Epic Lives and the medieval classroom

Now that the dust has (literally) settled and the paint dried, I have turned my attention to a recent recommendation: A L Taylor’s ‘Epic Lives and Monasticism in the Middle Ages 800 – 1050’. The attraction was her work on Ermenrich, he who wrote the sycophantic job application to end all sycophantic job applications to his former teacher, Abbot Grimald of St Gallen. I was delighted to find that Ermenrich accounted for two whole chapters.

Taylor has performed a tour de force in textual analysis, painstakingly tracking references and allusions and thus enabling the modern reader to get at least a feel for the erudition that Ermenrich was putting on display. This illustrates very well her theory that the pseudo-classical ‘epic life’ was, in the early middle ages, a kind of passing out parade for the graduating student, a challenge an opportunity to demonstrate the student’s erudition and thus worthiness to teach, perhaps even at the highest levels. We are invited to read this strange text as if we were eavesdropping on the medieval classroom: what may at first glance seem a series of non sequiturs begins to make sense if we see it as the knowledge imparted by a teacher not as a coherent lecture but as a series of mini commentaries on a text they are studying. The only connection between the glosses is the text. If the text is absent, then the thread is lost but if the text is assumed, we can observe the teacher’s skill in introducing concepts in one context and recapitulating them in another to encourage repetition and progression. This approach marks the transition from learning to decipher a text, literally and later allegorically, and creating texts semi independently via the controlled writing exercises known as ‘progymnasmata’ or via ‘conversion’ – changing a text from prose to poetry and vice versa.

All this makes the text itself and Taylor’s analysis a gift for those of us who are trying to understand just how young monks for whom Latin was a foreign tongue learned to write in the style of Alcuin or Hilduin. The gap between reciting the psalms and learning to recognise them in written form to writing poetry or ‘lives’ in prose or poetry is huge and there is little available to help us understand how it was bridged.

But even whilst acknowledging this huge contribution, it seems important to share a few reservations. For one thing, Taylor sees this letter as perhaps the only ‘true’ insight into classroom practice, as opposed to the other surviving evidence we have of medieval classrooms. I cannot accept that Ermenrich is really telling it like it is. Why would he? And in any case he had apparently only taught younger pupils, rather than those who were at the stage of the progymnasmata, so the elaborate rhetoric he elucidates is not from his own teaching experience. It is either what he wants the reader to believe he will do, or perhaps even an echo of Grimald’s own teaching style as a kind of homage.

For another, the letter does not really expand our understanding of the epic life, which is what the book is about.   The whole point of the letter is that Ermenrich did not actually write such a thing. Whatever the circumstances and reasons, he seems to have been invited to do so but then rejected and so the extract included in the letter and an accompanying sense of grievance is all there is. One might argue that to see an epic life incomplete does have a value. as we can see the workings as it were, but this does not seem to be Taylor’s view.

And, finally, do these chapters bring us really any closer to understanding this letter?   If, as seems likely, the writing of an epic life was in this period the sine qua non of an application to teach, and Ermenrich has not completed one, can he seriously have meant it as a pitch for a teaching job?  And if he is not seeking Grimald’s support for a teaching post, what kind of patronage is he seeking?  In my view, it is worth going back to Monique  Goullet’s 2008 introduction to the text. She speaks of ‘amitie’ as a binding force across a network of scholars and sees epic lives as being part of the currency of this network and essentially, the basis for competition between members of this elite.  I tend to the view that Ermenrich is essentially displaying his own scholarship and how well he has learned his own lessons rather than making a bid for a teaching post for which he appears unqualified.  In the twenty first century he would have tweeted, perhaps not in the hope of a record number of retweets and favourites but certainly hoping for approval from a


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