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Peter Mack, A History of Renaissance Rhetoric 1380-1620, and Rita Copeland and Ineke Sluiter, eds. Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric
by Katrin Ettenhuber

Peter Mack. A History of Renaissance Rhetoric 1380-1620. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. x + 345 pages. ISBN: 978-0199597284. $150.00 cloth. $43.00 paper.

Rita Copeland and Ineke Sluiter, eds. Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300-1475. xii + 972 pages. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. ISBN: 978-0198183419. $215.00 cloth. $61.00 paper.

At the end of Henri d’Andeli’s didactic poem Bataille des VII Ars (Battle of the Seven Arts, c. 1230), the personified figure of Grammar pronounces that “in every science that master is an apprentice / Who has not mastered the parts of speech” (ll.460-1).  At this point, Grammar has been waging a prolonged war with the other liberal arts, and above all with its two neighbours in the trivium, Logic and Rhetoric.  Logic makes some powerful interventions with poisonous sophisms, but puts troop morale at risk by training them in a “high tower,” where many recruits meet a sticky end by attempting to fly before they are “able to walk” (ll.395, 397). Rhetoric, meanwhile, has assembled an army of mercenary lawyers, who deal grievous damage with “the lances of their eloquence” and darts of “feathered tongues” (ll. 70, 74), spoiling and looting along the way.  Grammar fights a noble and valiant battle for the principles of proper speaking and writing, but is ultimately forced to retreat into exile for 30 years, ruing its tactical naivety.

D’Andeli’s poem is one of more than fifty medieval treatises on grammar and rhetoric excerpted in Copeland and Sluiter’s exemplary anthology. Many of these are made available here for the first time, either in existing or in new English translations. It is one of the major strengths of the volume that despite its thousand-year chronological sweep, it does not lose sight of the local contexts of the works it presents. The rich intellectual and cultural heritage of d’Andeli’s text, for instance, wonderfully emerges from a crisp and lucid headnote, which situates the Bataille in various networks of institutional and disciplinary change, not least the ongoing battle between the grammarians of the cathedral school of Orléans and the logicians who had come to dominate the Arts Faculty at the University of Paris. 

Across the anthology as a whole, the editors delineate a set of clear diachronic narratives while also allowing the texts to speak for themselves; in view of its chronological range and of the diversity of material, this is a significant achievement. In their thematic General Introduction (which itself weighs in at an impressive 60 pages), Copeland and Sluiter set out the underlying principles of their selection; the anthology focuses on works that illustrate the implication of grammar and rhetoric in the production and interpretation of literary texts: “these arts were the source and often the primary substance of critical thought about literature, the literary canon, the mechanics of literary representation, the efficacy of language or narrative structure, and even the purpose of literature” (1). Far from being narrowly specialised fields, grammar and rhetoric are seen to shape a wide spectrum of textual practices, from forensic philological analysis to discussions of literary structure and form and, finally, to composition itself. The anthology will thus make indispensable reading for every scholar of medieval history and literature seeking to understand the philosophy and practice of language from the fourth to the fifteenth century.   

The primary texts appear in six sections: the first presents a selection of grammar and rhetoric texts in the period 300-950; the second, “Dossiers on the Ablative Absolute and Etymology,” covers developments in both fields between the third and fourteenth centuries. Sections three to six are more chronologically focused and present, in order, “Sciences and Curricula of Language in the Twelfth Century”; “Pedagogies of Grammar and Rhetoric, ca. 1150-1280”; “Professional, Civic, and Scholastic Approaches to the Language Arts, ca. 1225-ca. 1272,” and “Receptions of the Traditions: The Language Arts and Poetics in the Later Middle Ages, ca. 1369-ca. 1475.” Each section is headed by a substantial introduction that supplies background information and outlines key thematic and historical developments; in addition, each text is given a separate headnote to situate it in its biographical and cultural context. The textual annotations explain difficult words and concepts, as well as providing useful cross-references to contemporary texts and to scholarly resources. There are extensive bibliographies of primary and secondary sources, a useful glossary of Latin terms, an index of names and an exhaustive general index. The scholarly apparatus thus attests not only to the editors’ monumental erudition, but to their desire to bring the material to the widest possible audience. 

A millennium’s worth of pedagogic practice will invite a variety of uses. Advanced scholars will find the anthology an invaluable means of orientation and a platform for further research, though they will probably wish to follow the bibliographic trail to the original texts. Undergraduate and graduate students alike will be able to gain much fuller insight into the rich intellectual and literary history of the period than has hitherto been possible and, thanks to the paperback edition, at an affordable price. My one reservation about the volume’s conception may seem a churlish one given its admirable depth and range, and it certainly stretches the bounds of practicality. Nevertheless I felt that the inclusion of at least some material on logic or dialectic would have given the anthology’s readers an even firmer sense of the complex connections between the disciplines, as well as highlighting the importance of argument—the art of structured exposition—in the literary work of the period.

The rewards of considering dialectic alongside its sister arts in the trivium are well illustrated by Peter Mack’s monograph, “the first comprehensive history of Renaissance rhetoric” (1). Where Copeland and Sluiter’s volume puts the reader back in touch with forgotten texts by presenting them in accessible English translations, one of Mack’s principal achievements is to draw attention to a vast array of rhetorical sources in Latin and to encourage his readers to consider them in a more holistic way. As Mack noted in his previous contribution to the field, Elizabethan Rhetoric (2002), a perhaps disproportionate amount of scholarly energy has been devoted to a handful of sixteenth-century English manuals (including works by Henry Peacham, George Puttenham, and Thomas Wilson), with particular focus on style and the figures of speech. Mack’s book is a timely reminder of the sheer range and diversity—geographical and methodological—of Early Modern rhetorical handbooks. This also entails, necessarily, reminders of their complexity, but Mack’s expert guidance everywhere ensures that confronting these more obscure and difficult parts of the canon does not seem too daunting a task. 

Although his approach to the subject is by no means monocausal, Mack returns consistently to the argument that “[t]he humanist project of improving knowledge of the ancient world was the primary cause of the increase in the study of rhetoric in the Renaissance” (307). Connections with medieval traditions nevertheless loom large, whether through programmatic rejection or curricular modification and adaptation. Thomas More’s theory of rhetoric in the Letter to Dorp is based on a polemical engagement with medieval logic (he infamously describes the most influential textbook of medieval logic, Peter of Spain’s Parva Logicalia, as “aptly named because it contains little logic”); Agricola and Melanchthon, meanwhile, as Mack demonstrates, consciously renewed the connection between dialectic and rhetoric in order to reinvigorate the role of disposition (arrangement of argument) in the arts of writing and critical interpretation.

Mack’s book covers more than a hundred works of rhetoric composed between the late fourteenth and early seventeenth centuries; although his main emphasis is on the northern Renaissance, substantial chapters are devoted to the Italian reception of classical rhetoric in the fifteenth century (chapter 3), and to the production of textbooks in sixteenth-century Italy, Spain, and Portugal (chapter 8). As Mack acknowledges, his work was much facilitated by the completion of Lawrence Green and James J. Murphy’s Renaissance Rhetoric Short Title Catalogue in 2006, but his History takes a giant step in making these variegated materials intelligible and usable. 

Part history, part survey, part glossary, and part bio-bibliographical dictionary, Mack’s book is divided into fourteen chapters and falls, roughly, into four parts. Chapters 1 and 2 set the scene by describing the dissemination and reception of classical rhetoric handbooks in Early Modern Europe; chapters 3 to 9 concern themselves with manuals of the whole of rhetoric and dialectic (with particular attention given to Valla, Trapezuntius, Agricola, Erasmus, Melanchthon, and Ramus). In chapters 10 to 12, Mack surveys a selection of more specialist material: handbooks of tropes and figures (chapter 10), letter-writing manuals (chapter 11), and preaching manuals and legal dialectics (chapter 12). Chapter 13 examines rhetoric handbooks in vernacular languages, and helpfully resumes the focus on particular forms of rhetorical treatises discussed in previous chapters, such as manuals of letter-writing and preaching. The final chapter is especially useful in summarising the book’s findings. Mack identifies seven characteristics of Renaissance rhetoric more generally, as well as five common features that distinguish the state of the discipline in the later part of the period; he concludes with a list of twenty desiderata for further research.

A great many of the rhetorical texts presented here have never been edited or translated; a fair few of them—such as the “very large” (a nice example of rhetorical understatement) compendia of rhetoric by Keckermann, Vossius, and Caussin included in chapter 9—pose real challenges to the reader purely in terms of manageability (especially if one encounters them in digital form, as is now frequently the case). Mack not only supplies summative analytical overviews of these works, but also reproduces plans and tables of content in translation, lending crucial guidance and encouragement to the reader. Mack’s History thus gives structure to an unwieldy collection of primary sources (Green and Murphy’s Renaissance Rhetoric STC lists 3842 titles) and offers terms and categories that indicate directions for future research as well as facilitating it. 

All this is done with massive erudition and technical expertise, but with remarkably little ego, and without oversimplification. It is clear that some of the textual classifications and groupings are provisional (I’m thinking, for instance, of the pairing of preaching manuals and legal dialectics) and will be nuanced, expanded, or revised as new scholarly work on the material emerges. But Mack’s attentiveness to the local and specific contexts that drove changes in rhetorical discourse—institutional, intellectual, socio-political, and technological—ensures that narrative overview does not overwhelm the voice and tone of particular texts. The rhetorical landscape looks remarkably different as a result, and many important strands of the Renaissance tradition, such as the influence of Jesuit manuals, are made fully visible for the first time.    

Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric and A History of Renaissance Rhetoric are key contributions by leaders in their field, who are unafraid to put themselves at the service of their readers and, just as critically, of the authors they aim to preserve and revive.  Both volumes will be indispensable resources for students of medieval and Renaissance education, and of the literary works shaped by its pedagogic theory and practice.      

Katrin Ettenhuber
Pembroke College, Cambridge 



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Cite as:

Katrin Ettenhuber, "Peter Mack, A History of Renaissance Rhetoric 1380-1620, and Rita Copeland and Ineke Sluiter, eds. Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric," Spenser Review 45.2.43 (Fall 2015). Accessed March 19th, 2018.
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