Absolutissimus de octo orationis partiu[m] constructione libellus, nec minus eruditione pueris utilis futurus...nuperrime uigilantissima cura recognitus.

ERASMUS Desiderius; LILY William (1515)


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4to. 22 leaves (of 24, lacking the preface by Erasmus= Allen Ep. 341 and first two pages of text), title-border by Urs Graf, blue sugar-paper wrappers, title-page slightly stained, 2 leaves at end loose

Basel: J. Froben (mense Augusto, 1515)


This little book ‘little in size but not little in its usefulness’ was published first in London by Pynson in 1513 and was written at the behest of John Colet, Dean of St. Pauls (1467-1519) who in around 1508-10 had re-founded and handsomely endowed (he came of a wealthy family) St. Paul’s School, still flourishing, but now on the banks of the Thames across from Hammersmith. Colet, as he says in his preface addressed to William Lily who had been appointed the first High Master in 1510, was wedded to the idea of education instilling ‘pii mores & bonae literae’, and this could be done only in Latin to which this work provides, its title taken from the short treatise of Donatus, the grammarian of late antiquity, an introduction. Erasmus himself in his Catalogus lucubrationum (1537 ed. p. 22) speaks of the book and how Colet 'multis precibus, hoc extorsit potius quam impetrauit, ut nouum opus nouae scholae dedicarem' and how he revised Lily's work to the extent that 'Lily wouldn't wish not to know it, and I couldn't'. The school has never failed to fulfil its founder’s aims and the list of eminent Grecians, such as the late Martin West and Alan Cameron is long, not to mention figures such as Jonathan Miller, Oliver Sacks, David Abulafia, whose recent book The Boundless Sea (2019) is dedicated to his teachers there, and Sir Compton Mackenzie, the prolific and highly entertaining author of elephantine recall. 

The authorship of this little work is by some attributed to William Lily and the Latin grammar which held sway in England for centuries is known as ‘Lily’s Latin Grammar’, but that is a different work although based on this. In his preface to the reader Erasmus speaks of the work having been sent to him for revision: the 1533 Wynkyn de Worde edition printed in London stresses this, having in the title the words ‘emendatus per Erasmum’, and no statement of authorship (as in this edition). Although STC enters it under Lily, himself an excellent scholar, and translator of many epigrams from the Greek Anthology, and much of the text has examples involving English places, it is generally accepted as by Erasmus and is published as such in the great modern edition of his works (Ordinis primi tomus quartus, ed. M. Cytowska, Amsterdam, 1973). 

The great interest of this imperfect copy lies in its copious annotations which may well illustrate the way the book was used in class and ‘what the master said’, i.e. what examples and references were given and written down by the annotating student who writes sometimes glosses in German (e.g. 5r ‘tantas’ ‘so gross’), but for the most part writes in Latin in a flowing humanist hand. These annotations extend throughout. There are many examples adduced from Terence with references to individual plays, Heautontimoroumenos, Adelphi, Phormio, Eunuchus. There is also a reference to Plautus (see below). There are many Vergilian quotations from Aeneid books 2,4,5,6, 11((18v), one from Catullus (5r V.2 Rumores quae senum severiorum omnes unius aestimatis [assis], a quotation from Martial (I,37) on the subject of Bassus (5v), and there are references to Cicero and St.Jerome (11r). Other writers are also mentioned (16v) Pliny, Ovid and Euripides (16v) and Sallust Bellum Jugurthinum 10.7 (‘nam Concordia parvae res crescunt Discordia maxime dilabuntur’). 

As well as references to classical authors there are some to contemporary writers: Erasmus Moriae encomium(11r), Brassicanus (17r) whom Erasmus got to know in September 1520, and Politian the opening of whose own prologue to Plautus Menaechmi is quoted (24r) ‘Heus, heus [tacete] sultis, vos ego ut loquar’. This prologue was written in 1488 for a performance of the play (see Lucia Cesarini Martinelli, “De poesi et poetis’: Uno schedario sconosciuto di Angelo Poliziano” in Cardini, R, editor. Tradizione classica e letteratura umanistica per Alessandro Perosa / a cura di Roberto Cardini, Rome 1985) pp. 455-86. There is also a reference (18v) to Alexander Hegius  (d. 1498) whose pupil at Zwolle Erasmus had been, and what is surely a very contemporary reference, that  to the attack on Italy and Milan by François I of France  in 1515 (14v-Gallorum rex exercitum duxit ad bellandum Mediolanum). On 6v is a reference to Beroaldo teaching at Bologna. 

All these quotations and references are used to illustrate grammatical points or figures of speech : synecdoche is mentioned on 12r and 18r. On 12verso where the ablative absolute is being discussed, the following examples are given: ‘Virgilio vigente latinitas viguit, Augusto regnante natus est Christus and Erasmo Basilee agente visebatur ab omnibus doctis’ [a mistake]. The section discussing the gerund is very heavily annotated (13v-14r). Other points of meaning are also illustrated, e.g. on6v the distinction made between ‘loca minora’ cities such as Basel, Strasbourg, etc. and ‘loca maiora’ which are countries.  

VD16 E2544. V. Sebastiani, J. Froben, Printer of Basel, Leiden & Boston:Brill, 2018, no. 42 (copies at BL(2), Basel, Munich, Zurich, Vienna, Berlin, Freiburg, HAB, Burgos, Einsiedeln).

Stock Code: 235066

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