5.01 Syntax Sells, Somewhat

Early in the humanist movement, proponents of the new, classicizing Latin stylistics posited the need for new textbooks to replace those which had served for centuries to introduce young boys to the bad old Latin of the Middle Ages. Almost every Latin textbook we have examined thus far trumpeted its contribution to this goal, and many were offered up as direct substitutes for specific, older grammar books. Renaissance grammar masters realized as well that the ancient grammars (both introductory and advanced) offered little guidance to the intricacies of Latin syntax. In particular there were no ancient grammars that treated subordinate clauses. Medieval grammars did address syntax extensively, but were hopelessly marred by "barbaric" medieval examples and mired in explanations that derived from scholastic categories of analysis. (1) Lorenzo Valla had offered a thorough critique of the results of this kind of education in his Elegantiae, but the many careful distinctions of usage he recorded there were not well adapted for classroom use. Soon an entire genre of textbook derived from the Elegantiae grew up. These epitomes or digests of correct usage offered students thoughtfully defined vocabulary words with concrete examples of idiomatic usage drawn from classical sources. Such usage manuals, however, were mere lists; they did not provide thorough rules. (2)

Given the lack of systematic guides to syntax, it is no surprise that the largest number of entirely new fifteenth and sixteenth-century grammar books concerned "construction" (that is, syntactical relationships). The grammars that achieved the greatest success were those that offered teachers ready answers in this field. Much of the appeal of the excruciatingly detailed grammar of Jan de Spauter, for example, may be attributed to its value to teachers as a guide to explaining the complex syntax of authors they would likely read in class with their students. South of the Alps, writers like Perotti, Mancinelli, and Sulpizio had addressed the same problem, attempting to devise an adequate explanatory vocabulary for syntactical relationships based exclusively on classical examples. Progress was slow and most writers continued to borrow explanatory terms from medieval authors. (3) The systematic grammars attempted in the fifteen twenties and thirties incorporated lessons on syntax derived both from the epitome tradition and from earlier humanist manuals on syntax. As we have seen in earlier chapters, some of these textbooks achieved considerable local success and became entrenched in the schools of particular towns or regions. A few were sold in more than one regional market. (4)

Before 1570, however, we cannot point to any textbook that was consistently used throughout Italy. The closest contenders were Perotti, used widely in Italy and France, (5) and De Spauter, whose Grammaticae Institutionis libri septem as edited by Josse Bade was used extensively in France and the Low Countries and spottily elsewhere. Versions of it (usually partial) also found ready, local markets in Italy after 1550. Also frequently printed was the introductory grammar of Aldo Manuzio, an important case studied by Kristian Jensen. Interestingly, more editions of Manuzio appeared in France and Germany than in Italy and many of the surviving copies of the Venetian editions show evidence of use in Germany, no doubt because Aldo deliberately marketed this and many other Aldine editions there. Twenty four of the twenty eight known Italian editions of Aldo's grammar were made in Venice and the other four issued from presses in Florence and Rome with close ties to Venetian houses. The obvious conclusion is that Aldo's grammar was s a Venetian export product, probably more widely consulted than taught in Italy. (6)

Even with perennial favorites like De Spauter and Aldo, then, there is little evidence that systematic marketing of elementary and intermediate textbooks extended beyond a few major urban markets; and only Venice had a major export trade. The best marketing of the period failed to forward broad curricular reform. The limited market success, moreover, reflected teachers' continuing dissatisfaction with the quality of the textbooks available. This situation would change radically with the advent of the Jesuit colleges and later, schools of other religious orders. (7)


  • Open Bibliography
  • (1) Sabbadini 1902, 309-313; Percival 1988a; Jensen 2001, 117-118.
  • (2) Colombat 1999, 31-36. 470-475. Compare the Epitomies of Valla by Mancinelli treated in sections 3.10 and 3.11.
  • (3) Percival 1988b, 250-256; Colombat 1999, 465-475. The principal exception to the general acquiescence in using medieval vocabulary was Pomponio Leto, who invented highly original schemata for teaching the declensions and conjugations, but later abandoned them; see Zabughin 1910, 219-222.
  • (4) Jensen 1998, 248-251; Jensen 2001, 113-115, 118-123.
  • (5) Wortsbrock 2001; Jensen 2001, 117.
  • (6) Jensen 1998, 247-250.
  • (7) Bianchi 1995, 769-772, 793-796, 807-808.
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