Latin in Italy: the 6th through the 10th centuries

This chapter is from Manuel pratique de latin médiéval by Dag Norberg (Paris, 1980), English translation by R.H.Johnson
(the text is reproduced on Orbis Latinus with no commercial purpose)


In Italy the sixth century opened in a climate favorable to education. Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, supported the schools and stayed abreast of the activity of writers. Under his rule the great scholars Boethius and Cassiodorus brilliantly represent ancient Roman learning. However, in the middle of the century, twenty years of war between the Ostrogoths and the Byzantine Greeks exhausted the land. In 568 new invaders appeared, the Lombards; conquering the Po Valley and the areas of Spoleto and Benevento without significant resistance, they attempted to seize the entire peninsula. The perpetual fighting which followed definitively broke down the ancient structure of society, leaving the great families ruined and the people reduced to indigence. In the beginning of the seventh century, the last of the lay schools disappeared, and the spoken language begins a development similar to the one we described for Gaul. In the seventh-century inscriptions at Rome we find, for example, the Romance future essere abetis = eritis (cod estis, fui, et quod sum, essere abetis [what you are, I was, and what I am, you will be]), the Italian preposition da (< de ab) or the pronoun idipsa (cf.It. desso), colloquialisms which permit us to conclude that the spoken language was about to be transformed into Italian.

Nevertheless, Italian did not develop with the same explosive force as French. In spite of everything, Italy had been the home of Latin learning; the towns had preserved an additional importance, beyond those of Gaul--the area still possessed the considerable remains of the ancient libraries. Ravenna, Rome, the southern peninsula and Sicily belonged to the Byzantine Greeks, and the scholarly contact with Africa and the Greek world had never been broken. Although the grammarians and the rhetors had closed their schools and the only instruction remaining was found in the hands of clerics and monks, in Italy this instruction was deeply marked by the influence of the ancient educational tradition. Moreover, it was quite late when the Italians realized that Latin was no longer their mother tongue. We have no testimony of this awareness before the tenth century. In 915, on the occasion of the coronation of King Berengar I, the senate paid him homage patrio ore, "in Latin," while the people honored him nativa voce, "in Italian," according to the text of a song composed a few years later. In 965, the scholar Gonzo of Novara begs a correspondent to excuse his style because "the everyday language in Italy is found alongside Latin," licet aliquando retarder usu nostrae vulgaris linguae quae latinitati vicina est. Later, Pope Gregory V, who died in 999, was praised by the author of his epitaph for the ease with which he could express himself in French, Italian, and Latin: Usus francisca, vulgari et voce latina Instituit populos eloquio triplici (employing French, Italian, and Latin, he addressed the people in a three-fold eloquence). It is also in the tenth century, in 960, that the first attempt is made to write expressly in Italian: the well-known oaths of Capua mark the beginning of the history of Italian literature.

As long as the schools remained, Italian authors wrote in a Latin which was correct, for the most part. The language of St. Gregory the Great is, for example, far more classical than that of his namesake and contemporary Gregory of Tours. Modern scholars have often portrayed Gregory the Great as a man representative of medieval ignorance; they emphasize the passage from the preface to the Moralia in Iob where Gregory expresses his contempt for the grammarian Donatus. In fact, the Pope resorts to a commonplace which should not deceive us. It was good form to excuse oneself before one's readers for linguistic barbarisms, and Gregory is only submitting to custom. He is the last representative of the ancient tradition in Italy. For him, Latin is still a living and natural means of expression. He has no need of Donatus for finding the right forms; he knows how to use the appropriate words without having to rummage through previous authors. He still has the talent, which the Romans had, for expressing himself with a natural ease and an admirable clarity. It is not until after his death, in 604, that the dark period in the literary history of Italy begins. The most learned of all the Italian authors of the seventh century is Jonas of Susa, who received his literary education in the abbey of Bobbio, an Irish foundation; but he also visited Rome, and lived a long time in Gaul. The most important work of Jonas is his Life of Saint Columban, where he shows a certain knowledge of ancient literature and of Irish versification. His Latin is full of poetic reminiscences. Instead of the simple expression "the next morning," he uses, for example, the phrase postquam sopor membra laxavit et caecas mundo surgens aurora pepulit tenebras, "when sleep loosened its limbs and Aurora rising pushed obscure darkness from the earth." Often he fashions bold coinages, such as auliga [aula = court], "court gentleman," from auriga "charioteer." He likes to provide learned etymologies, so when he explains the word anas: alitem quam a nando anatem vulgo vocant, "the bird to which people give the name anas from the verb nare, to swim," an explanation which is found in Isidore of Seville and can be traced to Varro. He even knew Greek words such as sofus, reuma, agapis (sophus, rheuma, agape). Unfortunately, his knowledge of grammar does not correspond with his ambition to write elegantly. He does not scruple to write, for example, monumentus and curriculus, but treats, on the other hand, the neuter scisma as a feminine (qua scisma), in place of plures he uses pluriores, the ending -ent often replaced -unt (accedent, conpellent, dicent, poscent, etc.), the present participle in his work has a passive sense (loco nuncupante Carantomo, "in a place called C."; cf. reverentissimus, "very reverend," amantissimus, "well-loved"). Jonas confuses the words expers and expertus, limes and limen, among others; he believes that he is conferring the merit of classical style when he writes copies instead of copia. In fact, the decline of written Latin is manifest in Italy as well as in Gaul; there is only a difference of degree.

However, from the beginning of the eighth century, a renaissance of learning is apparent in the kingdom of the Lombards. At Pavia, the capital, the grammarian Petrus Diaconus teaches the young men, encouraged by the king, Cunincpert, and the bishop Damian, who died in 711, writes letters in the ancient rhetorical style. At Milan, a patriotic cleric delivers a eulogy of his town praising it as the true metropolis of Italy, which seems to be a blow against Rome, Ravenna, and the Byzantines; in the abbey of Bobbio, an interest in profane literature becomes evident from the manuscripts produced in its scriptorium. Later, Charlemagne brought scholars such as Paul the Deacon, Peter of Pisa and Paulinus of Aquileia from Italy to help organize the reform of instruction in France. The Latin of these scholars at times was influenced by the language they spoke. Paul the Deacon, for example, in his History of the Lombards, V, 40, writes erabamus instead of eramus (cf. It. eravamo). Nevertheless, in general, their Latin attests to an excellent education, acquired in Italy, but deepened in the new intellectual milieu created by Charlemagne.

The Carolingian reform, however, did not leave many traces in Italy. The area remained politically divided in small parcels and the breakup of the area is shown also in the domain of learning. In the ninth and tenth centuries we find in Italy eminent scholars such as Anastasius Bibliothecarius, Gonzo of Novara and Liutprand of Cremona, but also authors such as Agnellus of Ravenna, Erchempert of Monte Cassino, and the anonymous author of the Chronicle of Salerno, who did not succeed in assimilating elements of Latin grammar, and who, perhaps, even disdained doing so, since the mother tongue appeared to be so near the written language.

What interests us most in the study of their Latin, is that the colloquialisms which slip in often have a distinctly Italian color. From the seventh century, Latin texts present local differences at times. In the Italian Latin of this period, we have noted the use of the preposition da (It. da < de ab); in Gallic Latin we find the preposition apud (OFr. ab, od Prov. ab) in the sense of cum and a number of nouns in -or, dolor, timor, error, etc., as feminines, a phenomenon rarely found in medieval texts from other regions. In the spoken language, the reduction of cases in general resulted in a single form in Italy, in two forms in Gaul, subject case and object case. Therefore, Italian authors often confuse the Latin nominative with the other cases, while the Gauls clearly distinguish between the cases of subject and object. Local traits in unschooled writers become increasingly numerous. In the Chronicle of Salerno, there often appear phrases such as immensam multitudinem (= immensa multitudo) Agarenorum venerunt or princeps ipsa civitas (= ipsam civitatem) circumdedit. The Chronicle presents many examples of the type cum Galli (= cum Gallis) or, for the converse, referunt multis (= multi) because the final s was dropped in Italy. One finds even some traits of dialect belonging to everyday speech of the southern part of the peninsula, such as the metathesis [reversal] frabice for fabrice and frebis for febris (cf. in Neapolitan dialect frabbica and freve).

The Latin written in Italy after about the year 1000 should be studied with the Latin of other western areas. To be sure, many Italian vernacular elements are still found in texts composed in Latin, especially in charters and diplomas, but a new type of education, organized in the great abbeys and in the towns, becomes widespread in Italy as in other western lands--an education which was European rather than national, and which produced the most outstanding fruits of medieval civilization.
 



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