Brevissima Institutio Grammatices Latinae Lilianae

Lily's Latin Grammar (1675) with three more editions in the background.

This topic came about when I discovered that the Osborne Collection had an edition–actually, a few editions–of Lily’s Latin Grammar (1542). I was introduced to this book through a fellow Classics student I bumped into on the subway. He was studying something assiduously and when I asked what he was reading, he said that he was in the midst of memorizing [1] this very text. He told me a bit about it, and that I could find it online. I was pretty excited. But after we parted, I clean forgot the title and the website, and I didn’t have any way of contacting the guy either. All I had was the author’s name. So I’d been trying to track down a physical copy of it ever since, and to no avail. I couldn’t even be sure about the online versions because William Lily’s last name–confound Early Modern English!–is spelled variously (Lyly, Lilly, Lilie); and his grammar, which was actually a collaboration with John Colet (Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, who appointed Lily as first High Master of St. Paul’s School [2]), has several appellations: Royal Grammar; Latin Grammar; A Short Introduction of Grammar (which contains no indication that it is one of Latin grammar, and this is because, frustratingly, it’s only part of the title); Brevissima Institutio Seu Ratio Grammatices Cognoscendae ad Omnium Puerorum Utilitatem Praescripta, Quam Solam Regia Maiestas in Omnibus Scholis Profitendam Praecipit [3] (hence the abridged English title). Unfortunately, it’s usually called “Lily’s Latin Grammar,” which is not what is printed on the title page:

Lily's Latin Grammar (1675) title page.

Having finally pinned down a copy, I gleefully (but quietly) sat myself down to enjoy the book. Which I did. Until about a quarter of the way through, where the truly “Short Introduction of Grammar” abruptly ends and the real Brevissima Institutio starts. The first chunk in English is just “An Introduction of the eight parts of Latine Speech” listing their declensions and conjugations.

Brevissima Institutio title page.

There begins on the next leaf a very scary lesson in daunting and densely-printed Latin. There isn’t a word of English to be found in the rest of the book–250 or so pages.

Brevissima Institutio (1675) text sample.

How could beginner schoolboys, with scarcely an iota of Latin grammar, have learned Latin from this, when I could barely get the gist of each sentence, and that only because I already know some Latin? Before seeing the book, I’d thought, Wow! Shakespeare used this text! It was the most popularly used Latin grammar in England in the Renaissance! How prestigious! Which is more or less true. It was made the sole authorized textbook in 1542 by royal edict under Henry VIII (which shouldn’t have impressed me considering some of the king’s other decisions), and, like the Authorized Version of the Bible, it was conferred a monopoly [4]. This edict was maintained in the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I, and, interestingly, the Grammar’s authorization by the Canons Ecclesiastical (1604) persisted even into the last century [5]. So Shakespeare–and Ben Jonson, Milton, Dryden, among others–must’ve used an edition (the 1566 edition) of Lily’s Grammar [6]. But now, I’m not so sure this really was the best textbook. To many grammarians, Lily’s Grammar was, for reasons more than one, a problem. Moreover, the edict was a problem–but a problem got around, for some grammarians got away with publishing their own textbooks as “corrected” and “improved” versions of Lily’s text [7]. Authors were “limited to translating, elucidating, or supplementing the ‘regia grammatica’…with explanatory notes [which were] no doubt in part a subterfuge, allowing publication which would otherwise have been thwarted by its royal privilege” [8]. One schoolmaster, Charles Hoole, says in his Latine Grammar [9] (1651) that he will “‘translate’ Lily’s text and ‘correct’ Lily’s mistakes. His changes are so numerous, however, that he is, in effect, writing his own new textbook of Latin grammar. He adds commentary, deletes part of Lily’s text, and rearranges rules and other material. His most significant change is a bilingual format, with the Latin text on the left-hand page and the English translation on the right-hand” [10]. My image of the reprint shows the opposite, English on the left and Latin on the right, and here the English text already seems to supersede the Latin. We, of course, read from left to right, so it is as if the Latin is the translation of the English, though the English is indeed a translation of text taken from Lily.

Facsimile (1969) of the first edition of Hoole's Latine Grammar.

Translations of Lily’s grammar “paved the way for an interest in vernacular grammar for its own sake” [11]. They point to both the futility of teaching Latin in Latin and the ascendancy of the English vernacular. As one man put it, “What can be more ridiculous than to deliver Rules for the Learning of any Thing, in a Language the Learner understands not?” He calls it a “palpable Piece of Absurdity” and compares it to learning Hebrew with a Hebrew grammar book [12]. Another grammarian declared that “To learn an unknown Tongue by an unknown Art, must needs be a Barbarous and Gothic Custom” [13]. So, many grammarians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries shared my pedagogical concern. Grammar wars were waged as to whether Latin should be taught in Latin or in the vernacular. Many thought that students should first learn good English as a foundation, so that they had a familiar language to refer to and would be able to compare common grammatical elements [14]. This seems common sense, since Latin was already a dead language–you could not be brought up in it naturally. Some grammarians of the eighteenth century also thought that learning Latin afterwards would reinforce students’ understanding of the grammar of both languages, a thought which stemmed from the concept of ‘universal grammar,’ that all languages shared common linguistic principles [15]. One conservative, however, a Thomas Farnaby, thought that using bilingual translations would make schoolboys lazy [16], which is understandable. He rather seems like an extreme version of the Classics professor forbidding the use of those dangerous Loeb editions when translating. English translations on the same or facing page require Ulyssean will to ignore. Now, Farnaby actually tried to improve upon the royal grammar by publishing an all-Latin textbook à la Lily, called Systema Grammaticum (1641). Too bad for Farnaby, it was a flop, because teachers simply found bilingual texts more effective [17]. By the mid-seventeenth century, it was decided that the vernacular should be taught as preparation for Latin [18], although clearly grammatomachias still carried on. Lily’s Grammar was no longer the best; publication rates rose in the early-mid seventeenth century to produce some 169 editions of Latin grammars, when there had only been twelve texts between 1542 and 1612 [19]. But I found Lily’s Grammar problematic (and hilarious) for other reasons, too, which may or may not have been concerns for his contemporaries. In the Introduction of the eight parts of Latine Speech, adjectives are not their own part of speech, but classified as nouns; explanations of cases are all too reductive (though he rectifies this in Brevissima Institutio);  the optative is a mood in its own right, though it hasn’t its own form (this isn’t so much wrong as it would be confusing). These may not have been issues at the time, but they certainly disagree with my sense of Latin grammar. Most curious of all, however, is the fact that he lists seven genders for Latin nouns: the masculine, the feminine, neuter–fine. But then he adds the “Commune of two,” the “Commune of three, the “Doubtful,” and the “Epicene.” I lie not:

Seven Genders of Nouns in Lily's Latin Grammar (1675).

“Commune of two”? It is not as if a parens (parent) can refer to both a man and a woman simultaneously in the same use. Likewise with “Commune of three.” The “Doubtful” is especially amusing, and dies is not so doubtful [20]. It is amazing to me that Lily even found a seventh gender, as it is barely distinguishable from the sixth. His effort might have been put to better use in further explaining case usage. I sympathize with the man who added the footnote in this later edition; it was probably all he could do to mitigate this violent breach of biology. Now I understand why this book is only available by print-on-demand. And of all the editions of Lily’s Grammar at the Collection, this was the one I most approved of:

Lily's Latin Grammar (1740), sensibly abridged to contain only the Introduction of the eight parts of Speech.

Photo of Hoole’s Latine Grammar courtesy of University of  St Michael’s College, John M. Kelly Library. All other photos courtesy of the Osborne Collection, Toronto Public Libraries.

1. “‘…I never yet knew a boy that was induced, either by fair means or foul, to learn Lilly’s Latin grammar by heart, who did not turn out a man, provided he lived long enough,’” says a clergyman in George Borrow’s Lavengro. For more: Here.
2. p. 231, Grammatical Theory in Western Europe 1500-1700: Trends in Vernacular Grammar, Volume II, by Arthur Padley.
3. A Short Introduction or Method of Learning Grammar, Prescribed for the Use of All Boys, the Sole [Grammar] which His Royal Majesty Has Commanded to be Used in All Schools.
4. p. 232, Grammar Wars: Language As Cultural Battlefield in 17th and 18th Century England by Linda C. Mitchell.
5. p. 258, The English grammar school to 1660: their culture and practice by Foster Watson. You can see it Here.
6. p. 232, Padley.
7. p. 86, Mitchell.
8. p. 147, Padley. 9. Called Grammatica Latina in usum scholarum adornata in Latin.
10. p. 86, Mitchell.
11. p. 147, Padley.
12. Assuming, of course, that the learning of Latin is begun with learning grammar, p. 23, Mitchell.
13. p. 21, Ibid.
14. p. 20, Ibid.
15. p. 23-4, Ibid.
16. p. 17, Ibid.
17. p. 86, Ibid.
18. p. 17, Ibid.
19. p. 13, Ibid.
20. According to the Oxford Latin Pocket/Desk Dictionary, “dies is generally masculine, especially when used as a measure of time, but it is feminine in the sg. when referring to a particular or appointed day.”



Filed under Mufei Jiang

5 responses to “Brevissima Institutio Grammatices Latinae Lilianae

  1. Jenny

    You are very witty! “[his] violent breech of biology” is one to remember. I think already, we’ve made Frankenstein out of Latin grammar, with a million names for partial obliquity and ablatives that need not be expressed in so many ways.

  2. may

    this is so amazing FeiFei

  3. Andrew Hope

    I recall the elementary Latin grammar books we had fifty years ago. We would make fun of them by trying to talk to each other in English sentences with the same structure as those we were being asked to translate, along the lines of ‘The spears of the inhabitants are on the island’. Perhaps it’s still the same.


    • Klaas

      “there are in nature but two Genders, the Masculine and the Feminine (…) As for the Neuter, tis not properly a new Gender, but a negation of the other two. All the others, besides these three, are (…) rejected by the learned …”

      This footnote must predate the 1675 edition by many a decade, because it puts – to its well educated original audience – a famous collision between the scholarly mind and street wise ignorance upside down:

      Headmaster : William, how many Numbers is (!) in Nownes?
      William Page : Two.
      Mrs. Quickly : Truely, I thought there had bin one Number
      more, because they say od’s-Nownes.
      Headmaster : Peace, your tatlings.*
      ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ scene 4 ; 1

      * Tatlings talk too much (in more than one sense),

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