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A Moral Art: Grammar, Society, and Culture in Trecento Florence.

Paul Gehl has written an important, if somewhat flawed, book on a significant subject. Focusing on the city of Florence in the period from 1260-70 to the 1390s, Gehl seeks to understand that small and well circumscribed world of pre-university scholars (students and teachers) who studied Latin (grammatica). Who were these scholars? What texts did they use and how did they use them? More importantly, what significance did teachers impute to their activity, and how shall we, today, understand it?

The core of his evidence comprises 71 school-books in 49 modern codices, which Gehl carefully describes in the book's appendix. By focusing carefully on these documents, he is able to fashion an interesting picture of the strikingly narrow range of texts which, generation upon generation, were used by Florentine Latin masters. By far the most popular of these texts was Prosper of Aquitaine's Epigrammata, with Prudentius and Aesop also in frequent use. The absences from these lists (Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Terence) are as striking as the presences, a point which leads the author to observe (and to make this point into one of his book's centerpieces) that there was "a deliberate restriction of the curriculum" (56). Indeed, the thrust of Gehl's argument is that not only the texts themselves, but also the very method of teaching indicates that teachers (and by implication their employers) aimed not so much at imparting language skills on young children, but rather at using language instruction as a means of offering moral instruction. "Grammatica . . . was not aimed primarily at the mastery of language skills but rather at the transformation of the inner man." (106). In one of the book's most rewarding chapters, which I should like to think has a bearing on discussions on bilingual pedagogical instruction in late twentieth-century America (Donadello: Deciding to Latinize), Gehl reviews fourteenth-century techniques of teaching language skills: close reading of texts, which were approached in stages, first "by glossing, parsing, and memorizing each phrase . . . then by rereading for sense, to memorize the conceptual framework and larger meanings of a text and to internalize it and make it thoroughly their own" (95). The Latin student of the Trecento, Gehl argues, studied his lessons not for literary pleasure or out of philological interest, but for the sake of acquiring the key to Christian high culture. Latin was considered not simply as another language to learn, but as "a vehicle of access to the highest civilizational goal of Western culture, wisdom" (80). This was a powerfully conservative curriculum, a moral compass offered to boys to guide them in their adult lives. These themes provide the conceptual backbone on which Gehl presents his analysis. In four detailed chapters, he then offers a detailed discussion of the texts on which Latin instruction was based. Having grouped them in four categories ("pagan classics," "Christian classics," "the monastic heritage," and a group of texts whose authors he labels as the "medieval Ovidians") he shows how, in each instance, these texts presented, in highly accessible verse form, Christian ideals of the patristic age and moral habits of behavior.

In a final chapter ("Linguistic and Social Hierarchies"), Gehl seeks to place his literary analysis within a broader social context by describing the social and economic situation of Florentine Latin masters. His findings are not especially surprising, for he concludes that teachers of Latin made a rather modest living, and occupied a social position which, at best, placed them on the margins of Florence's dominant classes. The precariousness of their position and the absence from Florence of an important university meant that these masters would "ally themselves" (232) with members of the mendicant orders in promoting a conservative moral and religious educational program. The problem with these conclusions is that they are based on very thin evidence. There is a wealth of materials on schooling and teaching that awaits systematic study in the Florentine archives: above all fiscal records (the prestanze and catasto), and notarial cartularies. Armando Verde's collection of the relevant data from the catasto of 1480 offers just a brief glimpse of the possibilities which a student interested in really exploring this question will encounter in the Florentine archives. Had Gehl combined his fine and rigorous analysis of the several literary codices which he identified in various libraries with an equally systematic exploration of the social contexts in which these texts were produced and read, he might well have produced a first-rate contribution to our knowledge of late medieval Florence. As it is, his book offers the beginnings of a solid foundation on whose basis we may continue our explorations of this topic.

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Author:Molho, Anthony
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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Next Article:The Criminal Law System of Medieval and Renaissance Florence.

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