Thank you for your letter

Anthony Grafton

  • Latin, or the Empire of a Sign: From the 16th to the 20th Centuries by Françoise Waquet, translated by John Howe
    Verso, 346 pp, £20.00, July 2001, ISBN 1 85984 615 7

Every spring at my university’s Convocation, an undergraduate addresses the assembled students, parents and faculty in Latin. Parents receive a plain copy of the text, which few of them can read. Most of the students can’t read it either. But they receive a different, annotated version. Footnotes, always written in Latin – ‘hic ridete’; ‘hic plaudite’ – identify in-jokes and references to local and national events. By clapping, catcalling and laughing, the graduating seniors delude their parents – so local tradition has it – into believing that that their children have not only studied engineering, English or chemistry, but also learned Latin. No one takes the ritual entirely seriously. This year’s speaker doffed his academic gown and mortarboard to reveal that he was wearing a toga and a laurel wreath. A previous one interrupted his speech to hold up a sign, in English, asking a female classmate to marry him. (She agreed.) But the Latin oration still matters. Like the Princeton campus’s splendid trees and hideous buildings, like This Side of Paradise and The Duke of Deception, it forms part of the hazy, glowing nimbus of traditions and practices that renders four years in central New Jersey worth the formidable current price of some $140,000.

In the 16th century, mastery of formal Latin was the price of entrance to schools and universities. Learned Europeans gloried in the wealth of Latin’s vocabulary – which Erasmus demonstrated, in his most popular textbook, by compiling a list of more than a hundred elegant ways to say ‘thank you for your letter.’ They savoured the variety and distinctiveness of Latin styles, ancient and modern. Joseph Scaliger noted with amusement that his favourite pupil at the University of Leiden, Daniel Heinsius, would turn up ‘on some days drunk on Lipsius, on others drunk on Muret, and on others drunk on Erasmus, and would insist that all the rest are asses’. They composed Senecan tragedies and Catullan love poems, Tacitean histories and Ciceronian dialogues, Plinian (Jr) letters and Plinian (Sr) treatises on every imaginable subject from astronomy to zoology. They even cracked Latin jokes. When a pedant irritated the poet Nicodemus Frischlin by addressing him with clumsy formality, ‘Tu, Frischline, vates,’ he replied, without missing a Latin beat: ‘Tu mihi lambe nates.’ The story delighted generations of schoolboys – who, in those happy days, did not need to be told that the great scholar had told his interlocutor to kiss his arse.

Latin, in short, played vital roles in the first modern age. From Prague to Peru, it served as the arena of literary artistry, the vehicle of scientific communication and the medium of common-room gossip. Individuals across Europe and beyond knew Latin as intimately, loved it as passionately and rolled it off the tongue as easily as they did their native languages. Then, apparently, something happened. By the beginning of the 20th century, as A.E. Housman remarked more in anger than sorrow, even professional Latinists revealed on every page of their work that they lived ‘in an age which is out of touch with Latinity’. What trajectory did Latin follow between its heyday in the Renaissance and its slow death by a hundred bad conjectural emendations and a thousand cuts in curricula and budgets?

Traditional histories of modern Europe have treated Latin with some ambivalence. The humanists made the ability to write obedient pastiches of Cicero and Catullus the outward sign of inward cultural grace. They wished to re-create something like ancient literary culture, not that they would have put the task in those terms, and to revive a form of education based on grammar, rhetoric and poetry, history and moral philosophy, and designed to form an elite of generalists equipped to lead an active life in State or Church. Petrarch and his followers challenged the supremacy of scholastic philosophy and theology. They forged a new Latinate public sphere in which the questions that mattered most could be accessibly and eloquently debated. Revolutionaries who looked backwards, they ended up not only reviving lost skills, but creating a new world: one in which the doctrines and teaching authority of the Church proved as vulnerable to challenge as the methods of the late medieval university. To that extent, the revival of classical Latin makes a logical beginning to the story of the modern age.

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