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Christopher Cannon, From Literacy to Literature: England, 1300-1400
by Alastair Minnis

Christopher Cannon, From Literacy to Literature: England, 1300-1400. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.  xv + 297pp. with 2 b&w illustrations. ISBN 9780198779438. £36.99, cloth.

Christopher’s Cannon’s learned and lively monograph explores how, in England during the period 1300-1400, the techniques of reading and construing which formed part of basic literacy training helped prepare students to create the kind of writing subsequently called ‘literature’ (5), in addition to providing them with precepts for living good lives. Although we know nothing for sure about their elementary schooling, Chaucer, Langland and Gower are deemed to be, ‘by the measure of their own achievements in letters, three of the best grammar-school students of their century’ (11). That claim is a highly appealing one, if somewhat circular. The Gawain-poet is, rather awkwardly, sidelined, on the grounds that his education was perhaps ‘unique’ inasmuch as he may have been ‘tutored in an aristocratic household rather than by way of typical arrangements’ (198).[1] To claim that ‘the Gawain-poet was a sui generis poet because his elementary education was sui generis also’ (198) seems to be pushing a thesis too far. The thought that a person’s creativity is predetermined by his or her primary school education is rather depressing. However, Cannon’s thesis is, generally speaking, a richly stimulating one, and he makes intriguing claims about the cultural significance of grammar-school pedagogy that demand our close attention. Anyone interested in the history of elementary schooling in late-medieval England should read this book. Above and beyond that, Cannon’s quest for the tantalising points at which literacy transitions into literature is quite compelling. 

Throughout the medieval West, the teaching of such authors as Ovid, Virgil, Lucan, the Roman satirists and Boethius was a major concern of the grammar schools.  Cannon leaves those authors aside, choosing to focus on some of the most elementary texts – grammatical treatises and wordlists together with such required reading as Cato’s Distichs, the Facetus, Alan of Lille’s Liber parabolarum, Maximian’s Elegies, the fables of Avianus and Aesop, the Cartula attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux and the like. (These were included regularly in teaching collections subsequently known as ‘the six authors’ and ‘the eight authors’; Cannon also cites such later teaching aids as Alexander of Villa-Dei’s Doctrinale and Evrard of Béthune’s Graecismus.) This selectivity is regrettable inasmuch as many of the pedagogic strategies associated with the elementary texts, strategies which are a crucial part of Cannon’s inquiry, were also deployed (sometimes with great sophistication) in the teaching of the more advanced authors, as the abundant glosses to Ovid et al. reveal. But Cannon’s choice is quite understandable as a means of delimiting an investigation which could span many volumes and therefore requires the imposition of firm limits. And, most importantly, he has given himself the freedom to focus on texts (Cato’s Distichs, the Facetus, etc.) which were regarded as milk for the nurture of young minds, texts which, alas, have been somewhat ignored by scholars who have been lured by the siren calls of the ‘classics’. 

Given that Middle English grammars of Latin are a fifteenth-century phenomenon, much attention has been paid to the claim made by John Trevisa, in his 1387 translation of Ralph Higden’s Polychronicon, that many generations of English children had been obliged to construe their Latin in French, but along came master John of Cornwall, who changed the teaching methodology by having his pupils construe in English, and others followed suit. Cannon finds here a misleading totalisation on Trevisa’s part, which derived from the ‘linguistic politics operating in his narrow circle’ (22). Challenging the assumption that ‘Latin must be taught with help from some vernacular’ (23), he argues robustly that, in the age of Chaucer, the primary language in which Latin was taught was – Latin (with both master and pupil speaking this language). It is pointed out that no French grammar of Latin is extant from late-medieval England, the hegemony of Latin being further demonstrated by examples of how Latin was used to explain French rather than vice-versa. However, to conclude from this that English children ‘never seem to have used French in the first place’ in their acquisition of Latin (125) is a stunning claim, at which many will baulk. That said, it is indeed important to note that in John of Cornwall’s own Speculum grammaticale (extant in a single manuscript – hardly evidence that John was widely hailed as an innovator) the English passages play a minor and subservient role. Model interactions between teacher and pupil reveal an interest in how English may be translated into Latin rather than in how Latin may be Englished (39).

But could anything else be expected in an elementary classroom of the time, wherein competence in Latin was the objective, rather than extensive interlingual exchange? And the very fact that here John deploys English rather than French seems consonant enough with Trevisa’s claim. Using some English would hardly have disturbed the dominance of Latin as the language of instruction. The Middle English grammars of the fifteenth century may indicate genuine pedagogic change, an acceleration of the practice of translating Latin into English. Prior to that, ‘the only language a grammar-school teacher could have used … was Latin because that was the only language used in the teaching tools he had to work with’ (30). But one should be wary of making too neat a distinction, for several reasons – not least the fact that the language of record is not necessarily the language of instruction. Sermons were regularly preserved in Latin though preached in the vernacular; preachers and teachers were eminently capable of making the necessary linguistic transitions, as and when needed. Whatever the truth of that specific matter, Latin grammar was the grammar, the only show in town; deemed applicable to each and every vernacular. Cannon neatly sums this up by referring to the ‘grammaticalization’ of English. Similar points have been made in relation to French by Serge Lusignan in his Parler vulgairement: Les intellectuels et la langue française au XIIIe et XIVe siècles (Paris and Montreal: J. Vrin, 1987). 

Cannon’s second chapter performs a valuable service by emphasising the ad hoc nature of medieval grammar school teaching. The wide variation in the contents of teaching anthologies indicates a lack of consistency in the texts that were taught in different schools; we are not dealing with a rigid curriculum. Further, the schools themselves could be sponsored by many different kinds of institution, or simply spring up ‘without any institutional impetus at all’ in, for example, a parish church; a nunnery could also offer a locus for instruction, although such an arrangement might well be viewed with suspicion, even when all of the pupils were girls (56-7). In this chapter Cannon also develops his argument that ‘schoolboy improvisation’– wherein pupils were required, as a teaching device, to construct not only their own sentences but also their own narratives, including vernacular narratives – was a means whereby they learned to tell tales and make poetry. In the process strategic use was made of what Cannon calls a student’s personal ‘reality’. Here we move some distance away from the abovementioned ‘Ricardian’ poets to the fifteenth century, where evidence may be found to support Cannon’s contention that pupils were ‘not only using Middle English verse as a model for grammar-school exercises, they were learning English poetry as one step in the process of learning Latin’ (79). The notion that grammar education was ‘a pedagogy … based on invention’ (80) is the most profound insight offered in the earlier part of this monograph, a far cry from critiques of the system which protest (with good reason) that learning was unimaginatively done by rote and that violence was routinely accepted both in the classroom (in the form of corporal punishment) and in many of the ‘set texts’.

The third chapter begins with what looks like a more generous evaluation of the role played by English in fourteenth century education than the one offered in the first chapter. Here Cannon seeks to define the constituents of a ‘grammar school style’ (with ‘the movement of knowledge from one person to another’ [85] and from one language to another now being brought into the discussion) as a prelude to exploring how this generated ‘a literary style’ (89). Since ‘no Middle English poet put basic grammar to artistic use to quite the degree, or to quite such defining effect, as Geoffrey Chaucer’ (89), this chapter focuses on two works by Chaucer which are deemed particularly indicative of that development, the Treatise on the Astrolabe and The House of Fame. (In the latter, grammar school pedagogy becomes an explicit textual subject, as Martin Irvine has demonstrated.)  But first comes a brilliant discussion of the Doctrinale and the Graecismus, which are said to evoke ‘scenes of instruction’ and ‘posit both a teacher and student in the text’, thereby creating certain ‘pedagogic positions’ (92). Those ‘pedagogic positions’ are then sought in Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe.

And here the argument gets quite controversial. The fact that Chaucer addresses this text to his ‘son’, the somewhat mysterious ten-year-old ‘little Lewis’, need not in itself identify this as a work of ‘elementary pedagogy’ (100). Such sources as have been identified for the Treatise go far beyond elementary grammar school doctrine, and since the astronomical instrument itself is structurally complex the instructions for its use can get ‘forbiddingly technical’ (which Cannon acknowledges, 101. One of the many attractive features of his mode of procedure, here and elsewhere, is the extent to which he freely admits the existence of counter-arguments.) It may be added that medieval treatises which begin with prefaces wherein individuals are named frequently transcend the abilities of those individuals. Besides, this is the text in which Chaucer offers his version of the translatio studii topos, concerning the historical transmission of learning from one culture to another (a major ‘movement of knowledge’ indeed). This sociolinguistic profession – which some critics have treated with the same degree of seriousness as they have afforded Lollard advocacy of the mother tongue – is surely addressed to an audience far more learned and knowing than a little boy. Further, here one might detect the pressure of rhetorical convention. Chaucer’s Prioress likens her weak expressive abilities to those of a child of twelve months old or less, before launching into a tale which, in technical terms, is superb (whatever one may make of its contents). Chaucer’s Astrolabe preface presents the writer as a purveyor of children’s literature, a persona instantly dispelled by the treatise that follows. Then again, Lewis’s youth usefully counterpoints the youth of the English language as the new heir of the world’s learning.

No doubt Cannon would respond by saying that, however much one may question the ‘elementary’ nature of the Astrolabe treatise, the marks of his ‘grammar-school style’ are very much there, quite discernible in the text; indeed, he finds them ‘surprisingly easy to trace’ (100). This argument is hard to prove or disprove. One way forward might be to seek out Chaucer’s ‘grammar-school style’ in his translation of a text which actually was studied in at least some grammar schools, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Here the issue of which level of learning is in play is pressing also, since Chaucer drew (if somewhat inconsistently) on the Boethius commentary of Nicholas Trevet – a treatise regarded as too difficult for grammar-school use, to judge by the fact that William Wheteley (fl. 1309-16), master of Lincoln Grammar School, made a simplified version of Trevet for the benefit of his pupils. Furthermore, Chaucer’s primary source for the Boece – Jean de Meun’s French translation of the Consolation – incorporates material from William of Conches’s Boethius commentary: here is another route by which typical grammar-school doctrine and methodology passed into Chaucer’s text. These specific instantations may be viewed in light of the general belief, as held by medieval grammarians, that the procedures of translation were inextricably linked with those of exposition. ‘Translation is the exposition of meaning through another language (expositio sententiae per aliam linguam)’, to quote Hugutio of Pisa’s highly influential Latin dictionary, the Magnae derivationes (c.1197-1201).[2] Yet Cannon seems reluctant to investigate the possibility that the praxis of expositio, as taught in grammar school at however basic a level, became a feature of ‘grammar-school style’ – and that it grounded the praxis of translatio.

A striking example of this reluctance occurs when the differences, in content and purpose, of the Latin glosses to certain passages in Gower’s English Confessio amantis are minimised in order to support the claim that there exists here an ‘equivalence in meaning’ between the two languages, which reflects the kind of ‘translation exercise that was one of the grammar school’s most basic pedagogic forms’ (145-6). I myself prefer to believe that (at least some of) Gower’s glosses are performing acts of exposition, which involve things being said and done in the Latin which are different from what is going on in the English text.[3]   

That statement about the Confessio amantis occurs in the fourth chapter of From Literacy to Literature, which also offers a superb account of the many discussions of grammatical matters, and deployments of grammatical modes of analysis together with metaphors derived from grammar, that appear in Piers Plowman; the influence of elementary doctrine (as opposed to university-level ‘speculative grammar’) is effectively demonstrated. Cannon goes so far as to claim that ‘the whole of the form of Piers Plowman constitutes the most extensive grammaticalization in Middle English literature’ (130). This is heady stuff, but it should be noted (as Cannon does) that many of the interpretive cruxes in Langland’s poem go beyond strictly grammatical matters to confront competing theological interpretations of a given text, Biblical or otherwise.[4] More generally, sometimes in this chapter one might wish to question the cause-and-effect relationship supposed to exist between literacy training and literary outcome. On the strength of the part-translation, part-summary of the Aeneid which features in the House of Fame, Cannon suggests that ‘the whole form’ of this poem may be seen as ‘an inventive expansion of a classroom exercise’ (143). A quite unsuccessful classroom exercise, it might be said, given the inaccuracy with which the Aeneid is construed (and blurred with Ovid’s Heroides). One can imagine an irate teacher resorting to classroom violence…. And in this chapter, as elsewhere in the book, there is a tendency to identify just about any translation as an act of grammaticalisation, a move which sometimes lacks traction. Such quibbles aside, Cannon’s account of the relationship between English and Latin in Piers Plowman is essential reading for any Langland scholar.

The subsequent chapters move away from basic grammar school pedagogy and grammatical lore to address the contents of some of the set texts themselves, beginning with a rousing refutation of the notion that, because certain works were part of the elementary curriculum, they were simple and straightforward. It was usual to lump them together as ‘pertaining to ethics’ (ethice subponitur being the usual mantra), but in many cases the ethical payoff seems far from clear. An obvious test-case is presented by Maximian’s erotic Elegies; Cannon’s reading manages to recuperate an instructional effect, ‘the more sensational details’ of the errors of the younger Maximian being seen as an means of driving home a set of moral recommendations (168). One may recall, though Cannon does not, the way in which attempts were made to place Ovid’s salacious Ars amatoria within an ethically satisfying context by reference to the poet’s supposed banishment on the grounds that he had incited immorality.  Indeed, various set texts address the emerging sexuality of young boys in different ways. Particularly troubling is the large number of rape scenes that occur in them, together with the notion that a happy marriage can follow an act of sexual assault (see e.g. the Pamphilus and Claudian’s De raptu proserpinae).  Little wonder, then, that Christine de Pisan could complain that, in schools which excluded actual women, schoolboys were imbibing misogyny along with their grammar.

…. ev’ry Boy of some false Nymph can tell,
And curses Woman, as he learns to spell. (ll. 256-6)[5]

Cannon then takes a different tack, discussing the fact that set texts wherein many precepts are stitched together may be likened to patchwork quilts, and then revealing the extent to which vernacular poets emulated this phenomenon. ‘Middle English poems are often patched together from bits of schoolroom learning in ways that call no attention to the origin of the line or lines that have been so absorbed’ (186). Further, this foundational training in ‘patchworking’ helped determine the ways in which writers assimilated influences from non-grammatical sources. This is a very useful contribution, which (inter alia) throws light on the way in which Middle English texts sometimes proceed in a rather jerky manner, with bits of authoritative material being incorporated in ways that hinder the flow of the narrative.   

The next chapter, entitled ‘Equipment for Living’, takes the contrarian view that schoolroom learning which (as was its wont) imparted abundant precepts ‘was valuable not because it provided wisdom that informed behavior, but because it pleased by providing the knowledge that made whoever possessed it feel wise’, thereby affording comfort rather than functional advice (201). The claim that these texts are about feeling good rather than making good would, one may imagine, have come as something of a surprise to many medieval purveyors of such wisdom, particularly given the ubiquity of the view (as reinforced by Aristotle’s recently-recovered sociopolitical treatises) that it was the duty of superior men to instruct the general populace in civilised mores. Here, once again, Cannon presents a vibrant conclusion which is impossible to prove or disprove. What he can, and does, make apparent is the extent to which certain school texts offer ‘a range of possibilities for responding to a given situation or for making an equally wide range of ethical choices’ (205). This is no small achievement, and one that need not be problematised by Cannon’s suggestion that here is an ethics unworthy of the name because ‘it may define as good any action a person chooses’ (205).

Yet Cannon’s perplexing of schoolroom wisdom continues, with the argument that Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale (an Aesopic beast fable which has ‘schoolroom wisdom at its core’, 208) offers not recommendations for future action but interpretations of the past, retrospective rationalisation and moralisation of choices already made, which hinder that wisdom’s effectiveness as a directive for current moral activity. It could be said, however, that a text of the type he has been citing is less interested in rescuing or redeeming the figures that inhabit it, whose actions have run their course, than in addressing the people who read it, providing them with models of behaviour which may be followed should relevant moral dilemmas arise in their futures. Here, then, proverbs are pre-proven and rendered ready for use in decision-making. Such an argument can be made about the Nun’s Priest’s Tale – and even more fully about The Morall Fabillis of Esope, composed in the late fifteenth century by the Dunfermline grammar school master, Robert Henryson. (Of course, this takes us beyond the scope of Cannon’s study, in terms of both date and geography; he has set clear parameters of ‘England, 1300-1400’.) One can easily imagine Henryson expounding fables from the so-called Romulus anthology to generation after generation of students in his grammar school – a situation likely to induce boredom.[6] Yet he was able to achieve a wonderfully nuanced adaptation of selected fables which dispenses a wisdom that exceeds that of the elementary school texts.[7] Henryson presents a translatio of (oppressed) ethical awareness from Aesop’s Greece to the Scotland of his day, providing an array of moralisations whilst placing the follies of humankind within the metaphysical perspective of a harmonious universe. Here is an excellent opportunity to gauge the moments at which literacy metamorphoses into literature.  

Cannon then turns his attention to Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee. Its sources were not grammar school texts, but because it is largely made up of proverbs he feels comfortable about applying ideas derived from classroom wisdom as here constructed. Despite Prudence’s relentless deployment of authoritative lore, as the text nears its end it seems that Melibee has learned nothing. His decision to do the right thing by refraining from punishing his enemies occurs in a last-minute, and quite unconvincing, volte-face. Here then is a ‘homage to schoolroom learning’ (230) which denies the effectiveness of much schoolroom learning – quite a paradox. However, the vast amount of moral data thrust at the reader may afford him some ‘merriment’, and– affectivity having triumphed where cognition has failed– he can take pleasure in feeling wise. (Or self-righteously smug?) Cannon wraps up this chapter with an overview of ‘the wisdom of Middle English Literature’, wherein the Gawain­-poet makes a welcome cameo appearance. In that writer’s oeuvre wisdom arrives late, and the abundant teaching contained in each narrative has a somewhat tangential relationship to its ending. The ‘comforting durability’ of truth (224) is all very well, but one may question whether that compensates sufficiently for its tardiness.

A splendid discussion of The Manciple’s Tale brings out its debt to the Disticha Catonis. It may be added that this nasty little narrative ends with a mother-figure teaching her child in the manner of a grammarian dispensing classroom wisdom. (The children’s nursery was often identified as the site of learning which preceded the grammar school.) But the moralitas which she forces upon the Ovidian story of Phoebus and his talking crow is rendered null and void in moral terms, since it blurs the distinction between not saying anything wicked and not saying anything at all. This teacher’s intent is to teach her son the tricks of self-protective wiliness. Feeling pleasantly wise after reading the Manciple’s tale is hardly an option. 

The final chapter, ‘The Experience of Learning’, addresses how schoolroom teaching (wherein texts were ‘learned by heart’) helped shape, indeed create, the ‘experience’ of pupils in later life. One was what one had read, and re-reading involved recognition of what was already known, along with fuller understanding and further cognition. Langland’s ongoing reworking of authoritative materials through the several versions of Piers Plowman shows this process in action, and Gower’s use of the Aesopian fable of the mouse and the mountain reveals him using this text to think through the wider implications of the political value of dissimulation. The final pages of Cannon’s book see him affirming the significance of schoolroom learning as a ‘way of life’, a vital source constantly to be revisited, although his (rather tentative) move towards an overall summation is obscured by the specificity of his engagement with an essay by Carol Heilbrun on the relationship between re-reading and ‘living’.  

It is difficult to do justice to the sophistication of Cannon’s arguments (I certainly do not claim to have done so) since each of his chapters comprises several excursus, which have a stand-alone quality and are written in a dense manner that requires careful reading and reflection – not least because the book’s ‘grand narratives’ are frequently being complicated, and sometimes problematised, in the heat of the intellectual moment. This is the mark of an enthusiastic scholar who finds it hard to resist an opportunity to enrich any discussion. Given this capaciousness, one would have welcomed more about what (if anything much) grammar-school style has to do with the texts associated with the female writers of the period. Julian of Norwich gets only a brief mention, with the ‘species of vivacity’ of her prose being judged inferior to those ‘found in the grammars or Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe’ (118). Where does one go from there? 

But no book on medieval grammatica can do everything, given the vastness of the subject. And Cannon’s book has done much, as far as the implications for Middle English are concerned.  It will feature in debate on the significance of elementary education for the creation of English literature, for many a year to come. 


                                                                                                                        Alastair Minnis

Yale University 

[1] That said, Cannon freely admits that, given the ad hoc nature of so much elementary education, it is difficult to speak with confidence of ‘typical arrangements’, and, besides, from the ‘absences’ of evidence in the case of this most elusive of authors, ‘there is no strong argument to be made’ (198).

[2] Magnae derivationes, s.v. glossa, in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 376, fol. 84r.

[3] See my article ‘Inglorious Glosses’, in John Gower in England and Iberia: Manuscripts, Influences, Reception, ed. Ana Sáez-Hidalgo and R. F. Yeager (Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer, 2014), 51-76.

[4] It is true to say that, within an educational system based on the study of authoritative texts, no scholar, however elevated his academic achievements, ever escaped from grammar. But the fuller truth is that, at the highest levels of study, lexical analysis featured within an interpretive methodology far more difficult and demanding than anything characteristic of elementary schools.  

[5] Here I quote from George Sewell’s eighteenth-century translation of Thomas Hoccleve’s Middle English version of Christine’s Epistre au dieu d’Amours.  See Poems of Cupid, God of Love. Christine de Pizan’s ‘Epistre au dieu d’Amours’ and ‘Dit de la Rose’; Thomas Hoccleve’s ‘The Letter of Cupid’, ed. T. S. Fenster and M. C. Erler (Leiden and New York: Brill, 1990), 230.

[6]  We do not know if Henryson’s curriculum included Boethius, but in his poem Orpheus and Eurydice he uses material from Trevet’s commentary on the Orpheus metre. 

[7] Further lustre has been added to Henryson’s fables by Seamus Heaney’s partial translation; see his Robert Henryson: The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables (London: Faber, 2010). In its turn this inspired a brilliant TV animation of five of the fables (with Heaney’s text being voiced by Scottish comedian Billy Connolly) and an iPad app; see





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Cite as:

Alastair Minnis, "Christopher Cannon, From Literacy to Literature: England, 1300-1400," Spenser Review 49.1.9 (Winter 2019). Accessed August 26th, 2019.
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