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Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


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Transcribed Sources


Françoise Waquet, Le Latin, ou l'emploi d'un signe, XVIe-XXe siècle

Paris: Albin Michel, 1998, 414 pp.

A "cultural history of Latin"? That is what Waquet proposes, with the first 54 pages being about teaching Latin and reading-speaking it in school, then 86 pages on the role of Latin in the churches, followed by 30 pages on the various degrees of competence in writing and speaking the language over the centuries. The final 100 pages of the book are the more interpretive, in the sense that there was a need to state what Latin was thought to do in education, followed by its history in inscriptions, the natural sciences and medicine, and finally its strengths and weaknesses as a "universal" linguistic instrument (not strong!) as well as its place in the fabric of more recently constructed universal languages.

It would be in the eighteenth century that the argument about the use of precious time in education would be made to question whether the years of effort teaching Latin grammar, composition and speaking were well spent. The French Revolution brought a momentary triumph of French, but then by the early 1820s Latin had recovered its privileged position in the curriculum, one that would last down into the 1880s. Latin declined more slowly in Germany than in France. In Britain the public schools would continue to place considerable importance on Latin, in part as a result of the Humanist "revival" of the nineteenth century. In czarist Russia Latin held a privileged position down to 1882, when Tolstoy, who had favored it as minister of education, fell. Latin would decline slowly there, down to the Revolution — when it was abolished, only to be revived in some select schools after the fall of the Soviet regime.

In the world of the Roman Catholic clergy, from the Early Middle Ages down to World War II, Latin would occupy a privileged place, though vernaculars were used considerably by the evangelizing orders such as the Franciscans from the fourteenth century down to the present. Not the Latin of Cicero and Horace, medieval Latin nonetheless constituted a medium which permitted spiritual-literary and philosophical expression. The attempts to restore classical Latin that began in the fourteenth century and that became very strong in the sixteenth century, fostered a concentration on constructing grammar that became ever more complex and a kind of "discipline" of its own, the bane of schoolboys for centuries.

On the vexed issue of whether or not the laity could understand liturgical Latin, Waquet traces the history of the question as a debate within the Church. She seems somewhat sympathetic toward those who stressed the importance of comprehension. At a glance, this would seem obvious, especially when one recognizes that a religious experience could be shared (which is what "liturgy" means) without necessarily comprehending the words.

The story about the pastor who was losing his flock for lack of Latin (p. 282) brilliantly illustrates a more general issue. From the "éloquence sauvage" of the Amerindians that moved the Jesuits (Doiron, XVIIe Siècle, 173 [1991]: 373-402), to the issue of comprehension, as it were, beneath simple signification — "being not made, being of one substance with the Father" — repeated by tens of thousands in their native languages today, the liturgical has the "mystification" element about it in most religious traditions, regardless of the language.

What was going on in the eighteenth-century education debates, just as in choices between churches, was the rise of an ever more present sense of choice and lack of time. Children lacked the time to spend on Latin are so many other subjects were added to curricula. And the liturgical declined when faced with growing emphasis on preaching, music and private devotion. And an inscription in the vernacular on a building could also be comprehended more rapidly (p. 287).

One of the most delightful parts of this book is about how Latin could be used to hide things — medicine and pharmacy come immediately to mind — but also Gibbon's use of Latin to describe sexual aspects of Empress Theodora's life, so that modesty would be preserved. Nudes received drapery, the sexual required Latin in the name of modesty, and leaving much to the imagination, that feature of the human mind that the Parisian police of the eighteenth century feared above all else.

In a very thoughtful final chapter, Waquet explores the links between Latin and a longing for the global or universal communication that has been an integral part of Western thought since the eighteenth century. Arguments in favor of teaching Latin because it was a more "universal" language than any other, and was sustained by the richness of the literature, law, and since from Antiquity, also finally were not so much refuted as ignored, though the longing persisted and inspired the creation of various new universal languages and movements to diffuse them.

It would seem that Waquet subscribes to Umberto Eco's remark: "Le problème de la culture européenne à l'avenir ne réside certainement pas dans le triomphe d'un polyglottisme total ... mais dans une communauté ce personnes qui puissent saisir l'esprit, le parfum, l'atmosphère d'une langue différente." This is a profoundly interesting view — one that offers a critique of the superficial learning of languages in the multi-cultural "programs" that are consciously or unconsciously extending over the world. Superficiality in learning languages is rampant!

But given the fundamentalisms of religious and cultural movements across the world (learning Corsican!), the possibility that a new Humanist moment centered on Latin and ancient literature ought not to be excluded. Only a small minority might be attracted to it (less learned than the neo-Latinists), but in the Western world — at least — there may no longer be large majorities, but only minorities, some trained in American English and others in English.

Only a learned person with a truly mature and profound mastery of Latin would dare write this book. She is dressed in her contemporary scholarly fashion clothing, while around her are many who wear "knock-offs" of the emperor's new clothes.