4.05 De Spauter and the Reform of Pedagogy

Jan de Spauter was a Flemish humanist almost universally known during his lifetime (and in posthumous reputation) under the Latinized surname Despauterius. He studied at Louvain during the years Erasmus was there, and he was both a personal friend of Erasmus and a kindred soul in educational terms. The only known tension in their relationship came in 1508 when De Spauter published some of Erasmus's work on letter theory in a form Erasmus felt was undigested. The incident was entirely typical of their milieu. Scholars who worked in the shadow of the Trilingual College at Louvain were so intensely enthused by the heady results of their pedagogical experience that they fairly jostled to create new textbooks and to present the fruits of their humanist education to the broad public made possible by print. De Spauter rushed his own works to print and repeatedly re-issued them with additions and corrections. It seems that the presses could hardly keep up with him; in turn he had to scramble to keep his works from multiplying beyond his control. By mid-century, De Spauter's grammatical works had become so popular that his name, in the forms "Despauterius" or "Despautère," had become almost synonymous in France with "grammar book." (15)

The cause of De Spauter's popularity was his teaching method, which consisted of organizing the whole of Latin grammar into short, easily memorizable bits that embraced both the rules and the many exceptions that bedeviled schoolboys. Medieval Latinists had tolerated neologisms that smoothed out the thorny irregularity of classical Latin because new words were formed mechanically on the basis of old, regular forms. With the rebirth of stylistics closely modeled on ancient writers, it became necessary to master an ever-larger vocabulary and many more irregular forms. (16)

One early title page advertised De Spauter's teaching method thus: " ... by inquiries and rules (but without the nonsense of sophists) all matters are clearly and easily digested." (17) The system depended on the ability of printers to reproduce the lessons in distinctive typographic dress so that the function of each section would be obvious and so that it would be clear which passages were to be memorized. On a typical page, De Spauter and his printers arranged several components: a rule; one or more examples of the Latin usage; parallel words or phrases in the vernacular to aid in immediate comprehension; and a rhymed couplet or two that repeated the rule and examples in memorizable doggerel. We have already seen the kernel of such a system in the classroom poems of Antonio Mancinelli who, like De Spauter, was adapting the pedagogical method of Alexander of Villa Dei's Doctrinale to better and more classical models. But De Spauter extended the practice from small groups of rules and limited, elementary vocabulary to the entirety of Latin grammar, and De Spauter's pedagogy got clear typographical expression. Rules, examples, and doggerel march like soldiers across the "Despauterian" page. (18)

The typographic aspects of such a teaching system might be clearer if we examine a typical case, De Spauter's treatment of the use of ablative or accusative for answering place-name questions. A modern prescriptive grammar states this rule thus: "The Names of Towns and words which follow their analogy are put 1. In the Accusative to denote the Place to Which. 2. In the Ablative to denote the Place from Which." This same grammar gives a single example of each usage. (19) De Spauter, by contrast, stated the rule first in verbose prose with numerous examples, and then in more concise verse. The first part of the prose, covering only half the rule, reads: "Proper nouns for towns or places (or with two substantives like country and house), if there shall be an implied question 'from where' or 'by which route,' are put in adverbial position using an ablative without a preposition, thus: 'Whence come you? I come from Rome / from the Tiber / from Paris / from Lyon / from the country house.' See also your Terence where [several passages are cited]…"

The key to the Despauterian teaching system, however, was mnemonic and typographic. This prolix rule was first presented in paragraph form with type and formatting that indicate its role as an explanation to be read and discussed. It was also encapsulated in a thumping verse and re-presented in larger and bolder type, which indicated that it would be drilled and memorized. The verse in this case, belabored by generations of students, went something like this: "Whenever you want to ask 'whence' or 'from where,' / Then you must put the sixth case there. / For 'to where" or 'whither,' instead, / get the fourth case into your head. / Thus in place names, for ins and for outs, / or when you join two nouns like 'country' and 'house.'" (20) A verse like this may have been easy to memorize by sheer rote, but even a student who could parrot it accurately might well not remember what it meant in practice. So the longer prose explanation with examples was essential both in classroom practice and on the page. (21)

This much of Despauter's text was given to students and worked through in class. Many editions also include additional, closely set paragraphs of citations from classical literature, the "authorities" beloved of humanist scholars. These notes were intended for the teachers only, and there is some question with early editions of De Spauter whether they were truly student editions or teacher's manuals. One unambiguous case is constituted by the parallel editions issued by Robert Estienne starting in 1537. A grand folio was offered for teachers and modest quartos for students. (22)

Schoolboys hated De Spauter's system for it gave them endless lines of bad verse to memorize. But teachers loved it, perhaps just because it absolved them from any more original or personalized teaching method. It reduced the vast forest of Latin grammar, difficult to traverse much less analyze and explain, to a large but limited number of thorny thickets, each with a set of drills. Teachers, of course, too often merely drilled; and the students were stuck with the uncongenial task of memorizing. No analysis needed, no explanations offered. Success for the student depended on a good memory, patience, and a strong will to please. The process of weeding out students who could not master the subject on these terms was relatively mechanical. (23)


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  • (15) Hèbrard 1983, 74-76; Colombat 1999, 36-38. On the Trilingual College and its milieu, Henderson 1988, 184-185; Jardine 1993, 17-23; on textbook publishing in this circle, Perraud 1988, 84.
  • (16) Medieval and Renaissance grammarians repeatedly and obsessively concerned themselves with irregular forms; see esp. Ford 2000, 164-166; Colombat 1993, 104-106.
  • (17) Spauter 1518; for this commonplace (later turned against Spauter), Kukenheim 1951, 55-57.
  • (18) Hèbrard 1983, 76-79 describes the typography. The most comprehensive discussion of De Spauter's method, Colombat 1993, 97-127, barely mentions typographic elements. Most of the typographical devices were not original to De Spauter and his printers; see Henkel 1995, esp. 215-218 on Caxton's use of some of them.
  • (19) Harkness 1898, 245.
  • (20) Spauter 1536c, fol. 64v-65r: Tu sextum casum si quando per unde rogaris / aut qua: responde. Si per quo: ponito quartum / in propriis. quibus usque cupit rus cum domus addi. More literally, of course, this doggerel would translate, "If you are asked 'from where' or 'where,' answer in the sixth case with proper nouns; if asked 'to what place' use the fourth case; and always when 'country' is to be added to 'house.'"
  • (21) Ford 2000, 165-166 gives another instructive example.
  • (22) Hèbrard 1983, 79; Colombat 1993, 37.
  • (23) Grafton and Jardine 1986, 20-28, 122-125; Waquet 2001, 129-145.
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