Boccaccio on Nicostrata (Carmenta), inventor of letters

Posted in Language by Deputy city editor on May 31, 2007



Nicostrata introducing a student to the tower of learning, from: Gregor Reisch. Margarita philosophica. Freiburg: Johann. Schott, 1503.

There is rather little of Nicostrata, subsequently Carmenta, on the Internet. Her treatment in English, Italian and German on Wikipedia is perfunctory and not much better in French. It’s most pénible of all in Latin. Boccaccio’s text written in Spanish with Italian interference is here. There is a very good page here from Kings College London on Gregor Reisch’s Margarita philosophica used as a university textbook in the early sixteenth century, particularly in Germany. Discussing the woodcut reproduced above, Hugh Cahill notes:

“In Reisch’s scheme Grammar is the foundation of all learning. She is depicted as Nicostrata (legendary inventor of the alphabet) holding a hornbook and key and introducing a child into a tower of learning with six levels. On the two bottom levels of the tower we see the grammarians Donatus and Priscian. The upper levels are taken up with various portraits of historical figures representing the subjects of the trivium, the quadrivium and natural and moral philosophy. On the uppermost the level of the tower, we see Peter Lombard representing Theology.”

The Boccaccio text is not easy going. With grateful acknowledgement to Yvette Angelats, romance linguist extraordinaire, here is a flavour (errors all mine, not hers):

After noting Nicostrata’s possible maternity of Evandro, king of Arcadia, with Mercury, Boccaccio describes her settling in Italy where she found that the people were not savages, having learned to farm. But judging them not learned, with the help of God she worked with all her might to give the people their own written language, inventing 16 different letters in the same way as Cadmo, founder of Thebes, had invented the Greek letters.

We call these 16 letters the “Latin letters” and it is thanks to her that we have these. Learned people later added more letters but they kept all of the old 16. And although Latin people marvelled at the prophecies of this woman, nevertheless they found this invention of characters and letters so wonderful that they clung to the belief that Carmenta was not a mortal but a goddess. And so as they celebrated her and honoured her, after her death they built a temple to her and named it after her and to perpetuate her name and memory they called the surrounding area Carmentales. And Rome for all her might and power did not allow these names to disappear and for many centuries they called the gate to the city Carmental after Carmenta.

Boccaccio notes that in addition to giving us much of the alphabet Carmenta “is also believed” to have given us the first seeds and foundations of grammar (dado la primera simiente y los primeros fundamientos de la gramatica), which the ancients, with time, later expanded.

“God showed them so much partiality that Hebraic and Greek letters lost much of their glory and the whole of Europe and many countries use our letters; the books in all schools/universities shine and glow with them and with them the exploits and the history of men and God’s miracles are safeguarded for posterity, so that through them we are able to know what we could not witness.”

Further research leads me to a superb book, Famous Women, translated and edited by Virginia Brown, a Toronto medievalist. She has translated Boccaccio’s 106 tales of women from the autograph manuscript of Latin. Boccaccio’s Decameron is justly celebrated but with Famous Women, Virginia Brown has provided an indispensible text for anyone who wants to get closer to the inventor of letters and many other famous women.

2 Responses

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  1. ellen leger said, on December 21, 2007 at 11:21 pm

    I am wondering about the connection between Nicostrata and the Ogham stones in Ireland. The stones were used to name and mark graves, memorials and boundaries. These stones were common in the 4th and 5th century.

    Could there be a connection?

  2. Jonathan Miller said, on January 24, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    If you can see it – then let it be!

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