No such fate awaited the other medieval standard, the verse anthology of Pseudo-Cato. Since it was a collection of moral sayings in more or less classical Latin, the Cato could be embraced by grammarians with many teaching styles. (85) The early humanists particularly valued it as an open window on the morality of the ancient world. Because it was an elementary text, moreover, the Cato was exempt from the broader humanist critique of medieval florilegia. From Petrarch onwards, the Italian humanists rebelled against the scholastic practice, embodied in popular preaching as well, of excerpting pithy sayings as themes for new composition without regard for their proper literary and moral contexts. This practice amounted to treating the sayings as authoritative individually and in themselves rather than understanding their authors as creators of  morally integral works of literature. (86)

The Cato, however, was accepted by the humanists as an integrated work in its own right. Its anthologic nature was simply part of its elementary character. Heinrich Bebel, one of the most eloquent spokesmen for Italian humanist educational ideas in Germany, contrasted the Cato with the other moralizing poetry usually given to school boys. He concluded (on the authority of Lorenzo Valla) that it is highly salutary and written in excellent Latin, even if it is not to be attributed to the historical Cato. Moreover, he forbade teachers to read other "minor authors" (he meant the medieval schoolroom poets) with their students:


In conclusion, all versifiers and minor authors are to be avoided by those who are eager to acquire eloquence and especially by those of tender age, unless they are authors who have written bountifully and elegantly on a pleasant and moral subject. I make exception as well for the book ascribed to "Cato." For no one in a thousand years, says Valla, has written a more elegant Latin poem than the author of this book. … And the book itself may well be called "a Cato" for its gravity and integrity, on which account works known as "Catos" are celebrated with the highest praise. (87)

The issue for Bebel, as it had been for Valla and other early Italian humanists, was that students in the traditional scholastic curriculum absorbed bad Latin and chancy morals all at once. In humanist schools, they would instead learn both good usage and moral commonplace thought. (88)

As the Counter-Reformation proceeded, teachers stressed more and more that the Cato was only one introduction to commonplace moral thinking. It was properly complemented by prayers, scripture passages, and simple devotional texts that would add a Christian dimension to the most elementary instruction. Angelo Turchini notes that by the turn of the seventeenth century teachers urgently maintained that the ancients were superior to modern men in eloquence but not in matters of religion or morals. Some authors of new grammars insisted that students should advance as early as possible to reading moral texts. (89)


Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(85)  Grendler 1989, 197-200; Blasio 2005, 15-18.
(86)  Fubini 2003, 51-54-74-77.
(87)  Bebel 1513, fol. B5r-v: Omnes (quae simul ut tandem concludam) versificatores, minutique auctores, omnibus eloquentiae studiosis, et presertim teneriori aetati declinandi, nisi forsan essent tales, qui copiose & floride de re iucunda nec nimis turpi scripserunt. Excipio etiam libellum qui Cato inscribitur, huius auctorem dicit Valla inter minutos auctores latinissimum & quo mille annis nemo carmen scripserit elegantium. … Attamen ideo forsan Cato appelari potest iste libellus, a gravitate morum vitaeque integritate, in quibus summa laude Catones sunt famigerati.
(88)  Further on Bebel, Jensen 1996b, 19-28; on the decline of the medieval school poets in the face of humanist criticism, Black 2001, 270-273 and 2007, 50 and 149-50.
(89)   B. Rubini, cited in Turchini, 314-319.

Posted by admin on September 17, 2008
Tags: Chapter Two

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Dan Sheerin on paragraph 1:

anthology] The Disticha Catonis is not an anthology, i.e., a selection of fine passages from a longer work or works, but a self-contained work.

May 8, 2009 7:29 pm
Dan Sheerin on paragraph 3:

“I make exception as well for the little book which is entitled Cato. Valla says that its author is the most latinate among the minor authors and that no one in a thousand years has written a more elegant poem. … And yet perhaps this little book is called Cato from seriousness of behavior and integrity of life, features for which the Catos were very greatly renowned.”
I believe the Catones refers not to books, but to the the Elder and Younger Cato; cp. Juvenal 2.40: “tertius a caelo cecidit Cato ….”

May 8, 2009 7:30 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

Thanks, Dan, here as elsewhere for your elegant re-translation. I see how the Catones can be read of the two admirable individuals. As Hannah Zdansky noted in her remark at 2.02 above, medieval and humanist authors knew both figures and had a good sense of the reputation of the clan. But as you will have noticed throughout my writing, I am fascinated by the way these personal names are transferred to the books themselves. Do you think Bebel might have intended a double meaning, so that these “Catones” are books, constructed in parallel to “the book called Cato” as well as contrasted with the two human Catos? Perhaps he would have used “a quibus” instead of “in quibus” if he meant it to be read the way I translated it?

May 8, 2009 9:51 pm
Dan Sheerin on paragraph 6:

utriusque virtutis] We need more context to figure out to what utriusque virtutis, “of each virtue/of both virtues,” refers.

May 8, 2009 7:30 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

This comment is misplaced, it refers to paragraph 6, note 95 in the next section, where I will reply.

May 9, 2009 7:44 am

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