3.17 A Slippery Heritage

Grammatical texts, especially those intended for elementary instruction, are unstable at most periods. In the manuscript age, they could be altered at any copying for the use of a specific teacher or student. (94) We tend to think that printed texts are inherently more stable, and they are so in two fundamental ways. First, printing created many identical or highly similar copies of a given work; and secondly, printed texts (absent manuscript variants) are easier to copy than to revise. As early as the 1470's these facts of printed-text inertia were cause for complaint among humanists who objected to poor texts of classical authors that got wide circulation because they were in print. (95) But even in the age of print, every edition was an opportunity for change. We have already observed Mancinelli's growing preoccupation with correction and enlargement, which he seemed to feel was a normal process of reprinting. Once the texts were out of his direct supervision, however, especially after his death, they were subject to detailed revision by other teachers.

Practically every grammar master who published in this period faced the same problem of the need for revision and the concomitant urge to tinker, not only with his own original compositions but also with those of others that seemed useful but worth modifying for his own classroom. For example, the German humanist Johann Murmellius (1480-1517), whose career as a publishing teacher began in 1504 just as Mancinelli's was ending, typically published a second, "improved" edition of his schoolbooks within a year or two of the first editions. The improvements could involve significant enlargements, about fifteen percent in the case of his first printed work on verb conjugations. Or they could aim mostly at correcting typographical errors, as in the case of the second and subsequent editions of Murmellius' version of Mancinelli's Versilogus with commentary and original poetry by Murmellius. This anthology was published six times in the lifetime of the German schoolmaster. (96)

A clear example of the unstable afterlife of grammatical schoolbooks is the wholesale appropriation of Mancinelli's works (and those of many other grammarians) by Josse Bade Ascensius. (97) As early as 1501, Bade incorporated Mancinelli's commentary on Lorenzo Valla into his own edition of the Elegantiae. Bade was usually careful to give attributions when he used other humanists' work, and indeed to claim on his title pages and in prefaces and marginalia that he had included them. Bade was both scholar and printer, so it was in his interest to advertise not only his own authority but also that of the other scholars whose work he reprinted.

One of the clearest cases in which Bade both appropriated another scholar's work with attribution and also tampered with it without stating the changes was Mancinelli's Carmen de figuris. Mancinelli's short didactic poems were eminently practical; they were much reproduced both within and outside his immediate circle. The Carmen de figuris originally appeared as a separate booklet in August 1489, just five days before its companion piece the Carmen de floribus. Thereafter, these two works usually appeared in combined editions. In 1493 at Venice, for example, Mancinelli supervised a printing of this combination together with his newly composed autobiographical poem, the Vitae carmen. Subsequently, the Carmen de figuris was linked with other didactic poetry in small booklets published more or less under Mancinelli's direct supervision. In the collections made late in Mancinelli's life it had a clear position in the sequence of classroom poetry labeled Carminum opuscula that included as many as a dozen works. The Carmen de figuris almost always occurs together with the de floribus immediately after the Versilogus and before Mancinelli's extensive collection of epigrams. As such it has a place in a system of verse instruction that moves from simple moral instruction (the first work is Speculum de moribus et officiis), through technical instruction embodied in verse, and on to an anthology of moral sayings useful as starting points for composition even more than for moral self-education. (98)

Already in 1505, the year before Mancinelli's death, Josse Bade began to publish a series of Mancinelli's classroom works. Usually the learned Paris printer furnished the texts with additional annotations. Sometimes he anthologized Mancinelli with other humanists. In 1508, for example, he included the Carmen de figuris in an edition of the grammar book of Giovanni Sulpizio (a contemporary of Mancinelli and like him a member of the circle of Pomponio Leto) as part of an appendix of several writers on the figures of speech. Curiously, Bade substituted six lines of his own composition for the first five lines of Mancinelli's poem. Clearly labeled Mancinellus de figuris, these read:

Barbara scribendo fit siue loquendo figura
Una in uoce; aliud more insueto superaddens
Demens aut mutans seu transmutans: uti mavors
Pro mars; & fates pro fantes; asuenio pro
Aduenio, fors tymbrae legas pro timber eritque
Accentu veluti dicendo domina eodemque. (99)

Compare this with Mancinelli's original, five verses which had stood for twenty years in all earlier editions:

Fit barbarismus scribendo sive loquendo
Adiicit ac demit mutat transmutat et idem
Una in voce tamen mavors fates bene pandunt
Asuenio tymbrae & pro mars fantes quoque tymber
Advenio: sic et dicendo domina dominus. (100)

Presumably Bade thought he had clarified the obscure verses of Mancinelli or improved the meter. But both versions were complex enough to require explanatory comment. Mancinelli had produced such a note, twenty three lines of prose to explicate five of poetry. The poem and commentary stand together in all earlier editions. Bade reproduced this commentary word for word in 1508 (though it refers to a different poem!) and then added his own notes, at about the same length as Mancinelli's, so that these few lines of poor mnemonic verse swell to a full page loaded down with learned commentary.


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  • (94) On the instability of such texts of "modesta cultura" see Franceschini 2003, 63-65.
  • (95) Rossini 1997, 104-111.
  • (96) E.g. Mancinelli 1507d; Reichling 1880, 48-51, 132-135. This version of Versilogus continued to be printed well into the sixteenth century, at least in part because Murmellius called it the best of all books on versification. A particularly handsome edition is Mancinelli 1540.
  • (97) Renouard 1908 gives a detailed account of his career; an important, recent addition to the literature is Crane 2005.
  • (98) For the Carmen de figuris in the larger history of rhetoric, Green 1999, 81-83.
  • (99) Which we may translate, "The barbarous figure may occur in speech or writing when one word with an unaccustomed form or meaning is substituted, replaced, changed or transformed in place of another, for example, using mavors for mars and fates for fantes, asvenio for advenio; perhaps you will read tymbrae for timber and for the sake of the meter domina will be said for both forms."
  • (100) "Barbarism occurs in writing or speaking when one word is added, altered or even changed and transformed into another. Thus mavors, vates, asvenio and tymbrae stand in for mars, fantes, tymber, and advenio. So also domina may be said for dominus."
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