4.09 Jean Pellisson, Company Man

Jean Pellisson is the most recognizably modern of the Northerners in our group, and justly the least well known. Ambitious but relatively unoriginal, he was thoroughly given to playing the game of publishing for personal advancement. He was a company man before the fact, something his prefaces and annotations evidence clearly. Pellisson was self-conscious about his own pedagogical practice and advocated strongly for methods he had used with success in the classroom. Always, however, he phrased his remarks in praise of the work to hand, and so his prefaces read like advertisements of a very modern sort. They were product endorsements by a prominent educator who participated intellectually and financially in preparing new editions of textbooks.

Pellisson called his first grammar book indifferently Progymnasmata (meaning elementary exercises) or Rudimenta (Introduction -- this last appears on all surviving title pages). He was emphasizing that it derived from his own classroom exercises. The book was devised about 1522, he tells us, as a simplification of the drills in De Spauter's collected works, but no copy survives of the early editions he mentions. In an earlier chapter (section 3.02), we saw the 1529 preface to the revised Rudimenta where, by contrast to Antonio Mancinelli's matter-of-fact notion that teaching texts benefit by print, Pellisson complained that once in print, his exercises were reprinted without his knowledge and outside his control, so that classroom informalities and minor errors multiplied wildly. (44) In the same preface of 1529, he expanded on his philosophy of teaching and textbook making. He insisted that no grammar book teaches by itself, and that students learn only under the attentive guidance of a good master. This remark, though it echoes a commonplace as old as humanism itself, seems aimed at those contemporaries who embraced the grammar books of De Spauter uncritically as easy to teach. Pellisson said instead that, although De Spauter's system was a good one, his textbooks only seemed easy because they reduced everything to the memorization of rules. This appealed to lazy teachers but not to good ones.

In this regard, Pellisson in 1529 was also picking up on an idea that had been articulated by Niccolò Perotti in the fourteen seventies, that the memorization of endless rules was not good pedagogy. For Perotti, memorization was to be reserved for classical texts and vocabulary. (45) Aldo Manuzio, whose authority in Northern Europe was considerable, had sounded a similar theme in his elementary grammar of 1493 and repeated it with emphasis in editions of 1501 and later that had wide currency among professional grammarians, especially in the North:

I would like you to keep in mind another thing, namely that you do not force the boys to learn anything except from the most learned authors. Indeed, I recommend their not even learning grammatical rules except in the briefest formulae that they can easily memorize, but they should only learn how to decline nouns and verbs so they can read the rules accurately and carefully. For, when we force them to memorize complex things, whether in verse or prose, even about the art [of grammar], then we fall into error in many ways. First of all because the things they learned with enormous toil they will unlearn in a matter of days. (46)

With the authority of Manuzio and Perotti, it became a humanist commonplace that the multiplication of rules to memorize, especially those in modern Latin doggerel after the fashion of De Spauter, was bad practice on several levels. It did not take into account the abilities and preferences of students and it gave them the worst sort of models to imitate.

Jean Pellisson, though he considered himself a Despauterian and composed primarily by abbreviating De Spauter's work, could not entirely escape the influence of Manuzio's and Perotti's ideas. Pellisson's solution was a political and marketing move, one that succeeded well. Pellisson proposed a considerably simpler rule book, based on De Spauter's but much abbreviated. It was intended to give structure to the course but left more to the individual teacher's initiative. The teacher was to evaluate the skills and preferences of his students and adjust the content and speed of the course accordingly. This principled stance does not mean that Pellisson dispensed with Despauterian drills.

Instead, he proposed a three-step overall plan for basic Latin. The first step involved memorizing a few already-familiar prayers in classicizing verse paraphrases. Ostensibly this taught the basics of Christianity, but the practice of paraphrase was also intended to force students to observe the differences between poetry and prose, and between classical and ecclesiastical Latin style. Next, students would work through Pellisson's short-form rules by drilling the inflections. In this stage they also began reading Terence and Cicero, where many finer points of grammar could be observed.. In a third moment they would return to rules for the major concepts of syntax. Pellisson's Rudimenta follows this scheme exactly. (47)


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  • (44) Pellisson 1562, quoted in section 3.02.
  • (45) See section 2.09.
  • (46) Orlandi 1975, 40: Alterum quod vos meminisse velim est, nequid nisi doctissimorum authorum ediscere cogatis adolescentulos. Immo ne grammaticas quidem regulas, nisi compendia quaedam brevissima, quae teneri facile memoria queant, laudo eos ediscere; sed tantum ut illas assidue accurateque legant, nominaque et verba declinare optime sciant. Nam, dum lucubrationes nostras vel carmine vel prosa oratione, etiam de arte, commendare memoriae eos cogimus, erramus, ut mihi quidem videtur, multis modis. Primum quod, quae summo labore edidicerunt, dediscunt paucis diebus. Compare the 1493 preface, ibid., 165-166.
  • (47) Pellisson 1562, 105v-106r. Starting with prayers this way reversed the order of De Spauter's Rudimenta, in which grammatical rules were rehearsed first, in question and answer form, and then the student was exercised with "short questions concerning penitence, confession, sins, and articles of faith" (De Spauter 1537, fol. 3r).
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