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Latin in Britain

In the eighth century, England was the area where education and
scholarship in Latin were most advanced. We have already discussed

Latin and Europe

Bede and his history of the Christian Church in the island, and the
missionary work of Boniface. An even more renowned Latinist
was Alcuin from York, who as we have seen also emigrated to the
Continent and became closely associated with Charlemagne. Alcuin
was a famous teacher, and his role was something like a minister of
education for the new empire.
While Alcuin was very energetically furthering Latin studies on
the Continent, serious trouble started in his home island. Alcuin
died in 804, and a few years before that, in 793, the Vikings had made
their ¬rst, terrifying raid against the monastery of Lindisfarne in
Northumberland. In the ninth and the tenth centuries there were
many more attacks and indeed large-scale invasions by Scandinavian
warriors. The monasteries and the churches were favourite targets.
This meant, among other things, that most of the places where Latin
was taught and written ceased to exist. The great tradition of learn-
ing disappeared almost without trace. A century later, it seems that
few people knew Latin at all.Alfred the Great, who ruled from 871 to
899, wrote that there were very few people south of the Humber
who could translate a Latin letter into English, and not many north
of the river either.
But Alfred himself did much to improve the situation. In the ¬rst
place, he took important steps toward the uni¬cation of all England
under one ruler, thereby ending a long period of political disorder.
Secondly, he believed in education and did whatever he could to
advance knowledge in his kingdom. It is true that he chose to propag-
ate English as a written language rather than Latin, but his main
achievement was to translate important works from Latin, especially
handbooks for the use of the clergy.The reason he did so was not that
he did not want the men of the Church to read Latin; it was just that
he realized that they could not do it. At the same time, of course, the
English language entered a new domain in written form.
Almost a hundred years later, towards the end of the tenth cen-
tury, the English Church was reached by a reform movement that
had its roots in Cluny, in France; the main protagonist in Britain
was Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury and later declared a saint.

A natural history of Latin

Religious reform also meant more study, and so more Latin. The
language reclaimed much of the territory it had lost in the centuries
of disorder.
After 1066, the linguistic situation of Britain changed drastically.
Before that year, English was used in writing as well as orally, and its
sole competitor was Latin. Afterwards, English was relegated to the
role of spoken language of the underprivileged. The ruling class
spoke French. In writing, Latin became the completely dominant
language, although French was also used. English in practice ceased
to be a written language for a couple of hundred years.
The two centuries after the Norman Conquest were a period of rapid
economic and cultural development in Britain (as well as in much of
western Europe), and Latin became the written language in almost all
areas of society.The famous texts from this period are composed in the
language. As early as 1085, William the Conqueror ordered a general
census of people and land. This was recorded in the very important
Domesday Book, which contains invaluable detailed information
about the economic and social situation in early medieval England.
Another well-known document is the Magna Charta, the Great
Charter, promulgated by King John in 1215 under pressure from
those opposed to his autocratic rule. The precise signi¬cance of the
document has been much discussed. However that may be, the king
made important concessions to the citizens, as can be seen from this
phrase at the beginning:

Concessimus etiam ómnibus líberis homínibus regni nostri, pro nobis et
her©dibus nostris in perp©tuum, omnes libertates subscriptas.
We have also granted to all free men of our kingdom, on behalf of us and
our heirs forever, all the liberties written below.

Naturally, Latin returned to its previous status as the only language
of the Church. In general, the level of education rose rapidly, and in
the twelfth century several good Latin authors emerged.
One of them was the proli¬c and very learned John of Salisbury.
After a good basic training in England he went to Paris, and then to

Latin and Europe

Chartres, to study under the most famous teachers of the time, among
them the philosopher Peter Abelard. When he ¬nally returned to
England in 1138, in his late thirties, he became secretary to the arch-
bishop of Canterbury, Theobald, and then to his successor, Thomas
Becket. He was sent on many diplomatic missions by the archbishop
and by the king, Henry II, especially to Rome but also elsewhere.
Eventually, he became an archbishop himself, in Chartres. In spite of
all these activities, he found time to write several important works,
among them the Policraticus, which deals with the moral principles
underlying good government, and the Metalogicus, which tackles
some basic philosophical questions.
John was a leading European intellectual, an Englishman who had
been trained in France. As far as language is concerned, he wrote only
in Latin,and probably spoke that language in many contexts:in church
services, of course, but also in learned discussions and in his diplomatic
activities. While he was unusually brilliant, he was by no means the
only one of his kind. For example, Thomas Becket himself, the arch-
bishop who was murdered in 1170, conducted his correspondence in
very elegant Latin. There were several more ecclesiastical authors, as
well as historians, philosophers, and others. Britain at this time could
compete with France as the leading nation in education and learning.
In the thirteenth century, Latin was still completely dominant.
This was the time when large institutions for higher education
became established in Europe. The University of Oxford was one of
the ¬rst, and one of the most important. Naturally the language
of the university was Latin, both in speech and in writing, and it
remained so for a long time. It must have seemed that Latin would be
the language of the educated forever. But in the following century,
things began to change. English as a written language came back with
a vengeance in the late fourteenth and the ¬fteenth centuries. It was
used by authors of ¬ction, such as Chaucer, but it was also introduced
in of¬cial administration, in business, and in other ¬elds.At the same
time, French disappeared completely both as a spoken language and
as an of¬cial written language in Britain, though, as we shall see, it
had left an indelible mark on the English language which survived it.

A natural history of Latin

Over the following centuries, the use of Latin declined gradually,
and in many areas very slowly. English made its way into the educa-
tional system, but Latin remained indispensable for higher studies
until about a hundred years ago, and was a required entrance quali¬-
cation for the study of certain arts subjects at Oxford and Cambridge
until the late twentieth century. Within the Church, Latin was used
universally until the Reformation, and for many purposes much
longer. In diplomacy, Latin was obligatory until the seventeenth cen-
tury, and in the learned world, most people wrote in Latin up to that
time too. For example, Newton used the language for his most
famous work on physics, the Principia Mathematica.
The early immigrants brought knowledge of Latin into North
America. The language naturally was important in education in the
colonies, just as in Britain. It was no coincidence that the constitution
of the United States was heavily in¬‚uenced by the ideas of the Roman
republic. The eighteenth-century politicians were well acquainted
both with the Roman state and with its language. One obvious trace
of that acquaintance is to be seen in the many towns and states with
Latin-based names, for example Cincinnati, Urbana, and Virginia.
Latin has a very long and varied history in Britain. First, it was the
language of the occupying Romans in antiquity, and was probably
spoken by many people. It then disappeared for a few hundred years,
to be reintroduced as the language of the Church around 600. It ¬‚ow-
ered for a couple of centuries, was almost obliterated again, but was
¬rmly established once more and became a language for all educated
people from the twelfth century and for several hundred years
thereafter. Only in the last century was it ¬nally superseded by
English in all domains of use.

Latin in schools

As we have seen, in Roman schools the main aim was to teach the
pupils to speak well so that they could become lawyers and politicians.

Latin and Europe

When the Church took over it had other priorities, and the monastic
schools were, in consequence, very different from the schools of the
Roman empire. One of the people responsible for forging the new
education system was Cassiodorus. He lived in Italy in the sixth cen-
tury, and was for most of his life a high-ranking civil servant.At that
time Italy was ruled by the Ostrogoths, and Cassiodorus, who
belonged to a distinguished Roman family from southern Italy,
made a career for himself at the court of the Ostrogothic king.
Among other things he was in charge of the chancellery, and wrote
a large number of of¬cial letters in an ostentatious and dif¬cult
Latin. When he was about sixty, he left the royal court and retired to
a monastery which he had founded on his ancestral estate. There he
dedicated himself to a Christian life and to writing Christian works,
of which he composed a large number over a period of several
decades. He was over ninety when he died.
One of these works is a handbook designed to help student monks,
which gives a very clear indication of the direction education was to
take for several centuries thereafter.The handbook has two parts, the
¬rst of which is entirely devoted to how to study the Bible and the
writings of the Church Fathers. The schools followed suit. The main
purpose was to provide a Christian education, and at the heart of that
was the need to be able to read the Bible in Latin. A common method
employed throughout most of the Middle Ages was to let the pupils
begin their acquaintance with the Bible by reading the ¬rst lines of
the ¬rst psalm in the Book of Psalms, which goes as follows:

Beatus vir, qui non ábiit in consilio impiorum et in via peccatorum non
stetit et in cáthedra derisorum non sedit.

Here is the very literal translation from the authorised ˜King James™
version of the English Bible (1611):

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly nor
standeth in the way of sinners nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

If the translation reads strangely, it is at least in part due to the fact
the Latin is in turn a translation from Hebrew and the translators

A natural history of Latin

have tried to represent the Hebrew original as literally as possible,
which does not easily chime with the normal rhythms and patterns
of Latin. Here is a more modern version from the New Living

Oh, the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand
around with sinners, or join in with scoffers.

This helps to make sense of the passage, but obviously was not of
much use to medieval children! They had to learn Latin at the same
time as they were learning all the psalms. Once they had learnt the
¬rst verse, they had to learn the second and then the third and so on
until the last verse of the last psalm, number 150.
As a language teaching method this is hardly brilliant, but it was
quite practical for a future monk to be required to learn all the
psalms by heart in Latin. In a very rigidly ordered existence, they
were part of the ritual at the frequent prayer sessions that the monks
had to take part in. In a week they managed to get through all the
psalms and a good deal more besides. The next week they went
through the whole lot again. The week after that . . .
The whole point of this education, then, was to learn to pray in
the right way in the right language. When the ancient schools
disappeared, the idea of educating someone for a career in society
disappeared too.Thereafter,for the pupils in the monastic and cathedral
schools the purpose of a Latin education was primarily prayer and
the service of God.The language of course had other important func-
tions, but its religious use was and remained the fundamental one,
because education was in the hands of the monasteries and churches,
which is where it stayed for more than a thousand years.Throughout
Europe, the church authorities were in charge of education until
the French Revolution and in some places much longer than that.
Cassiodorus stands at the beginning of a tradition which determined
the role of education almost up until our own times. But his hand-
book had a second part. This describes non-religious education,
which was divided into the seven ˜liberal arts™, artes liberáles, which
are: grammática, rhetórica, dial©ctica, arithm©tica, música, geometría,

Latin and Europe

astronomía, or grammar, rhetoric, dialectics (also known as logic),
arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. It was not enough just
to read the Bible; even the pious had to learn a good deal more
This was not Cassiodorus™ own idea, but rather the end result of
lengthy debates amongst leading Christians in late antiquity. Men
like Augustine and Jerome, who had received a long and thorough
traditional kind of education, asked themselves whether it was right
to go on reading and enjoying the pagan philosophers and poets.
They did represent culture, but at the same time they might tempt
people away from the path of righteous learning into sin or doubt or
even downright apostasy. Eventually they reached a compromise:
Christians should be allowed to read non-Christian works, but only
so as to ¬nd better ways of reinforcing their faith. It was not a good
idea to give up reading the ancient writers, since they were the best,
but one should not let oneself be led astray by their arguments. The
aim was to absorb their knowledge and their elegant written style,
and to use them in a different way, to wrest the weapons from the
hands of the pagans, as the saying has it.
The result of these re¬‚ections was that the pupils should also


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