It’s All Greek to Me: Learning Greek Without Latin

By Abby-Eleonore Thouvenin |

In 1915, the library of eminent classics scholar, Sir James Donaldson, was bequeathed to the University of St Andrews, where he had served as Senior Principal of the University. One of the thousands of books gifted to the University was written by Chrysoloras (1355 – 1415), a Byzantine teacher who taught Greek in Italy and inspired generations of humanists. Chrysoloras’ Erotemata played a decisive role during the Renaissance, by helping scholars master the Greek language. Although Chrysoloras was a passionate defender of translation and taught it to his students, his grammar book, the Erotemata, was entirely written in Greek and featured no translation.

Greek grammar book plate

The University of St Andrews copy was published in Venice in 1548 and its practical and simple design indicates it was not intended for the higher end of the Venetian book-buying market. This copy contains a number of pagination errors and was printed alongside other famous grammars that built on Chrysoloras’ work, creating a comprehensive grammatical compendium. This small and light octavo was printed with narrow lines of text in an easily legible Greek typeface.

Title page of Greek grammar

Other editions of the Erotemata show a different cast of mind. For instance, in a Parisian sammelband located in Montpellier the quarto’s lines are widely spaced so that the reader could create their own interlinear gloss. In contrast, the later St Andrews’ copy might have been intended for experts in the field, who could use this grammar as a vade mecum, or for students, who would copy and translate from this portable edition into their notebooks. The lack of substantial marginalia in this copy does not necessarily mean that it was not heavily used; the octavo may have been passed from one student to another as they copied sections into their workbooks.

Perhaps what is most interesting about the Erotemata is not what was inside its pages, but what is absent from the text. During the Renaissance, scholars used Latin to write, translate and explain other languages, especially Greek. However, in the body of the Erotemata, there is no Latin, not even in the margins. The only references made to Latin are on the title page and in the introduction of the book, penned after Chrysoloras’ death, which praises him as an admirable teacher.

The striking lack of Latin instructions in the St Andrews Erotemata would have made this book nearly impossible to use in private study for all but the most advanced learners. More novice students would have needed an instructor to help them navigate the book. Additionally, the narrow lines of text, which do not allow room for annotations, further support that this work was not a tool for isolated learning, but one part of a larger pedagogical practice to be enriched by teachers. In text and paratext, St Andrews’ Erotemata leaves behind traces of Classical educational theory and practice that would have looked remarkably familiar to its donor, Sir Donaldson, and current classics students.


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Abby-Eleonore Thouvenin is a humanities graduate from the French library school, Ecole Nationale Superieure des Sciences de l’information et des Bibliotheques (ENSSIB). She is interested in the use of ancient languages during the Renaissance and in how rhetoric shaped ideas. In the summer of 2018, Abby-Eleonore volunteered in St Andrews, working on the Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC).


Images by Nora Epstein, used with permission of the University of St Andrews Library Special Collections.

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