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.

This is the error which Dr Binns sees, and which he provides the materials for correcting in his massive, admirable and original work. The way he has done it is in itself remarkable. He decided (some quarter of a century ago) to work through every page of every Latin book printed in England from 1530 to 1640. ‘Of course I have not done that,’ he admits. ‘Inevitably one or two of this vast number have been inaccessible to me, and one or two I have no doubt missed through carelessness or fatigue.’ Three or four misses out of what must be fifteen hundred books would not be a bad score, however, and while even a book as large as this one could not effectively sum up any of the hundreds of titles to be considered, it does provide an assured, first-hand guide through a great, forgotten library. Of the 750 pages in the volume, only slightly over half are text, the rest consisting of close-printed notes, lists of books and manuscripts, a biographical register, an appendix on printing and a general index. What we have here is what used to be called a travail de Bénédiction. No one else will ever do it again, because no one will need to take this first step, and further exploitation is quite obviously going to be work not for a single researcher, but for organised teams of scholars. One might add that this is a job which could not have been done in a major library, not the Folger, nor the Huntington, nor the Bodleian, nor the British – or not from their own resources. It could only have been done in a place with access to the complete Short-Title Catalogue series of University Micro-film from Ann Arbor, Michigan: in this case, the Shakespeare Institute at Birmingham – and even there, alas, such a job may not be possible again.

What are the attractions of following up on this immense initiative? The major one, for literary scholars, must be the provision of a new perspective on Renaissance poetry, drama, literary criticism and history. Drama, Binns notes, has been relatively adequately covered in earlier work, just because the connections of the ‘University Wits’ and the vernacular stage were so evident. But what of literary criticism? Who can claim to have read Alberico Gentili’s major defence of poetry, written by an Italian Protestant and printed in Oxford in 1593? Very few, if only because its title is the instantly unappealing Commentatio ad 1. III C. de prof. et med. Gentili was a lawyer – indeed the Oxford Regius Professor of Civil Law from 1587 – and referred in normal form (for him) to a section of the Justinian Code, ad legem III Codicis de professoribus et medicis. The law in question was the one which said that poets, unlike professors, ought to pay tax. Why, asks Gentili. Professors, it seems, were let off because they were teachers and ‘had to endure the stupidity of their pupils’, while doctors were exempt because they worked for the good of humanity. Should poets not be included too, asks Gentili, and the question opens the way to a discourse on poetry, civics, acting and morality. If it had been in the vernacular it would now be a constant work of reference; in the 16th century, of course, it was as good as in the vernacular to an entire educated class. We are the ones with short sight or amnesia.

Actually a work in Latin was in several respects better than one in the vernacular, because it might (even for Englishmen) be easier to read. One of Binns’s innumerable sidelights is his reminder of the existence of Sir Francis Kynaston’s translation of Chaucer, the Amorum Troili et Creseidae libri duo priores angli-co-latini, published with a facing-page text of Thynne, dedicated to the Royal Librarian, and beginning: Dolorem Troili duplicem narrare, ‘The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen’. Reading the examples given, it was hard to suppress a feeling that having that as an O-level text would have been as interesting as Virgil, and a great deal easier to handle, as written by an Englishman still affected by English syntax, however sound on morphology. But Kynaston’s aim was not only the conservatio huius poematum gemmae, ‘the preservation of this jewel of poems’ for his own people, but the transmission of it to Continental Europe, where English remained an unknown tongue. Latin could get you an international reputation there, as achieved for instance by Elizabeth Jane Weston, ‘The Maid of England’, whose poetry – on her emotions, her life, on poverty and on the floods in Prague – won her a European reputation before and after she died at the age of 30, having borne seven children. In a list of major authors composed in Frankfurt in 1628, she was one of four English writers selected: Shakespeare did not make the cut.

And then there are John Shepery, Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, who had the brilliant idea of a poem by a man responding to female accusations from the Heroides; Sir Thomas Chaloner, ambassador to Spain, who wrote a ten-book poem on statecraft dedicated to Lord Burghley, De republica Anglorum instauranda, with an allegorical opening; or Christopher Ocland’s Anglorum Praelia, an account of English battles from 1327 to 1558 with approbatory letters from members of the Privy Council, which the Recorder of London ordered should be read in schools throughout the kingdom (as seems in fact to have been done). Even if one takes no interest in these works for themselves, one cannot help wondering what Spenser thought of Chaloner, or Donne of Shepery, or whether Milton had Ocland as a set text. Milton probably did know, Binns remarks, Familianus Strada’s Prolusiones of 1631, another treatise on poetry; Addison refers to them several times. And Milton also knew of the anguished debate on history triggered by Polydore Vergil’s robust rejection of the ‘Brutus books’ and the mythical tradition of British history set up by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century. Was there really no King Arthur, and no King Lear either? Milton clearly did not want to believe it, arguing patriotically if defensively: ‘those old and inborn names of successive Kings, never any to have bin real persons, or done in thir lives at least some part of what so long hath been remember’d, cannot be thought without too strict an incredulity.’ From a modern perspective one is liable to smirk a little at Milton’s continuing credulity. But that is because the replies to Polydore Vergil – heavy, thoughtful, authoritative ones – have largely vanished without trace. Yet Milton could have read Sir John Price’s Historiae Brytannicae Defensio (1573), also dedicated to Lord Burghley, which argues that no one should comment on this subject without knowing Old English and Medieval Welsh. He himself, says Price, has seen manuscripts confirming Geoffrey, owns copies of the poems of Taliessin and both Merlins, and will show them to anyone who asks to see them: so much for Polydore the Italian! Binns remarks that ‘most areas of Elizabethan intellectual endeavour lead eventually to the production of a large Latin book containing a dense and authoritative résumé,’ and in this case it was the Historiarum Britanniae libri xi, 11 volumes on the mythical history of Britain, 1597-1607, by the now totally unknown Richard White of Basingstoke. Yet White of Basingstoke for decades was the man to look to, the man who was ‘up with the field’: for a start, he was familiar with his Continental counterparts, also writing in Latin, and a man who knew Philippus Bergomas and Amandus Ziri-xaeus backwards could not be written off.

The fact is that England – to members of the Latinate upper class – was just part of a network, and a network in the modern sense of mutually-supporting career-advancement. Binns, unreeling the microfilms as they arrived at the Shakespeare Institute in batches of 40, remarks that he regrets losing the sense of books as objects, not knowing whether they were tall and stately folios, or cheap duodecimos designed for the student pocket. But a corresponding advantage of a microfilm collection is easy and immediate cross-reference. What cross-referencing suggests, though, is that names go round in batches. Dedications are instructive, as are the letters of approval and support commonly prefixed to books, or the collections of tributes to mark authors’ deaths. In the present day an experienced academic can usually work out what ‘side’ a critic or historian is on by looking at his bibliography; no doubt in the Renaissance someone in the know could have done much the same, guessing a poet’s politics, for example, by seeing who his friends were. Can this intuitive knowledge be recovered? Or is it something you have to live and grow up with?

And is the same true of language? Binns at one point records what is only an impression, and an impression which runs counter to present philo-vernacular academic orthodoxy, but it is an impression recorded by someone who has no axe to grind and has turned over all the material: it is that English people wrote in Latin because Elizabethan English wasn’t good enough. This phenomenon is normally discussed in histories of the language as ‘the expansion of vocabulary in Elizabethan England’ and presented as another vernacular triumph. It may have felt very different at the time, with English seeming less than ‘an attractive medium to those who had anything to communicate’, while Latin was ‘sharp and subtle, and had a ready-made vocabulary to hand’. A corollary is that Latin-influenced, or Latin-penetrated English (the language we have eventually wound up with, in fact) could have seemed merely comic to the fluent Latinist, aware as we are not of the frequent mis-comprehensions and false analogies which have been imported into English by less than competent translators. Our ancestors, if they heard modern standard educated English, might have laughed, or commented that English had gone to the dogs: not a flattering thought, but one that should be faced.

But will it be faced? Will Binns’s book, and the immense scholarship that lies behind it, alter or even affect the generations of error and confusion over Latin of which we are the heirs? Two points stand out. One is that Binns does not think there is much hope in university Latin departments (or in the teachers they send on in smaller and smaller numbers to schools). In his view, the professional teachers of Latin in the universities have ‘hidden themselves away ... sheltered themselves behind the ramparts of their expert knowledge of the ancient form of the language’ (my italics), and ‘withdrawn into a welter of scholarly trivialities’. They are no longer at the cutting edge. They have failed to learn about criticism from departments of English. Through a kind of linguistic snobbery, they refuse to take up the study of later Latin. Binns does not say this, but one could add that they often see a lifebelt in the shape of courses on ‘Roman Civilisation’. ‘But we don’t want our students to learn about Roman civilisation,’ cried one eminent Medieval historian in my hearing. ‘We want them to learn Latin!’

Before members of English and history departments plume themselves, however, they should realise that Binns is fairly scandalised by them as well. They are ‘guilty of failure of nerve in turning away from the texts central to their professed concerns’, he declares. Scientists know that Newton or Kepler or Agricola wrote in Latin, and give them due credit. ‘But how many teachers of vernacular Renaissance poetry today ever bother to look at Vida’s Christiad or Scaliger’s Poetics?’ The answer no doubt is deeply discreditable. Yet one has to say, as peacefully as possible, this is not their/our fault. It all goes back to Holy Church, to Sir Grummore, to entrenched attitudes and deep linguistic disability. What we really need are some much better Latin courses; and things have moved on a bit from page 97 and the future simple of utor. Can the trend be reversed? Binns allows himself a last defiant epigraph:

multa renascentur quae iam cecidere, cadentque quae nunc sunt in honore.

They are the only Latin lines in the book which he does not translate.