1.03 School Authors

In medieval usage, the fundamental texts of any discipline were its auctores, literally "authors," though at all periods this Latin term auctor had the meaning "founder" or "author of first principles" and therefore much of the modern sense of "an inventor," or "an authority." The scholastics divorced the word from an original notion of personality or personal authorship and attached it to the authoritative text itself. Any anthology of texts or collection of laws could be an auctor, whether or not the collection to hand was the work of a single author or even of an identifiable one. The scholastic compendium of canon law that achieved universal acceptance as a textbook was indifferently called by its title, Decretum, or by its editor, Gratian, almost from the beginning. It was rarely called and even more rarely cited as "the Decretum of Gratian" or by its more descriptive subtitle, Concordance of Discordant Canons. The comparable study-text for theology was the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Although Peter authored other works, this one became so standard that it was cited everywhere as "the Lombard," as if he were the only scholar from that region to write on theology, and as if the historical Peter had made only this one work. Even a highly literary textbook like the fables of Aesop had an author whose name became the title of the book, in large part because he was not in fact the author (in any modern sense) of the text in question but rather its inspiration.(10)

This habit of mind was universal, and must be kept in mind as we navigate the labyrinth of textbook history. "Donatus," we will discover in a later chapter, was a book more often than an author, and in Italy at least, a book containing texts not authored by the historical grammarian Aelius Donatus. Terence, widely used as a reading text for intermediate students of Latin, was similarly both author and book. The modern question of historical authorship did not apply in this case. Only six plays from the pen of Publius Terentius Afer (d. 159 B.C.E.) survive. They usually circulated as an anthology, and so the textbook Terence was typically the real Terence, or rather, the surviving Terence. Which is not to say that students mastered Terence. In many schools not all six plays were read, or they were not read equally thoroughly. From the twelfth century onward many pseudo-Terentian plays circulated too, taught instead of or alongside the real plays. These were patent imitations and only rarely mistaken for genuine, but they were so widely known that they were Terentian auctores in their own right. They were usually called by their main characters, Pamphilus or Geta, for example. (11)

The early humanists successfully challenged the mythic world of medieval auctores by distinguishing historical contexts for individual works, by rejecting some sources entirely, and by subjecting all of them to a critique of their language and style. Their work uncoupled textual and literary authority from doctrinal orthodoxy, even from Christian morality. (12) In so doing, they created opportunities for re-thinking the place of certain authors in the elementary and intermediate school curricula. Gradually medieval school auctores became textbook authors in our modern sense of the word. This transformation was wrought over and over in the course of the long sixteenth century, laboriously achieved anew in the case of each ancient or medieval text.

In this chapter, Terence will serve as a case study for the way Renaissance teachers and publishers transformed school texts from medieval auctores into modern textbooks. These modernized authors were responsible for (but separable from) their textual productions, and the textbook editors were sometimes more important on the market than the authors. Printing, of course, contributed to this phenomenon. The singular manuscript copy of Terence had a weighty authority that hundreds of near-identical Terences would not. The many competing editions that eventually flooded the market created a crisis of authority. But printing was only one dimension of the larger story of recovering the historical authors of antiquity. For our purposes it is more appropriate in any case to speak of the market for print rather than of printing itself, since marketing (more than technology) made the textbook author.

Terence is a useful case study because the comedies were so widely read, or, more precisely, because teachers so generally claimed to teach them. The textbook Terence, however, has a more complex history than these near-universal claims imply. In some parts of Northern Europe it was to be found in classrooms more or less continuously from the central Middle Ages into the fifteenth century, while in Italy it had gone into eclipse and was re-introduced into the curriculum by the early humanists. By the time printing arrived in Italy, Terence had a regular place in the schools. Its place was sanctioned by the antiquity of the text and the quality of its language, but not by continuous use across many centuries. By contrast to some other reading texts, Terence was a new arrival, a humanist fashion.


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  • (10) The best summary of the complex historical and critical problem of medieval auctoritas and modern authorship is Ascoli 2008, 5-12 and 29-44. See also useful discussions by Carruthers 1990, 189-220; Wheatley 2000, 13-31; Lerer 2008, 24-56.
  • (11) Commedie latine 1976-1980; on neo-Terentian comedies of the sixteenth century, Bloemendal 2003, 49-63.
  • (12) Fubini 2003, 47-53.
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