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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Renaissance Education

Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy: Tradition and Innovation in Latin Schools from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century by Robert Black (Cambridge University Press) This is the first comprehensive study of the school curriculum in medieval and Renaissance Italy. Robert Black's analysis finds that the real innovators in the history of Latin education in Italy were the thirteenth‑century schoolmasters who introduced a new method of teaching grammar based on logic, and their early fourteenth‑century successors, who first began to rely on the vernacular as a tool to teach Latin grammar. Thereafter, in the later fourteenth and for most of the fifteenth century, conservatism, not innovation, charac­terized the earlier stages of education. The study of classical texts in medieval Italian schools reached a highpoint in the twelfth century but then collapsed as universities rose in importance during the thir­teenth century, a sharp decline only gradually reversed in the two centuries that followed. Robert Black demonstrates that the famous humanist educators did not introduce the revolution in the class­room that is usually assumed, and that humanism did not make a significant impact on school teaching until the later fifteenth century.

Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy is a major contribution to Renaissance studies, to Italian history and to the history of European education, the fruit of sustained manuscript research over many years.

The first chapter of Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy focuses on the historiographical perspectives which have shaped previous studies of the Latin curriculum. In particular, an attempt has been made to emphasize the advantages, as well as drawbacks, of both the positivist and the neo‑Hegelian idealist approaches. Black suggests the merits and disadvantages of another study of humanist education by Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, a work which has been extensively criticized for its antihumanist polemics but whose insight into the philological rather than moral nature of humanist teaching has not been fully appreciated; the main shortcoming of Grafton and Jardine's study is that they did not consider the medieval background to humanist philological teaching: here Black shows that, not just in the Renaissance but also in the Italian middle ages, teaching was overridingly philological rather than moral.

In chapter 2, Black examines the development of the elementary curriculum, showing how traditional methods of learning to read, developed in the middle ages (and in antiquity) before pupils had their own books, persisted into the fifteenth century, when pupil ownership of reading manuals gradually modified the reliance on memory in learning to read Latin in favour of translation. In this chapter Black deals in detail with the development of the fundamental Italian textbook of elementary education, the so‑called lanua, not only publishing for the first time a detailed analysis of the earliest known manuscript of this work but also showing how the nature of the text changed in response to evolving social and economic needs in later medieval and early Renaissance Italy.

In chapter 3, Black focuses on the fundamental changes which occurred in Latin education as a result of the emergence of a new philosophy of language in twelfth‑century France. This innovative approach to language made possible the development of a comprehensive theory of syntax, enabling masters to work out a digestible system of teaching sentence structure and prose composition for the first time. This new theory and teaching method was popularized throughout Europe by one of the most significant textbooks of all time: Alexander of Villedieu's Dochinale, published in 1199, a work just as influential in Italy as in Northern Europe. Alexander invented the secondary grammar manual ‑ a work which presupposes the knowledge of Latin forms already learned at the elementary level. This new secondary grammar syllabus as defined by Alexander became widespread in Italy during the thirteenth century, not only through the circulation of his own work but also by means of the Italian prose textbook or Summa of secondary grammar, a genre which followed Alexander's syllabus closely. However, Italian grammar was already diverging from transalpine patterns in the sense that, whereas in Northern Europe grammar was taught by memorizing verse treatises such as Doctrinale, in Italy pupils tended to own their own copies of prose textbooks. In the fourteenth century, these prose summe were given a more systematic format; even more important was the introduction of the vernacular as a tool of Latin teaching in the Trecento. In contrast to all the rapid developments in secondary grammar from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, the Quattrocento was a period of conservatism. The traditional character of the most widely circulated humanist treatises by Guarino and Perotti is well known through the fundamental work of Percival." In Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy Black confirms that the vast majority of the lesser known and anonymous fifteenth‑century secondary grammars were equally conservative.

The fourth chapter deals with the canon of Latin authors, divided since the twelfth century into minor (e.g. Disticha Catonis, Rias latina, Prudentius, Prosper of Aquitaine, Henry of Settimello or Bonvesin da la Riva) and major (i.e. the Roman poetic and prose classics) authors. Based on the survey of 324 schoolbooks in Florentine libraries, the findings here have been that the burgeoning study of the Roman classics at school in Italy during the twelfth century collapsed in the thirteenth century. This result confirms the hypothesis originally put forward by Louis Paetow in 1910 of the downfall of the classics in thirteenth‑century Europe and Italy as a result of the rise of the univerisities; this view, founded on contemporary witnesses, was dismissed, on the basis of impressionistic evidence, by E. K. Rand and Helene Wieruszowski but has recently been revived by Francesco Bruni, only to be once more questioned by Gian Carlo Alessio and Claudia Villa. The debate hitherto has had to rely on sporadic and impressionistic evidence, but the new positive and systematic data provided by this book will, it is hoped, raise the question to a new level of scholarly discussion. The fourteenth century witnessed an extensive revival of the school classics, as well as the continuation of the study of the texts (such as the minor authors and Boethius's Consolation) which had been substituted for the classics in the thirteenth century. Fifteenth‑century humanism, in this context, represents a continuation of the Trecento revival, in which some authors such as Cicero and Vergil attained a level of popularity unprecedented in the middle ages. Throughout the first half of the century there was also continued study of the minor authors and of Boethius's Consolation on a level commensurate with Trecento activity on these texts. This mixture of innovation and tradition, characteristic of the school canon in the earlier fifteenth century, was not put aside until the last decades of the century, when the humanists, in their role as education censors, finally began to have success in purging texts such as Boethius's Consolation and many of the minor authors from the curriculum.

Chapter 5 considers how the Latin authors were read at school. Some recent studies have tended to equate the contents of modern printed editions with what medieval and Renaissance schoolboys read and understood in these texts." This assumption can disregard the overriding importance of glossing in the process of reading before the advent of printing. Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy takes another approach, basing its findings on a study of manuscript glosses of the 324 Florentine schoolbooks, besides a consideration of the school copies of Boethius's Consolation in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The conclusion is that the glossing and teaching of these authors throughout the middle ages and Renaissance in the Italian schoolroom was overwhelmingly philological; the few moral or philosophical glosses are invariably lost in a vast sea of philological detail. Teachers made use of the great medieval commentary tradition on an author such as Boethius, but they did so selectively and always with their rudimentary philological concerns at the forefront. Thus a basic schoolbook such as Boethius's Consolation, far from being used as a text of moral philosophy, appears to have been read in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as a convenient anthology of Latin prose and poetry, filled with valuable grammatical, mythological, geographical, lexical and metrical material. In this chapter the approach is topical rather than chronological: although there were a few developments in teaching literary texts in the Italian schoolroom, nevertheless the overwhelming conclusion of my study of manuscript glosses has been the continuity of educational methods and interests in the period from 1200 to 1500.

Chapter 6 deals with the question of how pupils were taught to refine their prose writing style. It is clear that they first learned Latin according to the word order and syntax of the modern Romance languages: in other words, they were first taught what we should now call medieval Latin. In the middle ages this type of language was given the name ordo naturalis. Once they had fully mastered this basic Latin syntax, they moved on to what was called ordo artificialis. This involved an ornamented prose style, one, however, which presupposed a command of the grammatical rules of syntax involved in ordo naturalis. In Italian schools from the beginning of the thirteenth up to the earlier fifteenth century, the key textbook for learning this style was Geoffrey of Vinsauf's Poetfa nova, a work generally misunderstood as teaching poetic composition; in fact, the glosses to the text make it clear that the work, regardless of the author's intention, was used to teach prose style. Geoffrey taught what amounted to an abstract system of stylistics, based ultimately on Cicero and Roman rhetorical theory but distorted through the prism of medieval rhetoric, the ars dictaminis. Under the influence of humanism in the fifteenth century, this type of stylistic ornamentation became unpalatable; teachers such as Perotti and particularly Agostino Dati substituted an easy route to Ciceronianism in their best‑selling abbreviated manuals of style. Nevertheless, the basic division of teaching Latin into two stages, one grammatical, the other stylistic or rhetorical, remained. In the Renaissance, just as in the middle ages, pupils first learned ordo naturalis (or medieval Latin); they then gradually purified this language primarily through study of stylistic manuals, whether Geoffrey of Vinsauf's Poetria nova or Agostino Dati's Elegantiolae.

Some definition of a few key terms may help to clarify the scope of Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. In England, the word school is strictly limited to preuniversity education; pupils attend school, whereas universities admit students. In the United States, usage of these terms is more fluid: there are students at elementary (grammar) schools, just as there are at high schools; moreover, even great universities can be called schools. In Italy, scuola as an institution normally corresponds to the English usage of school, but one can speak of a preeminent university professor such as Bartolus of Sassoferrato and his scuola, meaning either the locality in which he taught or his pupils. In Italian, the term scuola tends to be broader than the English school, but not quite as wide as in American usage. In Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, Black uses the term “school” in the English sense. There is some contemporary justification for this. In the 1427 Catasto (tax declarations) of Florentines and their subjects, for example, there was a linguistic distinction between pupils who went to school (scuola) and students who went to university (studio)," as there was between school (scholae) and university (studium) in the statutes of Forli from the second half of the fourteenth century. For Italian readers of this book, the usage adopted for school here corresponds to the term scuola di base encountered in recent literature on the history of education; Black wants to convey the point that in Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy pre‑university education is being discussed. These distinctions between school and university, of course, are relevant only to the thirteenth century and thereafter, when universities began to emerge. Nevertheless, even in the high middle ages there were curricular distinctions between lower and upper levels of study: it was generally recognized that youth was devoted to the pagan classics, whereas mature years should be dedicated to higher subjects (such as the Scriptures)." The focus of Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy is on these lower levels of the educational hierarchy, both before and after the rise of the universities. The picture which emerges from this study may seem conservative but it should be stressed that, when entering the Quattrocento, this book does not deal with the humanist school as a whole (an institution on which more research based on surviving schoolbooks is needed), but only with its lower strata (in Guarino's case, the so-called elementary and grammatical, but not the final rhetorical, levels). There can be little doubt that, as the pupil reached the upper rhetorical levels and even the end of the grammatical syllabus treated in this book, humanist teaching was ever more innovative; conversely, Quattrocento grammar instruction tended to be conservative, all the more so the lower the educational ladder was descended, and therefore it is little wonder that the humanists strove to free themselves as much as possible from the subordinate strata of the educational world.


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