Librarian’s Pick #3: A Latin Textbook from Early Medieval England (MS 154)

Grammar & Glossary

SJC, MS 154, fol. 3r (beginning of the Grammar)

Both Grammar and Glossary were written by Ælfric (c. 950-c.1010), usually referred to as Ælfric of Eynsham, after the village near Oxford where he was abbot of the newly refounded abbey from 1005. Today largely forgotten, he was one of the most learned Anglo-Saxon scholars and the most prolific Old English author known to us. Although an excellent Latinist, Ælfric mainly used Old English in his life-long devotion to the improvement of Christian learning among monks, secular clerics, and laity. To this end he wrote, among others, two collections of homilies and a separate collection of Saints’ Lives in English and even translated the first six books of the Old Testament into English (over 300 years before the Wycliffite translation). Also part of Ælfric’s educational endeavour is his English grammar of Latin, the first ever Latin grammar in any vernacular language. It is generally assumed that he wrote it between 992 and 1002. St John’s MS 154 (fols 1r-160r) contains the earliest and most complete copy of Ælfric’s Grammar and the Glossary that follows it.

In the English preface, Ælfric explains his reasoning for writing the Grammar with a reference to the country’s poor Latin language skills:

SJC, MS 154, fol. 2v (detail of Old English preface)

nu for anu(m) feawum gearum . swa ꝥ nan englisc preost ne cuðe dihtan . oððe asmeagean anne pistol on leden . oðꝥ dunstan arcebisceop . 7 aðelwold bisceop eft þa lare on munuclifum arærdon ‘For a few years now no English priest knew [how] to compose or consider [= understand?] a single letter in Latin until Archbishop Dunstan and Bishop Athelwold established teaching in monastic life again.’

This statement echoes King Alfred’s famous complaint about the poor Latin of his countrymen uttered a good hundred years earlier. Anglo-Saxon scholarship, epitomized by such illustrious names as Aldhelm, Bede, Alcuin, and Boniface, had been renowned across Europe. The Viking atrocities, which began in the late 8th century, caused scholarship to deteriorate. Indeed, it would never regain its former glory despite all the efforts of the Benedictine reform movement, led by Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury (959-88), and Æthelwold, Bishop of Winchester (963-84), to reinstate monastic education as a means of re-introducing orthodoxy in the faith among the English people.

As a student of the above-mentioned Æthelwold, Ælfric continued his teacher’s work through his own writings and teaching. His English preface explains the important role grammar played in the reformists’ educational endeavours:

SJC, MS 154, fols 1v and 2r (detail of Old English preface)

[…] ðe stæfcræft is seo cæg ðe ðæra boca andgit unlicð […] iungu(m) mannum gedafenað ꝥ hi leornion su(m)ne wisdom . 7 ðam ealdum gedafenað ꝥ hi tæcon su(m) gerad heora iunglingum . forðan ðe ðurh lare byð se geleafa gehealden ‘[…] grammar is the key which unlocks the meaning of books […] It befits young men that they may acquire some knowledge and it befits the old that they may impart some of their wisdom to the young, because faith is preserved through teaching.’

In his Latin preface Ælfric names the great classical grammarian Priscian as the source for his ‘translation’:

SJC, MS 154, fol. 1r (start of Latin preface)

Ego ælfricu(s) […] excerptiones de prisciano […] uob(is) puerulis tenellis ad u(est)ram lingua(m) transferre studui ‘I, Ælfric […] have tried hard to translate the excerpts of Priscian into your language for you, little boys of tender age.’

To be precise he speaks of excerptiones de prisciano ‘excerpts of Priscian’. Scholars have identified a Latin reworking of Priscian’s Institutiones grammaticae which survives in two Anglo-Saxon manuscripts as Ælfric’s source. Ælfric reworked this shorter Priscian grammar even more in his English Grammar to make the Latin grammar even more palatable for his students. It has been suggested, however, that Ælfric’s Grammar was not aimed at complete beginners but expected to be used after Donatus’s Ars minor and before Priscian’s more advanced Latin grammar (Hill, ‘Learning Latin in Anglo-Saxon England’, pp. 12-13).

The general structure of Ælfric’s English Grammar follows that of the Latin Excerptiones. After briefly discussing the sounds of speech, letters, syllables, and diphthongs, Ælfric devotes the remainder of his work to the eight parts of speech: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, participles, conjunctions, prepositions, interjections. He introduces each of these by their Latin terms and English equivalents and some further explanations before illustrating their meaning with copious examples (which include comprehensive lists of noun declensions and verb conjugations). In short, Ælfric’s Grammar pretty much does what a modern grammar of Latin still does, albeit despite his best efforts still less clearly structured than today’s students of Latin would expect and without the all-important declensions and conjugations in the convenient table format. Let’s have a look at how it works:

SJC, MS 154, fol. 5v (detail; start of introduction to the eight parts of speech)

Partes orationes sunt octo . eahta dælas synd ledenspræce . nomen p(ro)nomen . uerbum aduerbium . participium coniunctio . prepositio . interiectio . Nomen . is nama . mid ðam we ne(m)nað ealle ðing ægðer ge synderlice . ge gemænelice synderlice be agenum naman . eadgarus . aðelwoldus . gemænelice . rex . cyning . ep(iscopu)s . bisceop . P(ro)]nomen is ðæs naman speliend . Se spelað þone naman ꝥ ðu ne ðurfe tuwa . hine nemnan . gif ðu cwest nu . hwa lærde ðe . þon(ne) cweðe ic dunstan . hwa hadode ðe . he me hadode . þon(ne) stent se he on his naman stede . 7 spelað hine . Eft gif ðu axast . Quis hoc fecit . hwa dyde ðis . þon(ne) cwest ðu . ego hoc feci . ic dyde ðis . þon(ne) stent se ic on ðines naman stede . tu . ðu . ille . se .Partes orationes sunt octo. ‘The Latin language has eight parts: nomen, pronomen, verbum, adverbium, participium, coniunctio, prepositio, interiectio. Nomen is the name by which we call all things, both separately and commonly: separately by a personal name, [such as] Eadgar, Athelwold, [and] commonly, [such as] rex, king, episcopus, bishop. Pronomen is a representative of the name. It represents the name that you may not need to use twice. If you say now, Who taught you? Then I say Dunstan. Who ordained you? He ordained me. Then ‘he’ stands in place of his name and represents him. If you ask, Quis hoc fecit? Who did this? Then you say, Ego hoc feci. I did this. Then ‘I’ stands in place of your name. Tu, you, ille, he.’

  • Blog Home (page 1)
  • The historical significance of the Grammar and Glossary (continue page 3)
  • The puzzling and vexing verbal exercises (page 4)
  • The text added in the late 11th century on the final leaf (page 5)
  • The manuscript’s exciting history about which we know way to little (page 6)
  • References used (page 7)

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