2.02 The Donat and the Cato

Once they had mastered the alphabet and a few simple prayers, then, the most serious students, overwhelmingly boys, set out on the Latin course. From the thirteenth century onward, they expected to start with two basic texts ascribed to ancient authors that together offered instruction for beginners in grammatical concepts and moral behavior. These texts were the Donat and the Cato, sometimes encountered individually but in Italy often confected as a single small textbook. The Donat was a late twelfth- or thirteenth-century question-and-answer introduction to Latin inflections named for a loosely similar grammar book of Aelius Donatus (mid-4th century C.E.) that was widely used in the early and high Middle Ages. Under the title Distichs of Cato, on the other hand, students read and memorized a collection of moral sayings that began with time-honored phrases, "Pray to God; love thy parents; honor thy kin." Some early manuscripts of this collection bear the name Dionysius Cato, otherwise unknown, who was identified in the high Middle Ages with Marcus Portius Cato (d. 149 B.C.E.). (3) Both the Donatus and Cato attributions were incorrect but were part of the authority these texts owned in the Middle Ages. In what follows I will refer to these widely-used texts as "the Donat" and "the Cato" (the usage is an early modern English one) and to their authors as Pseudo-Donatus and Pseudo-Cato. These admittedly awkward forms have the advantage of mimicking what these booklets were called by Italian teachers and students of the period. Some modern scholars also label the work of Pseudo-Donatus by its opening word, Ianua. (4) In this they follow stationers and booksellers of the Renaissance who sometimes listed Ianua among their titles in stock. When I must refer to Aelius Donatus' authentic works, I will use his full name and the title Ars minor for his basic grammar.

Italians called not only the attributed author and his text but also the physical textbook they used the Donat -- il Donato, or with a diminutive, il Donadello. Often they meant by this nothing more specific than "grammar booklet." By the fourteenth century what the documents refer to as the Donat is almost always the schoolbook itself rather than the author, the text, or the course of study. The book in fact usually included other texts following that of Pseudo-Donatus, most often the Distichs of Cato. By the late thirteenth century in some parts of Italy, stationers could supply cheap copies of the Donat and the Cato (or both together under the one name, Donat) on a few sturdy parchment leaves, which might be used successively by several students studying across many years. (5) Well before the Renaissance, then, and long before printing, Italian stationers had created the expectation that boys in the elementary Latin classroom would have access to their own copies of these first Latin booklets. These are among the first known books designed specifically for the use of children. They were tools for learning both grammar and morals. They seem also to have been intended as marketing tools, that is, for inculcating the expectation of owning one's own books. They served as models for the layout and design of other primary readers that would appeal to youngsters. Thus, educational marketing and marketing-as-education were born together on the eve of the Italian Renaissance.


  • Open Bibliography
  • (3) Thompson and Perraud 1990, 49-58.
  • (4) Sabbadini 1896; Grendler 1989, 174-194, 413-16; Black 2001, 42-63, 366-378; Black 2007, 44-45.
  • (5) Gehl 1993, 59-61; Black 2001, 85 n. 139; Banker 2003, 65-71.
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