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Latin and Europe

in copies dating from the ninth century as a result of the prompting
of Charlemagne and those around him. In other cases the oldest
surviving manuscript is as late as the ¬fteenth century, when the
classical enthusiasts of the Renaissance made systematic searches
for old manuscripts and had them copied.
The fact that someone makes a parchment manuscript is no guar-
antee that it is going to survive for ever. It can become worn if it is
frequently handled, and can be damaged by damp or ¬‚oods. Fire has
deprived us of many manuscripts. Sometimes their owners have used
them for book covers or some other everyday purpose. Sometimes,
too, people have erased all the writing on the pages with a scraper or
a suitable chemical and have then written a new text on top, creating
what is called a palimpsest. In this case it is occasionally possible to
restore what was originally there, and a number of ancient texts have
been rediscovered in this way. Of course, the oldest manuscripts have
seldom been preserved, but we still have many Latin manuscripts
anyway. No one to my knowledge has tried to count them, but there
are probably several hundred thousand still in existence.Today most
of them are in libraries or archives. The greatest collections, such as
those in the library of the Vatican, the British Library or the
Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, number their manuscripts in tens of
The vast majority were produced by church scribes, mostly in the
monasteries. The transition to parchment took place at about the
same time as Christianity established itself in the Roman empire,
and it seems that it was mainly the Christians who used the new
technques right from the start. Hence, it is no accident that a large
percentage of the surviving manuscripts are copies of books that
were important for the Church: the texts of the services and prayers,
the gospels and the Psalter, collections of hymns, and so forth.
Obviously too there were many complete bibles, commentaries on
the books of the Bible, writings of the Church Fathers and other
Christian literature which we will come back to later.
But all the other Latin that we have from the earliest period right
down to the invention of printing, except for the inscriptions, is in

A natural history of Latin

manuscript, whether it is Christian or not, and one may well ask why
the monks bothered at all to copy anything that did not relate to
Christianity in some way. The answer is that this was a conscious
choice from the beginning of the monastic system in late antiquity.
As we have already seen, Cassiodorus and others who founded
monasteries considered it essential that Christians should take over
and pass on part of the ancient cultural tradition, and especially its
written literature. Copying manuscripts was also seen as a very ¬tting
occupation for monks and nuns. Good monasteries always had a
scriptorium or writing room,where some members of the community
were kept busy copying manuscripts which the monastery already
possessed or which had been borrowed from somewhere else.
The number of manuscripts possessed or produced obviously
varied a great deal from monastery to monastery, but all in all this
was a sizeable industry as there were hundreds of monasteries. The
choice of texts was probably often fortuitous, to some degree at least,
since the monasteries had copies made of whatever happened to be
available or accessible. At any rate, the upshot is that a pretty good
assortment of pre-Christian texts has been preserved for us today.
We have already discussed several of them in the ¬rst part of this
book. But there are still many gaps. A case in point is Livy™s great
history of Rome, of which only 35 out of the original 142 books have
been preserved. By contrast, Christian writers were much more
extensively copied. For instance, the Church Fathers Augustine and
Jerome were incredibly proli¬c, and almost every line has survived.
Throughout the medieval period people continued to write in
Latin both on Christian and less Christian topics, so that the number
of books that could be copied increased constantly from century to
century. Obviously, a good deal of this production disappeared with-
out trace but much did not, and the vast majority of Latin texts that
we have today were written after antiquity. The monks and nuns
who did the copying were instrumental in transmitting to us almost
everything that we know about from the time before printing. For a
long time they wrote only on parchment, but from the fourteenth
century onwards it became common to use paper.This was a very old

Latin and Europe

technique ¬rst invented in China soon after the birth of Christ. Paper
was used in the Muslim world from the eighth century, but only in
the thirteenth century did it start to be produced in Europe, more
precisely in Spain.At about the same time the Church also started to
lose its long monopoly on education and on everything that had to
do with writing. As paper is cheaper than parchment, it became
¬nancially possible for people to make their own copies of texts or
to write new ones themselves. There are many such manuscripts
from the fourteenth and ¬fteenth centuries and even later. It was not
simply the art of printing which displaced the monasteries from
their central role in book production. By the time the printing presses
came into their own at the end of the ¬fteenth century, the monas-
teries had already lost their pre-eminent position in this market.
Nevertheless, for almost a millennium responsibility for commun-
icating the culture of antiquity rested almost exclusively with the
scriptoria in the monasteries. The manuscripts they produced were
not always easy to read. Usually the problem is not the handwriting,
although the styles obviously varied a lot both from scribe to scribe
and from period to period and place to place. Experts can draw import-
ant conclusions about the date and place of origin of a manuscript by
studying the handwriting. This discipline is called palaeography,
and it is an important aid to everyone who works seriously with
Latin texts.
Most handwriting styles, even when they are idiosyncratic, are
very clear and consistent, so once one has learnt to recognize the
letter shapes, it is not dif¬cult to work out the letters which make up
a given text. Unfortunately, the problems do not stop there. A huge
stumbling block, especially for beginners, are the abbreviations. As
parchment was very expensive, it was important to make the best
possible use of the available space. In addition, the scribes were not
keen on writing more letters than they had to, so they had a number
of ways of abbreviating words. One of the most common was to draw
a line over a letter, which usually meant the same as an m after that
letter, so for instance uerbu instead of uerbum. By itself that is not so
hard. Unfortunately, though, the line might also mean other things,

A natural history of Latin

such as the omission of a syllable containing an r, so you could also
write ubu for uerbum, which makes things a bit harder for the inex-
perienced reader. And that is only the start; there were many dozens
of abbreviations and hundreds of ways of using them.
Another problem is punctuation. In many manuscripts there are
hardly any punctuation marks at all, and even when they are there,
they are not the same as we use today and the principles that dictate
their use are often completely different from our own. One has to
work out for oneself where there should be a full stop or a comma in
the text. Capital letters do not help, as our modern practice of start-
ing a new sentence with a capital letter did not come in until quite
late. In most manuscripts there is a capital letter at the beginning
of the text, and maybe then just one at the beginning of each new
section. Of course, things are different with different manuscripts.
The ones that are easiest to read are the de luxe ones, perhaps com-
missioned by the archbishop or that were to be presented to a king or
some other potentate. They are written in a large, elegant, and spa-
cious hand with few abbreviations, and there are decorated initial
letters and sometimes illustrations as well. This is the kind of manu-
script often shown in pictures or in exhibition cases in museums.
However, the vast majority are everyday manuscripts written in
a close hand with many abbreviations and no decorations at all.
The greatest problems with manuscripts are encountered once
you get beyond the external things like handwriting, punctuation,
and abbreviations. It is only then that you discover that perhaps in
places you cannot understand what it says, that the Latin is quite
simply incomprehensible. At that point you begin to suspect that
there is some kind of mistake, and that what it says in the manuscript
is not what the author wrote. But what can you do about it? If there
are other manuscripts containing the same text, and if you have the
time to travel all over Europe or can obtain micro¬lm copies, you can
check your version against these other ones and see what makes best
sense. But even supposing you ¬nd something more intelligible in
another manuscript, can you then be certain that that is what the
author wrote? If two manuscripts differ in respect to a given point,

Latin and Europe

at least one of them must be wrong, but how can we know which one
contains the correct text, or whether indeed they are both wrong?
The answer to these questions is neither short nor simple, and leads
to another branch of scholarship which is called textual criticism.This
is an important part of a Latinist™s everyday life. Manuscripts are full
of mistakes, especially if they contain very old texts, as they have
generally been copied many times and with each copy mistakes
inevitably occur, however careful the scribe is. (If you do not believe
me, copy a couple of hundred pages by hand and then check word for
word what you have written!) Furthermore, mistakes in one copy will
often be compounded in the next copy, when the scribe tries to correct
what is clearly wrong but makes the wrong guess at what was in the
To sort out this kind of thing you have to study all the existing
manuscript versions of a text in order to try and establish the rela-
tions between them and to assess which ones are the most reliable.
Then you have to study all the puzzling passages in the text and
decide which copy to follow at each point. If they all contain some-
thing which is dif¬cult or impossible to interpret, you may have to
make an educated guess at what the original manuscript said. Even
describing this trying and lengthy procedure is enough to make most
people yawn! But some are fascinated precisely by the dif¬culties,
which require not only considerable patience and knowledge but
also a special kind of cleverness, a bit like a very advanced sort of
crossword. Really good textual critics are rare birds”or rarae aves, as
they said in Latin”and their names are legendary within the small
circle of people who understand what this kind of work involves.
A good many textual critics have worked on the ancient writers
during the last ¬ve hundred years, so the texts of Horace and Cicero
which are printed today have been purged of obvious scribal errors.
Even so, uncertainties remain, and editions intended for specialists
have lots of small notes at the bottom of the page. These constitute
what is called the critical apparatus, which contains information
about the variants in the manuscripts and about what is not in the
manuscripts at all but involves guesses on the part of the editor or

A natural history of Latin

someone else. This information is set out in the notes in a com-
pressed and cryptic style, usually printed in very small letters, which
makes them look even more forbidding. There is no need to read
them if you are not a specialist, but for the reader who wants to know
exactly what an ancient writer wrote in a particular passge, they can
be invaluable.
Thanks to the work of many generations of palaeographers and
textual critics we now have all the ancient texts in printed editions
which are both easy to read and more correct than any of the surviv-
ing manuscripts. This is not, however, the case with texts from the
Middle Ages, since there are many more of them and they have
attracted much less interest from Latin specialists. Many of them,
even ones that are well worth reading, have been published using
only one manuscript that happened to be to hand, even though much
better manuscripts may exist. Many more texts have not been pub-
lished at all, but are waiting in libraries for someone to read them
and prepare an edition. There is a limitless amount of valuable work
waiting to be done by those who would like to devote themselves to
Latin and the Middle Ages.
With this we now leave behind all questions about the language
itself and how it was spoken and written, and move on to what people
wrote in Latin after antiquity, quite a lot of which is worth reading or
at least knowing something about.

Saints and heretics

Since the people who knew how to write belonged to the Church,
it is natural that a lot of what they wrote concerned religious and
ecclesiastical matters, and many of those texts are of no interest
today. Works which commented on and explained the various books
of the Bible were, for example, very popular throughout the Middle
Ages, and some very industrious individuals succeeded in writing
commentaries on every single book of the Bible. Only the most

Latin and Europe

dedicated modern scholars manage to read more than short sections
of these works, although they sometimes contain, dotted here and
there, very valuable nuggets of information about the period in
which they were composed.
Somewhat more entertaining are the holy legends. Already in
antiquity it was common to write biographies of prominent people.
The Christians adopted that habit, although they obviously pre-
ferred to write about holy men and women, especially if they had
died for their faith and thereby become martyrs. These legends
usually contain a description of the life of the person in question, to the
extent that it was known, but ¬rst and foremost they are accounts of
the remarkable deeds and miracles which earned the saint his or her
halo. One of the earliest and best known legends concerns St Martin
of Tours and starts with a famous tale. While Martin was still doing
his military service, he was out riding in the winter and happened
upon a poor man who had no warm clothes to protect him from the
cold. Martin had already given all his money away to other poor
people, so what could he do? He took his sword and cut his cloak in
two halves, and gave one half to the poor man. This story may well
be authentic as the writer, Sulpicius Severus, was a contemporary of
Martin™s and knew him. Even so, it is not easy to swallow the mir-
acles that ensue, with Martin raising several people from the dead,
curing lepers, and a good deal more in that vein.
But Vita Sancti Martini ˜The Life of Saint Martin™ set a trend.
There are thousands of lives of saints in Latin, all containing edifying
descriptions of the good deeds and miracles performed by the saints.
Some are well written, and some contain a quantity of interesting
information about the period, but most of them are simply tedious.
There were a great many saints, as every region wanted at least one,
and it was very often not known what in fact the saint had done. Still,
there had to be a life, not least so that it could be read aloud on the


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