Vol. 13:2/3 (1986) ► pp.365–380
Late latin grammars in the early middle ages
A typological history
The popularity, and hence survival, of certain of the grammars of late Antiquity in the early Middle Ages can to a large extent be described in typological terms. The two principal ancient genres, the Schulgrammatik and the regulae type, were joined in the fifth century by a new genre, the grammatical commentary. The overwhelming importance of Donatus and commentaries on Donatus and the emergence of the elementary foreign-language grammar in the seventh and eighth centuries reveal the subsistence level of language study in early Christendom. The conceptually more challenging grammars of the regulae type, as well as shorter works of the Schulgrammatik type, suffered a temporary eclipse. The greater linguistic confidence of the Carolingian Renaissance shifted the balance toward works of a more varied and demanding nature. Priscian’s Partitiones and Institutiones grammaticae re-entered circulation and in the next few centuries were assiduously excerpted and glossed. Ancient Donatus commentaries were superseded by newly-written ones and were joined by Carolingian commentaries on the principal authors of the regulae type, Phocas and Eutyches. Shorter grammars of the Schulgrammatik type and minor regulae grammars enjoyed a brief return to favour in the first half of the ninth century but failed to establish themselves in the curriculum. Instead, Carolingian teachers devoted themselves to the development of another new genre, the parsing grammar, which was to survive well into the sixteenth century.
The survival pattern of Late Latin grammars thus reflects the priorities of the early Middle Ages. In an environment in which the Latin language, and with it basic literacy, were barely established, the theoretical disquisitions of Varro and Priscian were irrelevant and unhelpful. Many ancient grammatical texts were undoubtedly lost at the end of Antiquity, during the transition from papyrus to parchment; others may well have disappeared in the pre-Carolingian period, when the demands of elementary language teaching were uppermost. This was the final hurdle: those ancient grammars which survived to the Carolingian Renaissance are virtually all available today.
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