Tag Archives: jurgen leonhardt

Study Later Latin!

Codex Amiatinus, portrait of Ezra (Cassiodorus?), folio 5r (c. 700, based on older Italian Bible)

One of the many interesting facts found in Jürgen Leonhardt, Latin: Story of a World Language (read my review), is that about 80% of surviving ancient Latin texts are from the late 200s to the mid-500s. The sheer quantity of texts, then, makes Later Latin literature appealing, doesn’t it?

The other 20% of surviving ancient Latin texts cover about 500 years of literary history — those are the Latin texts we are all most likely to study: Cicero, Caesar, Sallust, Livy, Horace, Catullus, Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid, Propertius, Lucan, Suetonius, Tacitus, and others, including those fragmentary poets of the Republic such as Ennius.

When you think about those who study English literature,  not only do these Latin classics not add up to a very large quantity of texts in comparison, they are also among the most studied texts in the world. Everyone who ever studied Latin with seriousness, whether a Ciceronian so harshly criticised by Erasmus, Erasmus himself, or, say, Aelred of Rievaulx, read Cicero.

So we should keep reading Cicero (there’s more to that argument, but that’s for later).

But Cicero has been analysed, edited, commented upon, translated, and so forth a lot.

Leo the Great, on the other hand, has 23 letters that have received no edition since 1753, and I am contemplating writing the first commentary on the whole corpus of letters.

Not only is Later Latin relatively understudied: It’s vast! Here’s but a sample of people as they pass into my mind:

Lactantius, Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, Ausonius, Ambrose, Symmachus, Augustine, Prudentius, Sedulius, Leo I, Innocent I, Celestine I, various other popes, Caesarius of Arles, Peter Chrysologus, Quodvultdeus, Prosper of Aquitaine, Ammianus Marcellinus, Hydatius, Priscian, Donatus, Servius, Macrobius, Claudian, Porfyrius, Boethius, the legal work of Justinian

The list could and does go on. We have poetry of multiple genres (including epic and some experimental stuff), history of multiple genres, biography, letters, sermons, speeches, grammar books, commentaries on classical poets, commentaries on the Bible, theological treatises, philosophical texts, autobiography, monastic rules, and more.

If we extend our dates to around 800, as the much anticipated Cambridge History of Later Latin Literature will, then we also get Gregory the Great, Gregory of Tours, Aldhelm, Bede, some lovely Hiberno-Latin literature, and more!

There’s something for everyone in later Latin literature, and a lot of it remains untranslated, or poorly translated, or only available in expensive translations. So learn some Latin and go read it!

Latin: Story of a World Language by Jurgen Leonhardt

If you are looking for a single volume history of Latin, I recommend this volume by Jürgen Leonhardt. Leonhardt does not spend energy on Indo-European linguistics, and he does not linger on the fragments of old Latin — the story of Latin is far too long for that. The most sizeable portion of the book is the chapter entitled ‘Europe’s Latin Millennium’ — tracing the centuries 800-1800.

Nonetheless, ancient Latin has its place. Indeed, we cannot have Latin as a world language without Latin as the Romans’ language. Leonhardt gives a readable discussion of the ‘classical’ period of Latin literature, the era of Cicero, Caesar, Virgil, Ovid, et al. This era of Late Republican and Early Imperial Latin literature is important for the story of Latin literature because of two major developments. First, this is the era when Latin authors sought not to imitate but to rival Greek authors. Horace does not wish simply to be a Latin lyric poet in the tradition of the Greeks; he seeks to outstrip them. Second, this is the era of linguistic history when the Latin language ceases to change. The Latin of Cicero is syntactically and grammatically the same Latin as Augustine.

This fixing of Latin at this historical moment, a moment when so much enduring literature was written (the two mutually reinforce each other) meant that Latin was able to truly become a world language. The story of Latin when it is no longer connected to the ancient Roman world is the story of the bulk of this book.

Leonhardt’s book is full of interesting facts and important arguments, for which there is not a lot of time in this review. What is most significant, I think, is the argument that Latin in the Middle Ages created the space for vernacular literatures, and there was not originally competition between Latin and the vernacular. A piece of evidence for this mutual coinherence of literary space is the fact that our earliest vernacular literatures — Old English and Old Irish — emerge precisely in places where Latin literacy was maintained. Similarly, in periods when Latin goes through a slump — the 900s, for example — so do vernacular literatures.

The vernacular literatures only start to compete with Latin as the Early Modern period progresses. Even then, the competition is slow. In Italy, for a very long time, they considered Latin the grammatical form of the language for literature and Italian as simply the volgare. Moreover, even if places like England and France were using the vernacular for their court, this has little to do with poets, philosophers, and theologians who want an international audience. While our association of the rise of vernacular literature with the Early Modern world is not entirely off the mark, it is also worth noting that so many famous authors of the time wrote in Latin for a wider distribution, even if a lot of them also wrote in the vernacular: Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Lancelot Andrewes, John Calvin, and many Germans.

In fact, Latin remained the supraregional language within Germany for a very long time due to the fact that many German dialects are mutually incomprehensible. The book includes a very interesting discussion of Bach being hired by the Thomasschule in Leipzig, mostly about the state of Latin teaching and humanism at the time. One simple point, however, is that, although Bach was not considered qualified to teach Latin, he was still able to converse in Latin and answer catechetical questions in his job interview. A very different era from today.

Alongside a consideration of Latin literature and its variety through the ages, this book looks at Latin pedagogy in the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and 1800s, and Leonhardt argues that one of the things that helped make Latin less alive in the 1800s is the lack of instruction in spoken, daily Latin but simply the style we all know from our own Latin classes, of memorising paradigms and vocabulary and nothing but the Classics for our reading.

In the book’s close come many challenges for those of us invested in Latin today. It is not enough to say with Harry Mount’s book Amo, Amas, Amat and All That that the best reason to learn Latin today is to be able to read the Latin classics, simply because too few people are interested in the effort required when they can, instead, read A D Melville’s Ovid, Robert Fagles’ Aeneid, David Ferry’s Horace, John Yardley’s Livy. However, given that over 90% of the Latin ever written remains unread and unedited, there is much potential for growth in the field. While Cicero and the turn of the era should remain an essential ingredient of Latin instruction, Leonhardt argues for promoting the riches of medieval and modern Latin as cause for students to become interested.

He also argues that we need to make Latin instruction live again — bring in more conversation, perhaps. Investigate methods from modern languages. Help students do composition exercises related to things other than politics and war. He doesn’t say it in quite these words, but that’s the feel I got.

This book is well worth the read for anyone interested in Latin, even if it’s just nostalgia from having studied it in school in the 1960s.

The rediscovery of Greek and the ‘death’ of Latin

I can hardly believe this exists!

One of the defining periods in the history of the Latin language is the beginning of the Central Middle Ages — at this time, the Romance languages started to emerge more and more as distinct, local vernaculars separate from Latin. However, Latin continued to be used and learned in the same way second languages are today — it was used from Ireland and Britain through the Romance nations across into such far-flung lands as Denmark, Bohemia, Hungary. Latin would not truly ‘die’ as a living (albeit learned) language until the 1800s, as recently argued in Latin: Story of a World Language by Jürgen Leonhardt (Harvard, 2013).

I haven’t read all of Leonhardt’s book (full disclosure!), so I am not sure if today’s musings align with his evidence and arguments.

Nevertheless, I shall venture the following thoughts arising from reading Hugh Houghton’s brand-new The Latin New Testament: A Guide to Its Early History, Texts, and Manuscripts (Oxford, 2016). Part I of Houghton’s book is a chronological history of the Latin New Testament, the final chapter of which is ‘The Tenth Century Onwards.’ In the final section of this chapter (pp. 108-110), the ‘rediscovery of Greek’ is discussed.

In the twelfth century, knowledge of Greek was returning to Latin Europe; our first bilingual Greek-Latin New Testament after some ninth-century Irish examples is from that century. I have always appreciated the twelfth and thirteenth centuries for their renewal of Greek knowledge — by the time of Thomas Aquinas, all of Aristotle had been translated out of Greek, so the greatest philosopher-theologian of the Middle Ages was able to use that translation rather than the earlier translations from Arabic (that are all that people like to mention, as though Spain were the only place of cross-cultural interaction in the Mediterranean). Houghton notes that we have twelve surviving Greek-Latin bilingual New Testament manuscripts from between the late thirteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Now, part of what makes the history of the Latin Bible interesting is its ongoing relationship with the original texts from which it was translated. Jerome revised the Gospels and the Old Testament (I’m not sure how much of the OT, though), and around the same time, other portions were also revised — these revised versions eventually come to be ‘standard’, Vulgate. There were in existence a few varieties of ‘Old Latin’ or Vetus Latina translations of the Bible, and they continued in use for centuries in various circumstances and locations. Many biblical manuscripts show a mixed Vulgate-Vetus Latina text.

Jerome was not the only one revising and checking the translations over time; hence the ninth-century bilingual Greek-Latin Irish manuscripts mentioned above. In the twelfth century, for example, Stephen Harding, abbot of Citeaux (the mother house of the Cistercians), undertook a revision of the Latin Bible that still survives. He tells the story of how he consulted the local Jewish community about certain places in one manuscript that had passages not in others; they confirmed for him that these passages were not in the Hebrew originals, so he did not include them in his revised Bible. (This story is translated in The Cistercian World by P. M. Matarasso; Penguin, 1993.) The Latin point of reference in all of these translations and revisions was the language as spoken. The language as living and lived.

While Latin was primarily a living language — whether the mother tongue as for Jerome, or a learned language as for Stephen Harding — the primary focus of Greek-Latin biblical scholarship was ensuring the accuracy of the Latin text. Indeed, Jerome explicitly states that he left the style alone unless it affected the meaning because of how beloved the Latin text was in many church communities. Many Bibles provide alternate renderings of the Latin in interlinear or marginal glosses.

By the day of Erasmus, we see that Latin is in ill health. Its chief ailment is not from some sort of parasitical disease from the vernacular languages; Latin’s place in western European literature and scholarship was assured for a few centuries yet, for an Englishman could read a German’s Latin, but not his Hochdeutsch, and a German could read a Spaniard’s Latin but not his Spanish.

The evidence of Latin’s ill health is found in what sorts of changes Erasmus made to his text of the Latin Bible. Erasmus did not simply correct corruptions or inaccuracies in the text. Nor did he simply make the Latin align with his Greek Textus Receptus, the way Kurt and Barbara Aland would in the twentieth-century Nova Vulgata. Instead, he changed the Latin text on the basis of its style and Latinity — a thing not even Jerome did (Jerome, a man who claimed to have been told by Christ in a dream that he was a Ciceronian, not a Christian!).

Until then, the Latin Bible had been one of the instrumental and pivotal texts of the Latin world. It was something that represented the ongoing life of the Latin language beyond Cicero. However, as the humanists came to laud and magnify the Ciceronian style, this living Latin began to fall into disfavour. Erasmus’ new Latin Bible is clear evidence of this.

Furthermore, the rediscovery of Greek, and then Erasmus’ printed Latin Bible, combined with the Protestant Reformation, led to a reduction in the new of the old Vulgate versions. Scholars and theologians would have access to Erasmus’ Greek edition. Clergy would have access to vernacular translations — Luther’s, Tyndale’s — based on the new Greek editions. The Vulgate would be required for Roman liturgical purposes and as the official text when used in other Roman Catholic contexts. But that is all.

Latin’s days were limited, even if the ‘final decease’ of the language would not come for a. few centuries more. Greek, the humanists, and print had begun the slow process that a change in Latin tutelage would ultimately complete.

Mind you (I feel compelled to say), Latin is not yet actually ‘dead’, it is merely obsolescent, but still of enormous use, power, and influence.