2.01 Learning Reading / Learning Latin

Terence, used at the intermediate Latin level, was a remarkably durable presence in the Latin curriculum; but the first Latin course -- elementary grammar and beginning Latin reading -- was even more conservative. In Italy this course had two stages called "learning the Donat" and "Latinizing." Equivalent modern terms would be "memorizing the grammar booklet" and "early Latin reading." Students first parroted rules they did not understand and then began to decipher texts. In practice there was an even earlier stage, which involved learning the alphabet, making out words (called compitare), and memorizing a few Latin prayers, also for the most part without serious understanding. Such preliminaries might take two years and mastering the Donat another two, as evidenced in one mid-fifteenth-century school. (1)

As the rubrics "Donat" and "Latinizing" imply, however, it was at these stages that the student was tested for real aptitude in Latin; this was the end of the basic reading course and the start of the specialized Latin one that would lead to higher learning of all sorts. With only rare exceptions, it was also the moment when the educational tracks for boys and girls diverged. Latin was for the most part a masculine pursuit; girls who mastered it were exceptional and likely to be praised as virile or condemned as mannish. (2)

That the medieval texts used for this part of the curriculum survived humanist reforms of pedagogy and the even more radical changes wrought by the introduction of printing should come as no surprise. Nothing is more conservative than elementary classroom practice. Marketing textbooks to parents and teachers in the early classes consisted of repackaging comfortably familiar texts. Changes could be introduced only slowly and tentatively, first by adding on to the traditional curriculum or abbreviating it, and only later by substituting new texts for tried and true ones. As a rule, the authority of an esteemed teacher was necessary to create momentum for any novelty.


  • Open Bibliography
  • (1)  Chiesi 1989, 136-137. Lucchi 2000 argues that another early reading exercise, deciphering and reciting the syllabary (a list of possible syllables --"ba, be, bi, bo, bu...") was not part of the medieval curriculum but was reinvented in the fifteenth century as a classroom practice.
  • (2) Lucchi 1978, 600-607 and 1992, 124-126; Chiesi 1989, 136-137; Ortalli 1993, 62-67; Gehl 1993, 21-23; De Blasi 1993, 385-391; Trovato 1994, 24-27; Turchini 1996, 314-315; Black 2001, 41-49. Witt 1995, 98-109 and Black 2001, 39-44 rehearse the evidence for the possibility that students learned to read first in the vernacular. Lucchi 1992, 126 and 2000, 231-234 proposes that a vernacular-only reading course was available to students in the reckoning (abaco) schools as an alternative to the traditional fundamentals course which aimed at Latin schooling; cf. Nada Patrone 1996, 180-183. Lucchi 2000, 225-230 shows that the fifteenth and sixteenth-century iconography of the elementary Latin classroom made a clear distinction between the bareheaded beginners (non-latinantes) and the Latin schoolboys (latinantes), with scholars' caps. Nada Patrone 1996, 209 offers a document that makes it clear that the donatisti --students memorizing the Donat-- were instructed at least in part in the vernacular. Black 2007, 45-47 sees this trend as applicable primarily to the later stage of latinantes.
Switch to Dark Mode
Show Comments