Bourne Archive: History of Latin

http:// boar.org.uk/oiiwxb5HistoryofLatin.htm             Latest edit 1 Apr 2011.

©2011 F.W.PENHEY


The Bourne Archive


The Rise and Decline of Latin

by F.W. Penhey


I. Introduction

In the commentaries on each chapter of the Hereward narrative reference is frequently made to Classical and Mediæval Latin and the distinction between them. To assist readers not familiar with the language a very brief summary of its history is given below, showing the stages of its development and decline as a living language, with special reference to the classical and mediæval periods. The terminal dates ascribed to each stage in the history are, of course, roughly indicative only.

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II. The History of Latin

1.^ Ancient Latin (c.700 – c.250 BC)

The traditional date for the foundation of Rome is 753BC. Rome soon began to conquer and absorb the surrounding cities and amalgamated their languages with its own to form what became Latin. The Roman republic was founded in 509BC and by 250BC the Romans had become masters of the whole of the Italian peninsula. The Romans had an alphabet by 500BC but little literature is preserved from before 250BC. Most known Latin older than that comes from inscriptions on gravestones etc., the earliest known being dated to the late 6th century BC.

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2.^ Early Latin (c.250 – c.100 BC.

This period produced the earliest preserved Latin literature. Among the better known authors are

Cato the Elder (234 – 149BC): orator

Plautus (c.250 – 184BC): playwright

Terence c.190 – 159BC): comic poet

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3.^ Classical Latin (c.100BC – c.500AD)

Latin originated as the language of soldiers and peasant farmers. As their conquest of Italy progressed the Romans encountered the Greek settlements in southern Italy and the Greek language. Greek was a ‘synthetic’ language i.e. one in which the cases and genders of nouns and adjectives, and tenses, persons and numbers of verbs etc. are indicated by ‘inflexions’ i.e. by differences of word endings rather than by the use of prepositions and auxiliary verbs respectively, which is the characteristic of ‘analytical’ languages. During the Early Latin period the more learned and aristocratic users of Latin were influenced by Greek and consequently a ‘synthetic’ version of Latin began to appear, which later came to be known as ‘Classical Latin’. It was a school-taught, written language, little spoken except for orations, addressing courts and making speeches. The style became somewhat freer with the passage of time, but it remained a literary, i.e. written language and was probably seldom if ever used colloquially, i.e. in everyday speech. Its long lifetime is usually divided into three phases thus:–

a. The Golden Age (100 – 1BC)

This is the age when Classical Latin is regarded as being at its highest point. Representative authors are

Cicero (106 – 43BC): consul, orator

Caesar (100 or 102 – 44BC): general, historian

Lucretius (c.99 – 55BC): philosopher, poet

Sallust (86 – 34BC): historian

Virgil (70 – 19BC): poet

Horace (65 – 8BC): poet

Livy (59BC – 17AD): historian

Ovid (43BC – 17AD): poet

b. The Silver Age

In this age the standard of written Latin remained high, the difference between it and the previous Golden Age lying largely in the style of writing and in the subjects handled, which now included philosophy, satire, architecture, engineering, warfare etc. in addition to the history, oratory and poetry of the Golden Age. A representative list of authors is

Seneca the Younger (5BC – 65AD): philosopher

Pliny the Elder 23 – 79AD): general, historian, philosopher

Lucan (39 – 65AD): poet

Martial (40 – 104AD): poet

Juvenal (55 – 140AD): satirist

Tacitus (55 – 120AD): historian

Pliny the Younger (62 – 114AD): orator and letter writer

Suetonius (75 – 160AD): biographer

Vitruvius (1st century AD): writer on architecture

Apuleius (c.125 – c.180AD): satirist

c. Late Latin (150 – 500AD)

The Latin of this period, though still recognizably classical, was beginning to include many words borrowed from other languages (notably Greek); new specially coined words; and extensions of the meanings of existing Latin words necessitated by the new subjects being treated, Christian literature and church organization. Well known authors from this period are:–

Tertullian (c.160 – 220AD): Christian theology

St Ambrose (c.339 – 397AD): Christian hymns and liturgy

Donatus (fl. 4th century AD): grammarian

St Jerome (c.342 – 420AD): translator and complier of the Vulgate Bible

St Augustine of Hippo (c354 – 430AD): Christian theology

Priscian (fl. 500 AD): grammarian

It will be noted from this list that most of the authors named are Christian and were active mainly towards the end of the Late Latin period, i.e. from say 350 to 500AD. The Latin they used was beginning to diverge from the truly classical form by adopting an ‘analytical’ morphology and a word order much closer to that eventually found in the romance languages, in addition to an extended vocabulary. This newly emerging class of the language is sometimes called ‘Christian Latin’.

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4. Vulgar Latin (250 – 800BC)

The word ‘vulgar’ here means ‘of the common people, popular’ and does not carry the modern derogatory meaning.

Vulgar Latin is the commonly spoken form of that language and can be though of as beginning at the start of the Early Latin period, say 250BC, and ending with the inchoate rise of the romance languages about 800AD. Relatively little is known about it, for as it was principally spoken, there are few extant written examples of it. Such as there are include graffiti on the walls of Pompeii and dialogues between characters in the writings of

Plautus (c. 250 – 184BC): playwright

Petronius (fl. 1st century AD): satirist

There are also some (usually adverse) comments on it in the writings of grammarians of that time.

Vulgar Latin tended to vary in form and pronunciation between the different provinces of the empire and with the passage of time; so much so that about 800AD the different dialects were beginning to be sufficiently distinct from Latin and from each other to be regarded as separate languages, and in time became the romance languages, namely French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese etc.

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5. Mediæval Latin (500 – 1200AD)

By 500AD the Christian Church in the west had finally adopted Latin (rather than Greek as had the Eastern Church) as its chosen language and was beginning to give it a new and simpler form. The last Roman emperor in the west, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476AD and had no successor, the rulers thereafter being German rather than Romans. The accompanying breakdown of order meant, among other things, that Latin ceased to be taught in secular schools, so to ensure the continuance of its chosen language the Church was obliged to undertake the teaching of Latin, which it did by establishing first monastic and later cathedral schools. For this reason Mediæval Latin is sometimes called ‘Church Latin’. Like classical Latin it was a school-taught language. On the continent the corresponding spoken languages were Vulgar Latin and ultimately the various romance languages, while in Ireland and Britain, the local vernaculars were used; namely Erse in Ireland and in Britain the various Celtic languages and Anglo-Saxon. The story of Mediæval Latin can be divided into five phases as above.

a. Early Mediæval Latin (500 – c.800)

i. Ireland (Hiberno-Latin)

Ireland had never been occupied by the Romans, so Latin was not used there until the coming of the Christian missionaries, the frst being St Patrick (c.385 – c.461) in 432AD. It was aught in the monasteries which were now established, in a relatively pure classical form (Late Latin), and since it never became the popular spoken language, it preserved a high standard for several centuries. Notable authors were St Columban (543 – 615) and St Adamnan (c.624 – 70f).

ii. Briatin (Anglo-Latin)

Here it was the retention of Celtic languages and Anglo-Saxon as the spoken languages which enabled a high standard of monastic school-taught Latin to be preserved. The outstanding author was the Venerable Bede (c.673 – 735) of the Benedictine monastery at Jarrow (Tyneside), whose work included translations, Bible commentaries, history and biography.

iii. The Continent

At first the lay teaching of Latin continued for a while but by about 650AD it had completely ceased and the teaching of Latin was left to the monasteries and the Church. Thereafter the turmoil of wars owing to both internal conflicts and external attacks led to a decline in the standard of Latin taught up to the end of this period. Moreover, in those parts of Europe which had been within the boundaries of the Roman Empire there was a strong tendency for the spoken Vulgar Latin to be gradually incorporated into the written language. Thus Mediæval Latin (using the term of the broad sense of ‘Latin written in the Middle Ages’) quickly came to consist largely of a rough form of Latin based on colloquial usage and containing a good many innovations in grammar and spelling, but with a still vigorous stream of relatively sound Late Latin running alongside it. After a time this rougher form of Latin was carried to Britain, presumably by the influx of French monks and clerics following the Norman conquest of 1066. Examples of authors of the time are

Boethius (c.480 – 524): philosopher (secular learning)

St Benedict (c.480 – 544); writer of letters and a manual of instruction for monks, Bible commentator

Cassiodorus (c.490 – 580): writer of letters and a manual of instruction for monks, Bible commentator

Venantius Fortunatus (c.535 – 609): poet, biographer

Gregory of Tours (538 – 593): pope, writer on Christian ethics

Isidore (d.636): polymath

In this appendix the term ‘Mediæval Latin’ is always used in the broad sense, but in the commentaries on the Hereward narrative the term is used in a narrower sense to denote writings in which the rougher form of the language only, sins that is the form in which the Hereward narrative is written.

b. The Carolingian Renaissance (768 – 814)

This is named after Charlemagne (lived 742 – 814: reigned 768 – 814), the ruler of the Frankish kingdom and empire, where the decline in the standard of written Latin had advanced the furthest. He determined to reverse this decline, and to that end established schools of Latin in his own palace and in every monastery and cathedral in his empire, and brought in from abroad men skilled in Latin to assist in the work. Attention was given not only to the improvement of Latin in the Church, but also to the recovery and preservation of secular Latin literature from the classical Latin period. Some authors and teachers from this period are

Paul the Deacon (c.720 – 799): poet, historian, biographer

Alcuin of York (735 – 804): author of textbooks for schools, writer on Christian and secular subjects, letters: he brought the Vulgate Bible into general use

Einhard (770 – 840): author of a life of Charlemagne: he wrote good Latin comparable with that of Bede

John Scotus Eriugena (815 – 877): translator of Greek works into Latin, philosopher

Nigellus (c.850): poet

c.  The Ottonian Renaissance (c.930 – 1000)

On the death of Charlemagne in 814 his empire was broken up and divided between his sons. Thus ended the Carolingian Renaissance and Latin in Europe stagnated. However, under Otto I (the Great) the empire was re-established, and in his reign, followed by those of Otto II and Otto III, which between them occupied the period 936 – 1002 another attempt was made to revive classical Latin in the Church and in secular pursuits, but with more limited success than Charlemagne had achieved. Such was the Ottonian Renaissance. A few of the better authors of the period are listed here.

Liutprand (980 – 972): bishop, writer on history, politics and travel

Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (c.935 – 1002): Nun, poetess, historian, playwright

Gerbart of Aurillac (950 – 1003): abbot and pope (as Silvester II), theologian, philosopher, mathematician, scientist

d. The 11th Century

The introduction of cathedral schools in addition to the previously existing monastic schools meant that the teaching patterns of the two tended to diverge. The monastic schools confined themselves to educating only monks and novices of their order, so that, in addition to the Latin language their curricula were largely restricted to theology, liturgy and similar religious subjects. Meanwhile the cathedral schools, which started by teaching aspirant secular clergy, began to teach secular subjects in a broad sense (the humanities). Moreover, the different cathedral schools began to concentrate on a specialist subject such as law, medicine or theology, and so moved towards becoming embryo universities. Outside the schools the range of studies also began to widen, to include arithmetic, logic, natural science, the classical Latin authors and political topics. The main political topics of the century were

i.  the expansion of the Norman domains by the expulsion of the Arabs from Sicily and of the Byzantines from southern Italy, and the conquest of England;

ii. theInvestiture Contest ’, a power struggle between the German Emperor and the Pope;

iii, the First Crusade.

The standard of Latin in use during the century appears to have been subject to two distinct trends. The renewed interest in the classical Latin authors helped to preserve the use of a quasi-classical style in some quarters: but at the same time the tendency to write the colloquial language persisted, with consequent changes of grammar and word meanings, while spelling continually altered to reflect variations of pronunciation from place to place and from time to time. The conversion of Vulgar Latin into the romance languages was now well advanced, and the Normans, for example, were speaking an early form of French, though they continued to use Latin for official documents such as the Domesday Book (1086).

e. The 12th Century

In the earlier part of this period the trends of the 11th century continued with a modest acceleration, but in the later 12th century there was an outburst of Latin literary activity which is sometimes called the 12th century Renaissance. Among the important causes of this change was the increased availability through Spain and Sicily of Greek and Arab learning, especially in the subjects of mathematics, science, medicine, philosophy, logic and dialectic. This was accompanied by the growing importance of the cathedral schools, though they did not develop into universities until the next century. Some well known authors of the period are

Peter Abelard (c.1079 – 1142): logician, dialectician, theologian

St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153): theologian, Bible commentator

John of Salisbury (c.1115 – 1180): biographer, theologian, dialectician

Gratian (fl. 1140): logician, dialectician, canon lawyer

Giraldus Cambrensis (1146 – 1223): historian

This is the century in which the Hereward narrative was compiled. The language in which it is written is the rougher, colloquial version of Mediæval Latin (see para. II.5.a.iii above). In view of the ‘renaissance’ which took place in the latter part of the century, perhaps we may take this as evidence that the Hereward narrative dates from the earlier rather than the later part of the century. The 12th century marks the end of the Mediæval Latin period, since the ‘12th century Renaissance’ is in effect the first rumblings of the ‘Italian Renaissance’, i.e. The Renaissance par excellence.

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6. Renaissance Latin (1200 – 1800)

‘The Renaissance’ lasted through the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, being active in different parts of Europe at different times. During the mediæval period Latin had been adapted to suit the requirements of the western Church, but now a new form of the language was required to express adequately the ideas of the new humanist studies. To this end Renaissance Latin was evolved. It apparently produced no really great literature, and one source describes it as ‘tortuous, obscure and pretentious’. Be this as it may, it was evidently lucid enough for mathematicians and scientists like Isaac Barrow (1630 - 677) and Isaac Newton (1642 - 1727) to use it. A few other Latin authors of the period are

St Thomas Aquinas (c.1226 – 1274)       Erasmus (1466 – 1536)

Sir Thomas More (1478 – 1535)              Francis Bacon 1561 – 1626)

John Milton (1608 – 1674)

Though spoken as well as written, Renaissance Latin was never a popular language and was used mainly by learned men, diplomats and others who needed an international language in which to correspond and converse with their foreign counterparts. It lasted, though in a state of decline, into the first few years of the 19th century, by which time the vernacular languages of western Europe had displaced it for all purposes except for the liturgy and scripture of the Roman Catholic Church.

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7. From 1800 to the Present

Other than in the Roman Church, Latin had, by the beginning of the 19th century become a purely academic language. Though still taught in schools and universities or its own sake and for the access it gave to the classical literature, it had no general currency in the secular world. Over the centuries the different countries of Europe had developed their own pronunciations of Latin, and among these the pronunciation used in England was perhaps the one most at variance with all the others. In the 1870s an group of academics proposed a ‘new’ pronunciation, which was in fact to be a reversion to the best approximation then possible to that used by the orators etc. in the Roman classical age. This proposal was widely adopted and by the beginning of the 20th century the old ‘English’ pronunciation had been abandoned, except insofar as it lingered on in the pronunciation of the borrowed Latin words and phrases incorporated into the English language. Latin remained in use in the Roman Catholic Church until Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, permitted the use of each country’s vernacular language in the liturgy, so in effect, dropping Latin. This marked the end of Latin as a living language.


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