LATIN IN MEDIEVAL BRITAIN

Edited by R. Ashdowne & C. White

Oxford (2017) h/b 380pp £80 (ISBN 9780197266083)

This fine volume in the Proceedings of the British Academy series gathers together papers that delve into the various and complex uses of Latin in Britain over a thousand-year period from the sixth-century de excidio et conquestu Britanniae of Gildas to the writings of Tudor England. Most of the contributions were originally delivered at a 2013 conference in Oxford marking and celebrating the successful completion of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (DMLBS) a century after the project’s conception and inception. The editors draw attention to some of the reasons for the neglect of the study of Medieval Latin, and point to the important and necessary contribution that it ought to make to the study of all aspects of Medieval Britain, not only as the language of possible sources of information, but as the product of particular and diverse circumstances and situations. Alongside the two contributions to the volume by David Howlett—the longest-serving editor of the dictionary—the introductory material provides a sketch of the DMLBS’s creation, and exhorts those interested in the Middle Ages to serious engagement with this work of a century and the considerable and kaleidoscopic world of British Medieval Latin. What follows is a brief summary of each paper.

Neil Wright considers how the twelfth-century authors William of Malmesbury and Joseph of Exeter engaged with, and responded to, the literary traditions in which they wrote through careful allusion to ancient and medieval authors. William’s characterisation, for example, of the Anglo-Norman kings in his gesta regum Anglorum draws closely on the language and phrasing of Suetonius’ uitae Caesarum; elsewhere he betrays an intimate acquaintance with Juvenal’s satires. Joseph’s understudied epic on the Trojan War is shown to be a stylistically skilful poem that rivals the works of his models (e.g. Lucan’s Pharsalia).

In her contribution, Wendy Childs provides a sketch of the ways in which English, French, and Latin were all widely used in fourteenth-century England, and outlines where and how these languages were encountered. Two chronicles—different in scope and context, and in the insights into political life that they offer—are explored. Attention is drawn to the gradual increase in the use of vernacular words to denote ‘activities, commodities, and practices that were not part of classical Roman life’ (p. 93), when themes shifted away from those of traditional literary and political discourse. This development is reflected in the presence of vernaculars, used for the sake of specificity, in the formulaic Latin customs accounts from ports all around England. Despite this, a working knowledge of Latin across the country, and outwith the purview of the literary élite, is thus evidenced by these records.

Robert Swanson proposes that England was at its most Latin in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; the English Reformation provides his terminus ante quem. This notion is argued for (i) because of the quantity of the cumulative Latinity of the preceding centuries that was readily available; (ii) in the light of the use of Latin as the language of international communication, including the frequent translation of vernacular texts into Latin so as to make them more widely available; (iii) since Latin texts were pre-eminent in the first century of printing; and, more speculatively, (iv) because the increase in the rôle of English in England’s textual culture did not necessarily mean less Latin. The erosion of French early on in the period resulted in increases in both English and Latin usage, and Latin—increasingly returned to its classical form by humanists—remained an English vernacular.

The development of the distinctive and specialised vocabulary of the English royal courts of the early Common Law is explored by Paul Brand. He highlights a clear interaction between the Anglo-Norman French that was standardly spoken in these courts, and the Latin used for their formal records; he focuses in particular on the language relating to the action of replevin.

In a characteristically learned piece, Leofranc Holford-Strevens discusses the diverse Latin terminology used in English treatises to describe the duration of musical notes, and their notation. Although English theoreticians were in no way cut-off from Continental influences, it is nevertheless clear that their use of language was, like the English music and its notation which they treated, distinct.

Carolinne White provides an overview of some of the varied uses to which Latin was put in ecclesiastical contexts. She explores a wide range of documents all in some way related to Thomas Becket, from prose and verse accounts of his murder and its aftermath, through charters and grants pertaining to the building of hospitals dedicated to him, to wills requesting that pilgrimages be undertaken to his shrine.

The introduction of Arabic words—whether transliterated, translated, or as calques—into the Latin of scientific writings is discussed by Charles Burnett. The phenomenon is conspicuous in British Latin, as the majority of twelfth- and thirteenth-century translations of Arabic into Latin were undertaken in England, and contributed to the development of a new technical lexis.

Paul Russell considers a number of Latin texts relating to the death of the Lord Rhys (1197) which demonstrate that their authors were familiar with the works of ancient writers, whilst being steeped in the Welsh poetic tradition. Through the comparison of several Welsh versions of part of Brut y Tywysogion with the Latin text known as the Cronica de Wallia, it becomes clear that a Latinate style of Welsh developed in certain quarters.

Consideration is given by Richard Sharpe to the variation in Latin words used to represent terms relating to governance in pre- and post-conquest England (e.g. for earl, thegn, shire, sheriff). He draws attention, across a range of texts, to the frequent substitution of unofficial terms for those used in official documentation, and exhorts modern readers to ensure, before rendering these slippery Latin terms into English, that due consideration is given to the precise context of a particular term in its passage, and to the linguistic habits of its author.

Laura Wright explores the languages of the accounts of St Paul’s Cathedral in the fourteenth century. These were written in a Latin grammatical matrix, but with vocabulary (esp. nouns) strongly influenced by Anglo-Norman and Middle English. The code-switching found in these accounts was possible for a number of reasons, and was achieved in a number of ways: (i) words could be borrowed into a language outright; (ii) Latin grammatical endings could be added to vernacular words; (iii) some endings in the vernaculars could also pass as Latin inflections; and, (iv) the standard abbreviation marks, not infrequently used by scribes to denote common suffixes, meant that words could simultaneously belong to two or three languages.

The late David Trotter discusses the etymological complications affecting our understanding of the routes by which Germanic terms appeared in British Medieval Latin. He demonstrates that a given word could accrue different sense at various stages in the course of its transmission from Anglo-Saxon to Middle English and to the Latin of medieval Britain, and that it is by tracing the development of varied meanings through these languages and Anglo-Norman, alongside philological analysis, that we can begin more reliably to unpack the Germanic presences in British Medieval Latin. He briefly touches on the relationship of the DMLBS to the (ongoing second edition of the) Anglo-Norman Dictionary. Philip Durkin & Samantha Schad provide a more thorough account of the mutually beneficial interaction of the DMLBS with the on-going work on the third edition of the OED.

This excellent volume opens with these words: ‘[t]he use of Latin in the medieval world is so fundamental a fact that it is commonly not remarked upon and rarely discussed in detail. Yet both the fact of its continued use in Europe after the demise of the Roman Empire and the broad extent of that use—chronological, geographical, and functional—are remarkable.’ (p. 1). The successful completion of the DMLBS, alongside the offerings found this volume, provides an incomparable tool to scholars working on the Middle Ages with which they will be better placed than ever before to remark and to discuss the fascinating endurance, tenacity, and diversity of Latin in Britain.

Tristan Franklinos

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