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saint™s designated day in the calendar. If the author did not know
anything about the saint, he had to invent some miracles and pious
acts or borrow episodes from other lives, with the result that one
saint™s life is often not easily distinguishable from another.

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Sometimes too the author embellished the story. St Denis is the
patron saint of France. He is supposed to have been the ¬rst bishop of
Paris and to have suffered martyrdom through being beheaded.
According to legend, he immediately stood up and walked a good
distance, carrying his head in his hands, to the place where the
church which bears his name is now situated, a little to the north of
Paris. This was miraculous enough, you would have thought, but
there are ways to improve on it. In later lives there are saints who do
exactly the same thing, but walk even further or are accompanied by
other beheaded martyrs also carrying their own heads. In fact this
motif became so common that the experts have invented a special
name for this kind of saint: cephalophores.This is from Greek, and of
course means ˜headbearers™.
But the saints were not always such shadowy ¬gures to whom
anything could be attributed. There is a long line of real historical
personages, who left behind them their own writings, and who were
canonized after their deaths. One such is Pope Gregory the Great,
who lived around the year 600. He left a large collection of letters
which document his struggle to achieve Rome™s supremacy over
all the churches in western Europe, and how he set in motion the
conversion of England by sending the Roman monk Augustine to
Kent to become the ¬rst archbishop of Canterbury. Letters between
Gregory and Augustine are still extant, and there is even a letter
from the Pope to King Ethelbert of Kent.
Several hundred years later, in the middle of the twelfth century,
the most important man in the whole Church was an organizer and
mystic by the name of Bernard of Clairvaux. He was the driving
force behind the enormous extension of the Cistercian order; several
monasteries were founded even as far away as Sweden. He was also
a very proli¬c writer. The edition of his collected works, which con-
tains sermons, theological treatises, letters, and a good deal more,
every word in Latin, runs to nine volumes.
The most famous British saint,Thomas Becket, was hardly known
for his saintly habits in the early part of his life. He was a learned and
very energetic ecclesiastic who rose to the position of chancellor to

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King Henry II. However, when he was appointed Archbishop of
Canterbury by his friend the king, he changed his way of life dra-
matically and devoted himself to furthering the cause of the Church.
This infuriated the king, and their subsequent lengthy con¬‚ict
ended with Thomas being murdered in his own cathedral. He was
soon declared a saint, and large numbers of people made pilgrimages
to his tomb throughout the Middle Ages. One such journey provides
the setting for Chaucer™s Canterbury Tales.
These three saints are just some examples of the very many
writers who wrote important works within the Church during the
Middle Ages. Most of it is really not light reading but a good per-
centage of these works are invaluable sources for scholars who are
interested in the history, ideas, and ways of thinking in a period
which is very different from our own.
The same obviously also goes for those at the other end of the
religious spectrum, the people who were condemned as heretics.
At several points in its history movements developed which sought to
reform the Church or compete with it. One of the most important
groups were those who in Latin were called cathari. The word comes
from Greek and means ˜the clean™. This, it goes without saying, was
their own term for themselves, and is appropriate insofar as they lived
a much more ascetic life than most of the monks in the monasteries.
They were principally to be found in southern France from the
eleventh until the fourteenth century, and they had both their
own theology and their own organization.They had considerable sup-
port, but the Catholic Church ¬nally managed to wipe out the whole
movement.This was the job of the courts of the Inquisition. Strangely
enough, in one case the detailed reports of the interrogations com-
piled by one of the judges, in Latin of course, has formed the basis of
one of the best modern books about the late Middle Ages: Montaillou,
by the French historian E. Le Roy Ladurie. He has succeeded in recre-
ating life in a small town in the fourteenth century, from the methods
of sheep-farming and the gossip through to the villagers™ view of the
afterlife. It is ironic that through this work the inquisitor has unin-
tentionally ensured that the poor Cathars in Montaillou are more

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alive for posterity than any of their contemporaries. One thing which
Le Roy Ladurie has made clear is that Latin, the language of the
Church, was more or less unknown in Montaillou. No more than a
couple of people out of the town™s 250 inhabitants had any knowledge
of it. That tells us something about the distance between the people
and the Church and its court, which took down the whole proceedings
in a language virtually none of them knew.
Another person who was also regarded as a heretic by the Catholic
Church was Martin Luther. As is well known, his de¬nitive break
with Rome came when he nailed his ninety-¬ve theses to the church
door in Wittenberg in 1517. These theses, which were naturally
written in Latin, are about whether it is possible to gain exemption
from the punishment (poena) which all mortals had to face in pur-
gatory (purgatorium). Luther did not believe that anyone had the
power to grant such relief, and certainly not in a way that was con-
nected to thesauri eccl©siae ˜the wealth of the Church™. It was not
possible, in other words, to buy oneself off. Since this was exactly the
practice the Church had introduced as part of its new business plan,
a con¬‚ict arose which led to Luther and his supporters breaking with
Rome and to the establishment of Protestant Churches.The position
of Latin was weakened at the same time. Luther was a keen supporter
of the idea that Christians should hear the sermons and read the
Bible in their own languages. This idea was not a new one; earlier
reformers, especially John Wyclif, had had a similar attitude. But
Luther was responsible for introducing it into Protestant Germany,
among other things by translating the whole Bible himself from the
original languages. Something very similar gradually took place in
all the other Protestant Churches of northern and western Europe.
Nonetheless, Latin survived for a long time as the language of
the educated even within the Protestant Churches. Education had
Latin as its foundation, as we have already seen, and theological works
of all kinds were written in that language for several hundred years to
come.This also held true for people who were critical of the established
Church or were strangers to it. One of the most famous dissidents was
the poet John Milton. Nowadays Milton is remembered chie¬‚y for

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Paradise Lost, an epic poem about Satan™s rebellion against God and
about Adam and Eve in Paradise. He was not only a poet, however, but
also a vigorous participant in the religious and political battles of his
time. He took the side of the Puritans, and became a member of
Cromwell™s government. He was the secretary in charge of correspond-
ence in Latin relating to foreign affairs, a task for which he was well
quali¬ed by his extraordinary command of the language. His most
important writings in that language were pamphlets in support of the
Puritan cause, one of which is Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio,
˜A Defence of the English People™, published in 1651. It was widely read
abroad and caused considerable indignation; in Paris it was burned
publicly. Similar works that he published in English had no such effect
in other countries”a nice illustration of the fact that in the seventeenth
century Latin was still the truly international language of Europe.
The Catholic Church continued to have Latin as its only language
for even longer.The ¬‚ow of religious texts did, however, decrease and
by the nineteenth century even Catholic theologians had started
writing in the modern languages, for the very good reason that they
wanted to be read. However, the service in Catholic churches was in
principle always administered in Latin until the 1960s.The Church™s
central administration in the Vatican, and its communication with
daughter churches all over the world, was also conducted in Latin
until the same period.




The guardians of the heritage

That we know quite a lot about what happened in antiquity is largely
due to the writings of Livy, Tacitus, and others, who chronicled the
history of the society they lived in. The idea of history writing was
never forgotten, and in consequence in Europe every century has
yielded its share of historical works. Most of what I have written
above about the Middle Ages concerns things we know because they
have been mentioned in a historical work of some kind.

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A natural history of Latin

There have always been historians who have compiled accounts
spanning many centuries. In the Middle Ages, for example, it was
fashionable to write histories of the world which started with the
Creation about 6000 bce. However, what is of interest to posterity is
almost always what a writer has to say concerning things he knows
about better than anyone else, things that involve his own region or
people or epoch.These are the works, or parts of works, which modern
historians use as their sources. There are many of them, but the new
situation after the fall of the Western empire led to a complete change
of perspective from that adopted by Roman historians. Historians
never live in a vacuum, but work in a speci¬c country under a speci¬c
regime, and it is often the history of that country or regime that occa-
sions their interest. Roman historians like Tacitus and Livy lived at
the centre of an empire, and they wrote the history of that empire.
After the ¬fth century that empire no longer existed, and historians
lived in signi¬cantly smaller domains or kingdoms. They belonged
to the Church, just like everyone else who could write. Hence they
wrote the histories of different kingdoms or churches. One of the
earliest and one of the most entertaining is Gregory of Tours, who
narrated the history of the Franks, from their invasion of the Roman
province of Gaul until his own time at the end of the sixth century.
Gregory was bishop of Tours and an in¬‚uential ¬gure who knew
most of the people he wrote about personally.The most important of
these were the kings and queens of the Franks and their many relat-
ives from the Merovingian dynasty. The things Gregory writes
about are dreadful. The Merovingians seem mainly to have devoted
their energies to trying to kill each other, when they were not at war
with the rest of the world around them. This is how it reads when
King Childebert™s messenger comes to King Guntramn to ask him to
hand over the Queen Mother Fredegunda:

Redde homicidam, quae amitam meam suggillavit, quae patrem interfecit
et patruum, quae ipsus consobrinus meus gladio interemit
Hand back the murderess, who had my aunt™s eyes put out, who killed
both her father and uncle, and who had my cousins stabbed to death.

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Latin and Europe

Note how the Latin allows more precision than English in identify-
ing the victims of these atrocities. Ámita, from which comes English
aunt, means speci¬cally a paternal aunt, and pátruus is a paternal
uncle. The corresponding maternal relations were mat©rtera and
avúnculus (whence via French the English word uncle). These
genealogical niceties could be of crucial importance in such a mur-
derous age, and it is by no means impossible that Fredegunda should
have done everything that is stated here. Her husband was no better.
When he died, Gregory described him as Chilpericus, Nero nostri
t©mporis et Herodes ˜Chilperic, the Nero and Herod of our age™. He
ransacked and burned his own country, hated the poor, and had the
eyes put out of anyone who did not do what he wanted them to.
This kind of narrative is more readable than tales of nice people
who live out their lives in quiet af¬‚uence. Gregory of Tours has
always had a large readership, both because the people he wrote
about were as they were and because he is a highly gifted writer. He
has probably also contributed in some measure to our image of the
Middle Ages as a period of decline and decay.The people he describes
really cannot be called civilized. He also writes differently from the
classical authors. His Latin is vivid and easy to read, but he does not
know how to distinguish between the different endings of the
nouns, a fact of which he is all too painfully aware himself, and his
spelling is atrocious. In the passage quoted, ipsus consobrinus meus
looks as if it has the nominative singular ending in -us, which makes
no sense. What is clearly intended is the accusative plural, which is
correctly spelled ipsos consobrinos meos.
But what is called the Middle Ages is a thousand years of European
history, and the Merovingian rule is just an episode of a couple of
hundred years in one of the Continent™s many regions. Culture and
politics differed from country to country and from age to age. There
are long periods of prosperity, just as there are moments of deep and
dif¬cult crisis. Indeed, not much remained constant in Europe
throughout the medieval period. Everyone was Christian and Latin
was used everywhere; apart from that, most things varied consider-
ably. As a result, other historians from this era are very different

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A natural history of Latin

from Gregory of Tours even though they all write in Latin. Unlike
him, most of them write a very correct kind of Latin, and many even
do so with elegance and according to the ancient rhetorical principles.
And there are hundreds of them!
In the twelfth century in particular the writing of history ¬‚our-
ished, as in fact did many other kinds of literary activity. There is, for
example, William of Malmesbury, who wrote a history of England
(Gesta regum Anglorum ˜Deeds of the English Kings™), or William,
bishop of Tyre in present-day Lebanon, who produced an excellent
history of the Crusades (Historia rerum in pártibus transmarínis
gestárum ˜History of matters that have passed in the lands beyond
the sea™). A much more fanciful view of the past was provided by
Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia regum Britanniae ˜History of
the Kings of Britain™. He asserts that in fact he has just translated
Britannici sermonis librum ˜a book in the British (i.e. Celtic) language™;
however, there is no other trace of that work. Geoffrey tells the story
of the Britons from their ¬rst origin, which was in his opinion
Troy. This of course made them the equals of the Romans, who also
believed that they came from that city through Aeneas and his
followers.The narrative carries on to the eighth century ce, when the
Britons ¬nally lost the wars against the Anglo-Saxons. Geoffrey™s
eventful work became immensely popular, and for good reason. It
includes a great number of good stories that have been retold many
times by others.The plot of King Lear is there, for example, but above
all the work constitutes the starting point for the whole cycle of liter-
ature about the magician Merlin, King Arthur, his sword Excalibur
and his famous followers. Geoffrey presents the ¬rst written version

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