Grammar for the Ages: A Royal Intervention

The history of English grammar is shrouded in mystery. It is generally thought to have begun at the end of the 16th century, with the work of William Bullokar. grammar brochure (1586) – but where does Bullokar’s inspiration come from? At this time, the structure and rules of English grammar were constructed and contrasted with Latin. Bullokar wrote his treatise with the intention of proving that English was bound by as many rules as Latin, and for that he borrowed heavily from a preexisting text: William Lily’s Latin grammar.

No other textbook has been in use for so long in English schools as at Lily’s Latin grammar. It was prescribed by Henry VIII in 1540 as an authorized and compulsory text, to be used in all schools in the country.and then dominated the teaching of Latin for more than three centuries. As a result, Lily’s Latin grammar had a massive impact not only on Latin, but also on English, well into the 19th century. One of England’s most famous schoolboys, william shakespeare (when enrolled at the King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon circa 1571), acquired his formal education with none other than this ubiquitous grammar edition.

A number of allusions scattered throughout Shakespeare’s plays testify to his familiarity with the manual. For example, Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh clergyman from the Merry Wives of Windsor (Act 4, Scene 1) asks his student (William), a few questions:

Evans: William, how many numbers are there in names?
Will: Two….
Evans: What is “just”, William?
Will: Pulcher.…
Evans: What is ‘lapis’, William?
Will: A stone.
Evans: And what is a “stone”, William?
Will: A pebble.
Evans: No; it is ‘lapis’. Please remember in your praline.

The passage from Shakespeare’s comedy echoes the rules of Lily’s Grammar in English:

“A new adjective is, which cannot stand on its own, but needs to be associated with another word, like Prime Well, pulper fairy…. By maintaining two numbers, The syngular and the plural. The syngular number speaks of one as lapis, a stone. The plural number speaks of more than one, as stonedrocks.”

Lily’s Latin Grammar was based on a long tradition of grammatical writing in the vernacular that dates back to the second half of the 14th century. From around 1400, Latin grammatical manuscripts written in English have come down to us. When printed school texts became available in the 1480s in England, short versions on elementary morphology and syntax also found their way into classrooms. Soon after, there is evidence that schoolmasters often compiled their own teaching materials which later appeared in print. From around 1510, this practice was clearly getting out of hand, and we can see that teachers and students alike complained about the large number of different versions circulating and being used.

As a result, problems arose in classrooms when children had to learn Latin using different editions, or even completely different versions of the same grammar. To solve this problem, Henry VIII ordered that a common Latin grammar should be used in all schools in the country. A royal committee was commissioned to compile the English and Latin texts, which were then introduced by royal prerogative in 1540. This grammar, attributed to William Lily (1468?–1522/23), was the text that influenced the English language from. Unfortunately, Lily did not live long enough to see this grammar introduced and used in schools.

Lily was an eminent man and renowned teacher of Latin and Greek, as well as a close friend of Sir Thomas More and Erasmus from Rotterdam. He became the first headmaster of St. Paul’s School in 1510, and a number of his other works, particularly on elementary syntax in Latin and English, as well as those on gender and epigrams still survive. He was an excellent scholar and an outstanding teacher, and Lily’s teaching success at St. Paul’s School was widely known to her friends and students.which in turn fueled the high rank and reputation of St. Paul’s School itself. As a result, this contributed massively to the implementation of the royal edict, as many other schools were keen to take St. Paul as a model and follow their high standards. When John Milton writes his Latin grammar Access Commenc’t Grammar (1669), over 60% of his illustrative quotations were taken from Lily’s Grammar.

Over time the name Lily lent authority to the grammar introduced by Henry VIII and came to mean a whole genre of textbooks. Lily’s grammar was the standard grammar of the Latin school and, with its influence on scholars, authors and playwrights such as Bullokar, Milton and Shakespeare, shaped the English language for centuries.

Featured image credit: “Grammar, Magnifier” by PDPics. Public domain CC0 via Pixabay.

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