A Brief Look at Literary Theory’s Origins in Latin

I am always amazed that the history of grammar, which is actually a metalanguage for literary English, is not really covered in schools at any point. As a result, modern theorists have been reinventing the wheel, and this is nowhere more apparent than the discipline of grammar itself. I thought I might offer here some notes on the early history of literary theory, along with some comment on the debt it owes to the Christian expansion. I’ll deal later with what this means for us as contemporary pagans.

The Advent of Christianity

During the fourth and fifth centuries, as the Western Roman Empire devolved into a series of locally governed kingdoms, the Christian church developed a governing structure roughly patterned on that of Rome. It was only natural that the church should adopt its language as well. One writer (Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, 348– ca. 412) even went so far as to claim that the political authority of Rome, realised in the Empire, was exchanged for a spiritual authority realised in the Church. Churchmen set an official or orthodox canon of texts that could be accepted as central to the Christian faith, and in the fourth century Eusebius Hieronymus, or St. Jerome as he is known now, produced the first full translation of them into the common language of the West: Latin. Originally written in either Hebrew or Greek, this collection of texts was published as ‘The Sacred Books in the Common Language’ or Biblia Sacra Vulgata, travelled together in manuscripts and formed the basis for what we call the Bible. Because the books of the Bible, or sacred scriptures, were central to the Christian faith, Latin began to be taught alongside Christianity from the fourth century onward. As a result, Latin went wherever the official or orthodox Church did.

Early Medieval Literary Theory

The significance of the tie between Latin and literature can hardly be overstated. Because Christianity relied on a collection of texts that were often difficult to understand, the need for a means of interpreting and expounding on the meaning of sacred scripture became increasingly apparent. Drawing first on late Roman educational practices, Churchmen quickly began developing methods of drawing meaning out of sacred scripture: a practice called exegesis. In order to make sure that these were in keeping with holy teaching (usually referred to as sacred doctrine), these exegetical methods were first agreed upon by Church councils called synods and then widely published. One of the first and most popular of these exegetical methods was written by Jerome, the first to translate all the books of the Bible into Latin. Its title was simply ‘On the Best Kind of Interpretation’ (De optime genere interpretandi) and started by saying that the intent of the reader was of utmost importance to the understanding of the text. It went on to outline four levels of meaning inherent in sacred scripture.

  1. Literal / Historical
  2. Allegorical / Metaphorical
  3. Pastoral / Spiritual
  4. Eschatological / Apocalyptic

Each of these kinds of interpretation rendered a meaning that was pertinent to the individual and the Church as a whole, but more importantly it implied that sacred scripture had multiple meanings hidden within the text itself. From this starting point, the orthodox Church began to develop increasingly rarefied and often complex systems of interpretation. In order to begin to gain access to these methods, however, one had to learn how to read Latin.

A. Grammar

The need to teach Latin easily and quickly gave rise to a concomitant need to develop a method of talking about the language that was easy to understand. As was briefly mentioned above, a Roman teacher (or grammaticus) developed such a system in the fourth century. Aelius Donatus’ real achievement was not in devising a system of grammar, but in revising and simplifying the one that had already existed for some time. His system divided speech into eight categories of words according to their function in generating meaning. We still use these eight categories, or ‘parts of speech’ (partes orationum) as he called them, in our basic understanding of modern English grammar (though it is not taught as much as it used to be). Here are his parts with their modern English counterparts:

  1. Nomen / Noun
  2. Verbum / Verb
  3. Adverbum / Adverb
  4. Pronomen / Pronoun
  5. Præpositio / Preposition
  6. Coniunctio / Conjunction
  7. Participium / Participle (later Adiectiuum / Adjective)
  8. Interiectio / Interjection

If Jerome provided the foundation for literary interpretation, then Donatus provided the foundation for teaching language itself. The popularity and efficiency of his system continued unabated for more than thirteen hundred years and proved applicable to every language in Europe. Amongst the Gaelic literati, this kind of structured, quantifying method of analysing speech was adopted and elaborated into some of the most elaborate poetic traditions in Europe.

B. Literary Taxonomies (Genre)

Latin carried more with it than just sacred scripture and ways of talking about language. There was also an entire system of literary activity with its own categories of documents. Historiography had a uniquely Greco-Roman form and one borrowed by every vernacular writer across Europe. Heroic poetry by Homer and Virgil found Christian counterparts in medieval writers like Prudentius, previously mentioned, Alcuin at Charlemagne’s court school and arguably the (ostensibly) less divinely inspired Chivalric Romances. Vernacular imitations of Virgil’s Æneid and other such works provided the starting point for long-standing narrative traditions and even one parody of heroic poetry (Waltharius) that ends with three heroes delivering puns and jokes as they systematically amputate one another in true Monty-Python style. What was significant, of course, was not any one specific literary form, but the idea of categorising literature into genres. This literary taxonomy influenced all medieval literature, though with important distinctions in various areas. Thus the church would produce enormous bodies of literature organised into the lives of saints (hagiography), lists of feast-days (martyrologies), liturgical texts explaining how different rituals should be performed, sermons (homilies) scriptural exegesis and, of course, sacred scripture, there were also histories, didactic and exploratory treatises on philosophy, theology and any number of topics (Isidore’s final book in his Etymologies is on furniture).

The extent of this vast repertoire of literary activity, combined with certain ideas of the Renaissance-era concerning the supposed vacuity of non-Latinate culture, led to the profoundly misguided notion that culture died with the Western Empire. This in turn precipitated the idea of ‘The Dark Ages’ among those who were supposedly educated. Nothing could be further from the truth. For some idea of the extent to which the vernacular (or vulgaris in Latin) cultures undertook extensive literary projects, I will be posting to two companion sections here, Breithiúnas and Filíocht. The slavish adherence to the grossly prejudiced notions of education promulgated by early Latin culture has led us into a wholly new kind of dark age, but this is hardly the place for me to comment on that.


3 responses to “A Brief Look at Literary Theory’s Origins in Latin

  1. I really appreciate it when I get to read articles of substance. This was quite useful and informative in supplementing my own education. I learned grammar history in the East through studies of the 6th-4th Century BCE Sanskrit grammarians like Sakatayana, Yaska and Panini, and I knew Aristotle’s Poetics, the part that survived, but I knew hardly anything about the theoretical origins of Biblical exegesis methods. I learned these methods directly, by practice with monks in classes offered at Benedictine Abbeys. They taught it by example, probably to save time, without the historical info which I expect is available to their novitiates.

    • The grammatical tradition of Sanskrit looks completely fascinating, and you can count on my bringing it in here once I start learning about it, but there is so much to do these days that it may take a little while — maybe over around the Solstice, though!

      You’ve had quite the experiential background! At which Benedictine Abbeys were you studying and what was the reason, if you don’t mind my asking?

      • Thanks for your interest. My primary place of monastic study was St. Andrews Abbey, in the high desert of California, but I also attended a couple of sessions in New Mexico Abbeys. I have long hunted for inner peace, and the Benedictines have since their inception (The Rule of St Benedict) combined the function of having inexpensive retreat rooms for pilgrims and visitors with the offer to include visitors in the daily life and studies undertaken by the resident monks. They like it if you will work with them, and enjoy it especially if you can chant competently.

        I began this particular sort of study because I fell in love with an unusual woman, who later became my wife. She has an MA in theology, but was also a TV news writer for over 30 years. She’s a true case of “in the world, not of the world”. I studied Zen and Indian forms of meditation in my 20s (the 1970s). I also got into Christian mysticism for a short time in the 70s, but returned to it more heavily once I began singing classical sacred music in the 1990s.

        I believe every source of power is linked, and many, many traditions lead to the same place, but I enjoy studying the individual roads and differences.

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