenth century or around the turn of the fifteenth century. In the manuscripts from the earlier period, the Poetria appears with poetry, both Classical (e.g. Seneca, Ovid, Virgil) and medieval (e.g. Sedulius Scottus, Alan of Lille). Camargo speculates that these texts were assembled not only ‘for their moral and theologico-philosophical contents’ but also ‘for their formal qualities’ (148). In the fifteenth-century manuscripts, the Poetria is accompanied most often by treatises on the art of poetry and prose, with an emphasis on writing letters, thus betraying an increased interest in prose. Camargo argues that this resulted from advances made in grammatical studies at places such as Oxford, evidenced by the fact that a good number of these manuscripts belonged to Benedictine monks who studied there. Finally, unlike in Central Europe, the Poetria seems not to have been used to teach rhetorical theory in England. Four appendices follow, the first listing the English manuscripts of the Poetria, including dates and provenance; the others present editions of various ancillary texts on the Poetria.

Manfred Kraus (‘Progymnasmata and progymnasmatic exercises in the medieval classroom’) studies the manuscript tradition of progymnasmata, ancient exercises in composition and rhetoric, and their seeming persistence in medieval pedagogical texts. Kraus points out that Priscian’s Latin translation (praeexercitamina) of these Greek exercises, assumed to have been very popular, survives in only a fraction of Priscian’s extant manuscripts (45 out of 780). Most of these manuscripts (listed on 177-79) date from the ninth and fifteenth centuries, with a dearth from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, the exact period during which rhetoric was of such great interest. Kraus analyses the chronological and geographical grouping of these manuscripts, ultimately demonstrating that the praeexercitamina were, in the medieval period, usually copied alongside grammatical treatises, and that the original exercises were transformed into mere categories of literary criticism or compositional method.

Although Aristotelian logic was taught in early thirteenth-century Paris, his libri naturales were banned there until the middle of the century. Steven J. Williams (‘Aristotle in the medieval classroom: students, teaching, and educational change in the schools of Paris in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries’) examines the role students played in shaping this curricular change and educational practices in general. Contemporary authors, such as Adelard of Bath (c. 1080–c. 1152), describe curious students pestering their teachers about the natural world, the ‘causes of things’ (229). Students also actively engaged with their teachers during lectures, hence disputationes became routine practice in the arts and theology. Williams argues that by pushing their teachers for answers, at a time when the traditional curriculum with its emphasis on correct usage of Latin came under scrutiny, students were opening up new avenues of thought; in particular, positions that were problematic for a teacher could be held by a student.

Craig Kallendorf (‘Virgil in the Renaissance classroom: from Toscanella’s Osservationi … sopra l’opere di Virgilio to the Exercitationes Rhetoricae’) investigates the pedagogical practice reflected in the Osservationi (1566) of Toscanella, a Classics teacher in sixteenth-century Veneto and prolific author of pedagogical texts. The Osservationi breaks Virgil’s Aeneid into commonplaces arranged alphabetically, a sort of ‘Aeneidian’ encyclopedia of the world, useful for teachers and students alike. Another treatise, the exercitationes rhetoricae in praecipuas ejus orationes, contains rhetorical analyses of the main speeches of the Aeneid, disassembled into their basic parts, thus betraying an interest in rhetorical structure and argumentation. Renaissance readers and teachers were concerned with moral wisdom and practical information, similarly to medieval readers, although Kallendorf emphasizes that the trend towards collecting ‘sayings’ is not medieval. He also demonstrates that there was no sharp boundary between manuscript and print culture, since Renaissance schoolmasters regularly glossed their printed texts of the Classics by hand.

Ursula Potter (‘No Terence phrase: his tyme and myne are twaine’: Erasmus, Terence, and censorship in the Tudor classroom’) traces the fortunes of Terence in Tudor grammar schools through sixteenth-century commentaries and curricula. She illustrates how Terence’s comedies, despite the presence of characters objectionable to Christian ministers, found their place in the curriculum in large part owing to Erasmus’ endorsement. Erasmus’ authority ensured that people such as Colet, who founded St Paul’s (1509), followed his recommendation for Terence as an excellent model for diction, an ideal source for character portrayal, and a model for father-son relations. Erasmus’ own pedagogical treatises (De copia and Colloquia), which were widely used in Tudor schools, assume an intimate knowledge of Terence’s comedies. Commentaries produced in this period stressed the moral significance and utilitas of the poet and his plays: comedy’s purpose was instructional and pupils performed scenes to learn gestures, declamation, and impersonation, and, thus, the rhetorical arts. Potter concludes that Puritan influence at the end of the century saw a shift away from Erasmus and Terence, although the latter had prevailed long enough to influence Elizabethan drama.

In sum, this volume is, for the most part, very readable and extremely useful for those working in a manuscript/incunable context, and for students and teachers of rhetoric, the history of education, and the transmission of the Classics. Given the emphasis on manuscripts and incunables, more illustrations than the two woodcuts accompanying Potter’s essay could have been useful, particularly with a view to helping readers understand the sometimes complicated interplay between text and commentary. One of the difficulties in studying medieval and Renaissance pedagogical practice, aside from the profusion of primary evidence, is the fact that there was no such thing as the medieval or Renaissance classroom. Teaching was highly idiosyncratic at different times and locales, and often depended on the individual predilections of teachers outside of the big educational centres. This explains, in part, the varied nature and approaches of the essays, some of which rely less on primary documents than others, but which, in their totality, provide their readers with an excellent insight into the practicalities that governed the teaching of the Classics in the period.

The book is dedicated to Virginia Brown (1940–2009), a fitting tribute on two counts: firstly, she herself delivered a paper at the original conference entitled ‘Getting down to basics: elementary teaching of Virgil in the Renaissance’ (unpublished), and, secondly, she was a beloved teacher and prolific manuscript-hunter.

Minor quibbles. Typos: I noticed only a handful. Thus, Masteringers instead of Mastersingers (13), loical instead of logical (107, n. 14), by instead of in (431, n. 3), diisputationum instead of disputationum (230, n. 29), Priase instead of Praise (313, n. 10), labour instead of labor (323), exemple instead of example (344). Works cited: some essays lack a list of manuscripts/archival documents, despite citing them, thus Kraus, Williams, Black.

Table of Contents

Illustrations, p. ix
John O. Ward, The Classics in the Classroom: An Introduction, p. 1
Gabriele Knappe, Manuscript Evidence of the Teaching of the Language Arts in Late Anglo-Saxon and Early Norman England, with Particular Regard to the Role of the Classics, p. 23
Beth S. Bennett, Teaching Classical Rhetoric in Practice: Evidence from Anselm de Besate, p. 61
Rita Copeland, Thierry of Chartres and the Causes of Rhetoric: From the Heptateuchon to Teaching the Ars rhetorica, p. 81
Karin Margareta Fredborg, The Grammar and Rhetoric Offered to John of Salisbury, p. 103
Birger Munk Olsen, Accessus to Classical Poets in the Twelfth Century, p. 131
Martin Camargo, What Goes with Geoffrey of Vinsauf ? Codicological Clues to Pedagogical Practices in England, c. 1225–c. 1470, p. 145
Manfred Kraus, Progymnasmata and Progymnasmatic Exercises in the Medieval Classroom, p. 175
Lola Sharon Davidson, Dreaming in Class: Aristotle’s De sompno in the Schools, p. 199
Steven J. Williams, Aristotle in the Medieval Classroom: Students, Teaching, and Educational Change in the Schools of Paris in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, p. 223
Robert Black, Teaching Techniques: The Evidence of Manuscript Schoolbooks Produced in Tuscany, p. 245
Lucia Calboli Montefusco, George of Trebizond’s De suavitate dicendi, p. 267
Dugald McLellan, Spreading the Word: Antonio Mancinelli, the Printing Press, and the Teaching of the Studia humanitatis, p. 287
Craig Kallendorf, Virgil in the Renaissance Classroom: From Toscanella’s Osservationi […] sopra l’opere di Virgilio to the Exercitationes rhetoricae, p. 309
Marjorie Curry Woods, What are the Real Differences between Medieval and Renaissance Commentaries?, p. 329
C. Jan Swearingen, George Buchanan’s Revision of the ‘St Andros’ Curriculum: Ramism, Reformation Religion, and Ciceronian Humanism in Transition, p. 343
Ursula Potter, ‘No Terence phrase: his tyme and myne are twaine’: Erasmus, Terence, and Censorship in the Tudor Classroom, p. 365
Brian Taylor, Poetic Technique and the Liberal Arts in the Lay Schoolroom: The Singschule(‘Singing School’) of the German Mastersingers of the Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries, p. 391
Index, p. 411


1.   The scholarship Ward cites (3-4) is uneven and does not include, for example, the collection of essays edited by Carol D. Lanham entitled Latin grammar and rhetoric: from Classical theory to medieval practice, London 2002. This book is perhaps omitted because it does not explicitly focus on annotated manuscripts. However, Suzanne Reynolds' Medieval reading: grammar, rhetoric and the Classical text, Cambridge, 1996, could have been mentioned; likewise C.A. Chavannes-Mazel and M.M. Smith (edd.), Medieval manuscripts of the Latin Classics: production and use, Los Altos Hills, 1996. Ovid in the Middle Ages, edited by J.G. Clark, F.T. Coulson, and K.L. McKinley, Cambridge 2011, also contains a number of essays that focus on manuscripts and teaching.
2.   Marjorie Currie Woods, Classroom Commentaries: Teaching the Poetria nova across Medieval and Renaissance Europe, Columbus, OH 2010 – this book is the culmination of many years’ work.

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