III.2 Grammar as key to the tower of learning

III.2 Grammar as key to the tower of learning

Image 1. Woodcut entitled ‘Typus gram(m)atic(a)e’ (‘Image of grammar'), from Gregor Reisch, Margarita philosophica (4th authorized edn, Basle 1517), book I tractatus I, page VI.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.  Licence:  PD-Art.

The work.  Gregor Reisch's Margarita philosophica or The philosophical pearl was first published in 1503 and reprinted eleven times during the sixteenth century.  It is the first synoptic treatment of the standard undergraduate curriculum to be widely disseminated in print.  Amongst the attractive features of the work is a series of woodcuts illustrating each of the arts disciplines.  This image of grammar -- the most basic discipline -- is also perhaps the most famous, since it provides an overview of the arts curriculum as a whole.

Commentary on the image. As a small boy (bottom left) approaches the tower of learning (labelled ‘triclinium philosophiae’ or ‘the banqueting room of philosophy’), a female figure turns to hand him a primer or hornbook containing the alphabet.  The woman is identified as Nicostrata, whom the Romans credited with the invention of the alphabet.  In her left hand she holds a key, symbolising that grammar provides entrance to all the learned disciplines.  More specifically, the key is labelled ‘congruitas’, that is, the ‘agreement’ in number, person, gender and case which is the basis of Latin grammar. 

Inside the doorway, grammar is divided into two floors, in the manner of many late medieval grammar schools.  The ground floor is occupied by Donatus, a fourth-century Roman grammarian whose treatment of the eight parts of speech was the standard introduction to the subject.  The teacher wields the birch rod traditionally associated with grammar: its sting was supposed to assist the memorization of complex grammatical rules.  The second floor is ascribed to Priscian, who provided more advanced instruction in the whole of grammar.  From here an older student can be seen ascending to the study of the other liberal arts: students typically ascended to university study in their early teens, armed with little more than grammar: hence the traditional designation of Latin preparatory schools as ‘grammar schools’.

Typical of the period is the clear hierarchy of disciplines and the association of a single authority with each.  In the second floor we have the other two parts of the Trivium – Logic, represented by Aristotle and Rhetoric (atypically united with poetry), represented by ‘Tullius’ or Cicero – and the most elementary discipline of the Quadrivium: arithmetic (still associated with the early medieval authority, Boethius). In the second floor is music (represented by Pythagoras), Geometry (by Euclid), and Astronomy (by Ptolemy). 

The top of the building is occupied by the three philosophies.  ‘Physica’ or natural philosophy is ascribed to ‘ph[ilosoph]us]’: such was Aristotle’s centrality to the ats curriculum that he was commonly referred to simply as ’The Philosopher’.   Moral philosophy is represented here by Seneca, and the tower of learning is crowned by metaphysics, here identified with theology and therefore represented by the medieval schoolman Peter Lombard, whose ‘Book of Sentences’ or opinions provided the foundation of traditional theological instruction.

Further readingNatural Philosophy Epitomised: Books 8-11 of Gregor Reisch's Philosophical Pearl (1503), translated and edited by Andrew Cunningham and Sachiko Kusukawa (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010) provides a thorough introduction to the work, a commentary on the main sequence of images, and a translation of the four books on natural philosophy.

Images 2-3 Funerary Monument for Sir Thomas Bodley (1615), Merton College Chapel. Photo: Robin Stevens, 28 April 2007. Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. 

Essentially the same depiction of Grammar is found on the funerary monument for Sir Thomas Bodley, the founder of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, erected in Merton College Chapel in 1615, over a century after Reisch's work was first published.  In the lowest portion of the monument, the female figure of Grammar reclines, identified again by the hornbook behind her.  Once again, her discipline is represented by the golden key in her hand, which unlocks the staircase to high learning ascending in the archway in front of her.  The books behind her to the right are likewise the grammarians, Donatus and Priscianus, accompanied in this case by Diomedes.  Above, Bodley's bust is flanked by figures represpenting the trivium and quadrivium: further commentary is available here

Credits: Howard Hotson (November 2017).