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tury that philosophical works start to appear in the vernacular. One
of the ¬rst to write in his national language was the Frenchman
Montaigne, something he was able to do partly because he was not
concerned with logical and metaphysical subtleties, but instead
wrote essays on important topics rooted in everyday life.
His countryman Descartes, called Cartesius in Latin, used Latin
for some of his writings and French for others. It was at his time,
during the seventeenth century, that Latin started losing ground
even among scholars. Descartes used Latin for texts which involved
formal and technical reasoning, but French for texts which were
intended to be accessible to a wider public. His most famous principle
is known in its Latin form, and emerged while he was struggling to
¬nd a foundation for his view of the world, something which he
could regard as absolutely certain. He found it in the proposition
cógito, ergo sum ˜I think, therefore I am™, and he built his theory of
the nature of the world on this basis.
Since the eighteenth century philosophers have generally writ-
ten in their native languages. This obviously has great advantages,
not least that they can be read by their countrymen, and that they
can express themselves in an unfettered way in the one language

Latin and Europe

which they know better than any other. But it also results in certain
problems. As long as Latin was the common language of philo-
sophers, it did not matter much which country a philosopher hap-
pened to come from. European philosophers discussed things with
each other all over Europe. During the nineteenth century, and
even more so in the twentieth, different philosophical schools have
been established in different countries, so that for instance Anglo-
American philosophy has become very different from French or
German philosophy. Although the various traditions do not exist
inside completely watertight compartments, it is nonetheless true
that the different languages have made it more dif¬cult for philo-
sophers to understand each other than it was when they all wrote
in Latin.

The Renaissance

For half a millennium, the history of Europe has usually been seen
as a sequence of three periods: antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the
modern era. The modern era starts with something called the
Renaissance, and the clear implication is that antiquity was a period
of high civilisation, while the Middle Ages was a time of decline
which was ¬nally brought to an end by the Renaissance, that is by
the rebirth of classical culture and values. Not surprisingly, this view
was invented and propagated by leading representatives of the
Renaissance movement, who were mainly Italian writers, artists,
and other intellectuals living in the fourteenth, ¬fteenth, and
sixteenth centuries. There is no doubt, of course, about the extraor-
dinary cultural achievements in Italy during this period; it is enough
to mention names like Petrarch and Boccaccio in literature, and
Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael in painting. Whether these people
became so great because of their demonstrably ardent interest in
classical antiquity is quite another matter, but we can safely leave
that larger question aside here.

A natural history of Latin

As far as the extent to which Latin was used, the Renaissance does
not represent a clear break or constitute a particular turning point. In
most domains, the changes were slow and gradual but almost always
to the detriment of Latin from the thirteenth right through to the
twentieth century, as we have already seen. What did come with the
Renaissance, though, was a different attitude to correctness. During
the many centuries that had elapsed since antiquity, Latin vocabu-
lary had considerably expanded and new habits of style and usage
had developed. Several leading ¬gures in the Renaissance were
learned humanists, convinced that the literary texts from classical
antiquity were of supreme importance, both for their content and
for their exemplary language, so they worked hard to eliminate
non-classical words and expressions, and generally to improve the
standards of written (and spoken) Latin in their own time.
This was not an entirely new idea. We have seen how, in the early
ninth century, people such as Alcuin at the court of Charlemagne
very consciously went back to the ancient models, and a trend in
the same direction is quite evident in the twelfth century. Modern
historians have accordingly coined the expressions ˜the Carolingian
renaissance™ and ˜the twelfth-century renaissance™.
But in the Renaissance proper, this trend became much stronger,
and was also grounded in a partly different ideology. The earlier
movements were mainly concerned with achieving a better know-
ledge of Latin and generally higher standards in education and lear-
ning. In the Renaissance, leading thinkers pursued much more lofty
goals, such as allowing men (and to a lesser degree women!) to real-
ize their full potential, and liberating them from the burden of
superstition and ignorance that had accumulated after the brilliance
of antiquity, during the media aetas, the Middle Ages. Reform in the
use of the Latin language was one of the ways towards this goal. But
precisely because of the very high ambitions, the results were not
quite what might have been expected.
There is no doubt that the standards of written Latin rose consid-
erably as a consequence of the Renaissance, ¬rst in Italy and later on
in most of Europe. Brilliant humanists such as Coluccio Salutati

Latin and Europe

unearthed forgotten manuscripts of important texts from antiquity,
for example the letters of Cicero. They studied the language and
style of the classical texts in great detail and produced manuals for
their contemporaries, so that they would be able to write truly
Ciceronian Latin. The most famous of these works was the
Elegantiae Linguae Latinae (1471) by Lorenzo Valla.
An important northern European classicist and thinker who
learnt much from Valla and his contemporaries about how to edit
classical texts was Gerhard Gerhards, better known by his Latin pen
name Desiderius and best of all by his Greek one, Erasmus of
Rotterdam. His output was prodigious: in addition to original works,
all written in Latin of course, he oversaw editions of works by many
of the authors mentioned in this book, including Terence, Livy, Pliny,
and Seneca. He also produced editions of the writings of several of
the great Christian Fathers such as Jerome,Augustine, and Ambrose.
Probably his most famous original composition is Moriae
Encomium ˜In Praise of Folly™ (1511). He also published a book enti-
tled Adagia ˜Proverbs™, a collection of thousands of Latin and Greek
sayings, some of which are still with us, such as mortuum ¬‚agellas
˜you are ¬‚ogging a dead (horse)™ and inter caecos regnat strabus ˜in
the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king™ (literally:
˜among the blind reigns the one-eyed man™).
Many people actually achieved such a mastery of Latin that they
were able to compose poems and orations that met all the classical
standards of language and stylistic expression. We have already
mentioned Petrarch, from the very early Renaissance, and John
Milton, who lived in the wake of the Renaissance movement. In the
centuries that separate them, hundreds of writers produced count-
less artistic works in impeccable Latin. Unfortunately, much
Renaissance literature in Latin suffered from a common weakness:
content rarely matched form.Too many of these works are derivative,
dull school exercises. Most were never widely read, and are nowa-
days taken off the library shelves only by a few specialists. There
are exceptions, of course. In addition to the works we have already
mentioned, we should not forget Thomas More™s Utopia (1516),

A natural history of Latin

an extremely in¬‚uential work by a truly original thinker.Nevertheless,
the real literary landmarks of the Renaissance were written in the
new languages of Europe, ¬rst in Italian, and later in French, English
and other languages. The great collective effort spent on learning
perfect classical Latin did not for the most part pay off in the form of
original literary works in the language.
As for the daily use of Latin in the church, administration, and
many other domains, it was affected by Renaissance ideals in two
ways. On the one hand, the formal standard of written Latin rose in
almost all contexts, which was certainly an improvement. On the
other hand, the higher requirements of stylistic elegance meant that
life became harder for writers. It became more dif¬cult than before
to attain the standard necessary to produce an of¬cial letter or a will,
for example. In the long run, this problem reinforced the tendency
for such documents to be drawn up in the national languages
instead. Once it had become more complicated to write Latin, the
language became less useful for practical purposes.
On the whole, then, the Renaissance did not mean a return to a
wider use of Latin in Europe, in spite of the fact that the leading pro-
tagonists really loved the language and worked hard to promote it.
To the extent that the movement had any effect, it may actually have
been to accelerate the trend towards the abandonment of Latin and
the shift to the national languages.

Doctors and their language

How often have you been to the doctor and been told: ˜It™s just a
virus. Come and see me again in a few days if it hasn™t cleared up™? Or
maybe you are unlucky and the doctor says: ˜I think you™ve got
appendicitis and need an operation straightaway.™ Or perhaps your
doctor diagnoses neuralgia of some kind and prescribes some anal-
gesics. Embedded in these and a hundred other such remarks which
are heard daily in hospitals and surgeries are thousands of words

Latin and Europe

which derive from the classical languages. Virus comes from Latin,
where it means an animal poison such as a snake™s or scorpion™s
venom or any animal or plant secretion to which magical or medici-
nal qualities are attributed. Pliny, for example, reports that people
believed wolves secreted a virus amatorium or ˜love juice™. Appendix
means simply ˜appendage™ and is related to the verb appendo ˜hang™
but in a medical context now refers speci¬cally to that rather useless
organ that can become in¬‚amed, cause great pain and require surg-
ical removal. Neuralgia, which means ˜nerve pain™, comes from the
Greek words neuron ˜nerve™ and algia ˜pain™, and in Greek the pre¬x
a-/an- marks a negative, as in amoral, so an analgesic is something
that takes away pain. In fact, almost all our medical terms come from
Latin or Greek. Of course this is also true within many other areas of
science, as we shall see, but medicine is special because there are so
many completely unchanged Latin words such as appendix and
virus. Until recently it was even common for doctors to write their
diagnoses in pure Latin, using expressions like dem©ntia senilis
˜senile dementia™. Senilis in Latin is simply an adjective referring to
old age and could be used positively or negatively, but once doctors
shifted from Latin to an anglicized form of Latin like senile dementia
there was the problem of the negative connotations that the English
adjective senile had acquired over the years.As a result the expression
is largely avoided these days.
The fact that medical doctors in particular stuck so doggedly to
Latin for such a long time has a simple historical explanation. We
have already mentioned that the Romans were no innovators when it
came to medicine, for the most part producing Latin compendia of
what the Greeks had discovered. Greek medicine during antiquity, on
the other hand, was very impressive: any Roman who could afford it
had a Greek doctor. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius had one such, a
personal physician by the name of Galen, who became a very import-
ant ¬gure in the history of medicine. He wrote a number of works in
Greek, which were exceptionally in¬‚uential over a very long period.
Within certain areas of medicine he was the leading authority until
the beginning of the nineteenth century. One of the foundations of

A natural history of Latin

Galen™s teaching was the theory of the four bodily ¬‚uids.The general
idea was that a person™s health depends on which ¬‚uid is dominant in
the body. The theory is often called ˜the pathology of the humours™:
humor means precisely ˜¬‚uid™ and pathology is the ˜theory of dis-
eases™, from the Greek word pathos meaning suffering or illness.
Nowadays the word humour means something completely differ-
ent in English, but its modern meaning comes from the idea of
bodily ¬‚uids. If you have the right balance of ¬‚uids in your body, you
have a propitious temperament and can make jokes and be happy.
The bodily ¬‚uids which formed part of Galen™s account were blood
(sanguis in Latin), phlegm (phlegma), yellow bile (chole), and black
bile (melaina chole). The last three names are Greek and were used
as loanwords in Latin. Parts of the theory still live on today in the
idea that different people have different temperaments: there are the
sanguine types, optimistic people dominated by blood; the phlegmatic
types, languid people who are dominated by phlegm; the choleric
types, hot-tempered people ruled by bile; and the melancholic types,
gloomy individuals who have to live with the black bile. Medicine in
western Europe during the early Middle Ages was not very impres-
sive, but towards 1100 real medical training started, ¬rst of all in
Salerno in Italy. The impulse came partly from Byzantium in the
east, partly from the Arabs, who were leading ¬gures in this ¬eld as
in many other areas of medieval science.Teachers in Salerno built on
Galen, whose writings had been translated into Latin and had begun
the western tradition of medicine.
For several centuries not a lot more happened, but the doctors
added a few ¬nishing touches to the ideas of their Greek predecessors,
and in the process developed an elaborate Latin terminology, which
also included a great number of words which were originally Greek,
obviously due to the in¬‚uence of Galen and other Greek writers. One
consequence of this is that there are sometimes two words for the
same thing in Latin, both the original word and the one which has
been borrowed from Greek. For example ˜nerve™ is nervus in Latin
and the English word is a loanword from that. The three-part facial
nerve is therefore in Latin called nervus trig©minus. In Greek

Latin and Europe

˜nerve™ is called neuron, and from that Latin acquired words like
neurosis, neurasthenia, and neuralgia, which have passed directly
into English.
Unfortunately a rich panoply of terms and a good knowledge of
Latin are not always of much help to the patients. It was a recurring
complaint about doctors, even as late as the eighteenth century, that
they were very learned and tended to lard their speech with elegant
theoretical disquisitions, but that they were not able to do much
about diseases.And that is indeed how it was.Things began to change
once doctors gave up the belief that the ancient authorities knew best


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