When Jacob Rees-Mogg wished to criticise the judges of the European Union, he said, “Let me indulge in the floccinaucinihilipilification of EU judges.” The meaning of the jocular term (the action of judging something to be worthless) is not as important as its source—the Eton Latin Grammar. Latin and Latinate English flow readily from the tongue and quill of Mr Rees-Mogg, so when he joined Twitter in 2017, his inaugural tweet was “Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis” (times change, and we change with them). Boris Johnson, another Etonian, frequently reaches for his Virgil to provide a withering put-down of opponents: “Non tali auxilio nec defensoribus istis tempus eget!” (the time does not require such assistance nor such allies).
Why should prominent Brexiteers who are proudly English so often quote from an ancient European language that originated in Italy? After all, the ancient language of England was Anglo-Saxon, not Latin. Why, indeed, has Anglo-Saxon never been taught in English schools, whilst many schools taught Latin for centuries, and some still do?
The answer to the puzzle lies in the model of cultural descent we call the Renaissance. In this model, the culture of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe is not a continuation of the culture of preceding centuries, but rather a deliberate repudiation of that earlier period, a deliberate “rebirth” embracing the far older culture of ancient Greek and Rome. The relatively small proportion of people able to attend school and university in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was therefore taught in Latin. Because this was the practice all over Europe, Latin became the common language of educated Europeans. This remained the case even in the eighteenth century. Samuel Johnson, visiting Paris in 1775, insisted on speaking only in Latin, reasoning that his imperfect French would put him at a social disadvantage in conversing with native French speakers. His biographer James Boswell loyally declared that Johnson “spoke Latin with wonderful fluency and elegance,” but his English pronunciation baffled many of his interlocutors, so Johnson admitted that he “could not have much conversation.”
In the twenty-first century, Latin is fading. It survives in the technical language of law, medicine, and the Roman Catholic church—the Vatican has an ATM in which the welcome screen declares that the machine can be used for withdrawing cash (deductio ex pecunia), and asks the visitor to insert the card to access services (inserito scidulam quaeso ut faciundam cognoscas rationem)—and it is still widely taught in countries such as Germany and Italy; but in England it has become the preserve of the elite. So when politicians speak in Latin, they are proclaiming themselves members of that elite, and hence—it is fair to infer—destined to rule the lower orders.
The culture of the Renaissance extends back to classical antiquity, but also outwards to the world beyond Europe, and inwards to the attitudes, ideas, and spirituality of the population at large.
But is this true to the spirit of the Renaissance? Was the Renaissance only the preserve of the elite? Early books on the subject certainly give that impression and similarly paint it as a quintessentially European movement, one in which the rest of the world only mattered inasmuch as it was being “discovered” and subjugated by Europeans. Today’s historians, though, liberate the Renaissance from traditional constraints. Rather than portraying it as an ever-expanding cultural amoeba that devours the benighted Middle Ages as it reaches distant parts of Europe, historians now understand it as both global and interactive—a series of material and cultural exchanges rather than cultural imperialism. Europe’s trade with South America, for example, included the very non-elite matter of livestock export, and the import of potatoes, tomatoes, and tobacco. The presence of Portuguese traders in Japan led to a new style of art—Nanban—which Japanese traders in turn exported to colonial Mexico. The culture of the Renaissance extends back to classical antiquity, but also outwards to the world beyond Europe, and inwards to the attitudes, ideas, and spirituality of the population at large. Today’s historians study the art and architecture of the Renaissance, as they have always done, but they now also attend to vernacular literature, the performing arts, war, science, technology, and craft on a scale that would have surprised their predecessors.
This view of a capacious Renaissance —a complex civilization in motion— is very different from previous historians’ idealised imagined past. In point of fact, the humanists of the Renaissance had their own imagined past, depicting themselves as reaching back across the dark Middle Ages to recapture the glories of ancient Greece and Rome. The idea of a middle age of cultural darkness is of course untenable, as anyone who has visited a medieval cathedral will know, but the concept has survived in our own time: ‘medieval’ is still in popular usage as a synonym for outdated, or even barbaric. Similarly, we are now far less inclined to idealise the ancient Greeks and Romans, as we realise that slavery was embedded in those societies and that a Roman’s idea of entertainment was watching people being killed by wild animals or in combat with each other.
Just as we now take a cooler view of classical antiquity and a warmer view of the Middle Ages, so we are less inclined to idealise the Renaissance, preferring instead to investigate its cultural complexity.
So to return to the politicians. Does their use of Latin and Latinate speech indicate their status as the standard-bearers of the glories of Britain’s past? Or is it the relic of a long-dispelled illusion?
Featured image: “Appius Claudius Caecus in senate” by Cesare Maccari. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.