On the Public Highway of Grammar · Michael A. Johnson

The first book to treat the interrelatedness of grammar and sex in the medieval period in any real depth is Jan Ziolkowski’s 1985 Alan of Lille’s Grammar of Sex: The Meaning of Grammar to a Twelfth-Century Intellectual.[1] Ziolkowski’s core argument remains indisputable: because grammar was understood to have a strong ethical dimension in the Middle Ages, and because grammar was thought to mirror Nature, however darkly, it provided an ideal metalanguage for theologians interested in defining Christian sexual orthodoxy, an increasingly urgent concern for Alan’s contemporaries. In this short archival vignette I revisit the oft-discussed scene in the Roman de la Rose in which Genius excommunicates the sodomites, highlighting a seldom-acknowledged intertext, John of Salisbury’s defense of the language arts, the Metalogicon. Not only are sodomy and grammatical error imagined to be co-extensive, but they are also metaphorized in the same way as deviations from a public highway, a metaphor that may or may not have originated the viatical straight/perverse opposition still in use today, but one that should be looked at critically in either case.

In the section of his Metalogicon (1159) devoted to grammatical correctness, John of Salisbury describes grammar as a path, a route from one user of language to another:

The art [of grammar] is, as it were, a public highway, on which all have the right to journey, walk, and act, immune from criticism or molestation. To use faulty  grammar always means that one is forsaking the proper thoroughfare. He who  pursues such devious by-paths is likely either to end up at a precipice, or to become an easy target for the darts and jousts of those who may challenge what he says. (497)

The public highway metaphor posits language use as a series of pathways, some of which enable unproblematic conveyance of meaning from speaker to speaker, while others invite contentious and uncertain exchanges of meaning, or worse, failed meaning (i.e. the precipice). It also metaphorizes grammar as orthopraxis, an ethical art, by analogy with the Augustinian notion of the moral life as a path (Via). Grammar is the art of rectitude, John notes in the same section, citing Isidore of Seville’s definition of grammar as the “science of writing and speaking in a correct manner.” (“ratio recte scribendi et loquendi”).[2] It takes only a small leap—and it is one that many medieval authors, including John of Salisbury, made—to conclude that correct grammar leads to (or is at root the same as) correct behavior. Ziolkowski traces this leap with painstaking care. As he explains, twelfth-century theologians believed that weakness of will could manifest itself in bad grammar, which could lead to scriptural misinterpretation and even heresy.[3] He cites Alan of Lille’s Summa, “Quoniam homines,” to show that grammar was seen as a gauge of a person’s free will: “voces significantes sunt ad placitum et ex beneplacito inponentis” (“significant utterances are significant by the will and goodwill of the speaker”). Ziolkowski elaborates, “[s]eeing that both good grammar and good morals are contingent upon the discretion of humanity’s free will, the state of humanity’s grammar provides an apt metaphoric parallel to the state of humanity’s morality (and sexuality) in the De planctu Naturae. Like nature, grammar can provide a guide for ethical behavior; but like nature, grammar is liable to abuse because of humanity’s free will.”[4] If John of Salisbury’s metaphor comparing grammar to a public highway seems clunky to the modern reader, it is because the understanding of grammar as a gauge of one’s free will, as Ziolkowski explains, is assumed. The forking paths of grammar thus embody this particular notion of free will by providing both appropriate and inappropriate choices for communication and action.

On these same lines, Jean de Meun uses the metaphor of the public highway to refer to human sexuality in his section of the Roman de la Rose:

Touz li mondes va cele voie:
C’est li dieus qui touz les desvoie,
Se ne sont cil de male voie
Que genius escommenie,
Pour ce qu’il font tort a nature. (4338-42)

Everyone takes this path:
But the God of Love makes them all deviate,
Except for those who were already on the wrong path,
Those who Genius excommunicates
Because of the wrong they do to Nature.

Lady Nature wields a hammer over a couple having sex (i.e., sex must do the hard work of reproducing Nature's design) (from University of Chicago Library MS 1380).

Lady Nature wields a hammer over a couple having sex (i.e., sex must do the hard work of reproducing Nature’s design) (from University of Chicago Library MS 1380).

Referring specifically to the perils of courtly love, Lady Reason here uses the metaphor of the path or public highway to explain sexual correctness and incorrectness. The analogy seems fairly straightforward. Everyone takes this path (i.e. everyone experiences sexual desire and is thus equipped to procreate). The god of love occasionally causes people to deviate from the right path (i.e. people occasionally use sexual pleasure without intending to procreate). Some people are so far from the proper path they can’t even be said to deviate; it is more accurate to say that they are on the wrong path, the “male voie,” (i.e. sodomites can’t procreate whether or not they intend to). Genius’s excommunication of the sodomites cites Alan of Lille’s De planctu Naturae, a work in which the grammar of sex is the central, overwhelming, conceit. In effect, Genius later becomes a character in the romance, excommunicating the sodomites, as he does in De planctu Naturae, and then proffering a sermon. Genius’s sodomites are described as sinning against Nature, whose rules are metaphorized as grammatical. As for Lady Nature, she becomes a grammar teacher (“mestresse”) who works to teach her students to read “par le bon chief” (from the right end) in order to understand “le droit sen” (the true meaning). Following the metaphor, sodomites are bad grammar pupils who treat their grammar teacher, Lady Nature, with disrespect:

Quant tels regles leur controuva,
Vers nature mal se prouva—;
Cil que tel mestresse despisent
Quant a rebours ses letres lisent, [=backwards]
Et qui pour le droit sen entendre [=the right direction]
Par le bon chief nes veulent prendre, [=from the right end]
Ainz pervertissent l’escripture [=turned around]
Quant il vienent a la lecture. (19659-66) [=reading as something you must enter]

When they invent such extravagant rules
They are acting badly towards Nature
Those who despise such a mistress
When they read her rules backwards
And do not want to take them by the right end
In order to understand their true sense,
But instead pervert what is written
When they come to read it.

Genius sermonizes and excommunicates sodomites (one of whom is shown "turned away" from the truth) in what could also be a grammar lesson (from  Bibliothèque de la Faculté de Médecine, Université Montpelier, MS H245).

Genius sermonizes and excommunicates sodomites (one of whom is shown “turned away” from the truth) in what could also be a grammar lesson (from Bibliothèque de la Faculté de Médecine, Université Montpelier, MS H245).

The sodomites are not only bad students of grammar, their grammar makes them decidedly viatical. They refuse to approach reading “par le bon chief” (“from the right end”), as though refusing to take the right end of a path through the woods. And this prevents them from attaining the “droit sen,” which puns on the multiple meanings of the O.F. sen, to mean both “the true meaning,” and “the correct path or direction.” (Greimas, “1. Sens, intelligence, bon sens. […] 5. Direction, chemin.”).[5] Worse yet, they read backwards (“a rebours”) and thus pervert (Lat. per + vertere) Scripture, figuratively turning it around. The metaphor of the public highway Genius uses to describe human sexuality thus seems to be an indirect citation of John of Salisbury’s definition of grammar. To speculate even further, I wonder if sexual orthopraxy might already have been assumed in John’s understanding of good grammar, although he never mentions it directly. He was Alan of Lille’s contemporary, and likely studied under the same grammar masters, after all.

Either way, we might ask: what kind of metaphor is this? If the Augustinian notion of the moral life as a path makes it possible to imagine lived life as something linear, along the lines of a road, and one’s moral will as forking paths, with some ease, the road as a metaphor for grammar and sexuality requires quite a bit more effort to parse. On the one hand, it places new emphasis on the social and institutional. The highway is public, a shared space everyone has the right to use, in John of Salisbury’s words, and deviating from it entails social stigma or a fall from a precipice (this metaphor is used in the service of an excommunication, let’s not forget). On the other hand, it imposes linearity and causality on two aspects of human experience that aren’t easily reducible to a line or a chain of cause and effect. In this sense, the metaphor of the public highway might be read as a forced imposition of a teleological structure of meaning onto non-teleological bodies. The road becomes a figure for the violence of imposing such linearities onto the body, even if perhaps at the necessary expense of inclusion in the social order.


Michael A. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of French at Central Washington University. His book, The Medieval Erotics of Grammar, is under revision with Ohio State University Press.


[1] John A. Alford’s essay “The Grammatical Metaphor: A Survey of Its Use in the Middle Ages” (Speculum: 57/4 (Oct., 1982), pp. 728-760) deserves mention as well. A significant portion of the essay is devoted to erotic grammatical metaphors.

[2] Isidore, Etym., i, 5.

[3] Ziolkowski, p. 109.

[4] Ziolkowski, p. 107

[5] Greimas, Algirdas Julien. Dictionnaire de l’ancien français: Le moyen âge. Paris: Larousse, 1997.

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