Latin: "the language of the Catholic Church and of all the schools in Christendom, ... an indispensable necessity .. as much for philosophy and theology as for jurisprudence and medicine; and it is, for that very reason ... the common language of all the scholars of Europe." That was written in 1765, in the entry on "language" in the French Encyclopédie. I came across this quote in the fascinating book Latin or the Empire of a Sign by the French scholar (or "archiviste paléographe," as the French Wikipedia describes her) Françoise Waquet.
I am only about half way through, but it has been truly exciting reading, making even more understandable the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns, especially as it erupted in France at the end of the 17th century. As Waquet points out, early in the reign of Louis XIV "Latin literature, especially poetry, was still being cultivated and attracting real interest." By the 1660s already, however, most of the output consisted of epigrams, elegies, satires, tomb inscriptions, and epitaphs." In 1682 Pierre Bayle would observe that Latin poetry was "breathing its last." Still, more than half the books exchanged at the Frankfurt book fairs were in Latin well until the 1680s.
Interestingly, the period from 1530 to 1640, during which occurred seminal discoveries in science, the "old language" continued to be used for the higher forms of learning, "from literature to law, from science to theology." Latin was the center of the curriculum in Europe from the Renaissance, while the vernacular languages were slow in developing literary status. There was also the absence, especially outside of London and Paris, of a "cultivated reading public," and anyone interested in natural science had to have Latin. Thus, scientists wrote their works in Latin. Jacob Bernoulli published Ars conjectandi in 1713, and Carl Friedrich Guass, who lived into the 19th century, wrote in Latin. According to Waquet, Isaac Newton not only wrote most of his works in Latin, but he also had more books in Latin than in English in his library, and he annotated the Latin books he read in Latin. Descartes' Meditations were originally in Latin, written "mainly for scholars."
For reasons of dissemination scholars also commissioned translations of their works into Latin. Examples include Francis Bacon's The Advancement of Learning and Descartes' Passions de l'âme. It seems odd to us today that educated Frenchmen did not know English, but it was the case. Galileo's Dialogo dei due massimi sistemi achieved greater circulation in its Latin edition of 1653 than in the original. Similarly, Robert Boyle's fame on the continent was due to the translation of his writings in Germany, Switzerland, and Holland.
The first achievement in the development of vernacular literature in Europe was Dante's Commedia, and Dante himself wrote a defense of vernacular literature -- in Latin! -- entitled De Vulgari Eloquentia (1305). It was the French, however, particularly during the reign of Louis XIV, who really began to cultivate French as a literary language, and by the end of the 17th century it was on the way to becoming the established language of diplomacy.
As I have described it, the Quarrel concerned throwing off the fetters of past learning, much of it thought to be false, especially in light of the discoveries of science. But Waquet's book has illuminated the "paternal" burden imposed on the learned and the literate by the Ancients and the concomitant desire of the Moderns to forge their own literary destiny. After all, even the fiercest Modern, Charles Perrault, was also a distinguished scholar of Latin and Greek. Still, in the age of Perrault and Boileau, some writers continued to publish in Latin, for instance, the Scots poet George Buchanan, seen here in the engraving on the title page of the 1676 edition of his work, which included paraphrases of the Psalms and Latin translations of Euripides' Medea and Alcestis.
Goethe offers an interesting example of the transition in letters in Germany in the 18th century. All of the major German poets up to his time were very able classicists. These included, near him in time, Klopstock and Lessing, who were products of famous schools whose curriculum focused on classical studies. Goethe, however, had a rather unusual upbringing for a German poet. He hardly went to school at all, aside from a few early years. Instead, both he and his sister were educated at home by various instructors under the eye of their father.
Goethe did learn Latin, just as he learned English, French, and Italian with private tutors. Though Waquet writes that he "became a good Latinist," and he even writes in his autobiography that he was able to converse "fluently" in Latin when he studied in Strassburg, he was no Latinist of the likes of Lessing or Klopstock. The five-volume Der Junge Goethe, which covers Goethe's oeuvre from 1757 to 1775, begins with his "Labores Juveniles," 62 pages of his youthful translations of Latin (and even some Greek) into German and vice versa. I am not really competent to judge the excellence of his Latin translations, but the English and French of his letters to his sister Cornelia, when he was a student in Leipzig, show that he was not too exact. He got across what he wanted to say, but he was no scholar. Indeed, Goethe proudly said that about himself, or he had Werther say something to that effect.
There are many interesting things in Waquet's learned volume. Two interesting tidbits: Croatia still harbored "remarkable Latin poets well into the 19th century," and a former president of Colombia, Miguel Antonio Caro, was also an exceptional poet in Latin. Poking around online I discovered that the so-called Gradus ad Parnassum (1659), which Waquet calls "that indispensable tool of all school versifiers," is available from an Indian distributor, which must indicate that Latin is still entrenched in the former British colonies. And I was particularly intrigued by this title page of a rare book by the Swiss Orientalist Hottinger, published in 1651 by Johann Jacob Bodmer, the father of one of my current research interests.
Picture credit: Philadelphia Rare Books and Manuscript Company