Where’s your Donatus? Medieval learners of Latin would react to this question by scrambling for their Latin textbooks. By the end of the Middle Ages, the name ‘Donatus’ was used for different kinds of elementary Latin grammar, all related to the works of the 4th century Roman grammarian Aelius Donatus. Every medieval library was likely to hold a copy of his works. If knowledge of Latin survived into the early modern period, it was mostly thanks to the perseverance of scholars and copyists transcribing and often modifying Donatus’ original Ars maior and Ars minor, where an increasingly sophisticated Latin learning methodology was being developed.
One of the works known at the time by the name of ‘Donatus’ was a text which modern scholars have entitled Ianua (‘The Door’), because of the first word of its introductory poem. It was not authored by Donatus, but certainly inspired by his works. What Renaissance learners later printed as Donatus ad lectorem (‘Donatus to the reader’, something like Baudelaire’s opening poem Au lecteur in the Fleurs du Mal) ran like this (translation below):
Ianua sum rudibus primam cupientibus artem,
Nec prae me quisquam recte peritus erit.
Nam genus et casum speciem numerumque figuram
His quae flectuntur partibus insinuo.
Pono modum reliquis quid competat optime pandens
Et quam non doceam dictio nulla manet.
Ergo legas, studiumque tibi rudis adice lector.
Nam celeri studio discere multa potes.
I am a door for the ignorant desiring the first art;
Without me no one will become truly skilled.
For I teach gender and case, species and number,
And formation in their parts, which are inflected.
I put method into the remaining parts of speech, explaining what agrees the best.
And no use of the word remains that I do not teach.
Therefore, unskilled beginner, read and dedicate yourself to study,
Because you can learn many things with rapid study.
(translation by Paul F. Gehl, A Moral Art: Grammar, Society, and Culture in Trecento Florence, Ithaca–London: Cornell University Press., 88-9)
The last line makes one wonder whether the author of the Ianua would have been surprised at or scornful of our latter-day blitz Latin methods, such as Richard Prior’s The Everything Essential Latin Book: All You Need To Learn Latin In No Time, Luisa Wilkins’ Latin: Learn Latin Fast!, or better yet Taggart’s Learn Latin in 7 Days.