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Latin: the Renaissance’s world language

George: Just what coop or cave do you come to us from? – Livinus: Why ask such a question? – George: Because you’re ill fed. Because you’re so thin you’re transparent; you creak from dryness. Where’ve you been? – Livinus: The Collège de Montaigu. – George: Then you come to us full of learning. – Livinus: Oh no – full of lice. – George: Fine company you bring with you! – Livinus: Yes indeed; it’s not safe nowadays to travel without company.

One student meets another. They talk. They banter. All perfectly familiar to us, it would seem—except that the original of this conversation is in Latin. We find it in Erasmus’ Colloquies, first published in 1518 and one of the best-selling books of its time. Livinus and George’s fictional dialogue could easily have been a real-life exchange; as a tutor himself Erasmus intended his Colloquies to provide models for everyday conversation in Latin, and Latin was the language of instruction in schools and universities at the time. Pupils were encouraged to speak Latin among themselves, even outside the classroom. Moreover, when students from different countries met in international academic centres like Paris (where our Livinus was accommodated in the Collège de Montaigu), Latin was the lingua franca of choice, very much like English’s status in many institutions of learning across the world today. 400 years ago, to reach as wide a readership as possible, we would be writing this piece in Latin, and to our reader that choice would not seem an élitist affectation, but completely normal. All of this had profound consequences for the composition of literature.

In As You Like It (c. 1599), Shakespeare includes “the whining school-boy with his satchel” as the second of his seven ages of humanity; we tend to forget that for Shakespeare—as for Rabelais, Lope de Vega, Milton, Camões, Cervantes, Kepler, Newton, and all other educated boys in early modern Europe—“school” meant immersion in Latin. Many writers went on to abandon that schoolroom language along with their satchels, opting instead to articulate their ideas in their native tongues, but just as many continued to write in Latin throughout their lives. To name just two seventeenth-century English examples, the best-known poet and the best-known scientist, Milton and Newton, always worked bilingually. At the start of the previous century, outliers like Machiavelli had sparked controversy because of their decision to write their political works in the vernacular, while a few decades later poets such as Ronsard agonised over the choice of Latin versus French. The point is that writers during this period always had to contend with Latin; they were immersed and tested in it from boyhood, and if they rejected it for the vernacular, they often felt compelled to justify that preference to their contemporaries.

"...[W]e tend to forget that for Shakespeare – as for Rabelais, Lope de Vega, Milton, Camões, Cervantes, Kepler, Newton, and all other educated boys in early modern Europe – 'school' meant immersion in Latin." William Shakespeare. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“…[W]e tend to forget that for Shakespeare – as for Rabelais, Lope de Vega, Milton, Camões, Cervantes, Kepler, Newton, and all other educated boys in early modern Europe – ‘school’ meant immersion in Latin.” William Shakespeare. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Latin, then, was a ubiquitous and commonplace language in the Renaissance, widely spoken, read, and written across Europe and beyond. If the defining characteristics of what has variously been called a “world language” and a “universal language” are its number of non-native speakers and its international circulation, by the time Erasmus was writing his Colloquies and Shakespeare his comedies Latin had been a paradigmatic world language for well over a millennium. Through the army and administrative framework of the Roman Empire, Latin spread throughout Europe, prompting Pliny the Elder in his Natural History to praise patriotically Rome’s ability to “draw together the discordant and wild languages of so many peoples” into “a shared form of speech.” After the fall of the Empire, newly harnessed to the momentum of the Christian faith, Latin continued to be happily or at least pragmatically adopted by Europe’s peoples as a cultural force until the end of the early modern period. Arguably, it reached its greatest moment of self-conscious refinement between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Scholars have often tended to focus on the rise of vernacular languages and literatures during the Renaissance, but this habit unduly eclipses the continuing, vital role of Latin as the only true international language of early modern Europe.

So while Latin has always been a linguistic and cultural force in the history of the West, its spread in the early modern period reached an all-time high thanks to new educational dynamics and the invention of moveable type around 1450. Statistics forcefully demonstrate the language’s power and growth; about 95% of all extant Latin texts date from the Renaissance onwards, while classical antiquity’s share only adds up to about 0.01%. Certainly a substantial majority of books printed in sixteenth-century Europe were in Latin, and the larger part of them were not just new editions of ancient works but original compositions. Works like Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), which introduced a whole new genre of imaginative political thinking, or Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543), which established the heliocentric system, attest to the creativity and impact of what is now often conveniently called “Neo-Latin.” Neo-Latin shaped European history and extended beyond that single continent both westwards and eastwards, as governments explored, colonized, and plundered the Americas, Asia, and elsewhere. With this geographical extension, due mostly—but not only—to Jesuit missions, Latin reached a global dimension that hardly any other lingua franca ever had. Could we perhaps call it the first world language in the proper sense?

However this may be, Latin’s reach and significance as an active language in the early modern period has been at the centre of a number of recent studies and this debate is likely to continue. Peter Burke characterizes Latin as “a language in search of a community” and suggests that the search ultimately succeeded because of its cohesive value for the Catholic church and the Republic of Letters. Benedict Anderson sees Latin’s “fall” from the mid-seventeenth century onwards as accelerated by what he calls “print-capitalism” and as part of a larger process of nation-building which “fragmented, pluralized, and territorialized” communities formerly “integrated by old sacred languages.” Minae Mizumura considers how adoption of a “universal language” like English in the modern world can erode local and national consciousness and literary writing, noting Latin’s earlier “crucial role in Europe’s bid to become the world’s dominant power,” its importance for the growth of the natural sciences and humanities, and then the move of previously Latin-writing “seekers of knowledge” towards the national vernaculars. And as Jürgen Leonhardt argues in his recent Latin: Story of a World Language, the discussion about the global role of English in today’s world can make us more sensitive to the role of Latin in the early modern period. This could also be an opportunity for a broader appreciation of Neo-Latin and its own remarkable story.

Image Credit: “Latin letters” by Tfioreze. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. […] that grant the AB probably required their students to learn Latin up until the 20th century, as Latin served the same role in the world that English does […]

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