“Grammarie” – Letter to LRB, March 19, 2012

To the editor, London Review of Books

In her interesting review of Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300-1475, Barbara Newman has it right: my grammar school tutelage in Latin grammar, via Mason D. Gray’s Latin for Today (with its friendly opening, “Discipuli Picturam Spectate“), still colours my thinking some three score years later. But she leaves unexplored an interesting by-way of folklore, how it came about that “grammarie” became the common people’s name for occult teaching, as in The Wife of Usher’s Well, as sung in America by Hedy West:

There was a woman and she lived alone
And babies, she had three
She sent them away to the North Countrie
To learn their grammarie

They’d not been gone but a very short time
Scarcely six weeks to the day
When death, cold death, spread through the land
And swept them babes away

She prayed to the Lord in Heaven above
Wearing a starry crown:
Oh send to me my three little babes
Tonight or in the morning soon

It was very close to Christmas time
The night was long and cold
And the very next morning, at the break of day
Them babies come a-running home

She set the table for them to eat
Upon it spread bread and wine:
Come eat, come drink, my three little babes
Come eat, come drink of mine

. . .

Cold clods of clay roll o’er our heads
Green grass grows on our feet
And our sweet tears, my mother dear
Will wet our winding sheet.

In a US version of another song, a wizard resolves to abandon the Black Arts and (says the song), “threw his grammarie over the wall”. Not knowing the true meaning, the folk process changed this to “he threw his granma over the wall”!

To the folk, untutored in the Latin tongue, perhaps the church’s ability to converse as well as worship in this foreign lingo may well have seemed to be some kind of magick.

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About Karl Dallas

Former BBC and IRN presenter, presenter of jazz, classical, movie and talk shows on Bradford Community Broadcasting, editor and presenter of VideoCaroline, "the best TV over the Seven Seas".
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