To litel Latin

Tom Shippey

  • Intellectual Culture in Elizabethan and Jacobean England: The Latin Writings of the Age by J.W. Binns
    Francis Cairns Press, 761 pp, £75.00, July 1990, ISBN 0 905205 73 1

‘Thow doted daffe, dulle are thi wittes,’ says Holy Church to the Dreamer in Piers Plowman: ‘To litel latin thou lernedest in thi youthe!’ The Dreamer doesn’t argue with her; in fact, he agrees, saying sadly: Heu michi quia sterilem duxi vitam iuvenilem. But her view is one of the great, long-lasting English fallacies, a fine example of post hoc propter hoc. Because for many centuries sharp-witted boys (but not girls) were picked out and taught Latin, it was observed that sharp-wittedness and Latin went together, and concluded that learning Latin made you sharp-witted. Generations of later mixed success at the English public schools made no impact on the thesis. T.H. White’s Sir Grummore, discussing ‘eddication’ with Sir Ector, remains utterly sure that learning Latin is the main part of education, though he himself ‘could never get beyond the Future Simple of Utor. It was a third of the way down the left-hand page, he said. He thought it was page 97.’

In some ways the failures of Sir Grummore’s education and of Holy Church’s reasoning are with us yet. Speaking personally, I was declining mensa at the age of eight, and went on doing so till I left school at 17. I did Latin for nine years, French for six, and German for four. Yet at the end of the process I was fairly confident at reading, writing and speaking German, while my instinctive reaction to Latin was to look for a crib. This was not the fault of the school or the teachers – the present Regius Professor of Latin at Cambridge was learning his Latin in the form above mine, so clearly the language could be learnt – but my relative success with other languages suggests it was not my fault either. It was probably Holy Church’s fault. A view still obstinately held, and often repeated in newspaper columns, is that Latin is important because it ‘teaches grammar’; English, meanwhile, ‘has no grammar’. People who say that are equating grammar with morphology, with memorising inflexions – a process traditionally enforced by corporal punishment. In England, for centuries, you went to ‘grammar school’ to learn ‘grammar’, and you did it sub virga, under the rod, ‘under the yerde’ as Chaucer says (though of a girl). Early acquaintance with the tawse certainly left me able to decline mensa or utor till the air turned blue – but significantly unable to cope with Latin syntax or word-order, a matter which needs more thought.

Failures of that kind have been going on for a long time, and have had an effect of cumulative collective amnesia. The author of the book under review pointed out not long ago in a piece in the THES that till recently you could go into most second-hand bookshops in this country and buy 17th and 18th-century books for knockdown prices – because they were in Latin, and neither sellers nor buyers could read them. Somewhere, for instance, a shabby, undistinguished-looking copy of Guglielmus Harveius, De motu sanguinis is probably lurking – last copy sold at auction, £80,000. Latinity has largely vanished from the world. What people forget is how long it was kept up. Reared on books like Richard Foster Jones’s The Triumph of the English Language, students and teachers of English literature, as of English history, tend to assume that if a book isn’t in English then it must be ‘obscurantist, untypical and irrelevant’. By making this unstated assumption they miss out on whole areas of Renaissance thought and debate, often thought and debate at the highest level, socially and intellectually. And even if you do not mind missing out on that, you should reflect that if you concentrate on one part of an era to the exclusion of all others, you are liable, indeed certain to misinterpret even the area on which you are concentrating.

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