. 20
( 44 .)


of the Arthurian legend; in that way, he is the ¬rst in an enormous
tradition of romance and fantasy. This kind of literary production
remains as popular as ever, as witness The Lord of the Rings and the
Harry Potter books. However, romance was an area in which people
soon started to use other languages.There are works of this kind both
in French and in English soon after Geoffrey, and Latin did not play
any important role in the subsequent tradition. For ordinary history,
however, Latin remained in use for several centuries to come.

Latin and Europe

But it is not only the great historians who communicate knowledge
about history. More modest writers who write about what happens
around them or produce documents like letters or contracts are often
much more reliable sources for the historians of today, and material of
this kind can be found in very large quantities. The supply varies a
good deal from place to place and period to period, but in general more
has been preserved from the later than from the earlier periods.
Historical sources of this kind are almost always in Latin throughout
Europe until the thirteenth century. After that it varies, but it is com-
mon to ¬nd Latin sources up to and including the seventeenth century.
Almost all of the history of Europe was written in Latin from the
moment when the Romans themselves started writing history some
time before the birth of Christ down until the fourteenth century.And
for the following 300 or 400 years Latin was still in frequent
use. Anyone who wants to study the history of Europe and read the
sources will either have to learn Latin or limit their attention to the
last 250“300 years.

Poetry after antiquity
All through the Middle Ages people continued to use Latin even
for writing poetry. Much was written in the same style and the
same metres as the great poets of antiquity had adopted. That tradi-
tion did not end with the Middle Ages either. If anything it increased
during the Renaissance, and in the sixteenth and seventeenth cen-
turies enormous amounts of Latin poetry were produced, including
a number of verse epics in the style of Virgil. Writers followed
this tradition throughout Europe; from England alone in this period
there are hundreds of Latin poems. But probably only very few
people ever read them. They were already for the most part learned
exercises even at the time when they were written, but they still
contain a good deal which is of interest to historians of culture and

A natural history of Latin

It was certainly not only second-class writers who wrote in Latin
in the classical style. For example, in the fourteenth century the
great Italian humanist poet Petrarch wrote a ¬ne epic in Latin with
the title Africa. It is about the second Punic war between the Romans
and the Carthaginians and was very justly celebrated in its time, but
no one reads it today. Petrarch™s love poems, which are written in
Italian, are by contrast still very much alive and widely read. The
same goes for John Milton, who composed a substantial quantity of
poetry in Latin which is now known only to a handful of specialists.
Paradise Lost, on the other hand, is ¬rmly established as an English
classic. Yet Latin poetry after antiquity is not just an imitation of the
ancient texts. During the early Middle Ages a new kind of Latin
poem developed, which was completely different both in content and
form. This new content came with Christianity. The greater part of
the poetry which was written in the Middle Ages revolved around
Christian themes, which was natural enough, as most of the people
who learnt Latin belonged to the Church. Above all there were
hymns, simple texts which the congregation would be able to sing,
but there were also many other kinds of poems in praise of God and
the saints, or which urged people on to a better life.
The ancient metres were based on an alternation between long
and short syllables, as we have already seen. But Latin changed, and
in late antiquity that distinction did not exist in the spoken language
any more. In Christian poetry another principle was then intro-
duced, namely that of a line based on ¬xed stresses and a certain
number of syllables. More or less the same basic principle is to be
found in early English poetry and is still used (more or less success-
fully) in the lyrics of popular music.
Medieval texts came to resemble modern ones even more closely
as a result of a new device which was introduced about a thousand
years ago. In antiquity there had been no practice of systematically
letting the last words of each line rhyme, but this technique was
invented and gradually developed during the early Middle Ages,
both in Latin and in the new national languages like French,

Latin and Europe

German, and Proven§al. The habit of rhyming seems to have spread
from Latin to the new written languages, although it was in the
latter that it was to continue for hundreds of years. As an example of
these new Latin poetic techniques using syllable count, ¬xed accents,
and rhymes let us take one of the best-known Christian hymns,
written in the thirteenth century by a man named Thomas of
Celano. This is not exactly a light-hearted piece, painting as it does a
terrible picture of the Last Judgement. Although it is not to be found
in modern hymn books, it is often heard even today, set to music,
since it forms part of the Requiem Mass. This translation is by the
English vicar and hymn-writer William Josiah Irons and was
published in 1848.

Day of wrath and doom impending,
David™s word with Sibyl™s blending!
Heaven and earth in ashes ending!
O what fear man™s bosom rendeth
When from heaven the Judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth!
Wondrous sound the trumpet ¬‚ingeth,
Through earth™s sepulchres it ringeth,
All before the throne it bringeth.

This translation sticks fairly closely to the line and rhyme pattern of
the original, as quickly becomes clear when we compare it with the
original Latin:
Dies irae, dies illa
solvet saeclum in favilla
teste David cum Sibylla.
Quantus tremor est futurus
quando iudex est venturus
cuncta stricte discussurus.
Tuba, mirum spargens sonum
per sepulchra regionum,
coget omnes ante thronum.

A natural history of Latin

It is easy to read the Latin; you just follow the same rhythm as in the
English translation. The letter y is pronounced [i], so the rhyme is
perfect even in the ¬rst stanza.
Let us use the Latin text of this rather sombre hymn as the basis
of a little language exercise. Irons™s translation is not entirely literal,
since otherwise he would not have been able to create the necessary
rhymes and get the right number of syllables in each line. Here is the
poem again with a completely literal translation:

Dies irae, dies illa The day of wrath, that day
solvet saeclum in favilla will reduce the world to ashes
teste David cum Sibylla. as witness David with the Sybil.
Quantus tremor est futurus How great will the terror be
quando iudex est venturus when the judge comes
cuncta stricte discussurus. to judge everything harshly.
Tuba, mirum spargens sonum The trumpet, spreading its wonderful
per sepulchra regionum, sound through the graves of the
coget omnes ante thronum. lands, will summon everyone before
the throne.

In general the text has been translated word for word, although
with differences in the word order, as in the ¬rst line, where Latin
allows a demonstrative like illa to either precede or follow the noun,
but where only the order that day is possible in English. Similarly,
in line 7 English does not allow the noun sonum ˜sound™ and the
adjective mirum ˜wonderful™ to be separated from each other as in
the Latin.
Many words in the text can be recognised from English and/or
French. Saeculum literally means ˜a lifetime™ or ˜a generation™, and is
the source of the modern French word siècle ˜century™. What is
meant here is time itself, which together with the world will come to
an end when the trumpets sound at the Last Judgement. Time, in
other words, is synonymous with the world, which is a common
motif in Christian Latin, and is re¬‚ected in our loanword secular,
which means ˜worldly™ or ˜non-religious™, as when we speak of secu-
lar authorities. The word sonum (sonus in the nominative) is to be

Latin and Europe

found in several English words such as resonance, whose original
meaning was ˜echo™, dissonance (when sounds clash), sonata (a piece
of music which comes via the Italian verb sonare ˜to make sounds,
to play (an instrument)™), and consonant (which literally means
˜sounding with™, since consonants were thought of as sounds which
accompanied vowels).
In the Church and especially in the Catholic Church, Latin was
used actively for a longer period than in other contexts, and the
Christian poems in Latin became the ones that lasted longest. Early
church music often consists of settings of Latin texts. If you want to
hear what Latin sounds like, one way is to listen to masses and choral
music by Bach. But medieval Latin poetry was not just religious.
Even at that time people™s minds turned to many other things apart
from prayers and God™s judgement, such as spring and love. These
had been the subject of many poems already in antiquity, but during
the early Middle Ages few poets wrote about such frivolous matters.
From the twelfth century the spirit of the age changed, and people
started writing and singing love poems in many languages, in the
beginning especially in Proven§al, German, and French. In Provence
people talk of troubadour poetry, in Germany of Minnesang. At
exactly the same time people also started writing love poems, drink-
ing songs, poems about nature, and all sorts of non-religious poems
in Latin.That did not happen by chance, of course, as everybody who
knew Latin obviously also knew at least one of the spoken languages,
and sometimes a writer was able to write in several languages. There
are even mixed poems partly in Latin, partly in German or French.
This period was the ¬rst great Golden Age of poetry in the mod-
ern European languages. Even so, this does not mean that the Latin
poems were imitations of the ones written in the national languages.
In the beginning it may have been the other way round. Poetry and
the art of versi¬cation in Latin was a model for the pioneers of the
new languages. Gradually the poetry in the new languages grew
away from those models. The authors of this new kind of poetry in
the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were for the most part students,
who tended to move from school to school, especially if their studies

A natural history of Latin

were not going well or if they had not paid their tuition bills. Quite a
lot of this poetry has survived, but most of the poems are anony-
mous, and in several cases they were written down in extensive
manuscript anthologies. One such manuscript is particularly
famous. It was originally kept in a monastery in Benediktbeuren in
Germany, south of Munich, and so the collection is called Carmina
Burana which means ˜songs from Benediktbeuren™. This collection
has become particularly well known because the composer Carl Orff
set a number of the Latin and German poems in it to music and cre-
ated a great choral work called precisely Carmina Burana. One of
the poems he includes is a very beautiful paean to spring and love
which starts like this

Ecce gratum et optatum Behold, the pleasant and longed-for
ver reducit gaudia: spring brings back joy:
purpuratum ¬‚oret pratum, the meadow blossoms with violet ¬‚owers,
sol serenat omnia. the sun makes everything bright.

Compare the word-for-word translation above with a somewhat less
literal, but nonetheless quite close, translation which aims to repro-
duce something of the rhyme and rhythm of the Latin:

Welcome, season,
with good reason:
spring restores our old delight:
violets grow
by the hedgerow,
sunshine renders all things bright.

To a modern poet these rhymes might seem somewhat banal
but this is not the fault of the translator, who has made a ¬ne job
of imitating the poetic devices of the original. Rather, after hundreds
of years of this kind of poetry, virtually all rhymes have been
exhausted and the rhythms have become commonplace; but when
these poems were ¬rst written, the forms were fresh, unknown and
intoxicating, just like spring itself to a twenty-year-old student.

Latin and Europe

Abelard and H©loïse

One of the most remarkable students and poets ever to come to Paris
was called Petrus Abelardus. Or at least that was how he wrote his
name in Latin; in English he is usually called simply Abelard. We
know a good deal about his life through his own writings, in particu-
lar an autobiographical work which he wrote when he was a little
over ¬fty called Historia calamitatum, ˜History of calamities™. The
title could not be more apt: he had more than his fair share of hard-
ship and disaster.
Abelard was born in 1079 in what is today Brittany, close to the
mouth of the Loire. From an early age it was evident that he was
exceptionally talented, and it was not long before he went to Paris,
which was beginning to gain a reputation as an important centre of
learning. Abelard quickly came to realize that he was a better log-
ician than the man who was the most prominent teacher there and
the head of the cathedral school. The two men fell out and Abelard
established himself as a teacher on the left bank of the Seine, just a
few hundred metres from the cathedral school which was situated


. 20
( 44 .)