V.3 Grammar: a window on the ancient world

V.3 Grammar: a window on the ancient world

The status of grammar was transformed by the humanist project.

Grammar in the medieval academic world. As noted above, grammar was traditionally associated with children. Latin was the universal language of higher learning and, as such the only language tolerated in the university. In order to matriculate, a young person (typically in the mid-teens) therefore needed to demonstrate the capacity to speak and write as well as read Latin. But Latin is a complex language grammatically with a long and distinguished literary tradition. Pre-university education was consequently focused primarily in acquiring this very difficult skill: hence the designation of 'grammar school', in which a young person learned Latin grammar and very little else. In the medieval university, therefore, Latin was something one studied as a child in order to enter the university, not something one studied after one had entered.

Humanist grammar as a window on the ancient world. For the humanists, however, grammar was radically elevated in status. A full mastery of the Latin language – supplemented eventually by Greek, Hebrew, and other Semitic languages -- provided the principal window into the ideas, values, and institutions of classical antiquity. The more sophisticated the linguistic mastery, the clearer that window became. But a full mastery of the language required intimate knowledge of culture and history as well: it is for this reason that, in Oxford, the two subjects were taught together within the Schola grammaticae et historicae in the Schools Quadrangle.

The ascendancy of grammar. Moreover, Erasmus, Luther, and the other Protestant reformers refocused unprecedented amounts of theological attention on the text of Scripture; and in doing so they radically increased the importance of grammar -- understood as complete mastery of ancient Greek and Hebrew in their historical contexts -- for the study of the Queen of the Disciplines. The consequence elevation of grammar from the most humble of the liberal arts to one of the most prestigious of the academic disciplines is suggested by the engraving reproduced here, from title-page to Balduinus Walaeus, Novi Testamenti libri historici (Amsterdam, 1653 and 1662). This gathering of nine scholars and theologians around a table, includes three great humanist scholars renowned for their expertise in Greek language and culture rather than in theology -- (1) Daniel Heinsius, (4) Joseph Justus Scaliger, and (6) Claudius Salmasius -- as well as a fourth, the lawyer (9) Hugo Grotius, who straddled the boundary between classical scholarship and theology.

Credits. Howard Hotson, January 2024