By Irene O’Daly
Last week I was doing some work on life in the medieval classroom and I came across an account in a letter of Gerbert of Rheims (later Pope Sylvester II) of a teaching-aid he had designed for his students. In a letter to Bernard, a monk of Aurillac, written in early 987, Gerbert describes a schematic diagram (no longer extant) he had created to help his students learn the different parts of rhetoric:
Quorum ob amorem etiam exacto autumno quandam figuram edidi artis rethoricae, dispositam in VI et XX membranis sibi invicem conexis et concatenatis in modum antelongioris numeri, qui fit ex bis XIII. Opus sane expertibus mirabile, studiosis utile, ad res rethorum fugaces et caliginosissimas comprehendendas atque in animo collocandas. [Gerbert d’Aurillac, Correspondance: Lettres 1 à 220 (avec 5 annexes), ed. and trans. P. Riché et J.-P. Callu (Paris, 2008), p. 220]
‘Last autumn, out of love for them [his students] I made a diagram of the art of rhetoric on twenty-six skins connected together, binding along the long measure, which makes thirteen of two. This is an excellent tool for the ignorant, and useful also for the intelligent students who wish to understand the subtle and obscure parts of rhetoric and place them in their mind.’
This account got me thinking about what such a device might have looked like. Darlington’s 1947 translation of the passage implies that the act of sewing the parchment leaves together would have resulted in a columnar diagrammatic arrangement: the leaves ‘forming in all two columns side by side each of thirteen leaves’ [O.G. Darlington, ‘Gerbert the Teacher’, American Historical Review, 52 (1947), p. 472]. Riché and Callu’s note on the letter suggest that Gerbert might be referring to a roll (op. cit. p. 221).
It is evident from the account that Gerbert is referring to a sizable device. Even if we cannot assume that membrana refers to a full skin of an animal, the act of binding more than one together suggests that Gerbert needed large sheets for his diagrammatic scheme. Must we necessarily assume, then, that Gerbert joined the sheets along the top, as well as along the long side, to make a roll? What if he is implying that he made thirteen separate sheets (of two skins each)? While there is no direct correspondence between the number of parts of rhetoric (five) and the number of sheets that resulted from his binding (thirteen), there is also no reason to assume that the sheets were necessarily bound to create two continuous columns. A roll may have had the physical advantage within the medieval classroom of being able to put away without taking up too much space, but we could also speculate that Gerbert was inventing the ‘classroom poster’ – thirteen separate sheets that could be displayed individually, and perhaps looked at by multiple students at once.
The creation of a ‘teaching-aid’ for display purposes could be consistent with Gerbert’s ‘hands-on’ approach in other areas of the curriculum – for example, he introduced abaci for the study of mathematics in the school at Rheims, and used a version of the armillary sphere for the teaching of astronomy. Evidence of the controversy between Gerbert and Otric the German over the divisions of philosophy (recounted in Richer of Rheims’ Historiae III.55-6) also refers to a schematic diagram that was presented (and corrected by Gerbert) at the court of Otto III.
While we cannot recreate Gerbert’s diagram with any surety, looking again at the Latin text of the letter, and attempting to visualise what Gerbert might have meant proved a useful exercise in my endeavour to imagine the medieval classroom.