Wednesday, July 20, 2016
The Old Latin Mafia
It is the occupation of scholars to read widely among books and essays read by very few other people in the preparation of their own studies destined to be read by even fewer. This is not a cynical remark, let alone a bitter one. But it is salubrious to have something like a sound assessment of the cosmic importance of what one is doing. I embraced such a life with enthusiasm, and I continue to pursue it even now, ten years into retirement, at my own rather leisurely pace and according to my self-indulgent timetable. Earlier this month I sent off the completed manuscript of a book about my favorite sixteenth-century Portuguese poet, leaving me free to move on with my work on monastic Latin poetry of the post-Carolingian period. Keep your eyes on the list of best-sellers.
Of course I do make a gesture at keeping up with more “relevant” matters. I read stuff in the New Yorker, and sometimes in the New York Review of Books. I am a faithful devourer of the daily Times, and most days I read an anthology of contentious current political commentary on RealClearPolitics.com. But the truth is that my chances of finding something of really sustaining value in these venues is not particularly high. The odds that I will find something captivating in any random run of old scholarly journals are better by a ratio of about eight to one. In the course of my current work I just re-discovered such a gem, an essay by Walter Ong entitled “Latin Language Study as a Renaissance Puberty Rite.”* I last read it forty years ago.
Walter Ong (+2003) was an American Jesuit professor expert in the history of rhetorical theory and practice, particularly in the European Renaissance, and most particularly of all in the works of Petrus Ramus, a great scholar murdered in the infamous Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August, 1572. In his essay on the study of Latin, Ong took an anthropological approach—quite an unusual move for a literary scholar at that time. For more than a thousand years the chief business of primary education in Europe was to teach young boys to read, write, and speak Latin with such proficiency that, as slightly older boys, they could pursue higher education in that language. The task was herculean, and the methods employed draconian.
The process of achieving Latin proficiency was a combination of brutal hazing ordeal, practical training, initiation rite, and bonding experience. It was vaguely like Marine boot camp on Parris Island, only several years longer in duration. The male youth of some Amerindian tribes were required to dangle unflinching for long periods from flesh-hooks piercing their breasts before being admitted to the hunt. Today we are told, certain gangs of criminal youths require their candidates for admission to commit a murder. Such was the general vibe among Latin-learners. When they emerged proficient they were members of a select guild, an “in” group. The ability to toss off a Latin bon mot made you one of the chaps. In the 1840s a British military commander in India, Charles James Napier, is alleged to have informed his superiors of his successful pacification of the region of Sind with a one-word message: “Peccavi.”** You had to be one of the chaps to get it, but then they were all chaps, the battle of Waterloo having been won, after all, on the playing fields of Eton.
One incidental point made by Ong is the necessary connection between the teaching of Latin and corporal punishment: reading and writing and ‘rithmetic, taught to the tune of a hickory stick, indeed. Part of the standard iconography of the medieval and Renaissance classroom is the master’s rod of correction or whip made of twigs. Ælfric of Eynsham, an English abbot and schoolmaster at the end of the tenth century, wrote a little Latin primer in the form of a dialogue between master and pupil. About the first question the master asks is “Are you willing to be beaten in order to learn Latin?” The answer—admittedly only qualified in its enthusiasm—is yes. “It is better to be beaten than not to know Latin.”
This sort of thing went on pretty well for the next millennium. A certain scene in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I first read as a freshman in college, is seared into my memory. The presentation of the book’s protagonist, named Stephen Daedalus, is largely autobiographical, and many details obviously recall the author’s own experience of Irish Catholic education at the end of the nineteenth century. The reason I remember one particular scene so vividly is that its principal victim, a school-chum of Stephen’s, is named Fleming. The scene is a classroom. Fleming is already being punished for poor work by being forced to kneel in the middle of the classroom when the Prefect of Studies, a kind of Jesuit Inspector-General, arrives impromptu.
Then Stephen gets similar treatment. At the time I knew precious little Latin. Also, I didn’t have the slightest idea what a pandybat was, though the context suggested I was better off left in ignorance.
*Studies in Philology, volume 56 (1959): 103-124.
**Peccavi means “I have sinned”.