European studies blog

11 January 2017

Father Manuel Alvares, the Portuguese Jesuit who taught the British Latin

When John Aubrey, best known for his unbuttoned biographical sketches Brief Lives, drew up the programme of studies for his ideal school, he referred no less than five times to the work of a Portuguese Jesuit:

In the first year (age 10) the boys should learn “the rules of Emmanuel Alvarus’s Grammar” (p. 64)
The library should include “Emmanuel Alvarus, Grammatica” (p. 71)
“Let them learn the XXI Praecepta de Constructione (translated into English) Institutionum Linguae Latinae, Emmanuelis Alvari” (p. 89)
“When they understand Latin pretty well, then they learn the second part of Alvarus’s Grammar. Many of the priests go no further than the first part.” (p. 93)
“Let them repeat the Latin Alvarus and Greek grammar every month or six weeks: only that memoriter, except in a week or fortnight some good short speech by way of narrare in the hall at diner time” (p. 94-95).

These references are to Father Manuel Alvares (1526-1583) SJ and his De institutione grammatica libri tres. Born in Madeira, he was ordained priest in 1538 and was persuaded to join the Society when a Jesuit stopped off on the island on the way to India. Adept in the three biblical tongues, he was a successful teacher and was commissioned to write a Latin grammar for the Jesuit schools. (A Jesuit education, you will remember, was the best schooling a Catholic boy could get at this period.)

Alvarus tp

Title page of Alvares’s Grammar (Evora, 1599). British Library 1509/4497. Note the device of the Society of Jesus. 

He was Rector of the Colégio das Artes in Coimbra from 1561 to 1566. The Colégio had been founded by John III in 1548 in a spirit of liberal openness to Europe: top scholars were recruited from France and Scotland. But this golden age was not to last: in 1550 the teachers were persecuted for heresy and in 1555 the College handed over to those Cerberuses of orthodoxy, the Jesuits, one of whom was Alvares.

The ESTC lists 26 British editions of his various grammatical works, in Latin or in translation, from 1671 to 1794. A Japanese translation was produced for Jesuit schools in the East.

Alvarus English tp

 An early 18th-Century English edition of Alvares’s Grammar (London, 1707) 1568/3623.

But Alvares thrived into much more recent times. James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus  learned “what little he knew of the laws of Latin verse from a ragged book written by a Portuguese priest” (cited Schork, p. 21).

What this shows is the international quality of Latin in the modern period. Nobody seemed to care that Alvares was a Jesuit: knowledge is knowledge regardless of the vessel which contains it. (I hope that doesn’t sound too sententious.)

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance collections.


R. J. Schork, Latin and Roman Culture in Joyce (Gainesville’, 1997) YC.2001.a.5813

J. E. Stephens, Aubrey on Education (London, 1972) X.529/13983

B. Taylor, ‘Recent Acquisitions: a Rare Work by Jacobus Tevius’, eBLJ, 2003, Article 5