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Rethinking Patristic Grammar School

Reviewed in Bryn Mawr Classical Review: Grammar and Christianity in the Late Roman World, a reconsideration of Christianity’s role in the development of education. Maybe we weren’t as bad as we supposed.

Scholarship has come a long way in thinking about late-antique education since Henri Marrou could state with unflinching certitude that, “Even the most ‘educated’ of [Christians], those who remained most faithful to classical art and classical thought … share the spontaneous reaction of the simple and the ignorant, and condemn the old culture for being an independent ideal hostile to the Christian revelation”, or by Pierre Riché that, “While this kind of learning [the commentaries of grammarians] satisfied curiosity, it did not shape the mind.” The work of Catherine Chin presently under review lays both of these misconceptions firmly to rest by demonstrating how late-antique grammatical artes did, in fact, mold the imaginative aspect of reading practices, allowing educated late-Roman Christians to generate a conceptual space within which they appropriated and reconciled themselves with the use of the secular literary tradition. This book comes as a recent addition (and one for which there is much to celebrate) to a more general field of interest in late-antique education that has been the subject of intensive study from a number of very specific directions. Chin’s contribution, however, brings to bear the resources of critical literary theory and linguistic anthropology in the service of quite a large claim, that “the teaching of language in late antiquity shaped the ability of late ancient readers and writers to have concepts that we call religious” (page 1). The following review will offer an overall assessment of that claim after summarizing its development in the course of the work…