An offence against language

It is one of history’s gravest ironies that in a medieval world sanctioned by the modern observer with illiteracy, ignorance and obscurantism, the 10th-century grammar teacher Gunzo of Novara should be censured by his contemporaries for a Latin mistake he inadvertently made. To be sure, criticising a 19th-century scholar for bad philology or a 21st-century scientist for a faulty application of the scientific method is one thing, but maligning an 10th-century intellectual for getting his Latin wrong is like giving Clio,  the muse of history, an overdose of Prozac.

And yet, poor Gunzo had to enter history – and be stuck there – as the medieval grammarian who didn’t live up to his contemporaries’ high expectations. But what happened?

The little we know about Gunzo comes from the letter he wrote to defend himself against the libellous attack he sustained from the monks of the Abbey of St Gall in the Swiss Alps. Arriving at the abbey in the winter of 964, he let his grammar guard down and started chatting casually with the monks in the refectory. I imagine him over a nice cup of ale, not too pale to make him forget his Latin syntax, but stout enough to cause him to substitute an accusative for an ablative Latin word, which is actually what happened – the equivalent in Latin literate society of using ‘who’ instead of ‘whom’. He immediately realised that he was surrounded by purists for whom, he says in his letter, ‘to misplace a clause was a capital sin’. The jury decided and the judge ruled that Gunzo was guilty of lèse-majesté against language. The apologetic letter which followed was not so much apologetic as searing against St Gall, while affording, at the same time, an opportunity for Gunzo to let the monks of Reichenau, to whom the letter was addressed, know what a prodigious intellectual he was. In pitch-perfect oratorical style, Gunzo proudly explained that his error was not due to ignorance or carelessness, but to an excessive colloquial familiarity with Italian, which at that point was breaking away from Latin to become a language in its own right.

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