Winner of the 2010 Book Award from the Rhetoric Society of America

Classroom Commentaries

Teaching the Poetria nova across Medieval and Renaissance Europe

Marjorie Curry Woods

Text and Context


Literary Criticism/Medieval; History/Medieval; Education/History
367 pp. 6x9

$34.95 paperback 978-0-8142-5480-6
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Table of Contents


“Marjorie Curry Woods’s Classroom Commentaries is a tour de force. Not only does it convey the richness, flexibility, and depth of Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s Poetria nova (PN) as a tool for the teaching of grammar, rhetoric, poetics, letter writing, and preaching, but it also performs medieval pedagogy in a way that is both compelling and engaging. . . . Woods explores the meaning and method of the PN as it was understood and practiced by medieval teachers and students, and demonstrates its relevance for the teaching of composition in the context of the twenty-first-century university.” —Journal of English and Germanic Philology

Classroom Commentaries is a seminal study. .  . Woods once observed that to read the Poetria nova without its commentaries is an unmedieval way of reading it. One wonders, after reading her book, whether reading medieval literature in the translatio studii tradition without knowing the Poetria nova and analogous treatises might not be an unmedieval way of reading medieval literature. I cannot think of a better way to begin correcting any such deficiency that by study of . . . Woods’s magisterial study of [the Poetria nova’s] medieval readers and interpreters.” —Speculum

“Anyone interested in education and the teaching of writing in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance should read this book. . . . This is a work of original, profound, and thoughtful scholarship, presented in a most engaging and attractive manner.” —French Studies

“It is not often that the profession is graced with a landmark study such as this one . . . . [Woods’] tireless and incisive research has resulted in a book that makes the commentaries surprisingly accessible, while emulating Geoffrey’s self-referential process in such a way that she recreates for the reader the actual pedagogical experience the medieval student must have undergone. . . . [I]n Classroom Commentaries, Woods presents us with a thorough . . . and even delightful discussion of the major commentaries that can serve as our accessus for how early scholars, teachers, and humanists interpreted and taught the Poetria nova.” —Renaissance Quarterly

“Woods has chosen to focus on how the Poetria nova was taught rather than what it might mean in some abstract, timeless sense. This is significant because it allows her to engage both with specialists in the history of rhetoric and literary criticism as well as the growing body of research into earlier classroom practices. . . . The Poetria nova is an excellent model for study from this perspective, since a quarter of the surviving manuscripts contain some glosses and half contain enough notes to show what teachers thought was important and how that material was taught. Rather surprisingly, perhaps, Woods has discovered that this same text was taught to students at all levels, from fairly young pupils near the beginning of their educational careers to university students working at advanced levels. It appears to have been taught at different levels in different areas, and to have been taught differently depending on the level of preparation of the students, but this adaptability accounted in part for the popularity of the text. . . . Woods has shown us that contrary to what we would have expected, Geoffrey of Vinsauf played a key role as well in the Latin classes of the early Renaissance.” —Neo-Latin News

“Woods knows more about the teaching of rhetoric in late medieval education than anyone else. She is a scholar of immense generosity. Vast amounts of difficult material are lucidly repacked with rigorous accuracy. Despite the intensity and depth of the scholarship, the resultant book is a pleasure to read, a real delight.” —James Simpson, Douglas P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English, Harvard University

“It is a rare privilege to be able to call a book ‘magisterial,’ but Marjorie Curry Woods’s work merits no less a designation. This is the summation of many years’ work in the archives. Woods has achieved an almost impossible balance between the highest level of scholarship and the greatest degree of accessibility.” —Rita Copeland, Kahn Endowed Term Professor in Humanities and professor of classical studies, English, and comparative literature, University of Pennsylvania

With an unusually broad scope encompassing how Europeans taught and learned reading and writing at all levels, Classroom Commentaries: Teaching the Poetria nova across Medieval and Renaissance Europe provides a synoptic picture of medieval and early modern instruction in rhetoric, poetics, and composition theory and practice. As Marjorie Curry Woods convincingly argues, the decision of Geoffrey of Vinsauf (fl. 1200) to write his rhetorical treatise in verse resulted in a unique combination of rhetorical doctrine, poetic examples, and creative exercises that proved malleable enough to inspire teachers for three centuries.

Based on decades of research, this book excerpts, translates, and analyzes teachers’ notes and commentaries in the more than two hundred extant manuscripts of the text. We learn the reasons for the popularity of the Poetria nova among medieval and early Renaissance teachers, how prose as well as verse genres were taught, why the Poetria nova was a required text in central European universities, its attractions for early modern scholars and historians, and how we might still learn from it today. Woods’ monumental achievement will allow modern scholars to see the Poetria nova as earlier Europeans did: a witty and perennially popular text central to the experience of almost every student.

Marjorie Curry Woods is Blumberg Centennial Professor of English and University Distinguished Teaching Professor at The University of Texas at Austin.