Category Archives: Learning Matters in the Medieval World

Education, mainly through monasteries. How did they teach Latin? What can we learn from extant teaching materials? What texts did they use? Was there a hidden curriculum?

The tale of three panthers and their teeth

st gall pantherFor long and weary I have kept a postcard on my wall which I acquired on a visit to St Gall several years ago. It comes from a ninth century manuscript of a well-known sixth century educational work by Cassiodorus called ‘The Institutiones’, which set out the plan he had for the education of the monks at the monastery he founded at Vivarium and it is only one of several diagrams in the work.[1] I love it and I have always called it ‘the panther’ although the official description is ‘a panther-like animal’. His function is to show the four divisions of the subject of Mathematics in the traditional ‘Seven Liberal Arts’, a kind of medieval syllabus for monks. It is part of the Quadrivium, the higher level of learning to be undertaken once the basics of Grammar had been mastered. The four divisions are here represented by the four feet of the panther, each labelled appropriately.

But it’s much more than that. Time and effort have been put into the drawing. The panther has a collar and lead and what seems to be a coat and if you are so inclined, it would be very easy to imagine that he is smiling at us. It would fit very happily into a school textbook, even a story book for young children. Did they do picture books in the ninth century?   And what do we know about the presence of panthers in the Carolingian Empire? Not a lot it seems. So I bought the postcard and kept it.

Some years later I started my PhD, which uses a group of ninth century manuscripts from the Abbey of St Gall and its close neighbour, the abbey of Reichenau. Cassiodorus cropped up again and, to my surprise, so did the panther.[2]

panther aug perg 241

A slightly posher version, with red detailing and the various titles of the four divisions in boxes hanging from cords attached to his feet, but still with a collar (albeit plain not spotted) and lead and a differently patterned back. His tail is also different: at Reichenau it forms a jaunty ‘S’ shape, at St Gall it is a passive downward slope, and he has two ears, one pointed and one rounded like the St Gall one. What is really striking however, is that this one is showing his teeth. If you look closely, both beasts have three teeth, but the way they are arranged is different – cheery grin for St Gall, threatening growl for Reichenau.  So I went looking for enlightenment and found Michael Gorman.

Michael Gorman does not apparently share my love of the panther but he does know about diagrams in Cassiodorus manuscripts. 3] Sadly, he hasn’t managed  to track back to the original but he has tracked the diagrams back to the eighth century, to what he think is the archetypal manuscript, namely Bamberg Patr.61, the text of which was used for Mynors’ printed edition in 1937.[4] The gap between the printed versions and the manuscripts becomes clear at this point. The manuscript has a total of 37 diagrams but Mynors only reproduced eight of them in his book. The text thus quickly became disassociated from the diagrams. Gorman points out quite rightly that this omission is actually quite a serious one: my panther is not an optional extra, he carries the names of the four sub-divisions and if he is removed, they are too.  But it is only now, when we can all look at lots of original manuscripts without leaving our desks, that we are rediscovering the diagrams. [5]


And I rediscovered another panther in Harley 2637, another ninth century manuscript of the Institutiones, which is readily available online from the British Library. It originates from either Western Germany or Eastern France and was first recorded at Cues on the Moselle. Whilst it cannot be traced back to a Carolingian centre, its panther clearly relates to the two examples from Lake Constance.

harley 2637 panther

The main difference between this panther and the other two is the increased use of colour, which seems to take the beast into the realms of fantasy and magic. The collar and lead here are important enough to split the heading into ‘Divisioma’ and ‘thematicae’, whereas in the other two diagrams the heading stands aloof, with a conventional gap between ‘divisio’ and ‘mathematicae’. The tail has the Reichenau curve, but with a tuft at the end which is missing both at Reichenau and St Gall, as if the model for both the Carolingian versions was somehow cut off at the end. But other features are the same. The three teeth are Reichenau style, but somehow look even meaner because the mouth is smaller, the boxes around the four headings are also Reichenau style. It has one ear, like St Gall, but it is pointed like Reichenau. The coat, if such it is, is divided from the lower body by a straight horizontal line, as is the case at Reichenau, whereas at St Gall, it curves down between the back legs. The Harley tail is plain, the Reichenau tail is coloured red and the St Gall tail has a zigzag pattern. There is clearly a relationship between them all and each has at least one unique element, but the St Gall exemplar is clearly distinctive.

These diagrams matter because they imply a different kind of reading from what we expect of ninth century abbeys.  You cannot read a panther aloud,  although you could perhaps read the manuscript alongside a student.  But this is not for use with a group.  These texts were intended for private reading.

That conclusion alone is worth bothering with.  But there is more.  The latest bit of the jigsaw comes from Sven Meeder’s contribution to the recent book of studies in honour of Rosamund Mckitterick.[6] Meeder points out that Bamberg Patr.61 is a ‘sister manuscript’ to St Gall 855, the original object of my interest, and uses this connection to support the view that the two manuscripts had a common ancestor, probably from either Monte Cassino or somewhere in northern Italy. Further, he demonstrates that a relationship exists between the St Gall manuscripts containing Mallius Theodorus’ ‘De metris’ and other multi-text manuscripts containing the same text which have their origin in centres south and north of the Alps. Checking out these manuscripts for evidence of panthers may well be worthwhile.

For now, the lesson for me is that although much energy and ink has been devoted to the investigation of textual links between manuscripts and this is right and proper, we might still, from time to time, spare a thought for the guys who drew the panthers.

[1] Cod Sang 855, p.276

[2] Aug Perg 241 p53

[3] M. Gorman ‘The Diagrams in the Oldest Manuscripts of Cassiodorus’ Insitutione’ in Revue Benedictine vol 110 Issue 1-2 January 2000 pp27 – 41

[4] Ibid. p28

[5] Ibid. p29 Sadly we don’t always manage to find the right places to read them. Mynors apparently pointed out that the diagrams existed in a total of six manuscripts, the ones under discussion here and  Bamberg Patr. 61, Paris Mazarine 660 and Berlin Phillips 1737. These are the ones I have not yet got access to.

[6] ‘Monte Cassino’s Network of Knowledge: The Earliest Manuscript Evidence’ in ‘Writing the Medieval West’ ed. Elina Screen, Charles West. Cambridge 2018 pp 141 – 142



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A dummie at the court of King Access


Dummies cover

I have blogged before on the joy of ninth century library catalogues, and in particular on the joy of reading ninth century librarians’ comments. Now for the hard stuff. In between chasing missing books, these guys did a fantastic job of listing what they had. For St Gall, there is a lot of fun to be had in matching the lists to the extant stock, but for Reichenau, just a boat ride away, not only do we not have the manuscript versions of the catalogues, we also don’t have any Reichenau manuscripts at Reichenau. Happily, and thanks to a diligent German scholar in 1918, called Paul Lehmann, we do have a printed copy of several ninth century catalogues, based on copies made of contemporary manuscripts in the eighteenth century. And Lehmann did track quite a few of the manuscripts mentioned in it amongst the stock transferred to Karlsruhe after the dissolution of the abbey so they can’t all be imaginary. But for the time being, it’s the catalogues that are exercising my mind. And what to do with them that might contribute to an understanding of the textual culture that the monks were living and working in.

My mind drifted to the idea of visualisations, thence to digitisation and – and this is a long leap – to the idea of a database of texts. I used to use databases for my work, but they came ready-made. Not only had someone else done the key to disc bit, but someone else had dreamt up the structure required. And the database programs available to me now are not the ones we created in 1999.

And so I became a dummie. And bought a book that showed me how.  In its own way.


And I have to admit I’m still a dummie, but I am a wiser dummie because I have a better idea of why it’s hard.

I thought it was hard because of the technology, but it wasn’t. I thought it was hard because of the circularity of the process of deciding which fields to include before you have entered all 700 records because it is only after you have entered those 700 records that you know which fields are needed and by then changing the fields is problematic. But it wasn’t really that either.

I did the right things. I started with apparently uncontroversial stuff like ‘Author’, ‘Title’, ‘approximate date’ and ‘Title of catalogue’. I spent rather more time and experimentation on the fields which were to categorise the type and content of the text concerned: ‘Letters’, ‘Sermons’, ‘Biography’ for example, as well as ‘Patristic’, ‘Grammar’ and ‘Astronomy’. I did quite a bit of sampling and refining. I came up with some sort of system to ensure consistency and found the kind of fixes that are required when ninth century monastic librarians meet 21st century technology. I learned quite quickly, for example, that ‘Author?’ is not a simple question if the title is ‘the Book of Genesis’ – I presume people have spent whole PhDs on less. Given that that is not an option, the choice is between leaving the field blank or simply entering ‘BIBLE’. For a couple more days I wrestled with this kind of thing, finding out along the way how to add new fields and build in a checking system at the end so that entries were consistent. And then I took a day or so off. And then I tried to enter 700 records.


And when it came to using the fields, I realised that I had the thing upside down. Being a dummie at setting up a database is easily cured by buying a yellow book. Being a dummie at describing ninth century texts will take a lot longer to fix. It took the plan of setting up a database to bring it home to me that I need to know much more about these texts and about the authors before I analyse them. I need to decide for example, which authors are ‘patristic’ because the database requires me to say something more definite than ‘This catalogue includes several patristic authors’. I need to find field labels that fit the historical context. Trying to split ‘Theology’ from ‘Philosophy’ is not going to work so I will put them together but can I lump Augustine’s biographical texts in with hagiography? Is Rhetoric part of Grammar? What is the difference between a commentary and an exposition if you only have the catalogue title? Is it possible to make sensible use of a record that just says ‘Alexandri libri’? If you have a title such as ‘de libero arbitrio’ does that mean it’s the one by Augustine that you already have or might someone else have used the same title?

I once heard someone who works a lot on digitising historical records say that the people creating the digital resource ended up learning more than the users of the resource ever could. That seems to be true here.  I’m learning a lot about what these monks read. But I still hope to have some visualisations by September.

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The tale of the frustrated librarian



I think I have always had a thing about library catalogues. It is true that library catalogues are not what they were. The electronic ones of today are much more efficient than the card indexes in the Bradford City Library in Darley Street were, but they do lack a certain serendipity. Time was when one might search for something on Russia and get easily distracted on to Bertrand Russell, but that as they say is another story. But suddenly, serendipity is back and it’s a lot of fun.

I have been spending a lot of time in the company of half a dozen library catalogues dating from the ninth century. The monastery of St Gall in Switzerland is world renowned for having had the good fortune to retain a large proportion of its medieval stock amongst these manuscripts can be found some of the earliest library catalogues in Europe. And they make you think.

At this stage, they are making me think about librarians. The oldest and most comprehensive list has been heavily annotated. In some cases, this just means that space was left for additions to be made in the appropriate category, which was usually, but not always, defined by author. But mostly the annotations are the laconic remarks of a long suffering librarian who, like long suffering librarians all over the world, was either trying to keep track of his books despite the attempts of library users to secrete them away or simply needed to disassociate himself from the purchasing decisions of his predecessor. The set of comments gives a very modern impression of a bloke trying desperately to bring order to something that has been allowed to get away and do its own thing.

Thus we find that several books were dismissed as ‘inutile’ – (useless), ‘pusillum’ (very little or paltry) or ‘antiquissimo’ (very ancient) and in one case, Isidore’s book on differences, that the volume in question was ‘totum mendacium et inutile’ (a complete lie and useless). Sometimes the previous librarian had not catalogued the book in question by the standards expected by the annotator.   A book catalogued under Pope Gregory is annotated: ‘et in uno ex eis vita pauli et antonii’ (and in one of them there is a life of Paul and Anthony) and another is found to be concealing some of Jerome’s letters. In other cases, books had outlived their usefulness. Isidore’s synonyms are annotated ‘hoc legi non potest’ (this cannot be read) – clearly a plea for more funding. Some books were clearly simply not present at the time the catalogue was updated. A volume on the books of Tobias, Judith and Esther had been sent to the school, as had a volume of letters from the popes of Rome. One on Ezekiel was lent to the lady Rickart : ‘habet domna rickart’. Of two volumes of the lives of the Holy Fathers, ‘unum habet liutart’ (Luitart has one of them).  One of my favourites is ‘hoc auditum est non visum’ (this is heard but not seen). It was clearly important that the writer had sight of the book, or at least of the chap who had it: ‘Ruodinum vidi habere qui dixit suum esse hoc non vidi’ (I saw Ruodinus who said it was his. I have not seen it) And it was important to count. Of four volumes of the gospels listed ‘ex his duo non inveni’ (of these I cannot find two).

This opens up a whole world. Can we track down these individuals? Was St Gallen running a kind of lending library? How did the books marked ‘ad scolam’ fit into the educational programme? Several scholars have tried to cross reference these catalogues with the extant collection but it is extremely precarious research. For me, there are two important things to establish. What did scholars of St Gall had access to at home when they compiled their multi text manuscripts and what must have been borrowed? And did any of the multi text manuscripts in these catalogues act as a model for the ones I am working on?


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Joining the dots. By accident.

What is the connection between a Roman aristocrat, a ninth century abbot and a Shropshire Lad?

Researching the transfer of knowledge can sometimes blow your mind. This week I have been unpicking a convoluted chain of connections which includes all of the above.

A wealthy Christian Roman called Valentinus once commissioned a codex from a well-known calligrapher, Furius Dionysius Philocalus. It was delivered to him in 354 CE and consisted of a calendar with elaborate illustrations for each month together with supporting poetry, as well as other less immediately interesting documents. Philocalus was not the author: his job was to take pre-existing words and possibly pictures and turn them into a high end product fit for a rich home or, perhaps, a generous gift. However, his calligraphic work may well explain the survival of the content of the codex, in particular a distich, a set of 12 hexameters and 12 pentameters on the months of the year. The 354 codex itself is lost, but its artistic merits and intrinsic value helped it to survive long enough for copies to be made. A copy of the pictures and the consular calendar on the page facing the pictures was made in around 1500 and is now in the Austrian National Library (Cod. Vindob. 3146). However, my distich on the months, which was originally attached to the pictures, was not included. For that, we have to go to a ninth century codex which is now known as the Vademecum of Wahlafrid Strabo, once Abbot of Reichenau, (Cod. Sang. 878).

I am currently using Cod. Sang. 878 for Latin practice. The poem was a bit of a challenge and it was only when I went looking for other Latin versions that I discovered the back story. It was not difficult to turn up the pictures from the 1500 copy.06_april

This one is April. The relevant distich is:

Caesarae Veneris mensis, quo floribus arva

Prompta virent, avibus quo sonat omne nemus

Flowers, greenery, birds singing in the woods. Blah blah blah. But this is not what the picture shows.

Apparently, the hexameter was written at the foot of the picture page, the pentameter at the foot of the facing page, which is where the consular ‘fasci’ for the month were written out, in such a way that at least the hexameter would seem to be a caption. A prime site.

But it doesn’t fit the picture. For that, I had to go to the other piece of poetry in the original codex, the testatrich. For example:

Cereus et dextra flammas diffundit odoras

Cereus, flames, incense. A picture of Roman customs for the time of year. Fits perfectly.

But where was the testatrich? And if it wasn’t prominent on the page, is this the original April illustration or a 1500 invention? That, I’m still working on. Because on the way, I discovered A. E. Housman and began to understand a bit about the transfer of knowledge.

I’m ashamed to say I only knew Housman as a poet, although my polymath engineer husband already knew that Housman was a classics don. Housman wrote a paper on exactly my ‘Distich de mensibus’ and it was published in a collection of his works in 2004.[1] It includes a well-researched and well supported Latin transcription, and a one sided (pre Twitter) debate with Mommsen about the phrase ‘iuga celsa retorquet’. And I realised that I was experiencing transfer of knowledge.

How does it work? Philocalus and Valentinus transmitted high end artwork, but in doing so they created a favourable circumstance for the survival and thus transfer of Late Antique knowledge. Wahlafrid Strabo included the poem, shorn of its artistic context, in his personal collection and we do not know whether he deliberately selected just the poem or whether this is how it came to him. We know he was interested in, amongst other things, ideas of time and there is a lot about chronicles in the Vademecum, but he may have simply used the ‘disticha’ as a party piece for his pupils. There is no evidence that he meant the Vademecum to survive him. The ‘disticha’ has thus survived by chance, in a manuscript that Housman describes as ‘a collection of useful odds and ends put together at various times’. The final twist is that Wahlafrid has carried on transferring knowledge: I now know about A. E. Housman’s life as a classics professor. None of this was intentional. There was no syllabus, no reference to a list of canonical works, no plan. Any research project on the topic needs to allow for a lot of serendipity.

[1] The Classical Papers of A E Housman Vol.3 CUP 2004

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The very model of a modern organisation?

Fulda, the Making of a Community, c.744 – c.900 (Cambridge, 2012), by Janneke Raaijmakers is far more than its title suggests. Yes, it tells the story of this Carolingian monastery, but it does so by drawing together a huge (by early medieval standards) range of sources and by anchoring the account within a changing context of social and political factors, personal crusades and local pressures. What we have here is reminiscent of many modern organisational studies, without ever straying into the anachronisms that may imply.
The story begins with Boniface’s letter to the pope in 751 asking him to grant a papal exemption for a small group of monks building a monastery in an isolated place, where they could live according to the Rule of Benedict. The exemption would protect the purity of the place from interference by bishops and others who might value its land. The exemption was duly granted and Raaijmakers’ task is then to explain how and why this eremitic community grew to become the Royal Abbey and its huge estates which existed in 900. The book’s achievement is to link the growth with the rise and fall of the Carolingian dynasty and to reflect the interplay between modernisers and traditionalists which accompanied it. 100 years after its foundation, Rudolf’s Miracula Sanctorum (842-847), in Raaijmakers’ view, presents what was once ‘a wooded place in a vast wilderness’ as ‘a spider in a web of churches and cellae, once donated by the Frankish elite or built by the brethren themselves on acquired property or newly cultivated lands.’
In tracing this progression, Raaijmakers makes clever use of the cumulative evidence of architecture and archaeology as vitae, letters and other traditional textual sources. She uses archaeological, hagiographical and liturgical records for example, to demonstrate how Abbot Ratger, who insisted on building a huge church, large and grand enough to make Fulda rank ‘among the major royal abbeys in the Frankish Empire’ deliberately modelled the church on prestigious churches elsewhere in the Carolingian Empire. He built a western transept with an apse, in the fashion of churches in Rome and Paris which enabled the community to adopt Roman liturgy as well as strengthening the cult of St Boniface. When we consider that Ratger became abbot in 802, just after Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor, we see clearly the tensions between a ‘moderniser’ and those who felt this was self-aggrandisement and a misuse of resources. Tellingly, Ratger was exiled when the complaints became impossible to ignore.
Textual sources on their own are fully exploited in context. The Life of Abbot Eigil, Ratger’s successor, was written by Candidus during the abbacy of Hrabanus Maurus as a dual text or ‘opus geminatum’, with one version in prose, the other in verse, rather than simply in a prose version which had hitherto been usual. Raaijmakers shows how this choice was related to the development of scholarship during the ninth century by elucidating the relationship between the events of Eigil’s abbacy which form the content and the scholarly and pastoral expectations of the community at the time of writing. The prose version ‘was written for moral instruction.’ It could be read aloud not just to monks but to church congregations and the hearers might be expected to absorb the lessons therein. Its content overlaps with that of the prose version, but the latter includes ‘expositions’ and was meant to be read by those already skilled in xxxxx and able to read ‘with the eyes of the mind’. In other words, this literary edifice bears the same relationship to the ninth century abbey as did the construction of Ratger’s church to the earlier community. This was an abbey to be reckoned with, taking seriously its task of guiding and educating the common people but also capable of interpreting the word of God and thus truly representing the interests of those for whom it prayed.
One question remains after reading this book. What role did the famous school play in establishing the identity of the community? It may be that records are scarce but this is a strange omission in the description of the development from the small, eremitical site where monks were carrying out practical work to sustain themselves, to the Royal Abbey of 847, where the monks could not only appreciate a poetic vita but could also be expected to write such a work. And there is evidence in the book that the ‘new’ monks who joined the monastery as it grew, were in need of education. Many of them, by the late eighth century, trained to become priests. Many by then were coming from the newly Christianised lands in for example, Saxony. There was, we are told, a ‘general cultural bustle in the monastery’ at the end of the eighth century and an impressive number of texts had already been assembled. Education must have played a crucial role.
That said, a book I very much enjoyed and to which I shall return.

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Using satire to teach grammar

I have been reading Suzanne Reynolds’ ‘Medieval Reading: Grammar Rhetoric and the Classical Text’ (Cambridge 1996).  She has studied twelfth century glosses on a number of manuscripts of Horace’s Satires, which is known to have been used as a teaching text, in order to cast light on teaching strategies of the period and contemporary theories about grammar.  It is a fascinating, if challenging, read.

Language teachers know that the middle stages of language learning are often difficult.  The learner may find the learning of words and phrases relatively easy but combining these elements to express her own views is much more taxing.    We know that young monks started with knowing the psalters by heart, then learnt letters and then the rules of morphology, probably from Donatus.  We know that scholars regularly corresponded with each other to develop their ability in Latin even further.  But how did they get from ‘amo, amas, amat’ to the kind of skill we see in letters by Alcuin or Lupus?  Reynolds helps to fill this gap.  She quotes Alexander Nequam’s account of progression in Latin: from the very basics to Donatus to selected classical texts to Priscian, who, alone at the time it seems, included syntax as well as morphology.  We have of course no way of knowing how general a pattern this was, but Reynolds’s analysis of glosses by different teachers in different places on the same text does strongly suggest that in this case the theory does reflect practice.

Reynolds speaks of three kinds of glosses: Those that render the text accessible, those that aim to develop the learner’s command of the language and those dealing with the theoretical side of grammar that the learner will meet at the next stage of his course.

At this point, she deals with another language teacher’s bugbear: teaching a mixed ability or mixed experience group. She has found glosses that distinguish between the ‘pueri’ and the ‘provecti’:  most of the ‘access’ glosses are aimed at the former, the others at the more advanced.  Since all three can appear in the same manuscript, it seems, perhaps we are talking about some kind of mixed grouping here.  Already a clue as to how progression was managed.

Access glosses helped the learner make sense of the text.  Occasionally there are translations in the vernacular, more often paraphrases.  They give the context – explaining what ancient Roman custom lay at the heart of the satires – and, where the syntax is especially difficult, insert words which make the text more readily understandable to someone whose vernacular was quite different from that of Horace.

It is easy to see how the access glosses could shade into the development glosses and leave room for the emphasis to shift according to the needs of the learner. Having given help with a word’s meaning, the glossator may then relate the actual word form used to the root form, offering opportunity to practise declensions and conjugations. Reynolds points out that the words ‘hic, hac, hoc’ are used with a new noun, not so much to replace the definite article (missing in Latin but present in Greek and Old English and Old French), as to remind the learners of gender.  The glossator may show how other words can be formed from the word which happens to occur in the text.  Easy to learn by heart and thus increase vocabulary if you’re a puer, a hint as to how a similar activity might be undertaken in a new text with an unfamiliar word if you’re a more advanced student.  Finally, many glosses address the problem of word order.  Sometimes there is an alphabetical superscript indicating what was called the ‘ordo naturalis’, sometimes this is done by lines.  Either way it performs three functions: it makes the texts easier to translate, it shows a methodology for deciphering similar texts and it points the way for the creation of Latin text.  By all means sketch it out in ‘natural order’ to get the grammar right, but then consider how it might be recast…

Reynolds again compares practice with theory by relating these observations to a twelfth century text by Alexander of Villa Dei, which explains how a learner should ‘construe’ a text: First identify and place the vocative case, then the nominative, then the main verb and then the rest.  This still works today but requires the learner to be able to identify reliably the different parts of speech and their cases, tense etc.  But nowadays we have parsing dictionaries which do the identifying for us.  In their absence, it is easy to see why access to classical texts relied totally on excellent recall of morphology even if you hadn’t done much syntax.

The theoretical glosses go a step further.  The classical texts did not always conform to the rules of grammar.  This is particularly true of word order but can also apply to morphology.  Since the auctores were the model from which the boys were to learn, these discrepancies had to be explained, at least to the ‘provecti’.  If it was poetry, all could be forgiven.  But elsewhere, interpretation had to stray into the territory of Rhetoric, and Reynolds goes to some lengths to uncover the contemporary mental distinctions between the two.


There is much more in this book, but it has answered many of my questions with an authority which I had not dared to hope for.  What I think is now needed is to try out these ideas against another annotated text and some thinking about the way the manuscript itself was used.  If it was an aide memoire for the teacher, which seems likely unless two or three gathered around the manuscript, then we must acknowledge that it is only part of the story and the evidence for classroom practice is more likely to be found in letters and vitae.

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Mything the point?

I’ve been reading Levi Strauss’ “Myth and Meaning”.  Its subtitle is “Cracking the Code of Culture” which speaks to my condition, as it were, because I see education as primarily the transmission of culture, in the middle ages as in the 21st century.  And it’s apparently concise and accessible.  The main tenet is that, since all societies, even those we are tempted to describe as ‘primitive’, seek to find an understanding of the world around them, myth can be seen as a precursor of science as a way of accounting for the phenomena of nature.  So far, so good.  I was brought up to believe that thunder was just the angels having coal delivered.  [God knows how you reassure chilcren now that the rumble of the coal into the coal shed is a thing of the past.]  Only much later did I progress to meteorology.

But closer inspection leads to questions.

I’m interested in what he thinks myths are.  ‘Myth is narrative made coherent’ he says.  This apparent tautology he justifies by reference to collections of myths which have been given coherence by anthropologists who tidy up the bits of narrative they gather from their informants, regardless of whether or not the ‘original’ myth was in itself coherent.  But where is the line between ‘myth’ and ‘memory’ and ‘folk tales’? Does not myth have to have some kind of formal status, perhaps something like social memory?  Which would exclude my angelic coalmen.  If you collate a lot of folk tales, are they myths in themselves or only when they become part of an established oral tradition?  But is Levi Strauss simply warning his listeners against the seductive power of a good story, whether true or not?

Interesting also is the link between myth and science.  Most historiographical discussions of ‘myth’ seem to contrast it with ‘history’, a good example being the foundation myths of many monastic communities. But if we reflect on this, much medieval thought switches easily from history to science.  Genesis is both.  The concept of God’s plan, ‘working his purpose out as year succeeds to year’ is not just a history myth, but also very much a description of all natural phenomena.

More later…



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What’s the Latin for Thrush?

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Untimely ripped from Alcuin’s breasts.

Just finished deciphering Alcuin’s letter to Dodo, in Colin Chase’s edition.

I was struck by the vividness of the rhetoric, which led me to agree with Chase as to the ‘permanent and didactic purpose’ of the letters. Perhaps there was a real Dodo, who knows, but Alcuin certainly went to a lot of trouble to bring home to him the dangers of the path he was taking, which does support the idea that it was more than a one off letter to save a former student.

Not only is the letter ‘topped and tailed’ with clever set pieces – a pun on Dodo’s name and a poetic depiction of the joys awaiting the sinner who repents – but the letter is full of well developed imagery and rhetorical devices.

Always assuming I’ve got it right, the opening is quite startling.  It is very visual, very physical and, to our eyes, most inappropriate for a teacher pupil relationship.  The image is that of Alcuin not as a teacher, not as a father, but as a mother.  ‘Nec bene lactatus raptus est ab uberibus meis’ makes the allegorical relationship very clear.  It requires of us a real effort to appreciate the relevance of this image for the relationship as Alcuin saw it.  The teacher feeds the pupil, but not just with ordinary food, but with milk from his breasts, recalling perhaps the Pelican feeding its young with blood from its breast. The ideal seems to be that this continues until the pupil is able to take solid food, until such time as he is weaned and thus able to obtain his own spiritual sustenance.  Things have gone wrong because Dido has been parted from his teacher before being this process was completed and is thus not fully protected against the temptations of the world. Dido is therefore not blamed – a very modern response – which opens the way for Alcuin to advise and Dodo to accept this advice.  A rhetorical device, certainly, but an interesting insight into what medieval education was about.  We are not talking here about knowledge of sacred texts but about being imprinted with the manner of being a monk as part of a loving relationship with a parental figure.  That this intuitive process is expressed in elaborate rhetorical language has a certain irony, as does the fact that the language used illustrates very clearly the difference between ‘grammatica’ and ‘rhetorica’.  This is not neutral  language.

Alcuin moves on to more very visual images, devices and biblical references to now as illustration of the risks Dido is running by his behaviour.  He builds up from reference to pains that Dodo should be bale to identify with to ‘totum corpus aeterno crucietur incendio’, from today’s delights of the flesh in terms of food and drink to the image of food rotting and stinking: ‘stercus’. The series of rhetorical questions in lines 55-60 demand to be spoken aloud, as do the repeated pairs beginning ‘in pietate et penitentia’ in lines 47ff.

Permanent, certainly and for us too, didactic.  On to the next letter!

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