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On Line Library of the Church of Greece

Walter Berschin

Valuation and Knowledge of Greek 

From: Greek Letters and the Latin Middle Ages. From Jerome to Nicholas of Cusa   Translated by Jerold C. Frakes. Revised and expanded edition. The Catholic University of America Press, http://cuapress.cua.edu/  


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5. Greek Grammar in the Middle Ages

There was no textbook in the early and high Middle Ages from which anyone in the West could learn grammatical Greek, as one could learn grammatical Latin from the works of Donatus and Priscian. The ancient grammar of Dositheus, originally intended for Greeks learning Latin, existed at various places in an at least partially Greco-Latin parallel version. Yet only a small portion of the grammatical system of the Greek language was dealt with in the work, and there was almost nothing concerning accidence. The Irish made excerpts from Macrobius' difficult work "On the Distinguishing and Common Properties of the Greek and Latin Verb"; only these excerpts of the text have survived.58 Here one can see what late antiquity could recognize as a Grecistic tendency in Latin59 -whether it was actually interpreted and utilized in this respect is questionable. The oldest surviving medieval attempt at a Greek textbook is the brief bilingual text ΤΙ ΕCΤΙΝ doctus (perhaps from St. Denis).60 The Irish associates of Martin of Laon (d. 875) sketched a rough outline of a Greek grammar which circulated in continental Irish circles during the ninth century.61 In the Ottonian period, Froumund of Tegernsee, who had perhaps learned some Greek in the Pantaleon monastery in Cologne, attempted at least the beginning of a Greek grammar.62 Not until the thirteenth century were there again attempts at Greek grammars. The Englishman John of Basingstoke (d. 1252), a friend of Robert Grosseteste, is supposed to have translated a Donatus Graecorum from Greek -the title suggests that the book is a Greek grammar.63 The work is, however, not preserved. The case is different with the grammar of Grosseteste's younger countryman Roger Bacon. His grammar (which has survived) was suitable for use as an introduction to reading Greek. He also began to write a Hebrew grammar.  

As the early Humanists gave spirited expression to their yearning for the original Greek sources, the time had come as well for the widespread need for and acceptance of a Greek grammar. Manuel Chrysoloras, who began to teach Greek in Florence in 1397, wrote the Ερωτήματα της ελληνικήs γλώσσης as an aid to his instruction, a grammar written completely in Greek, in question-answer form. It became the first widely circulated textbook of Greek in the Latin West, especially after Chrysoloras' student Guarino Veronese adapted the work into Latin, so that it could also be used without a Greek teacher.  

The Γραμματική εισαγωγή of Theodore of Gaza (d. 1475) was prized by the Humanists even more than Chrysoloras' grammar; Aldus Manutius printed the work for the first time in 1495. The Επιτομή τωντώ του λόγου μερών of Constantine Lascaris, the first book printed in the Greek language in Italy (Milan 1476), was dependent on Theodore of Gaza.  

The new grammatical resources only gradually displaced the medieval methods of learning Greek. Thus Ambrogio Traversari (d. 1439), Humanist, minister general of the Camaldolese Order, and later translator of Diogenes Laertius and Dionysius the Areopagite, still learned Greek through the comparison of biblical texts, progressing from the familiar Psalter to more difficult texts. He recommended the method without hesitation:64

But since you say that you have discovered that I learned Greek without the aid of a teacher ... I will disclose to you how I came to my moderate knowledge of this language. I had a Greek Psalter, quite familiar to me through religious education. I thus began to compare it with the Latin Psalter, to note first the verbs, then nouns, then the remaining parts of speech, and to commit the meaning of each to memory and, to the extent possible, to remember the signiflcation of all the words. Thus I made a beginning. I then passed on to the Gospels, the Pauline epistles, and the Acts of the Apostles, and made myself intimately acquainted with them; for they contain a very great number of words and are all translated faithfully, diligently, and not without elegance. Soon I indeed wished to see the books of the heathen and understood them easily.