Gregory the Great Says: “Forget Grammar, Donatus be Damned”

J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship, Vol. 1

“Towards the close of the long letter prefixed to the Moralia, he confesses his contempt for the art of speech, and admits that he is not over-careful in the avoidance of barbarisms or inaccurate uses of prepositions, deeming it ‘ utterly unworthy to keep the language of the Divine Oracles in subjection to the rules of Donatus’; and this principle he applies to his own commentary, as well as to the sacred text. His attitude towards the secular study of Latin literature is well illustrated in the letter to Desiderius, bishop of Vienne. He is almost ashamed to mention the rumour that has reached him, to the effect that the bishop was in the habit of instructing certain persons in grammatical learning. ‘ The praises of Christ cannot be pronounced by the same lips as the praises of Jove’. He hopes to hear that the bishop is not really interested in such trifling subjects. Elsewhere, however, the study of Grammar and the knowledge of the liberal arts are emphatically commended on the ground of the aid they afford in the understanding of the Scriptures; but the genuineness of the work, in which this opinion is expressed is doubtful. Later writers record the tradition that Gregory did his best to suppress the works of Cicero, the charm of whose style diverted young men from the study of the Scriptures’, and that he burnt all the books of Livy which he could find, because they were full of idolatrous superstitions. It was even stated that he set the Palatine Library on fire, lest it should interfere with the study of the Bible, but the sole authority for this is John of Salisbury’ (d. 1 180), and the statement is unworthy of credit. “

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