WEEPING FOR DIDO: THE CLASSICS IN THE MEDIEVAL CLASSROOM

Marjorie Curry Woods

Princeton (2019) h/b 176pp £30 (ISBN 9780691170800)

‘Manuscripts are the heart of this project,’ as the author says on p. xvi of this study, which is based on her Gombrich Lectures at the Warburg Institute in 2014. She has diligently inspected many European manuscripts dating from the 12th-15th centuries, more than 60 of Virgil’s Aeneid, 50 of Statius’ unfinished epic the Achilleid and 30 of the Ilias Latina, an epitome of Homer’s Iliad, the three core texts which she analyses in detail in the book. She has examined teachers’ notes and marginal commentaries containing background information and paraphrases to illuminate meaning, placing special emphasis on interlinear glosses to provide help for students with grammatical constructions, syntax and vocabulary, and thereby shedding light on the focuses of classical instruction in single-sex, all male institutions where pagan texts were still considered of educational value, even after Christianity became the dominant religion. 

W. points out how few student textbooks there were at this time, meaning that education was largely conducted orally and was thus more likely to consist of shared recitations and dramatic performances than its modern counterpart.

The study is intended as a contribution ‘to the ongoing scholarly conversation’ about the history of emotion (p. 3), and its thesis is that through their detailed reading of classical texts and learning of passages off by heart, reinforced by recitations and dramatic performances, mediaeval schoolboys developed empathy and self-identification with the grief and pain particularly of female characters like Dido, Andromache and Creusa, since the internalisation of their pitiable plights helped to memorise the lines more easily. This thesis is highlighted in the title of the volume, which alludes to the well-known autobiographical story of how St Augustine ‘wept for Dido, slain as she sought by the sword an end to her woe’ when he was a schoolboy reading the Aeneid in class (p. 13). W. demonstrates that in manuscripts the most heavily annotated lines are also the most poignant ones, thus allowing young boys to explore emotions not encouraged outside the classroom.

Each of the three chapters throws light on an aspect of the mediaeval teaching of a narrow range of Classical authors: emotion, gender and performance. Chapter One focuses on the Aeneid, as being more familiar than the other two texts, and shows how annotations on manuscripts can reveal the techniques used by mediaeval teachers to impress the text upon their students’ memories. Chapter Two proves that the prevalence of basic glosses on the Achilleid indicates that it was an elementary school text and thus viewed by mediaeval teachers not only as a means of increasing knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, proverbs, similes and Ciceronian speech partitions, but also as an instructive progression in the stages of a boy’s maturation under the direction of a series of adult mentors (Thetis, Chiron, Ulysses and Diomedes), while the simplified gender differentiation perceptible in the Ilias Latina makes it an ideal text for teaching boys epic vocabulary connected with war and death. Chapter Three demonstrates how mediaeval school manuscripts were scripts to be performed and how recitation and dramatisation of texts help to interpret characterisation. It also deals with the influence of classical and mediaeval treatises of rhetoric and rhetorical exercises on the performance of speeches in the Middle Ages, a tradition that has lasted even down to today with theatre productions in single-sex schools.

The book contains two coloured plates and several black and white illustrations, allowing us to see with our own eyes through the marginal sketches or highlighting squiggles what readers thought important and also, through the addition of musical notation, what were considered metrically difficult or highly emotional passages. There are also extensive notes, bibliography and indices.

Although the study aims to provide a broad outline of mediaeval education, pointing out common features of a European-wide pedagogical tradition that started before and continued long after the mediaeval period, W. does not provide much concrete historical context for her observations. Likewise, while it aims to be accessible to all kinds of readers, from non-specialists to experts (p. 12), and English is the primary medium of quotation, with the extensive Latin excerpts presented in the footnotes, it is likely to be of greatest interest to scholars of the reception of classical texts in mediaeval education.

Claire Gruzelier

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