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


Only in St John’s manuscript are Ælfric’s Grammar and Glossary followed by colloquia. A colloquium is a verbal language exercise consisting of a string of dialogues designed for classroom practice. Like the study of grammar and vocabulary, colloquia were a standard component of medieval language teaching. Indeed, in a modified form they are still used today whenever language learners take up roles in class reading out exercises practicing greeting people, introducing themselves, shopping etc.

Of the four colloquia in St John’s MS 154, the first, second and fourth have survived only in this manuscript. The first and second colloquia were composed by one Ælfric Bata. For clarity’s sake, I will henceforth refer to him by his epithet Bata only. The third and fourth colloquia are redactions Bata made of already extant colloquia. Let’s first look at Bata’s own works, which have survived only in this manuscript.

Bata’s First colloquium

SJC, MS 154, fol. 160v (start of Bata’s first colloquium)

The first colloquium (fols 160v-198r) consists of 29 separate dialogues which roughly follow the sequence of a monastic day as experienced by the oblates’ (young children who were dedicated to a monastic life). Each dialogue presents the students with a variety of relevant vocabulary and grammatical forms, possibly to choose from when playing out the dialogues in class. Because of the inclusion of scatological dialogues, scenes of cruelty, and descriptions of other disgraceful behaviour by the monks, modern scholars have been at a loss how to understand Bata’s colloquium. Was it the outrageous output of an objectionable teacher? Or, was it a shrewd teaching method to keep the young schoolboys interested?

Bata’s Second colloquium

SJC, MS 154, fol. 198r (start of Bata’s second colloquium)

Bata’s shorter second colloquium (fols 198r-204r), with the heading Colloquia difficiliora, does not endear him to modern scholars either. As indicated by the heading, its dialogues are in a more difficult Latin. Today, the Latin exhibited here is referred to as the ‘hermeneutic style’ of Anglo-Latin. This flamboyant style is characterised by a high rate of archaic vocabulary, Graecisms, and neologisms. Aldhelm’s prose De virginitate is a prominent early example of this style, which later writers like Æthelwold (the above-mentioned teacher of Ælfric of Eynsham) took up enthusiastically. (Anyone who has ever had to work with texts in hermeneutic Anglo-Latin can attest to hours of frustration and a high level of uncertainty about one’s translations.) Scholars have pointed out that this style of Latin served more to advertise Bata’s own Latin skills than teaching Latin to schoolboys (Hill, ‘Winchester Pedagogy and the Colloquy of Ælfric’, pp. 146-7).

Bata’s Redaction of Ælfric of Eynsham’s colloquium

SJC, MS 154, fol. 204r (detail; start of Bata’s redaction of Ælfric of Eynsham’s colloquium)

As the image above shows, the manuscript’s third colloquium (fols 204r-215r) is introduced in a rubricated heading as

hanc sententia(m) Latini sermonis oli(m) Ælfricus abbas co(m)posuit q(ui) m(eu)s fuit magister sed tam(en) ego Ælfric Bata multas postea huic addidi appendices ‘Abbot Ælfric, who was my teacher, has once composed this short passage of a Latin conversation, but I, Ælfric Bata, have attached many additions here at a later point’

There has never been any doubt that the author of the original colloquium hidden behind this redacted version was Ælfric of Eynsham. The scenes played out in this colloquium clearly differ from those before. By looking beyond the cloister, it incorporates much of the vocabulary found in Ælfric’s Grammar and Glossary. Perhaps, as suggested by Joyce Hill (‘Ælfric’s Grammatical Triad’), Ælfric meant it to be a third teaching tool together with his Grammar and Glossary.

Ælfric’s colloquium has ‘survived’ in two other 11th-century manuscripts, none of which draws the link to Ælfric of Eynsham provided by the above-quoted heading of St John’s copy. I have put ‘survived’ in quotes, because all three text witnesses are Bata’s redactions. Ælfric’s original colloquium has not survived into our time. Whichever way one wishes to assess Bata’s additions, Hill (‘Winchester Pedagogy and the Colloquy of Ælfric’, pp. 146-7) has convincingly argued that they turned Ælfric’s colloquium into something it had never been. I mentioned before that Ælfric was an excellent Latinist even though – based on his works that have survived to this day – he preferred writing in Old English. Regardless of the language in which he wrote, Ælfric preferred an elegant and clearly structured style of writing which supported his educational aims. He most certainly was not a practitioner of the flashy hermeneutic Anglo-Latin that was so popular at his time and that he must have known – and learned – as a student of Æthelwold, a master of this style. By introducing this hermeneutic style Bata turned Ælfric’s pedagogical teaching tool into a mere boast of his own Latin skills.

Bata’s De raris fabulis redactata

SJC, MS 154, fol. 215r (start of Bata’s De raris fabulis redactata with Surge amice de tuo lectulo, marked only by the large red initial S of Surge)

Bata also produced a redacted version of De raris fabulis, which is the fourth colloquy in St John’s manuscript (fols 215r-221v). De raris fabulis, composed between the 7th and 9th centuries in Wales or Ireland, was one of the earliest colloquia produced on the British Isles. In St John’s MS 154, Bata’s De raris fabulis redactata, as it is commonly called, continues seamlessly from the redaction of Ælfric’s colloquy. Again, Bata takes an already existing text and embellishes it with additional vocabulary and grammatical variants. However, as Porter points out, this time Bata’s redactions give the original text coherence. Interestingly, here too ‘most of the interpolated vocabulary is found in Ælfric’s Grammar/Glossary’ (Porter, ‘Anglo-Saxon Colloquies’, p. 474).

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