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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: August 2014

15 - Grammar

from II - Logic and language


According to the medieval division of the sciences, grammar is one of the three arts of the trivium, along with logic and rhetoric. In its most theoretical form, however, the development of medieval grammar is closely connected to the development of logic; in contrast, grammar as a didactic discipline, aimed at teaching Latin, is linked to other genres, such as the “poetic arts,” lexicography, and studies of the classics. Our knowledge of theoretical grammar, which is the object of the present study, has increased tremendously over the past twenty-five years as new editions have become available. As this chapter demonstrates, the major contribution of the modistae of the late thirteenth century – the group most closely associated with the development of theoretical grammar – is now understood as part of a broader and more diversified picture, which shows the interplay of grammar with logic, philosophy, and theology.


Recent studies have investigated the degree of continuity in the linguistic arts between the early and later Middle Ages. John Scottus Eriugena’s recently edited commentary on Priscian shows that sophisticated discussions can be found in the Carolingian period of important issues such as the corporeal or incorporeal nature of an utterance (is it, for example, a substance [the Stoics and Priscian], or a quantity [Aristotle]?) and the meaning of the categorical notions of substance, quality, action, or time (as they occur in the definition of the parts of speech). The interplay between grammar and dialectic was already present in Alcuin’s Dialogus, and the use of Porphyry and of Aristotle’s Categories and De interpretatione to rethink the definitions inherited from Donatus and Priscian is even more evident in Peter of Pisa and Sedulius Scottus. The interplay between grammar and theology also became an important component of the medieval discussions of language, as seen in the ninth-century works of Gottschalk of Orbais on the Trinity, and in the linguistic arguments used by Lanfranc of Bec and Berengar of Tours in their controversy over the Eucharistic conversion.