Medieval Latin After the Year 1000

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)

During the latter half of the Middle Ages, the Roman church extended its influence into eastern and northern Europe. Hungary, Bohemia, Poland, northern Germany and the Scandinavian lands entered into the world of Latin culture. Throughout western Europe, whatever one's national language happened to be, the basis of education was Latin. In Italy and Sweden, in Ireland as well as Poland, everywhere students studied the same Latin authors, secular and religious, starting in their first year of school. Since the foundation was the same, nationality was of little importance in the libera litterarum res publica. The Italians, Lanfranc of Pavia and St. Anselm of Aosta, became, one after the other, abbots of the monastery at Bec in Normandy and then archbishops of Canterbury; the Englishman, John of Salisbury, occupied the episcopal see of Chartres; a flood of students from all lands flowed to the universities of Paris and Bologna. Scholars from all over the world spoke the same language, and an intellectual unity, based on shared studies, began to tie all the lands of the West together.

On the other hand, the diversity of underlying languages and of political and social institutions produced many local differences as well as temporal and individual differences in the Latin of this period. It is easy, for instance, to determine that vocabulary varies according to place. Words were borrowed from mother-tongues without hesitation, chiefly in charters and semi-learned documents. In the non-Romance lands, Latin is full of words of foreign origin. In England we find, for instance, schopa = shop, daywerca = daywork, laga = law, stiremannus = steersman, in Germany, hansa = Hansa, an association of merchants, burchgravius = Burggraf, in Poland cosakus = latro, cmetho = colon. In the lands of Romance languages, scribes often racked their brains trying to provide a Latin form for words from the modern language. To give some examples chosen at random, the Latin word mansionile became mesnil in Old French. Many scribes divined the correct etymology of the word but others used the semi-learned forms, mesnillum, meisnillum, maisnile, masnile, mansile, etc. The Latin adjective medianus changed into mezzano in Italy and into mej† in southern France. From these forms there also appear mezanus and meianus in documents in France. In Catalonia, one finds a verb acuydare, aquindare, acontare, aquundare, etc. In the spoken and latinized language the Latin accognitare was boldly rendered acuyndar, acuydar, acundar. Scholars have shown that Spanish manzano, mazano, "apple tree," derives from mattianum. This word of obscure origin was rendered by manáanum, maáanus and other forms. It is curious to see that in documents the Latin of the late Middle Ages often appeared under a more bizarre form in Romance lands than in others. For Romance scribes the learned language seemed still very close to their daily speech.

We must, nevertheless, pay attention to the migration of words: that which was current, for instance, at Paris was soon borrowed by students in other lands. We often meet nouns in -agium in non-Romance lands, though in the majority of cases this suffix certainly comes from France, where Latin -aticum had led to -age (hominaticum > OFr hommage > MedLat hommagium: cf. also linguagium, passagium, villagium, etc.).

The evidence shows that from place to place the meaning of words changed as well. Consul was used at Rome to designate a functionary in the pontifical administration, but in the German towns the term designated a member of the municipal council; proconsul can mean "sheriff" in England, "burgermeister" in Germany; the meaning of miles extends from simply "soldier" to "lord" and "knight."

It is more difficult to grasp the local differences of pronunciation, a problem which has not yet received serious study. Observing the technique of rhymes, one can still form an idea of the school pronunciation. Typically, in twelfth-century France, the words quondam and undam, responde and unde, abscondi and profundi rhyme; this proves that the pronunciation of ondam, onde and profondi was influenced by OFr onde, ont and parfont. In France rhymes such as antiquus-inimicus, unquam-aduncam, precor-aequor, or nescit-reiecit, faece-quiesce, facit-pascit, docens-noscens were very common; qu had lost its labial quality, and before e and i no distinction was made between c and sc. The final t, which weakened over a long time, disappeared in Old French in about 1200. As a result, poets rhymed quicquid and reliquit, stravit and David, since the final consonants were confused in the speech of the French, as the grammarian Petrus Helias expressly says.

Sicut profertur d in hoc pronomine "id," eodem modo pronunciatur t, cum dicimus "legit," "capit." Unde sunt quidam qui maxime nos reprehendunt, ut Hiberni. Volunt enim sic pronunciare t in "legit" sicut in "tibi," dicentes quod aliter nulla erit differentia inter d et t.
For pronunciation this had no importance, except that in Classical Latin the accented vowels had been long or short, the consonants double or simple; cf., for instance, the rhymes ignitis-sagittis, extollunt-colunt, vitae-mitte, intercedat-reddat. The phonetic equivalence of magni-tyranni, signans-cachinnans, etc., shows an assimilation of gn > nn; likewise, the groups ps and ks have been assimiliated to ss: ipsas-remissas, enixa-amissa, dixit-scripsit and in Hugh of Orléans, 15.41 et seq., velox-Pelops-celos. None of these changes completely agrees with the phonetic development of French. It is particularly surprising to find in France many rhymes of the type benedicta-vita, peccatum-actum, sancti-creanti, tinctus-intus, but it may be that the school pronunciation had been influenced by the Italians. The rhyming of matre and deitate, Christum and magistrum, ventri and furenti shows a very weak articulation of r in a blend with t. Even the Old French dames can rhyme with armes, presse with averse, etc.

In the absence of special studies, we cannot yet outline a history of the school pronunciation of Latin in the late Middle Ages. There were certainly other learned "patois" than that which we are about to recall, but they seem to have played a less important role. The influence of French civilization in this era was dominant. After the Norman invasion England became a French province as far as education was concerned, and later the school milieu of Paris attracted the intellectual elite and the youth of all Europe. The students probably exported, each to his own land, particulars of French pronunciation from the learned language.

In the Carolingian era the most important centers of civilization were the abbeys, but after the tenth century, as a new structure of political, economic, and intellectual life begins to take shape, and as urban life resumes its vitality, at the head of this development stand the episcopal schools. In the freer and more democratic atmosphere of the schools, intellectual activity bore fruit which inspires our admiration.

The study of Latin was increasingly deepened, and the professors, and at times their students, succeeded in possessing thoroughly all the refinements of the learned language. Linguistic mastery is one of the most typical traits of the Latin literature of the twelfth century, which we shall analyze in what follows.

Cicero, Vergil, Ovid and other classical authors have always enjoyed the esteem of professors. At times their styles were imitated, and some succeeded so well in imitation that it is difficult to distinguish the medieval text from the ancient. Gerbert of Rheims, who died in 1003 as Pope Sylvester II and a great admirer of Cicero, writes letters in the humanist spirit which will animate the correspondence of Petrarch three centuries later. The poet Hildebert of Lavardin, who died in 1133 as archbishop of Tours, composed poems in hexameters and elegiac distychs in a Vergilian manner. Others were especially inspired by the style of St. Augustine or St. Jerome, to such an extent that scholars of our own day have been deceived by the authenticity of their works. But these are the exceptions. In general, medieval traits are discernible despite the stylistic elegance of the great authors. Imitation had not yet become a stylistic principle as it would later, during the Renaissance. One still felt altogether free to create a personal style and to adapt the language to the needs of the moment. Grammatical instruction given in the schools provided the linguistic basis on which one built new constructions. It is chiefly in vocabulary that we can follow this development.

We have learned, for instance, that classical poetry liked compound adjectives such as altisonus, altitonans, altivolans. On this model the Carolingian poets had already created, among other forms, altiboans, alticrepus, altifluus, altiloquus and continuing with alticanax, alticanorus, altifer, altipetus, altisonorus, altitonus, altivolus, etc. The compound verbs sanctificare, beatificare, glorificare, etc., had been popular among the Christians of late antiquity. These compounds were very useful and on their model one created in the Middle Ages verbs such as ratificare, publificare, exemplificare, which had a great success in modern languages. The diminutives have always formed a favored group.

Munda cultellum, morsellum quere tenellum,
Sed per cancellum, post supra pone platellum,

[clean the knife, seek a little bite
but with the fork, then put it on your plate,]

writes a professor, apparently influenced by the French language. Other forms of this type include fabrellus, tortella, pompula, for faber, torta and pompaIn order to teach his students the form and use of inchoative verbs, another schoolmaster composed the following lines:
Crescit, decrescit, in vita non requiescit,
Tandem vilescit, putrescit, quando senescit,
Vultu pallescit, cupidus fore non erubescit,
Infans marcescit tacite pariterque liquescit,

[He grows, he becomes smaller, in life he never rests,
at last he declines, he grows spoiled, when he grows old,
his face becomes pale, he is not ashamed to become wanton,
the infant withers silently, and likewise disappears.]

Similarly, we find gaudescere, movescere, calvescere (to become bald,) stultescere, etc. Verbs often lost their inchoative sense, as in the proverb:
Dum Mars arescit et mensis Aprilis aquescit,
Maius humescit, frumenti copia crescit,

[When March is dry and April is rainy,
May is damp, then food grows in abundance.]

In the archaic era of Latin, writers liked to give elegance to a phrase by accumulating words of similar sound. Ennius, for example, writes Priamo vi vitam evitari. In the Middle Ages this etymological figure was widely used, with a preference for the play on the verbal prefix de. So we read in Alan of Lille defloratus flos effloret, where effloret does not mean "to flourish," as in the ancient writers, but "to lose its flower." Other examples can be found in Walter of Châtillon rosa derosatur, mundus demundatur, masculos demasculare, federa defedare, in the Carmina Burana titulum detitulare, virginem devirginare, and in other writers canonicum decanonicare, depuerare pueros.

A characteristic feature of medieval Latin is the use of personal names to symbolize a certain quality. So Solomon represents wisdom, Paris beauty, Cato morality, Cicero eloquence, Crassus avarice. These names are even declined as adjectives. Henri de Settimello writes codrior (Codrus is an indigent poet who appears in Juvenal 3.203), neronior, salomonior Salomone, platonior ipso, and other authors have likewise enjoyed these expressions (Hugh of Orléans had already created the type capto captivior, paupere pauperior). Even verbs were made from personal names: Helena and Tiresias provided helenare and tiresiare, and from Absalon, Nero, Gualterus, Venus, Satanas come the verbs absalonizare, neronizare, gualterizare, venerizare, satanizare. In general, these two means of forming verbs, in -are and in -izare, enjoyed enormous popularity. We can also cite presbiterare, pontificare, "to ordain a priest, a bishop," vitulare, "to behave as a calf," musare, "to catch mice," gulare, "to stuff one's face," cervisiare, "to stir up (brasser)," podagrare, "to cause someone to have gout," and also sillabizare, "to teach someone to read," stultizare, puerizare, "to act silly, behave childishly ," and similarly eremizare, monachizare, scholizare, harmonizare, modulizare, etc.

* * *

But it is time to return to prose, the development of which presents interesting features, especially with respect to rhythm. In classical prose, phrase endings had been arranged to form combinations of long and short syllables which were called clausulae. In the Empire, the system of clausulae was increasingly simplified until eventually only three types remained (s = syllable).

1. _´ _/_ _´_       for example dúcit ad-vítam

2. _´ _ /_ _ _´_       vícta desérviat

3. _´ _ _ /_´_ _´_     lítteris índicáre

The advantage of this simplification is great. Even the authors of the period of decadence, who no longer mastered the refinements of Latin prosody, were able to arrange the final words of a phrase according to accents. Just as often the accents play the greater role, while the quantity becomes an attendant refinement. Eventually, the quantitative system collapsed into complete disuse, and there remain only three accentual types, which are later called cursus:
1. _´_ /_ _´_       cursus planus

2. _´_ /_ _ _´_       cursus tardus

3. _´_ _ /_´_ _´_       cursus velox

At the beginning of the Middle Ages even the accentual rhythms were little used. Authors such as the Venerable Bede and Alcuin did not use clausulae, others such as Paul the Deacon, Paulinus of Aquileia, Walafrid Strabo, Anastasius Bibliothecarius show only a tendancy, more or less marked, for ending phrases with a rhythmic cursus. Still, this indicates that the ancient school tradition was not completely extinguished and that the rules of prose rhythm continued to be taught in some schools. In the eleventh century, this tendancy was changed to regular practice in the work of St. Peter Damian and Alberic of Monte Cassino. In the celebrated Italian abbey, the study of prose rhythm was especially diligent. From there the monk Johannes Cajetanus was called to Rome in 1088 to reform the Latin style of the papal chancery; he later ascended the throne of St. Peter under the name of Gelasius II.

The practice of rhythmic cursus in the letters of the Popes gave rise to a diligent study of this method of embellishing prose. At Rome, the papal chancellor, Albert of Morra, an elderly monk of Monte Cassino, authored a forma dictandi which he published in 1187 after his elevation to the pontifical throne. At Bologna, Paris, Orléans, etc., other dictatores, from whom we have many summae, taught and expounded the rules of prose rhythm. The Italian masters, in general, recommended the three forms of cursus which we are about to mention. Following their rules, the cursus planus is represented, for instance, by the words audíri compéllunt, confidénter audébo, violári non pótest, operántur in bónum, the cursus tardus by the words tímet impéria, óvis ad víctimam, the cursus velox by the words gaúdia perveníre, suffíciant advolátum, ágere nimis dúre, dábitur regnum Déi, sápias per te múltum. In the last three examples we find the structure _´_ _/_´_/_´_, where two breaks occur in the same clausula, a structure unknown to the preceding eras. The French masters distanced themselves still further from the ancient models. They regarded as completely acceptable the clausula without break, that is, a clausula consisting of a single word. In their teaching, the word dámpnatiónem, for example, forms a cursus planus. Moreover, to the three established types of clausulae they added a fourth, which they called cursus trispondaicus, where there are three unaccented syllables between two accented syllables. This is the type which we find in a clausula such as dóna sentiámus, whose structure is _´_/_ _ _´_. Here, as well, a single word suffices to form a regular clausula; they cite, among other examples, cómpositióne.

It is difficult to resolve in a definitive manner the problems posed by the examination of clausulae in a medieval text. It is necessary first to determine where the pauses of speech occur according to the intent of the author. Little is known about the accentuation of certain groups of words. We know that in spoken Latin in antiquity the relative pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and certain forms of the verb esse did not possess an accent and that other words, such as personal and possessive pronouns could be accented, or not, depending on context. In medieval Latin accentuation appears often to have been the same, but in the language of the schools the standard of pronunciation depended especially on the teaching of the master, the details of which escape us. Still, when an Italian professor gives as example of cursus planus the words bonum non potest and operantur in bonum, it is evident that he has accented them as non pótest and in bónum, despite the quantity of the accented syllable. On the other hand, a cursus velox such as rapias per te multum shows that the professor spoke pér te, and treated the two monosyllables as a single word which he accented according to ordinary rules. The dictatores observed this phenomenon, which they called consillabicatio, unfortunately without providing a precise definition of it.

We must consider the problems of method and analyze the texts very closely before drawing up the statistical tables necessary for an examination of prose rhythm. One recent study shows us that in the late Middle Ages, authors widely employed regular clausulae and that exceptions are owed most often to peculiar conditions. So we find in the work of Pierre de la Vigne, who lived in the middle of the thirteenth century, the following distribution: cursus planus 24.9%, tardus 2.5%, velox 68.9%, trispondaicus 2.5%, other types 1.2%. The numbers are close to those for Cola di Rienzo, a century later: cursus planus 10.7%, tardus 1.6%, velox 84.2%, trispondaicus 1.9%, other types 1.6%. It is clear that these two authors preferred the cursus velox, that they admitted the cursus planus but that they tried to avoid the other types. Dante, whose Latin style is still thoroughly medieval, employed the cursus tardus frequently. In his work, the corresponding numbers are: cursus planus 31.8%, tardus 21.1%, velox 45.3%, trispondaicus 0.9%, other types 0.9%. The three types which the Italian school recommended account for 96.3% of all clausulae in the work of Pierre de la Vigne, 96.5% in Cola di Rienzo, 98.2% in Dante. In the work of Petrarch and Boccaccio, the numbers descend to 74% and 68.7%. In the work of Gasparino Barzizza and Enea Silvio, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the numbers decline to 48% and 52.5%. This means that these two, typical representatives of the high Renaissance, have completely abandoned the medieval system and do not concern themselves about end rhythm. Still, it is noteworthy that Enea Silvio, who became Pope, yields to the ancient tradition which was still alive in the papal chancery. There, the use of the cursus was preserved until Leo X (1513 - 1521) who brought to his chancery as secretary, among others, the celebrated humanist Pietro Bembo. With a Latin style distinguished by its Ciceronian elegance, Bembo definitively removed the last traces of the style of the Middle Ages from the papal chancery.

The study of rhythmic cursus has carried us across the boundaries of the Middle Ages. However, before finishing our survey, we must add some words about the development of Latin during the last century of this era.

We have stated above that all the episcopal schools were responsible for providing the learned of the eleventh and twelfth centuries with the detailed linguistic preparation which allowed the brilliant flourishing of Latin literature in this period. But from the thirteenth century on the situation rapidly changed. In the universities, which replaced the episcopal schools in ever growing numbers, dialectic surpassed grammar, facts attracted the interest of students much more than elegant form, the classical auctores were abandoned in the pursuit of the study of theology, law, medicine, philosophy, and the sciences. The grammarians themselves changed their method. No longer bothering to find correct usage in ancient models, they tried to resolve linguistic problems by their own speculation. The aim of grammar was no longer to facilitate the study of masterworks of Latin literature, but to provide an introduction to the study of logic. It followed that scholastic Latin lost contact with literary works and became increasingly technical.

The new character which Latin presents from the foundation of the universities and the domination of scholasticism is especially evident in vocabulary. The new speculation needed a new terminology to express its analyses and rationales with scientific precision. Many scholastic neologisms had a lasting impact. For example, consider the abstract terms prioritas and superioritas derived from prior and superior, verbs such as organizare and specificare with their corresponding nouns organizatio and specificatio, a number of nouns in -alitas derived from adjectives in -alis, such as actualitas, causalitas, formalitas, individualitas, potentialitas, proportionalitas, realitas, spiritualitas, nouns in -ista such as artista, iurista, decretista, occamista, thomista, scotista, platonista, latinista, humanista. We still say disputare pro et contra or a priori, a posteriori, expressions used in the teaching of dialectic. A collection of sermons is still called in German Postille, from Latin postilla, an abbreviation of the words post illa verba, by which one began the explication of a text at this time. Other innovations of scholasticism were more ephemeral or changed the sense of words, for example quodlibetum, a general disputation where the auditors could propose any problem whatsoever, quodlibet, for the analysis of the professors, or the somewhat fantastic forms such as haecitas, ipseitas, talitas, quiditas, perseitas, velleitas, anitas (a response to the question an sit aliquid), etc. The victory of Aristotelianism led to a new influx of Hellenisms. St. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, introduced words such as epicheia, eubolia, synderesis, theandrica, and there are underlying expressions in Aristotle which explain the use of Latin words such as habitus, accidens, forma, materia, intellectus agens, etc. Many words were even borrowed from Arabic, many of which are still in use: algebra, algorismus, cifra, alchimia, chimia, elixir, camphora, etc.

However, above all, it is the simplicity of syntax and the monotony of style which characterize scholastic Latin. One adds new arguments with item, an amplius or a praeterea, repeated ad infinitum. Logic required of Latin expressions an impeccable precision, but not the variation consistent with the standards of rhetoric. The use of images to enliven style is forbidden: the austerity of thought demanded complete stylistic dryness. From Old French ly was borrowed to designate a citation in order to avoid any possibility of misunderstanding. St. Thomas, speaking of the Son in his treatise on the Trinity, states: Melius est quod dicatur "semper natus," ut ly "semper" designet permanentiam aeternitatis et ly "natus" perfectionem geniti.

The Latin of scholasticism is a remarkable creation. The language cultivated for centuries by poets and rhetors possessed great plasticity to be remodeled according to the needs of the new movement and to become an admirable instrument in the service of the thought of logicians and metaphysicians. Those, however, who had accustomed their ears to the music of Ciceronian eloquence, found this Latin offensive. Their reaction was violent. From the fourteenth century on, the friends of literature undertook a relentless struggle against the technical Latin of education in the field of dialectic. In their enthusiasm for the beauty of classical literature, they rejected not only the language of scholasticism, but all that had been created since antiquity. For Petrarch and his partisans, the ancients alone had provided the model for Latin eloquence. After their era, Latin style had degenerated during a period of unprecedented barbarism, which had to be abandoned as quickly as possible to recall Roman civilization from her long exile.

We cannot follow here this complex interplay, the result of which was the return of literary works and the victory of the ideas of the Renaissance. The penetrating study of ancient sources stimulated intellectual development and delivered the dynamic forces of humanism from their chains. For Latin, however, the success of the Renaissance was disastrous. Literary geniuses ceased to express themselves in a language in which imitation was the highest principle, and a rigorous normativism did not provide much freedom of expression. Scholars later followed their example, when they discovered the limits of usage of the school language. After the Renaissance, Latin ceased to develop and its history presents nothing of further interest from a linguistic point of view. It became what is often called a dead language.

This is an image which leads easily to misunderstandings. The question is often discussed whether the Latin of the Middle Ages is a dead language, a living or a semi-living language, a discussion bearing little fruit. A language is not an organism which is born, grows, ages, and dies. It is a means of communication among people that can work well or not.

If we examine medieval Latin from this point of view, we can immediately state the social limits of its use. From the moment when Latin ceased to be understood by all the people--which varies from place to place--its usage was limited to an exclusive element of the population. Latin was no longer a mother tongue, but a scholarly language whose secrets were inaccessible to the greater part of society. On the other hand, medieval Latin knew no political boundaries. In the Roman Empire, Latin had been a national language, whose diffusion went hand in hand with that of the Roman administration. In the Middle Ages, its success stemmed from the fact that it was the language of western Christianity. It was the learned language not only of the ancient Roman world, but also of Ireland, England, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and the lands of Scandinavia. In all these lands, the educated used Latin, orally and in writing, for teaching, for the various functions of political and administrative life, and in the monasteries and churches. In these circles, the life of the learned language was not artificial. Latin followed the development of civilization, it incorporated the words necessary to express new ideas, it adopted a simpler structure. This aptitude of medieval Latin to change according to various needs is apparent in two areas, the lyrical and the scholastic. In the very period when the great cathedrals were being built, when Leoninus, Perotinus, and other masters were creating polyphonic music, authors composed Latin poems which, for their achievement in form and their sonority, were epoch-making in western literature. The linguistic revolution of scholasticism was just as imposing, though oriented in another direction, toward logical precision and monotonous exactitude, which university teaching needed. In the one case as in the other, medieval Latin proved its ability to serve as means of expression, artistic or technical, as needed.

The study of the Latin language of the Middle Ages is still in its beginnings. Next to the Renaissance, antiquity is the most popular object of literary research. Now this literature is already the result of critical activity: at the end of antiquity, only the works judged worthy of preservation and of current interest were transcribed from papyrus to parchment. The literature of the Middle Ages has never been purged. Its breadth is enormous, the major part of it has only been studied superficially, many areas still remain unknown, the artistic products are often submerged by the flood of works of no interest. The task of studying a subject so little explored is urgent and fruitful. One must first, however, develop the indispensible tools, without which any attempt to penetrate this field is bound to fail.

Previous Chapter

"Manuel pratique de latin médiéval"
Medieval Latin Main Page

Latin Language Main Page
Orbis Latinus Main Page

This page is part of Orbis Latinus
© Zdravko Batzarov