Virgilius Maro Grammaticus
What marks off the two works most from other medieval Latin grammars, however, is the non-grammatical doctrine added to the discussion, and the authorities cited in support of Virgilius's various theories. Though much of the exposition concerns problems familiar to the classical grammarians, Virgilius dispenses with their examples and invents his own; these are almost invariably fantastic. Where grammars are relentlessly dour and impersonal, Virgilius populates his works with a bizarre cast of pseudo-classical ‘authorities’ that are clearly intended as pastiche. Besides citing Cicero, Quintilian, and Varro (from works of theirs otherwise unknown), and a host of superficially authentic authors, he also knows a Donatus of Troy (reputed to have lived 1,000 years), three Virgils and three Vulcans, a Carthaginian sibyl, and others who rejoice under the names of Blastus, Galbungus, and Gurgilius. Also included are Gregorius, an Egyptian who wrote 3,000 books on Greek history, and his own teacher, Virgil of Asia, who was the author of a ‘noble book’ (liber nobilis) on the subject of twelve latinities. Two of these pedants argued virulently for fourteen days and nights about whether the word ego (‘I’) had a vocative case. Two others engage in a two-week-long dispute about an obscure form of a verb.
In all this, however, there is a great deal of serious philological discussion, with a genuine didactic purpose; indeed many of Virgilius's theories are remarkably prescient of modern-day linguistic concepts (metalinguistics). Thus the ‘Epitomae’, for example, opens with several chapters on units smaller than the word, and Virgilius distinguishes between verbum (word) considered as a semantic entity, and fonum (word) considered as a physical or formal unit (like vox, dictio, locutio, etc. in the classical grammars). This lexical innovation (which also includes other alternations such as sententia/quassum and videre/vidare) reveals manifold levels of signification whose aim is to distinguish between corporeal and non-corporeal aspects of the same linguistic phenomenon. Virgilius also remarks that readers often have a ‘feel’ about words not unlike the sense of taste (sapor) in the body. This subliminal process he also uses to explain the ‘discretionary’ placement of the stress accent in words, which is used mainly (maxime) to differentiate homonyms, but which has wider applications as well.
In all this Virgilius may be reflecting contemporary Irish thinking as found in vernacular Old Irish texts, for example the distinction between focul (a stressed word) and iarmbérla (an unstressed word). Likewise the doctrine of twelve latinities may be a reflection of the doctrine in early Irish metrical tracts that speaks of twelve bérlai, whose application is significant for Old Irish poetics in the first instance, and only subsequently in linguistics. He also indicates familiarity with the distinctive features of Old Irish vernacular syntax and morphology. Beside these seemingly serious views, however, are the doctrine of ‘word scrambling’ or ‘code-breaking’ (scinderatio fonorum), and 101 other weird and wonderful theories.
Scholars are not yet decided whether Virgilius was an arger Schalk (a charlatan, as one German described him) or an inspired teacher who combined the twin traditions of Latin grammar and biblical exegesis to produce a genuinely innovative and exciting philosophy, which argued for a recognition of the diversity of knowledge and the folly of confining the search for truth to one route, to the exclusion of all others. His purpose was apparently to sharpen the wits of his students by testing them with all kinds of word-games, teasers, riddles, puzzles and puns, in order to make them think. What marks out his works is the belief that wisdom lies not just in the Bible or the Church Fathers, but in the liberal arts of antiquity also, and in the philosophy of language.