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Erik Butler, The Bellum Grammaticale and the Rise of European Literature (Ashgate, 2010)

Erik Butler. The Bellum Grammaticale and the Rise of European Literature. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-4094-0198-8. 149 pp. including index. Hbk. £50.00.

Reviewed by Nicola McLelland

[1]  Butler’s very welcome idea in this book is to examine for the first time in a single volume three sixteenth- and seventeenth-century exponents of the genre of the ‘grammatical war’, a genre that ‘depict[s] anthropomorphized parts of speech that possess the capacity for thought and action’; Butler seeks to propose ‘a historical and theoretical interpretation of the genre’ (3). The three exemplars examined are the Italian Andreas Guarna’s Grammaticale bellum (1511); the Nouvelle allégorique (1658) of the Frenchman Antoine Furetrière, and the Horrendum Bellum Grammaticale of the German grammarian and language theoretician Justus Georg Schottelius (1673). As Butler points out, in the post-medieval world in which these three texts were composed, where the dominance of Latin as the language of prestige was being increasingly challenged by the vernaculars, ‘grammar performed a key role in regulating exchanges between and within cultures’ (8), and the different purposes of the three grammatical wars reveal the different preoccupations of the different cultural contexts: they thematicize contests between scholasticism and humanism; between rhetoric and pedantry; and between foolish linguistic disunity and linguistic and hence national unity. Despite the promise of the handsomely produced volume, however, the result is disappointing; in particular, as a Germanist I noted serious shortcomings in the analysis of Schottelius’s text, which retrospectively raised doubts about the reliability of the earlier chapters.

[2]  For Guarna, the grammatical war was on one level an entertaining way to teach the exceptions of Latin grammar, and on another a contest between scholasticism and humanism, through a witty satire on the scholastic debate of a quaestio, where a war of words gets out of hand.[1]   I do not know Guarna’s text except by reputation, and I found Butler’s account interesting, though I am not sure to what extent it goes beyond Bolte (1908) (listed only as a ‘primary source’ in the bibliography — it contains an edition of Guarna’s text, but it is certainly also a secondary source). There is brief discussion too of some of the many translations and editions and adapations of Guarna’s work, including William Hayward’s English translation (1569), and Johannes Spangenberg’s (1534), both of whom adapted the work for their protestant audiences, but the failure to go much beyond Bolte here strikes me as a missed opportunity.

[3]  For Furetrière, in 1658, the battle is between the realm of Eloquence, governed by Princess Rhetoric (in whose army march exemplary seventeenth-century writers as well as older exemplary figures), and the enemy at the gates, Pedantry. Pedantry’s forces now include prominent figures of humanism, amongst them Justus Lipsius. The problem facing the pedants is that ‘all the works and constructions that the pedants made to fortify themselves were covered and overwhelmed by commentaries and paraphrases’ — an interesting point since that was precisely one of the charges humanists themselves had levelled against scholasticism. Furetrière’s text must be read against the background of an absolutist seventeenth-century France under the Sun-King, ‘characterized by efforts to police language and bring it under supervision and control’ (65), where Vaugelas’ Remarques sur la language française (1647), for example, reflect a new concern with the ‘practice of self-discipline’ and ‘conscious cultivation of a fitting public image’ (59) in using language. Here Butler’s reading of the text — in part in the light of Paul de Man’s work on allegory — left me keen to read Furetrière’s text in greater detail myself.

[4]  The third chapter is devoted to Schottelius’s grammatical war of 1673, which is, as Butler notes, the most violent of the three he examines and which no doubt reflects Schottelius’s experiences of the Thirty Years War. I was surprised to discover that Butler is a Germanist, because it is in this chapter that glaring weaknesses are obvious. First, Butler’s engagement with the available secondary literature is utterly inadequate. There is no mention at all of the 316-page monograph by Fonsén (2006) devoted entirely to Schottelius’s grammatical war, nor of the article by Czucka (1997) which deals with it; no mention either of the two most important recent monographs dealing with Schottelius’s works as a whole, by Gardt (1994) and Hundt (2000). Hundt’s study in particular would have proved informative on the efforts of Schottelius and his friend Georg Philipp Harsdörffer to provide what would now be called popular science versions of Schottelius’s theoretical writings. It is in this context that Schottelius’s grammatical war — with its many marginal references to Schottelius’s grammar — must be seen. Harsdörffer also wrote a grammatical war, published some years earlier (McLelland 2011: 29), but again there is no mention of this, even though the Frauenzimmer Gesprächsspiele in which it appeared is discussed by Butler on pp. 96–97. Butler accepts the general consensus that Schottelius’s grammatical war served to get his ideas about the German language to a wider audience than his very scholarly Ausführliche Arbeit could have reached, but only after devoting precious space to what seems to me a very improbable reading by Kaminski (2004) of the Horrendum Bellum as a ‘revocation’ of the Ausführliche Arbeit, before ultimately rejecting it (94). In general, Butler’s reading of the Horrendum Bellum seems heavily dependent on Kittler’s introduction to the Reclam edition of the work (1991), and offers precious little engagement either with the primary text or important secondary literature.

[5]  While much of what Butler writes about Schottelius’s grammatical war is not wrong — it is just not new in any sense — plenty is wrong, or is at the very least highly problematic. Butler claims on p. 87 that ‘Schottelius foregrounds that language is not so much a means of communication as an instrument of coercion and control’. This is quite wrong. In fact, Schottelius was fascinated by language as communication, by the various ways in which words and other signs could signify and convey meanings (McLelland 2011: 98–103), and his Ausführliche Arbeit (1105, para. 9) presents an explicit if basic semiotic theory.  Butler’s statement is based on his reading of Kittler, who wrote in his introduction to Schottelius’s text, ‘daß das Imperium Sprache und die Sprache Imperium ist’. But Butler mistranslates Imperium as ‘power’; it means ‘empire’ here, and Kittler’s point is, I assume, that the German language was seen as the one thing capable of unifying the many different territories of the very weak German empire. On p. 90, Butler observes, ‘It was necessary for the Thirty Years War (which began in 1618) to erupt so that intellectuals — and their patrons — might prove receptive to the idea of promoting native eloquence.’ This is a simplistic assertion in the light of the fact that the largest language society in Germany, the Fruitbearing Society, was founded in 1617, and would need further qualification. Another highly misleading statement is the suggestion that ‘according to Kittler, therefore, the Horrendum Bellum illustrates the poststructuralist axiom that the sphere of language is the province of undecidability, where stable signification and clear reference are adventitious events rather than parts of the landscape’ (89–90). On the contrary, Schottelius believed implicitly and stated repeatedly that German rootwords were uniquely suited to expressing their meanings unambiguously and clearly (see e.g. McLelland 2011: 44–48). If there are grounds for claiming that the Horrendum Bellum presents a different view, then that would need to be argued with reference to the text and in the light of Schottelius’s many other assertions elsewhere of the reverse. Perhaps Butler’s most astonishing claim is that when the army of King Lob (king of the verbs) bear the letters a, e, i, o, u as in Brach / Brech / Brich / gebrochen / Bruch in their shields this is a reference to the Habsburg slogan Alles Erdreich Ist Österreich Untertan (100–101). This is perhaps not completely impossible, though it strikes me as most unlikely; but at the very least any such claim would have to take into account the fact that the five vowels are listed in the first instance because they occur in the vowel alternations (Ablaut) that characterize German strong verbs, as in the case of brechen ‘to break’ and that the brechen example cited here runs like a red thread through the grammatical and lexicographical writings of Schottelius and Harsdörffer (McLelland 2011: 216, 237). The life-dates of Johann Valentin Andreae, who apparently joined the Fruitbearing Society in 1646, are incorrectly given as 1586–1642, meaning he joined after his death (102); in fact he died in 1654.

[6]   These criticisms — which are illustrative rather than exhaustive — address only the bare assertions rather than Butler’s overall argument. However, the sweeping historical context in which Butler seeks to locate Schottelius — somewhere in the ‘fulgurous’ history of German between the ‘fiery monk’ Luther’s ‘thunderous German’ of the sixteenth century and the ‘similarly incendiary’ writings of twentieth and twenty-first century literature (81–82) — is similarly open to challenge. For example, the link made between Schottelius and the supposedly ‘neglected’ figure Klopstock is very tenuous; the claim that ‘The distinctively German obsession with education — that a better humanity might emerge (and especially in Germany!) is a late outgrowth of fields fertilized with the blood of conflict’ (107) is rhetorically impressive, perhaps, but signifies little.

[7]  Butler’s introduction promises ‘combative words’, in which the assertions of poststructuralists like Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man ‘will receive both critical and appreciative assessments’ (22). He writes with verve (though I find the belabouring of military metaphors somewhat overdone), and both the topic and the approach held promise, even if the second part of the title ‘and the rise of European literature’ could, for a book of under 150 pages, never have been more than mere marketing hype. It is unfortunate that poor scholarship means that the promise is not fulfilled.

 University of Nottingham, October 2011


[1] Butler’s assertion that ‘in Guarna’s day scholasticism still provided the dominant form of inquiry and instruction in universities’ seems somewhat overstated  — I would be surprised to find it was still ‘dominant’ in the sixteenth century, and would need to have this argued rather than asserted.[back to text]


Czucka, Eckehard. 1997. Das Universelle Babylon. Justus Georg Schottels ‘Horrendum Bellum Grammaticale’. Fremdsprachen Und Fremdsprachenerwerb. Kristian Bosselmann-Cyran. Berlin, Akademie-Verlag: 67–82.

Fonsén, Tuomo. 2006. Künstlöbliche Sprachverfassung Unter Den Teutschen. Studien Zum Horrendum Bellum Grammaticale Des Justus Georg Schottelius (1673). Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

Gardt, Andreas. 1994. Sprachreflexion in Barock Und Frühaufklärung. Entwürfe Von Böhme Bis Leibniz. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Hundt, Markus. 2000. ‘Spracharbeit’ im 17. Jahrhundert. Studien zu Georg Philipp Harsdörffer, Justus Georg Schottelius und Christian Gueintz. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Mclelland, Nicola. 2011. J.G. Schottelius’s Ausführliche Arbeit Von Der Teutschen Haubtsprache (1663) and Its Place in Early Modern European Vernacular Language Study. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell (Publications of the Philological Society 44).

Schottelius, Justus Georg. 1663 [1967, rpt. 1995]. Ausführliche Arbeit Von Der Teutschen Haubtsprache. Braunschweig: Zilliger. Facsimile edition 1967 ed. Wolfgang Hecht. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Schottelius, Justus Georg. 1673 [1991]. Horrendum Bellum Grammaticale (Der Schreckliche Sprachkrieg). Edited by Friedrich Kittler and Stefan Rieger. Leipzig: Reclam.