Classical Rhetoric survived through the Middle Ages (500-1500 A.D.) but there were two distinct traditions which divided the East (Byzantine, Greek-speaking) from the West (Europe) where Latin was the language of religion and scholarship. In the East, the largely sophistic strand (illogical) was the strongest and in the West, Latin rhetoric continued in handbooks of letter writing, poetry and preaching which produced prose panegyrics (public speaking) and encomiastic poetry (eulogies)(Classical Rhetoric 183) .

In the East, Byzantine scholars taught the rudiments of Greek language with a strong emphasis on Grammar over the next three centuries. The main subject in classical education on the secondary level was the Bible and Fathers of the Church which included the Old Testament book of Psalms. This incorporation of Christian writer would continue throughout the Byzantine period. Homer and Plato (Gorgias, Phaedrus) and other orators, specifically Aristotle’s Rhetoric,  were studied by more advanced students (Classical Rhetoric 187),

Most importantly, in the Middle Ages, the first “University” was organized in Constantinople, A.D. 425, for advanced studies. The faculty consisted of ten teachers of Greek grammar, five of Greek rhetoric, ten of Latin grammar, three of Latin rhetoric, two of law, and one of philosophy. This first University system did not survive after the eighth century. The Patriarchal School of Constantinople, which began in the seventh century, did survive, and employed three teachers of Scriptures and several master of the rhetors, two of which were Basilaces and Eustathius who wrote the first commentary on the Homeric poems. Soon, these Patriarchal Schools would branch to Antioch, Nicea, and Thessalonica.

Rhetorical studies during this time were mainly for preparations in a career in the Church or the State. Outside of these institutions, rhetorical speeches were given for public occasions and these traditions would carry on through the Renaissance, especially in Italy, even after the Byzantine civilization was terminated by the Turkish conquest.

From the mid-sixth century through the twelfth, Classical Rhetoric remained strong in Italy and Gaul (modern day France). Italian cities became important commercial centers which created assemblies, councils, and courts of law in which strong rhetorical skills would be vital.

My Sorbonne!

In the twelfth century, Paris and Oxford dominated higher education and valued rhetoric in scholastic philosophy. The College of Sorbonne (now University) was established in 1150 with four faculties: Arts, Medicine, Law and Theology. Rhetoric instruction consisted of grammar, dialectics, dogmatic and moral theology. Latin was the primary language spoken around the university in Paris and led to the name Quartier latin, Latin Quarter, which is still used today. As a graduate student studying in the Cours de la Civilisation française at the Sorbonne, I chose to live in this historic Latin Quarter and wrote about my experiences as a student [see post].

Le quartier latin

On my way to class

The eleventh and twelfth centuries in France were the high point of medieval culture with the greatest achievements in art and architecture, the founding of the University (Sorbonne), of the scholastic philosophy, and of original works of vernacular literature. As a result of the Norman Conquest of Britain, there were close ties between France and England, and the revival of rhetorical studies was seen in both countries and extended to Spain. Such great rhetoricians in northern France (Chartres) during this period were : Lanfranc, Fulbert, Quintilian, and Theirry, who compiled an encyclopedia of the liberal arts from a collection of classical texts (216).

The texts of Aristotle’s works in Latin translations were fundamental to teaching philosophy in Paris. Thomas Aquinas, of Paris, was the most influential philosopher of this time. In his Summa Theologica, he discusses the metaphors found in Scriptures and whether a word in the Bible could have more than one meaning [219]. Aquinas conclusion was based on Augustine’s On Christian Learning which states that “sacred doctrine requires the truth to be veiled as an exercise for thoughtful minds and as a defense against the ridicule of unbelievers” (219). A word in Scripture can have literal, allegorical, tropological, moral, or anagogical (eternity) meaning.

The poets of this Medieval period were trained in the liberal arts of grammar and rhetoric. They included topics and arguments, principles of arrangement and amplification, the names and uses of tropes, the figures of speech and many other conventions of literary genres. The Art of Poetry handbook written by Horace in the first century B.C. was studied throughout this period and is still used as a reference today.

Rhetoric is represented in the Middle Ages by the view of thinkers, especially the scholastic philosophers, that rhetoric must be a part of dialectic.

Classical Rhetoric in the Renaissance

Classical Rhetoric served as the center of civic life in the Italian Renaissance through great orators and writers such as Cicero (On the Orator, On Invention, and Rhetoric for Herennius), Salutati, Bruni, Mirandola (Oration on the Dignity of Man), Boccaccio (who combined his studies with Plato’s Gorgias, Phaedrus and the Latin works of Domosthenes), and Erasmus. Desiderius Erasmus studied in Paris but lived in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and England—a true Renaissance man. His life work was the revival of Christian piety through the study of the classics. His greatest achievement was his edition of the Greek New Testament (244). His Praise of Folly and the Colloquies are regarded as the last great works of Latin literature.

Erasmus’ contribution to literary rhetoric can be seen in his works on letter writing in De Conscribendis Epistulis and in Ecclesistes sive de Ratione Concionandi which includes late medieval preaching theory to classical rhetoric and homiletics. His most influential work, according to Kennedy, is the treatise of 1511, On Copia, in which Erasmus discusses the “abundance of words” by using tropes and figures and how the same idea can be differently expressed (245). Erasmus shows one hundred and fifty ways to say “Your letter pleased me very much” and two hundred ways to say “I shall remember you as long as I live”.

In addition to an abundance of words, he deals with “abundance of thought” by taking something that can be expressed briefly and in general terms and expanding it and separating it into constituent parts. His treatise for teaching composition was reprinted until the early nineteenth century and was translated into vernacular languages. Thank you, Erasmus!

The final rhetorician from the Renaissance period that I would like to emphasize is Francis Bacon. Bacon was born in England and was a distinguished orator in the House of Commons which gave him an understanding of primary rhetoric. Ben Johnson said of him: “He commanded where he spoke and had his judges angry and pleased at his devotion. No man had their affections more in his power. The fear of every man that heard him was lest he should make an end”(254).

Bacon discussed aspects of rhetoric in The Advancement of Learning of 1605 and his work became the basis of the organization of knowledge in the Encyclopédie française. Bacon divided learning in to three parts: history, which is based on memory; poetry, based on imagination; and philosophy, based on reason.The study of individuals involves either the body (medicine, cosmetics, athletics or sensual arts) or the mind (study of the organ of transmission, which is speech and grammar; study of the method of transmission, which is logic; and the study of the illustration of transmission which is rhetoric).

“The duty of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will” (Bacon 256). Bacon’s work influenced rhetorical theory during the next two hundred years. His work on the philosophical strand of rhetoric would influence the great minds of enlightenment.

Work Cited

Kennedy, George A. (1999). Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition. London:

     UNC Press.

Further Readings

Cogan, Mark. “Rhetoric and Action in Francis Bacon,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 14 (1981) 212-33.

Vickers, Francis Bacon and Renaissance Prose, pp. 49-65.