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Veni, vidi, vici: how Latin lives on

Latin has survived the fall of empire, the rise of the vernacular and the incomprehension of generations of schoolchildren. In this exclusive online essay from the London Review of Books, Anthony Grafton charts the history of the language and its users from Descartes to Derek Jarman, and finds that reports of its death are greatly exaggerated

Thursday October 25, 2001

Latin, or the Empire of a Sign: From the 16th to the 20th Centuries by Françoise Waquet, translated by John Howe. Verso, 346 pp., £20, 19 July, 1 85984 615 7

Every spring at my university’s convocation, an undergraduate addresses the assembled students, parents and faculty in Latin. Parents receive a plain copy of the text, which few of them can read. Most of the students can’t read it either. But they receive a different, annotated version. Footnotes, always written in Latin – ‘hic ridete’; ‘hic plaudite’ – identify in-jokes and references to local and national events. By clapping, catcalling and laughing, the graduating seniors delude their parents – so local tradition has it – into believing that that their children have not only studied engineering, English or chemistry, but also learned Latin.

No one takes the ritual entirely seriously. This year’s speaker doffed his academic gown and mortarboard to reveal that he was wearing a toga and a laurel wreath. A previous one interrupted his speech to hold up a sign, in English, asking a female classmate to marry him. (She agreed.) But the Latin oration still matters. Like the Princeton campus’s splendid trees and hideous buildings, like This Side of Paradise and The Duke of Deception, it forms part of the hazy, glowing nimbus of traditions and practices that renders four years in central New Jersey worth the formidable current price of some $140,000.

In the 16th century, mastery of formal Latin was the price of entrance to schools and universities. Learned Europeans gloried in the wealth of Latin’s vocabulary – which Erasmus demonstrated, in his most popular textbook, by compiling a list of more than a hundred elegant ways to say “thank you for your letter”. They savoured the variety and distinctiveness of Latin styles, ancient and modern. Joseph Scaliger noted with amusement that his favourite pupil at the University of Leiden, Daniel Heinsius, would turn up “on some days drunk on Lipsius, on others drunk on Muret, and on others drunk on Erasmus, and would insist that all the rest are asses”.

They composed Senecan tragedies and Catullan love poems, Tacitean histories and Ciceronian dialogues, Plinian (Jr) letters and Plinian (Sr) treatises on every imaginable subject from astronomy to zoology. They even cracked Latin jokes. When a pedant irritated the poet Nicodemus Frischlin by addressing him with clumsy formality, “Tu, Frischline, vates,” he replied, without missing a Latin beat: “Tu mihi lambe nates.” The story delighted generations of schoolboys – who, in those happy days, did not need to be told that the great scholar had told his interlocutor to kiss his arse.

Latin, in short, played vital roles in the first modern age. From Prague to Peru, it served as the arena of literary artistry, the vehicle of scientific communication and the medium of common-room gossip. Individuals across Europe and beyond knew Latin as intimately, loved it as passionately and rolled it off the tongue as easily as they did their native languages.

Then, apparently, something happened. By the beginning of the 20th century, as AE Housman remarked more in anger than sorrow, even professional Latinists revealed on every page of their work that they lived “in an age which is out of touch with Latinity”. What trajectory did Latin follow between its heyday in the Renaissance and its slow death by a hundred bad conjectural emendations and a thousand cuts in curricula and budgets?

Traditional histories of modern Europe have treated Latin with some ambivalence. The humanists made the ability to write obedient pastiches of Cicero and Catullus the outward sign of inward cultural grace. They wished to re-create something like ancient literary culture, not that they would have put the task in those terms, and to revive a form of education based on grammar, rhetoric and poetry, history and moral philosophy, and designed to form an elite of generalists equipped to lead an active life in State or Church.

Petrarch and his followers challenged the supremacy of scholastic philosophy and theology. They forged a new Latinate public sphere in which the questions that mattered most could be accessibly and eloquently debated. Revolutionaries who looked backwards, they ended up not only reviving lost skills, but creating a new world: one in which the doctrines and teaching authority of the Church proved as vulnerable to challenge as the methods of the late medieval university. To that extent, the revival of classical Latin makes a logical beginning to the story of the modern age.

In the long term, however, the preservation of classical Latinity proved incompatible with the creation of a new intellectual world. Writers such as Alberti and Montaigne, though steeped in the classics, used French and Italian to discuss contemporary issues and reach a large public. The 16th-century Reformers were also fine Latinists – Luther gossiped with his pupils about his dream life and the apparitions of the devil as easily in Latin as in German. But they translated the Bible and the liturgy into German and French and English, and they insisted that the medieval Church had used Latin to keep the most precious religious truths inaccessible to ordinary lay people. Natural philosophers such as Galileo and Boyle argued that one could discuss the most recondite problems of astronomy and chemistry in Italian or English.

French replaced Latin as the common language of the citizens of the republic of letters. By the 18th century, even the greatest compendia of knowledge – Diderot’s Encyclopédie, for example – were usually written in French or other modern languages. Latin had lost its practical utility. Progress-minded Philosophes attacked its persistent use in universities and other erudite circles as one more relic of the Old Regime. No wonder, then, that active command of Latin declined so radically, to become all but extinct in recent centuries. The language that had served as the banner of modernity in the Renaissance had turned into a symbol for traditionalism and intellectual sclerosis.

In Latin, or the Empire of a Sign, Françoise Waquet tells a much more nuanced story. From the start, she emphasises that Latin was always as much a matter of ritual as of substance. True, the school, from the 16th century on, was “Latin country”. Boys were required to speak Latin in Renaissance classrooms, where spies, known as “foxes”, informed on those who slipped into the vernacular. Masters lectured in Latin on Latin texts, and the most successful pupils learned to produce Latin prose and verse on demand. But many boys, perhaps a majority, confronted with towering grammatical structures, typographical monkey-puzzle trees which they often had to memorise before they really understood that they were studying a foreign language, found their entrance to this country blocked, not facilitated, by the traditions of Latin pedagogy. When Winston Churchill began Latin, at the age of seven, he opened his grammar and found himself staring, bug-eyed, at the first declension, which his textbook exemplified but did not explain:

Mensa – a table Mensa – o table Mensam – a table Mensae – of a table Mensae – to or for a table Mensa – by, with or from a table

“What on earth did it mean?” he asked readers many years later. “Where was the sense in it? It seemed absolute rigmarole to me.” He had managed to memorise “the acrostic-looking task”, but enquired about the paradox that mensa could mean both “a table” and “o table”. The master explained that one would use the vocative mensa when ‘”addressing a table, in invoking a table”. And then seeing he was not carrying me with him: “You would use it in speaking to a table.” “But I never do,” Churchill protested, even more baffled – only to be threatened with severe punishment for his impertinence. This form of pedagogy – which established itself in the Renaissance and survived until relatively recent times – turned the Latin school into a labyrinth, whose centre many never reached.

Even schoolboys who managed to master Latin grammar read a very limited canon, which changed little over the centuries: Cicero, Terence, some poets and historians, usually pulled from their contexts and presented without any of the background information that could have made them come alive. Miguel de Unamuno, for example, found himself tormented by boredom as he and a friend translated their way, word by word, though the “intolerably dry” works of Nepos, Sallust and Caesar. Eventually, he became convinced that the Latin writers had first written down their thoughts straightforwardly, like the moderns, and then amused themselves by “dislocating the phrases, dissecting the sentences, scattering the words here and there with capricious abandon, simply to annoy us, the children of future generations”.

Thomas Hughes vividly revealed in Tom Brown’s Schooldays how Latin verses were composed, as boys desperately sewed shreds and patches drawn from the Gradus ad Parnassum into verses that could be scanned and more or less made sense. Even some great writers of Latin, the historian Jacques-Auguste de Thou for instance, could hardly speak the language: “It is said that some Germans and some Englishmen, having heard him speaking so badly at home, quaerebant Thuanum in Thuano” (“sought for de Thou in de Thou”).

Critics of classical education and classical scholars agreed on at least one point: they deplored the low levels attained in most classical schools. Educational reformers such as Jan Amos Comenius and Enlightenment thinkers such as Helv̩tius held that schools based on drudgery and dead languages could have no other results. The professionals, for their part, insisted Рgeneration after generation Рthat once upon a time, things had been better.

But this pan-European Golden Age was a myth – as Waquet shows by tracing nostalgic evocations of it back through time and by offering wonderful examples of classroom life. (The young Verlaine, trying to conjugate lego, found himself stumped when asked for the perfect, guessed legavi, and floundered – until a would-be helpful friend whispered: “lexi”. The master howled, and threw his keys and a Latin dictionary. Fortunately he missed. All this not in the barbarous 21st century but the disciplined and erudite 19th.)

Even periods of local brilliance in Latin writing did not always reflect superb teaching in schools and universities. When James Boswell showed Samuel Johnson his Latin thesis, the doctor shook his head at the many solecisms and remarked: “Ruddiman is dead, sir, Ruddiman is dead.” He knew that the high quality of the Latin dissertations previously submitted to the Society of Advocates in Edinburgh resulted not from extra-good schooling but from the corrections provided by the great Neo-Latin scholar and editor Thomas Ruddiman.

In Catholic countries, the Church provided the other forum where Latin was in constant active use. The medieval Church staunchly resisted efforts by Slavs, Waldensians, Lollards and others to translate the liturgy into vernacular languages. Sixteenth-century Protestant and Catholic reformers who demanded a vernacular Mass met with condemnation at the Council of Trent.

A particular form of Latin thus came, over time, to symbolise and embody the traditions and majesty of Catholicism – and was charged with deep meaning by many prelates and intellectuals. At Vatican II, John XXIII himself dwelt lovingly on the universality, antiquity and majesty of the Latin language, which Providence – so he argued – had led the Church to adopt. Catholics, then, were bombarded every Sunday with a form of Latin that came to be, in some ways, consubstantial with their religious beliefs, associated with them almost as tightly as Hebrew with Judaism.

Even in the centuries when priests performed the Mass in Latin alone, many of them had little or no idea what they were saying. Reformers complained that ignorant priests rattled off the words of the liturgy in absurdly corrupt forms. One friend of Erasmus, who notoriously reproved a priest for saying “Mumpsimus”, rather than “Sumpsimus”, received a revealingly dusty answer: the man had been doing it that way for twenty years and saw no reason to change his habits.

Seminary administrators complained in later centuries that few priests voluntarily studied a wide range of Latin authors, and fewer still could express complex thoughts effectively in Latin. As to the congregations, most of their members had only a general understanding of what the priest said and the choir sang. When the 15th-century humanist Leonardo Bruni wanted to demonstrate that ordinary Romans could not have understood the oratory of Cicero and the plays of Plautus and Terence in detail, he compared them to modern Italians at the Mass: “Men of distinction could understand an orator speaking in learned Latin very well, but bakers and trainers of gladiators and riff-raff of that sort understood the orator’s words as they now understand the liturgy of the Mass” – that is, “they understand, but they cannot speak that way themselves”.

Yet Latin pervaded the early modern world, and even the modern one, in multiple ways that Waquet carefully traces. Though vernacular books became more numerous than Latin ones in Paris by the 1570s, and English dominated the London booktrade, Latin retained pre-eminence in Italy and the Holy Roman Empire until deep in the 17th century. In every country, moreover, most scholars who wished to address a public not limited to their own kingdom continued for centuries to write in Latin.

Some of the most radical prophets of modernity – Descartes, Grotius and Newton – felt that they could address the deepest questions about nature and nature’s laws, Scripture and tradition, more proficiently in Latin than in their native languages. Into the 18th century, diplomats continued to study Latin, and often used it in negotiations (a number of monarchs, like Elizabeth I and Philip II, also spoke it accurately and well). For the old, teleological story, in which the vernaculars marched forward to a natural triumph, Waquet substitutes something much more complex: a dance, in which every forward movement was complemented by a backwards one, and which, she argues, took centuries to degenerate into a Totentanz.

Perfect command of the language of Catholic liturgy was reserved for clerical elites and a few highly-educated laymen. But Church Latin permeated local cultures and dialects. In the early 19th century, Tuscan dialects swarmed with strange beings such as Santo Ficè (formed from Latin sanctificetur). In Lucca, “Homo natus de muliere” (“man born of woman”), the opening phrase from a reading from the book of Job, became a proverb, “omo nato deve morire” (“man, who is born, must die”).

Nineteenth-century congregants in Britanny eagerly assented to the dies irae. Diêz means “difficult” in Breton, and they agreed: “all this is far from easy, we have every reason to repeat the word”. Creative misunderstandings like these gave the Latin Mass a participatory feeling, and helped ordinary Catholics make the set liturgy, in some part, their own. The mysterious, half-understood and wholly familiar Latin of the Church often had a charm, a magical quality, which translation would destroy after Vatican II, and Waquet evokes this brilliantly.

Latin, in other words, was not a single language, but a congeries of dialects, each of which flourished in a particular locale and played a particular role – a fact underlined by the unintentional comedies that took place every time scholars from more than one country tried to carry on a conversation in Latin. When the great Huguenot scholar Samuel Bochart asked permission to attend a public ceremony in Oxford in 1621, the MA to whom he addressed himself thought that he was begging.

Yet Latin fulfilled certain purposes almost everywhere in Europe. First and foremost, it made the gentleman (at least when it wasn’t being used to say “Will work for food”). In the Renaissance, to be sure, using too much Latin identified one as no gentleman, but a player. Castiglione and Montaigne distinguished sharply between the pedant, who clumsily spouted Latin tags at every opportunity, and the adroit, supple gentleman.

But over the next two hundred years, Latin inevitably lost its practical function. Modern textbooks, histories and reference works replaced ancient ones for most practical purposes, French became the international language of gentlemen, and schools made less and less effort to produce real fluency in their pupils. At exactly the same time, Waquet shows, Latin became a necessary accomplishment for anyone who aspired to gentility. Or at least the study of Latin became necessary – though few were expected to retain it in adulthood. “Do you think Sir John Crake, the master of the harriers, knows Latin?” – Tom Tulliver asks Philip Wakem in The Mill on the Floss. “He learned it as a boy, of course,” replies his more sophisticated friend, “But I daresay he’s forgotten it.”

In fact, the lack of practical utility made Latin all the more attractive, as a pure mark of distinction. It became the “chapeau bras” of high culture, as Benjamin Franklin astutely remarked – the hat that a man of fashion carried under his arm even though his wig made it superfluous. It survived the fall of the Ancien Régime to become the accomplishment of the 19th and early 20th-century bourgeoisie, who enjoyed, in the words of Louis MacNeice, “the privilege. . . of learning a language that is incontrovertibly dead” – as well as the privilege of seeing others excluded from learning it.

For practitioners of the learned professions, Latin served another set of purposes, some of them richly contradictory. It could mystify, and create authority, as it did for doctors, from Molière’s Sganarelle, whose fake Latin amazes his bourgeois patients (“Aye,” one remarks, “it’s all so proper, I can’t understand a word of it”), to the real ones who infested the Piazza Navona at Rome, hefting big books in Latin and Greek which they quoted to justify the useless nostrums they proposed. It did the same for civil lawyers – about whom Waquet could have said more – as their clients and their critics regularly protested. Yet Latin could also express what otherwise could not be expressed. A learned man could properly discuss obscene and sexual matters, so long as he did so in Latin.

Latin, in other words, had a double power: it could conceal or reveal. It prevented the supposedly vulnerable young person from reading such potentially corrupting texts as Isaac Vossius’s pioneering study of ancient brothels, or J.H. Meibom’s essay of 1639 on sexual masochism, or Gibbon’s discussions of the sexual proclivities of the Empress Theodora.

Yet it also made possible the production of the first modern literature on sexuality, as Waquet shows in fascinating detail, enabling a male cultural elite to say what “the prevailing norms would not allow to be stated in everyday language”. Indeed, Latin sometimes assumed an erotic or sexual flavour – especially when futile and obvious efforts at bowdlerism of school texts sent boys leaping into their paternal libraries to read, and never to forget, the full story of Catullus’ love life and Horace’s premature ejaculation.

This rich and cosmopolitan study of a universal language has its limitations. It is, first of all, a little provincial – or at least hexagonal. Waquet’s account of noble education fits French circumstances much better than English or German ones. In England and Germany – especially the mid-19th-century England of reformed universities and public schools – Greek played a greater role than Latin in conferring social distinction, and many developed a strikingly active command of it.

When one 19th century undergraduate read aloud his diary of a journey to Italy and mentioned the cost of a “painted beauty”, another stormed out of the room, contemptuously remarking, in Greek: “We are lovers of beauty without extravagance.” The others knew that he was quoting Pericles’ funeral oration, from Thucydides. Greek, however, passive or active, receives little attention here, since Waquet’s standpoint is that of the French schools, firmly embedded in a tradition of Latin rhetoric that goes back to the 16th century municipal and Jesuit colleges (which, incidentally, laid down the rule that no one could master Latin without Greek).

Though Waquet looks back to the lost world of active Latin users less in anger than in admiration, she seems oddly reluctant to evaluate – or even to write about – the artistry exhibited in much Neo-Latin prose and verse. The Latin writers of the 15th century and after composed lullabies and love elegies, epithalamia and epics, hymns to the pagan gods and the Christian God, ambitious histories of their times and mordant satires on life at court and university.

Many of the most distinguished vernacular poets, from Petrarch to the members of the Pléiade to Milton, wrote Latin when young to obtain what Leonard Forster called their “training in poetic diction” and continued to do so as adults, producing what they and their readers saw as independent works of art. Such extraordinary creations as Fracastoro’s Syphilis and More’s Utopia match anything written in any European language of their time for distinction of form as well as originality of content.

The reader who hopes to explore this uncharted mare magnum of early modern literature will have to look elsewhere for guidance – for example, to the pioneering surveys by James Binns and the late Josef Ijsewijn, and to the lively survey of the Latin prose of the 17th and 18th centuries, published – in Latin, of course – last year by the Russian philologist Oleg Nikitinski.

Despite the wonderfully subversive materials Waquet compiles, moreover, she falls prey at times to the very nostalgia that she elsewhere deconstructs. Again and again, she mourns the death of Latin everywhere, except among tiny groups of scholars.

When the British film director Derek Jarman was making his film Sebastiane, whose script is in Latin – part of the decadent thematic central to Jarman’s oeuvre – he was forced by the incompetence of some actors in Latin to abridge their lines. It really is all over, what the Goncourts coarsely called “going to bed with Latin books”, the fruitful commerce that Western civilisation maintained with the classical tongue for centuries. Latin no longer says anything, or hides anything.

This is plain wrong. “How did they read Livy,” Zbigniew Herbert asked – “my grandfather my great-grandfather” – and answered the question with a poem that became a modern erotic classic and an anthem of the Polish resistance to Soviet tyranny. Reading the stately prose of Roman history assured him, and many others, that someday “the empire will fall”. If Latin could survive being a required subject, it can survive anything. Epitaphs – even lapidary ones in capital letters – are premature.

For the most part, though, this is a splendid book: original in method, suggestive in argument, and a pleasure to read. Waquet has shown us how an ancient language became a sign – if not the sign – of modern Europe. She has proved that even in a period of relative quiescence, French historiography can still tell new stories in new ways. And she has shown my colleagues and me that the barrage of Latin to which we are subjected once a year under the harsh New Jersey sun represents not the travesty of something that was once great but one stage in a long, complex tradition that continues to grow and change.

· Anthony Grafton’s many books include Joseph Scaliger and The Footnote. The latest is Leon Battista Alberti.

· To read more online essays from the current edition of the London Review of Books visit the LRB. The extensive online archive of essays from past includes John Lanchester on the rise of Microsoft, Alan Bennett’s Diary and much more.

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