Grammatica revisited – allegorical figures in transformation

Research on vernacular grammar writing in the early modern period has shown the development of a large variety of theoretical texts in Europe since the 15th century. Many of these (mainly printed) sources are clearly linked to the Latin tradition, but as the case of German has shown, emancipatory metalinguistic strategies have emerged in the description and normative encoding of orthography and grammatical structures. My research on the history of German grammar included in a first step a comprehensive and descriptive bibliography of all grammatical texts produced since their first apparition in the 15th century up to 1700 – the bibliography was published in two volumes in the 1990s and has since then continuously been supplemented at my institute in Trier. This included the building of a physical and digital archive documenting all existing titles and editions. In the meantime, we are conceiving a digital portal to Early New High German grammarians that will include besides the documentation of the sources (with digital entities) a content driven analysis of the texts and authors as well as the underlying semantic networks of grammatical concepts.

In this blog post I would like to point out another topic linked to the grammars in question, namely the iconongraphic dimension. On the one hand, the grammars and orthographic treatises contain themselves a rich iconographic material, for example in the form of engraved or etched title pages and/or other illustrations included in the works themselves. On the other hand, the iconographic tradition linked to the figure of the Grammatica, one of the seven liberal arts, is also worth to be traced down and reflected upon. Collecting this multifaceted material allows on the whole deeper insights in how the conception of grammar has been visualized throughout times, and also gives interesting first elements of its transformation or translational processes in metaphorical and emblematical contexts.

"Typus Grammaticae", in: G. Reisch, Margarita philosophica, Freiburg/ Br. 1503, fol. 3r

“Typus Grammaticae”, in: G. Reisch, Margarita philosophica, Freiburg/ Br. 1503, fol. 3r

Well known is the figure of the Grammatica in the medieval iconographic manuscript tradition and of course Gregor Reisch’s illustration in a print of 1503. We see an oversized woman with a key in the hand and an alphabet tablet showing male pupils the way in the tower of knowledge inhabited by the (Latin) seven liberal arts, theology building the crowning top of the tower. The details of the tower have been described in the research literature (see Puff 1995, Moulin 2008), what I would like to stress today is the composition of the picture: the position of the tower outside the urban scenery we see sketched left in the picture – also the fact that Grammatica is a figure standing both outside the tower and occupying it’s lower levels, thus building a sort of link between these two very different worlds, the urban one and the one of knowledge and wisdom. The pupils have to bring first grammatical skills that have been acquired through the vernacular language outside the tower, before being let in the Latinity of the learned levels of the tower. The metaphor of the tower bases of course on biblical concepts (just think of the tower of babel and the tower of grace), and it is interesting to see how both elements, the figure of Grammatica and the tower, evolve through times.

Turm der Grammatik der Humanisten Heinrich Vogtherr d. Ä./ Valentin Boltz, Turm der Grammatik, Zürich 1548

Turm der Grammatik der Humanisten Heinrich Vogtherr d. Ä./ Valentin Boltz, Turm der Grammatik, Zürich 1548

Basing on a collection of wood cuts, etchings and other iconographic material it is thrilling to study the transformation of these two (and also other) elements linked to grammatical iconography. Just to give a few examples: in a later illustration (1548) by Heinrich Vogtherr the Elder (woodcut) and Valentin Boltz (text) we find the tower totally occupied by allegorical and hierarchically ordered grammatical fields (the other arts having disappeared). The personified (female) Grammatica is still greeting the pupils in front of the building, she is almost standing in the door. But, instead of the static imagery of the liberal arts with their protagonists looking quite stiff out of their windows in the Reisch woodcut, in this later version of the tower movement and noise are seizable, the protagonists are in motion, thus illustrating the dynamics of grammatical knowledge through physical movement and hard work.



Justus Georg Schottelius, Manuductio, Braunschweig 1767

Justus Georg Schottelius, Manuductio, Braunschweig 1767 


Later, in the 17th Century, another quite insightful turn happens: the female figure of the Grammatica being replaced in some sources and metalinguistic discourses by the (male) figure of the architect, an interesting factor also in the context of the history of architecture. Moreover, the scenery will be pulled into the very core of urban life: the town itself having become the stage of action for grammar – this reveals a changed attitude to knowledge acquisition as well as the place and set of the protagonists involved in its construction. A nice example of such a transformation is to be found in the etched title page of an orthographical work by Justus Georg Schottelius, one of the most important Baroque grammarians of the German language. You can see the architect in the middle of a Baroque town scenery, giving his orders to the (language) builders, the symbolic tower having been replaced by an obelisk (see for details Moulin 2010).



Peter Troschel, Grammatica, 1640-1667

Peter Troschel, Grammatica, 1640-1667 


Besides this substitution of the Grammatica figure with the architect, there still is of course an iconographic tradition maintaining the female Grammatica. But it can also undergo transformations, for example by moving from the very outside of the building scenery represented formally by the tower into a new architectonic environment, namely the inside of a building, as an etching of the second half of the 17th century reveals  – an almost intimate and slight melancholic setting.

The collection and analysis of the different iconographic variations of grammatical knowledge can of course only be pursued on the background of the grammaticographic tradition and the changing metalinguistic discourses. A very intensive illustration practice is particularly to be found in the Baroque period and its emblematic practices, and so the text-picture relationship should also be focused on. The corpus is as good as complete for the German language, and drawing comparisons with other vernacular traditions in France, England or Italy would be a promising endeavor. In fact, this would be also a wonderful subject for a PhD-thesis….

and a special thanks goes to @Ajprescott for listening to my thoughts on this in a nice restaurant in Graz …

Claudine Moulin, Bibliographie der deutschen Grammatiken und Orthographielehren. I. Von den Anfängen der Überlieferung bis zum Ende des 16. Jahrhunderts, II. Das 17. Jahrhundert, Heidelberg 1994-1997.
Claudine Moulin, Grammatik im Bild – Bilder der Grammatik. Räume des sprachlichen Wissens in der Grammatikographie der Frühen Neuzeit, in: Gewusst wo! Wissen schafft Räume: Die Verortung des Denkens im Spiegel der Druckgraphik. Ed. by Katharina Bahlmann, Elisabeth Oy-Marra and Cornelia Schneider, Berlin 2008, p. 17-36.
Claudine Moulin, Grammatische Architekturen. Zur Konstitution von metasprachlichem Wissen in der Frühen Neuzeit, in: Sabine Frommel – Gernot Kamecke (ed.), Les sciences et leurs langages: Artifices et adoptions, Rom 2011, p. 25-44.
Helmut Puff, >Von dem schlüssel aller Künsten/ nemblich der Grammatica<. Deutsch im lateinischen Grammatikunterricht 1480-1560, Tübingen – Basel 1995.
Elke Reichert, Die bildlichen Darstellungen der Grammatica bis um 1600, Hamburg 2004

See also my conference on the 15th of March 2013 at the EPHE/Sorbonne in Paris “Les métamorphoses architecturales et leur visualisation dans les traités linguistiques du XVIe et XVIIe siècles.

Under construction: Portal “Historische Grammatikographie des Deutschen” (Trier University, German Studies, Chair of Historical Linguistics and Trier Center for Digital Humanities)

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