A language learning tip from the 14th century

While I am preparing a post about the work that inspired the name of this blog – the 14th-century Philobiblon (‘The Love of Books’) – here is a lamentation extracted from the same work about the state of scholarship in the first half of the thirteenth century. In chapter 10, the author Richard de Bury criticises the lack of language skills and tools in the learned of his day:

One thing, however, we conclude from the premises, that the ignorance of the Greek tongue is now a great hindrance to the study of the Latin writers, since without it the doctrines of the ancient authors, whether Christian or Gentile, cannot be understood. And we must come to a like judgment as to Arabic in numerous astronomical treatises, and as to Hebrew as regards the text of the Holy Bible, which deficiencies, indeed, Clement V. provides for, if only the bishops would faithfully observe what they so lightly decree. Wherefore we have taken care to provide a Greek as well as a Hebrew grammar for our scholars, with certain other aids, by the help of which studious readers may greatly inform themselves in the writing, reading, and understanding of the said tongues, although only the hearing of them can teach correctness of idiom. (translation by E.C. Thomas, London, 1909)

Unum tamen elicimus ex praedictis, quod damnosa nimis est hodie studio Lationorum Graeci sermonis inscitia, sine quo scriptorum veterum dogmata sive Christianorum sive gentilium nequeunt comprehendi. Idemque de Arabico in plerisque tractatibus astronomicis, ac de Hebraico pro textu sacrae bibliae, verisimiliter est censendum, quibus defectibus proinde Clemens quintus occurrit, si tamen praelati quae faciliter statuunt, fideliter observarent. Quamobrem grammaticam, tam Hebraeam quam Graecam, nostris scholaribus providere curavimus cum quibusdam adjunctis, quorum adminiculo studiosi lectores in dictarum linguarum scriptura, lectura necnon etiam intellectu, plurimum poterunt informari, licet proprietatem idiomatis solus auditus aurium animae repraesentet.

People usually describe the languages of classical antiquity as ‘dead languages’. Certes, the languages that were born out of Latin, Ancient Greek, biblical Hebrew and, to a lesser degree, Quranic Arabic, are as alive today as anyone reading this now, but their progenitors have long been considered dead and buried, and any act of classical scholarship, or legal and ecclesiastical talk in some very narrow circles – an act of exhumation. I am not a scholar of the Renaissance, but I am convinced that the idea that classical languages are dead emerged in the course of the sixteenth century, together with the idea that dead does not mean valueless, but illustrious and noble.

Yet, for Richard de Bury, writing in 1345, antiquity and ‘dead’ are not coterminous. If one wishes to learn, say, the Hebrew of the Torah or of the Talmud, he suggests, I think, that one should converse with a Jew. That’s how I understand auditus aurium (lit. ‘the hearing of the ears’). And that is extraordinary, for I think it is without precedent in the history of medieval thought. Here, then, Richard is perhaps at his most modern, as he joins the cohorts of modern language teachers today who urge learners to listen to native speakers rather than grinding away in front of a textbook.

Interestingly, Richard does not seem to consider classical languages as dead (obviously not Latin), and he intimates that a Greek or an Arab would bring him closer to Paul or Mohammed than a textbook would. I don’t know about the learning of Arabic in the period, but Greek was to receive a new lease of life towards the end of the 14th century in Florence, when the Byzantine Manuel Chrysoloras began the teach there from his Erotemata, the first basic Greek grammar in use in Western Europe. Had he lived another fifty years, Richard de Bury would have been pleased, no doubt, and his love of books and learning would have been even greater.

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