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  • Classroom Commentaries: Teaching the Poetria Nova across Medieval and Renaissance Europe
  • Sara Ritchey
Classroom Commentaries: Teaching the Poetria Nova across Medieval and Renaissance Europe. By Marjorie Curry Woods (Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 2010) 367 pp. $ 59.95 cloth

Woods reconstructs the "epistemology of the classroom" through a multifaceted examination of the Poetria nova as a tool for teaching rhetoric, poetry, letters, and Aristotelian logic in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance. The Poetria nova is a 2,000-line rhetorical treatise in verse composed by Geoffrey of Vinsauf at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Although generations of students learned to compose letters and arguments by means of its instruction—and extant manuscripts of the Poetria nova are five times more numerous than those of any other ars poetriae—contemporary scholars have failed to recognize the importance of this text as the foundation of later medieval learning. Situating the Poetria nova in a number of varied didactic contexts, Woods argues that scholars have drastically overemphasized, and thus misunderstood, distinctions in the methods, goals, and tools of education from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century.

Woods has examined nearly every copy of the Poetria nova and its commentaries in seventy or more libraries and in microfilm. Arguing from text to context, she infers the level and type of institution for which a certain commentary was intended from a close comparative examination of commentaries used in known pedagogical settings, as well as from the other texts with which the commentary was copied. In doing so, Woods reconstructs the experience of studying the Poetria nova at various levels of instruction in schools of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth century (an experience that she seeks to recreate in her classrooms and that she outlines for her readers' own pedagogical edification in her delightful and moving Afterword).

An introductory chapter contextualizes the author, audience, and pedagogical uses of the Poetria nova, arguing that its success stemmed from its flexibility and generality, always functioning "as a site in which the mind is encouraged to work in particular ways" (254). The Poetria nova featured a wholly generic Latin appropriate for multiple contexts, which ultimately led to its longevity.

Woods demonstrates the text's adaptability through her analysis in the subsequent chapters, which follow the stages of a student's pedagogical [End Page 447] development. Chapter 2, for example, about the instruction of schoolboys in basic Latin composition, explicates the "minutiae" of the text just as teachers would have, concentrating on small portions, specific words, and short phrases. Woods demonstrates how teachers relied on the multiplication of examples to arouse enthusiasm for a world of rhetorical possibility; even the smallest changes in grammatical construction and composition could convey great changes in meaning.

In the following chapter, Woods shows how this attention to detail in the Latin schools found favor and facility among the early Italian humanists who wished to elevate textual analysis to an advanced discipline. Chapter 3 argues that certain characteristics of the Poetria nova adapted smoothly to the textual and stylistic analysis that Italian teachers were promoting. Italians read Geoffrey's verses as a book on the art of instruction in poetry, copying it almost exclusively with literary and (increasingly) classical texts.

Although the Italian humanists discontinued their copying and commenting on Poetria nova after 1450, such was not the case in central Europe. While continuing to find abundant use in the elementary school classroom, the Poetria nova occupied an important transitional position by introducing university students in Warsaw and Vienna to the basic logical elements of Aristotle and to analytical values more generally. Woods demonstrates that, in this context, the Poetria nova was copied most frequently with dictaminal texts and deployed to teach the art of letter writing to students who, although advanced, may still have struggled with their Latin. Woods' impeccable research reveals the great breadth of circumstances and the varied level of student skill to which the Poetria nova adapted. Her final chapter on seventeenth-century commentaries affirms the devaluation of the Poetria nova as a pedagogical tool.

Classroom Commentaries is provocative, clear, witty, and memorable. At moments, however, it cries out for more prodding analysis. For example, Woods' statement...


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pp. 447-448
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