What I Learned from Writing My Chapter on "Writing Instruction from Late Antiquity to the Twelfth Century"

Lanham, Carol Dana

A Commentary on Chapter 3 in A Short History of Writing Instruction: From Ancient Greece to Modern America

I am an interloper in this group, a student of classical and medieval Latin who has never taught either composition or rhetoric. Nevertheless, I was happy to accept Jerry’s invitation to write a new chapter for the second edition of A Short History, for two reasons. The first edition jumped from Quintilian to the twelfth-century arts of poetry; clearly, a new edition could not again ignore a thousand years of Western history in which a great deal of writing instruction took place, all of it in Latin. My second reason was purely selfish. Latin epistolography—the history of letter-writing—had long been my primary research focus, and I had come to view the letter form as the chief vehicle of instruction in composition during most of that long period. A systematic survey of the several kinds of primary-source materials available for teaching writing in late antiquity and the early middle ages would be useful for me—and, I thought, instructive for students whose only other knowledge of relevant Latin sources might be the major monuments of classical rhetoric.

Each contributor was asked to address two questions: “What was taught, and how?” For my period, the sources are deeply problematic. The evidence is uneven, lacunose, and very often indirect, requiring inferences about both the content and the methods of teaching. The exercise of identifying the various types of Latin source materials I considered applicable to teaching writing, and categorizing and interpreting them for a new audience, reinforced my conviction of the continuity from the classical progymnasmata through the twelfth-century ars dictaminis, the Tudor grammar school, and well beyond.

Most illuminating for me was addressing “How was it taught?” In a section called “the child’s mind-set,” I applied the concept of learning to think and work in small units—what Quadlbauer called the tendency to favor the small unit of discourse—to the entire process of learning to read and write. This clarified my understanding and appreciation of Latin authors’ extreme sensitivity to words and their artistic treatment, a sensitivity reflected in the preoccupation of postclassical rhetoric texts with stylistic ornament.


This text was an invited submission reviewed by TWI editors prior to publication.

Publication date: 





No votes yet