The Uses of Latin in the Lower Forms of Grammar Schools
Boys entering the lowest form of a grammar school in early modern England spent two to three years mastering the basics of the Latin language, and beginning to read some very simple Latin texts. The first building blocks – a vocabulary of useful Latin words, and the constructions through which those words could be combined into sentences – came in the form of a Latin ‘grammar’. After they had mastered at least the opening sections of that grammar, they were exposed to some short Latin sentences and then to whole paragraphs or verses in Latin, placed either within the covers of that ‘grammar’ or in a separate text. All these texts were used not only to encourage students to speak Latin out loud and translate them into English, but also to test their ability to ‘construe’ and ‘parse’ – to divide a sentence into its component parts, and describe them in the technical terms used in their ‘grammar’. The more of the grammar they mastered, the more they were exposed to texts, of which some, such as ‘Cato’ and ‘Aesop’, were thought to date back to classical times, while others were recent works by Northern humanists committed to the campaign to raise the standard of spoken and written Latin in schools. Only when students had reached the later stages of the official grammar, read a cross-section of these elementary texts, and showed an ability to parse, construe and speak Latin fluently were they considered ready to move on to the middling or upper forms of the grammar school, to attempt more difficult linguistic techniques and more demanding materials from the classical canon, which we will consider in the next chapter.