2.14 Catonis Disticha

No such fate awaited the other medieval standard, the verse anthology of Pseudo-Cato. Since it was a collection of moral sayings in more or less classical Latin, the Cato could be embraced by grammarians with many teaching styles. (85) The early humanists particularly valued it as an open window on the morality of the ancient world. Because it was an elementary text, moreover, the Cato was exempt from the broader humanist critique of medieval florilegia. From Petrarch onwards, the Italian humanists rebelled against the scholastic practice, embodied in popular preaching as well, of excerpting pithy sayings as themes for new composition without regard for their proper literary and moral contexts. This practice amounted to treating the sayings as authoritative individually and in themselves rather than understanding their authors as creators of morally integral works of literature. (86)

The Cato, however, was accepted by the humanists as an integrated work in its own right. Its anthologic nature was simply part of its elementary character. Heinrich Bebel, one of the most eloquent spokesmen for Italian humanist educational ideas in Germany, contrasted the Cato with the other moralizing poetry usually given to school boys. He concluded (on the authority of Lorenzo Valla) that it is highly salutary and written in excellent Latin, even if it is not to be attributed to the historical Cato. Moreover, he forbade teachers to read other "minor authors" (he meant the medieval schoolroom poets) with their students:

In conclusion, all versifiers and minor authors are to be avoided by those who are eager to acquire eloquence and especially by those of tender age, unless they are authors who have written bountifully and elegantly on a pleasant and moral subject. I make exception as well for the book ascribed to "Cato." For no one in a thousand years, says Valla, has written a more elegant Latin poem than the author of this book. ... And the book itself may well be called "a Cato" for its gravity and integrity, on which account works known as "Catos" are celebrated with the highest praise. (87)

The issue for Bebel, as it had been for Valla and other early Italian humanists, was that students in the traditional scholastic curriculum absorbed bad Latin and chancy morals all at once. In humanist schools, they would instead learn both good usage and moral commonplace thought. (88)

As the Counter-Reformation proceeded, teachers stressed more and more that the Cato was only one introduction to commonplace moral thinking. It was properly complemented by prayers, scripture passages, and simple devotional texts that would add a Christian dimension to the most elementary instruction. Angelo Turchini notes that by the turn of the seventeenth century teachers urgently maintained that the ancients were superior to modern men in eloquence but not in matters of religion or morals. Some authors of new grammars insisted that students should advance as early as possible to reading moral texts. (89)


  • Open Bibliography
  • (85) Grendler 1989, 197-200; Blasio 2005, 15-18.
  • (86) Fubini 2003, 51-54-74-77.
  • (87) Bebel 1513, fol. B5r-v: Omnes (quae simul ut tandem concludam) versificatores, minutique auctores, omnibus eloquentiae studiosis, et presertim teneriori aetati declinandi, nisi forsan essent tales, qui copiose & floride de re iucunda nec nimis turpi scripserunt. Excipio etiam libellum qui Cato inscribitur, huius auctorem dicit Valla inter minutos auctores latinissimum & quo mille annis nemo carmen scripserit elegantium. ... Attamen ideo forsan Cato appelari potest iste libellus, a gravitate morum vitaeque integritate, in quibus summa laude Catones sunt famigerati.
  • (88) Further on Bebel, Jensen 1996b, 19-28; on the decline of the medieval school poets in the face of humanist criticism, Black 2001, 270-273 and 2007, 50 and 149-50.
  • (89)  B. Rubini, cited in Turchini, 314-319.
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