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Knowledge of Greek in Western Europe during the earlier Middle Ages

Chapter 10 (The Study of Greek) of Laistner's, Thought & Letters in Western Europe - A.D. 500 to 900, N.Y. 1931, pp. 238-250










Time and Creation in Gregory of Nyssa and Meister Eckhart
Time and Creation
In Gregory of Nyssa and
Meister Eckhart

Page 2

Bede, as we have seen, at least in his later years had acquired a sufficient mastery over Greek to carry through an important work of collation and textual criticism on a part of the New Testament; and the occurrence of Graeca, even if often derived from his sources, in his earliest commentaries on the Bible, shows that his interest in the language went back to his youth. Since the commentary on the Psalms, written in Irish minuscule of the eighth century and containing part of a Latin version of Theodore of Mopsuestia's commentary together with one by Julian of Aeclanum has now to be excluded from the list of writings once attributed to Columban, there is no evidence on which to attribute to him any knowledge of Greek. The appearance here and there of Greek words in Adamnan proves no more than that he, like others later, had learnt the alphabet and picked up a certain stock of words and phrases. It has been asserted that Alcuin was something of a Grecian. His own works, which have been held to prove this, actually demonstrate the contrary; indeed they afford us a very instructive explanation of the true state of affairs in his own writings and those of other eighth- and ninth-century authors. Comparison with Alcuin's sources shows that the Greek words and their explanation in his Biblical commentaries and elsewhere were generally taken from Jerome. Similarly, technical terms and their definitions in his school treatises come from earlier grammarians that he used. In one place (PL, 100, 777B) he gives his readers a mystical explanation of the name Adam which he says is formed from the initial letters of the Greek words for north, south, east, and west. But this piece of allegory occurs as early as a third-century treatise attributed falsely to Cyprian and also in Augustine. In one of his letters (Epist., 162) he cites from the Psalter in Greek; but no book of the Bible was more studied than the Psalms and, as we shall see, bilingual Psalters were not uncommon in Alcuin's day and after.[1] Even less than Alcuin can Hrabanus, his pupil, aspire to the honour of being called a Grecian; for the Graeca in his commentaries and in his treatise on the education of the clergy are uniformly derived from his sources. Walahfrid Strabo, who had been trained at Reichenau before he became for a time the disciple and amanuensis of Hrabanus, was also connected by ties of friendship with St Gall. There, if not earlier, he may have become interested in the Greek liturgy and, perhaps with the help of some Irish teacher, have acquired some Greek rudiments. In his exceptionally interesting little treatise on ritual and liturgical uses, De exordiis et incrementis quarundam in observationibus ecclesiasticis rerum, he shows his curiosity in linguistics, when he remarks: "The Latins and all who employ Latin books and the Latin language have taken over from the Greeks, ecclesia, baptism, chrism, and the roots of nearly all words" and he adds that the Germans (Theotisci) similarly have borrowed from the Latins certain words of everyday use and nearly all terms used in the liturgy. And in two chapters of this work (6 and 7) he gives etymologies of Greek ecclesiastical and some other terms.[2] Yet it must be admitted that these derivations hardly go beyond what he could have found in bilingual glossaries.

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