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Latin in Medieval Britain$

Richard Ashdowne and Carolinne White

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266083

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266083.001.0001

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Elephans in Camera: Latin and Latinity in 15th- and Early-16th-Century England

Elephans in Camera: Latin and Latinity in 15th- and Early-16th-Century England

(p.106) 5 Elephans in Camera: Latin and Latinity in 15th- and Early-16th-Century England
Latin in Medieval Britain

Robert Swanson

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

The 15th and 16th centuries are often depicted as the death throes of Latin in England, supplanted by ‘The Rise of English’. Arguing that more English did not necessarily mean less Latin, this chapter assesses the role of Latin in England from c.1400 to c.1540, and suggests that in terms of overall cultural history, use, and the accumulated inheritance from the past, this may have been when England was at its most Latinate of all. Considering the use of Latin as a spectrum of skills—reading, writing, speaking, and listening—and across a range of abilities, it offers a positive appreciation of late Medieval Latin as a vital force in a multilingual society.

Keywords:   15th century, 16th century, cultural history, late Medieval Latin, multilingual society, writing

FOR THE DMLBS THE ERA OF ‘Medieval Latin’ ends in 1600. For England alone, however, the mid-1530s may provide a more realistic cut-off, with the Reformation as a watershed. This chapter attempts to assess England’s Latin and Latinate culture from around 1400 to that break point. Clearly, the discussion cannot be comprehensive; the surviving evidence on some aspects is limited, the full range of potential points for examination extensive. The discussion is at times speculative, matching the uncertainties of the conclusions which can be drawn from the sources. The focus is explicitly on England; other parts of Britain have their own histories.

1. Introduction

This chapter’s basic contention is that to treat this period as the era of Medieval Latin’s death throes is far too extreme. The Latin of this period is perhaps neglected—being so integral to the culture of pre-Reformation England that non-linguists simply take it for granted. Latin’s presence seems unremarkable, so is usually unremarked; yet it was undeniably pervasive. As an elephant in the room, even contemporaries ignored it. One striking medieval instance of this appears during a spat between the English and French at the Council of Constance, in 1415. In standing up for England, Thomas Polton declared that in the ‘English or British nation … there are five languages, you might say, not one of which understands another’.1 He also asserted that England possessed ‘everything necessary to being a nation [… however] nation is understood’, which included ‘by difference of language,— (p.107) which is the chief and surest proof of being a nation, and its very essence, either by divine or human law’.2 Polton lists his five languages (English—shared by the English and Scots, together with Welsh, Irish, Gascon, and Cornish), but does not mention Latin (or, for that matter, French, but that is another issue). Yet Latin was the language in which he issued his statement (written, not spoken), with a covering speech also in Latin, in an international assembly where Latin was the main mode of communication between participants. To validate Polton’s multilingual ‘English or British nation’ (which included more than the British Isles), its ‘national’ status enhanced by mutual linguistic incomprehensibility, Latin as a unifying language (for much more than just the British Isles) was perhaps deliberately sidelined.

The elephant was present, but does not trumpet its presence. It was a very big elephant. Indeed, perhaps paradoxically, this may be the era when England was at its most Latin, simply because of the overall scale of the Latin heritage and contemporary production.

That claim rests on four key points. The first is that the cumulative nature of the culture means that Latin in pre-Reformation England is reflected not only in the material produced in the 15th and early 16th centuries, but in all the then-surviving and accumulated Latinity of preceding centuries. To reconstruct that totality is a daunting imaginative task—perhaps its full scale is only imaginable after confronting the massive coffin-like boxes of CP 40 records in the National Archives, each containing one term’s worth of proceedings in the Court of Common Pleas.3 Imagine the wealth of Latinity if every volume listed in the extant library catalogues (and those of the other lost libraries) still survived;4 if all the monastic archives were extant as fully as those of Westminster Abbey or Norwich Cathedral priory; if the archives of the secular cathedrals were still complete; if every royal and manorial court’s rolls were still available, with the records of urban and shrieval administrations; if all the liturgical books from every church and devotional centre were still around (plus the personal books of hours and other devotional texts);5 if the records of the Court of Arches and every other church court existed even in the incomplete state represented by the extant books and cause papers from York;6 if all the ephemera had not proved ephemeral. Imagine, also, if (p.108) all the inscribed brasses, stones, or wood had survived, and all the texts in stained glass or paint. Between 1400 and 1539, much of it was still there, and was constantly being added to. What remains is a mere fragment, sometimes woefully reduced.

A second point is that little about this Latin England was exclusively English: Latin England and England’s Latin were not insular. The Latin culture was fed by continental visitors, imports, and contacts. There were the Latin documents generated by contact with the papacy,7 or from international diplomacy and commerce; and imported copies of continental manuscripts, including manuscript books of hours produced for the English market by Flemish booksellers.8 Some continental texts—including at least one sermon by Savonarola—were available in England as Latin versions of material originally produced in a local vernacular.9 England also fed into the international culture, through the same channels, including works produced and translated into Latin which were intended for continental consumption (alongside texts translated from English into Latin for use within England). These ranged from devotional texts translated by Carthusians and sent overseas, to John Fisher’s contributions to the debates over the identity of Mary Magdalene, and the Latin polemics of Henry VIII’s Defence of the Seven Sacraments and subsequent textual rows with Luther.10

Complementing and confirming the above, the third factor is the emergence of print. Print was initially Latin; it remained strongly so throughout its first century. The scale of production of these Latin works was significant: legal and theological works printed in multiple copies massively expanded the Latin corpus; and these were not all new texts. Many were old—the church fathers, St Bernard, the classical authors, and (of course) the Bible. Few of these Latin books were actually printed in England—the local market was not big enough to justify the investment (which is not to say that it was a ‘small’ market).11 Considerable amounts of this newly printed Latin culture were imported into England, as purchases by individual travellers, or as trade goods.12 It was not all academic material. Until the 1530s, most of the printed (and Latin) service books and books of hours used in England were printed (p.109) overseas and imported.13 In general, the increased availability of printed texts also increased access to Latin. An important point here was print’s labour-saving quality: its production methods allowed more to be produced for the same cost, and faster. Basically, you got more print, so more Latin, per penny.

The fourth, final, point is more speculative, and can be made more succinctly. The role of English in England’s literary and general textual culture certainly expanded during this period; but more English did not necessarily mean less Latin.

It is impossible to know in full how all this accumulated Latin was actually used or responded to. The use was manifestly continuous through the period. The heritage—the older manuscripts and archival material—was not all dead matter. Some doubtless was, stuff which might be needed and so had to be kept—all those charters for which cartularies provided the working copies; or the many documents relating to benefices similarly summarised in episcopal registers.14 Yet it could all be accessed, if needed. Ignoring purely antiquarian interest, across the period inspeximuses and court cases reveal documents being copied and cited from way back to the 12th century. Examples include a court case of 1526 between Ranton Priory and the churchwardens of Ranton when the latter invoked three charters originally issued in the 12th century, seemingly citing the original documents.15 Several canon law volumes of the 13th and 14th centuries contain glosses and other notes indicating continued use in the 15th and 16th centuries.16 Thomas Bekynton, eventually bishop of Bath and Wells, owned and augmented (or had augmented) a manuscript written c. 1200 (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Add. A.44) which has been called an ‘anthology par excellence’ of Anglo-Latin literature.17 Finally there is Thomas Urmeston, an obscure cleric who was eventually vicar of Newport Pagnell from 1481 to 1501. At some point he acquired a rather scrappy copy of a set of Latin sermons, presumably to inform his own preaching. There was no reason for him to know—and no evidence that he did—that those sermons actually originated in 9th-century Italy. Since then they had (p.110) become diffused across much of Europe, with a small cluster of copies written in England in the 14th and 15th centuries.18

The elephant was big; only its shrunken corpse remains; it needs to be revivified. The following discussion concentrates on two main concerns: the use of Latin in reading, writing, and speaking; and the place of Latin in England’s changing linguistic and literary culture. A preliminary caveat is needed. At one extreme, this Latinate culture was universal, encompassing everyone (whether they liked it or not) because Latin was fundamental to the administrative and spiritual culture. At the other extreme, of active voluntary participation (which may include the clerical activity), it was a minority culture, exclusive even if not elitist. The multiple spectra within the culture as a whole must be acknowledged, even if the more active, more explicitly Latinate, sectors will unavoidably receive most attention.

2. Latinity as Skill Set

At one level, Latin and Latinity is a matter of a basic skill set, the mechanics of linguistic acquisition and communication. At that basic level, for Latin to be a vital force in England’s culture it had to be used, and therefore learnt. Latin was always a second language, Latinity always an acquired cultural veneer. Texts make it visible, but to rely solely on texts would be simplistic. Reading and speaking raise different issues. None of the questions raised by addressing Latin and Latinity as a skill set was new or exclusive to the immediate pre-Reformation period: in this respect the fundamental continuity of the Latinate culture is a constant, although there were significant changes over time.

2.1 Reading

Being the initial skill, reading provides the starting point. As before 1400, it is likely—even probable—that learning to read in and through Latin preceded learning to read English. While the precisely English evidence leaves it unclear whether the so-called ‘ABC primer’ circulated independently as an overtly Latin document, the continental evidence, and the versions incorporated into English manuscripts (including books of hours, the other category of ‘primer’), strongly suggest that this first step to literacy was made via Latin.19

How and where that reading first occurred is uncertain. Recent work on depictions of St Anne teaching the Virgin to read suggests that mothers (or (p.111) some mothers) had that initial role, for both boys and girls. This, however, was probably mechanical recognition and word-formation, not acquisition of understanding: learning to mouth the words without knowing what they meant.20 As a basic skill, such reading persisted later in life—the author of the Mirror of Our Lady offered his English translation of the divine office for nuns who did not understand or appreciate what they were reading and saying.21 Real understanding, both in vocabulary and grammar, required a different context, probably more gendered but still potentially local. That may be reflected in the injunction at Hartlebury (Worcs) in 1478 banning the parish clerk from giving any book held by the churchwardens (presumably liturgical texts, in Latin) to a child to learn from.22

Ability levels clearly varied. Gendered expectations meant that only boys attended the increasing number of grammar schools visible in the period.23 There understanding developed alongside a firmer grounding in the language. One significant boundary in reading, rarely mentioned or acknowledged, was the transition to dealing with the full complexity of Medieval Latin script, and moving beyond the merely alphabetic to the demanding system of abbreviations and contracted words. Without equivalents to modern guides like Adriano Cappelli’s Dizionario and Charles Trice Martin’s The Record Interpreter, issues of how that system was taught, and how its consistency was maintained (across all of Europe, not just in England) are seemingly neglected in the scholarship—so cannot be adequately addressed here either.

The existence of that system of abbreviations nevertheless leads to a third question: whether the contractions were always automatically fully extended when read. They presumably were when full textual reading mattered, but elsewhere, maybe mainly among traders and merchants dealing with accounts, possibly were not. For such usage the contractions perhaps remained dumb, blurring the Latinity in a kind of code-switching. The texts were read, but not necessarily as functionally Latin documents.24 Inserting this possibility into the overall spectrum of reading creates a range from (at one end) full access to and understanding of the technical vocabulary and complex orthography or typography of academic and archival Latin, through the quasi-Latinity of business language, to merely making words (and sounds) in ignorance of what they meant. Such a range challenges polarisation between those who (p.112) read Latin and those who ‘only’ read English—unless ‘reading’ Latin is understood also to require comprehension.25

2.2 Writing

The second skill, writing, raises similar problems. Information on how people acquired the basics is elusive. The mere survival of so much written material between 1400 and 1540 is sufficient evidence that people did learn to write in Latin; but the mechanisms and extent of orthographic education are obscure. It is, maybe, another of those things scholars take for granted.

The degree of Latinity reflected or refracted through the writing process nevertheless merits attention. Visual—reading—Latinity need not translate into compositional ability, but it could suffice for copying. This may have implications for the gendering of the Latinate culture. England leaves strikingly little evidence for women as writers (an absence noted for writing in English as much as in Latin).26 The totality of the absence is itself suspicious, in marked contrast to evidence for composition and copying by continental nuns. With the losses among English nunnery archives and libraries, the possibility that evidence for women’s writing has been lost, rather than never existed, cannot be discounted; but in the present state of knowledge the evidence on composition in Latin seems to relate exclusively to men.

Among men, the constant flow of low-level ecclesiastical bureaucratic activity presumably encouraged Latinity among clerics, and Latinity was meant to be tested at ordination. That test, however, assessed reading and pronunciation more than active compositional ability. There are occasional signs of more stringent testing. While evidence of full rejection cannot be expected in the sources, insufficiency is suggested when the newly ordained were required to continue in the schools after receiving orders. At least one presentee to a benefice was disqualified by his poor reading skills and inability to construe Latin grammar adequately; others who became incumbents were also occasionally required to improve their Latin.27 Even clerics who met the requirements may not have found composition easy. A mandate sent from the Official of the archdeacon of Chester to one cleric in 1530 was written in Latin, but its endorsement notifying compliance is in English.28 In the royal (p.113) administration a similar regime of endorsed mandates applied with returns of writs. There the responses had to be in Latin, but the Latin did not have to be perfect.29 This linguistic difference may merely reflect different administrative structures: writs were returned by a small cohort of trained officials, whereas any cleric might receive an episcopal or archidiaconal mandate, making it hit-or-miss whether the reply was in Latin or not.30

Against evidence for limited skills should be set more striking evidence of compositional ability. One suggested benefit of the abbreviations used in Medieval Latin texts is that they saved time, specifically when recording speech. Indeed, it was supposedly speedier to write Latin than to transcribe vernacular speech—even making allowance for the demands of simultaneous translation.31 There is abundant evidence for such translational composition in pre-Reformation England. Notarial documents originated in Latin notes; so did the original versions of witness statements recorded for the church courts—although in both cases a degree of editing may have occurred between the initial notes and final text.32

2.3 Speaking

The third component of the skill set of England’s Latinate culture which needs attention, speaking, is the hardest to deal with: for obvious reasons, it leaves very little direct evidence. Yet as spoken Latin was always an acquired tongue, it is perhaps conceivable that there was a common standard in pronunciation, at least among those formally taught and who needed the language for formal purposes, which would facilitate consistent transcription from oral delivery and ratify its function as a shared learned language which transcended the regionalism of the vernaculars. This standard might amount to an ‘English’ accent, or a norm modified by regionalisms but not nationally incomprehensible: for spoken Latin to function either nationally or internationally localised pronunciations clearly could not be so divergent as to prevent understanding across vernacular linguistic boundaries.

A realistic spectrum for fluent oral Latinity in pre-Reformation England is elusive. Merely mouthed prayers recited from memory perhaps do not (p.114) count, requiring no comprehension; but comprehension could come with repetition. The starting point may be the use of formulaic tags like those picked up by real-life equivalents of Chaucer’s Summoner.33 At the other extreme would lie complete fluency and facility. Knowledge of Latin was tested when convicted felons claimed benefit of clergy, the privilege (available only to men) of avoiding hanging because the ability to read supposedly proved clerical status.34 The test is a questionable indicator of reading ability (benefit being allowed to men whose skills were sometimes ‘embarrassingly feeble’);35 here the option of a blind claimant speaking rather than reading Latin is more relevant. The claimant had ‘to speak Latin as something learnt, and not by natural speaking as the Italians do [it]’.36 This also suggests, though, that England’s spoken Latin was somehow recognisably different from continental (or at least, Italian) Latin.

The acquisition of oral Latinity is one of the most elusive components of the total picture. The spectrum contains hints of a widely distributed koine based around Latin, but these are so few (and sometimes so ambiguous) that virtually nothing can be made of them.37 It is unlikely that this version was formally taught; it was probably just picked up, as a pidgin Latin with all the fluidity and instability of a language lacking a textual or institutional focus—although access to more formal texts, conveying awareness of the linguistic rules, might be influential within it.

More structured acquisition required formal education. Many children doubtless spoke Latin parrot-fashion, learning basic prayers from their mothers and godparents by rote, or at song-school. Conversational ability demanded a different environment. At least one surviving translational exercise suggests that grammar schools sought to develop this ability, by requiring pupils to use Latin as their basic means of communication (Eng. Sch. Ex. 79 no. 29). The pupils might be taught through English, but the expectation was that they would not normally use it among themselves.38

As these boys moved on, some of them entered other communities which similarly used Latin among themselves. At Godshouse, Cambridge, established (p.115) to specialise specifically in grammar, the foundation statutes of 1439 required the fellows and scholars to use Latin within the college precincts, applying the same rule to resident ‘outsiders’. However, as in lower schools, the rule did not apply when a feast intervened, and other exceptions were envisaged (Stat. Chr. Coll. 24–5); Latin was presumably not used with the servants. Essentially the same rule appeared in 1506 when Godshouse became Christ’s College, although Latin was not mandatory for the Fellows in their own rooms. They were required to work on their Latin (which suggests that it was not perfect), and could be fined for speaking ‘a whole sentence in the vernacular tongue’ within the College (ibid. 48–51, 90–1). That may hint at a macaronic orality, with English meant to be the minor language. Prospective pupil scholars at Christ’s were also expected to be able to speak Latin, ‘and understand it when spoken’ (ibid. 102–3).

Differing contexts obviously affected the range of individual abilities with spoken Latin: the spectrum matters. Margery Kempe did not understand the Latin addressed to her by the Steward of Leicester, and he then berated her accordingly; but it is noteworthy that he spoke Latin to her at all—although whether as a test, or because he expected her to understand, is not clear.39 If he did expect understanding, then an intriguing but ultimately speculative proposition might allow for more widespread linguistic than literary ability, albeit incomplete and unevenly distributed. The full extent of such linguistic code-switching in pre-Reformation England is irrecoverable, but offers a challenging prospect. The linguistic play of intentionally macaronic texts, where the languages operate in controlled sequence, is very different from semi-automatic intertwining. This second form is nevertheless well attested in late medieval England, its key representatives being macaronic sermons.40 In those where Latin is the matrix language the English intrudes, recalling both the forbidden speech of the Christ’s College statutes,41 and the suggestion that the sermons were written as they were intended to be recited—and heard.42 Macaronic sermons with an English matrix would be inherently more widely understood, but the overall size of the comprehending audience would be limited. Such macaronic texts presume some bilingual aurality, but the minimal extent of bilingual orality remains unclear; it might be wrong totally (p.116) to discount it among the non-clerical population. Even if restricted, as it probably was, to only sections of the population, it is another element to incorporate into ‘the remarkable linguistic versatility displayed by an admittedly educated, but hardly socially elite group’.43

3. Cultural transitions

The linguistic skills were foundational and essential for participation in the Latinate culture, as timeless constants. Evolutions and transitions in the role and status of Latin had more specific historical significance. Here the focus shifts to the relationship between the different languages of the period: mainly English and Latin, with French in the background.

Integrating Latin into individual literate lives in the complex linguistic context of pre-Reformation England is generally challenging, with the attendant risk of giving an impression of widespread decline in Latin’s use and cultural significance. The impression may be unavoidable; yet it would be false.

For most of the minority who could read, the preferred textual language was probably English, even if textual contacts on the whole (and so, for everyone) were primarily through Latin texts mediated orally into English, or from English words mediated into a Latin text (as in witness statements in the church courts). Latin was a subsidiary language, encountered and recorded chiefly as an official or textual language. This is, superficially, the situation revealed in the ‘Armburgh Papers’, documents primarily dealing with a legal dispute and produced by and for a gentry family in the first half of the 15th century.44 Much of the content is correspondence, unsurprisingly in English. That there are only two Latin pieces, both official court records, suggests a linguistic divide and may imply a lack of Latinity. However, intriguing suggestions of a wider linguistic facility appear in a couple of poems copied into the volume.45 These reveal trilinguality: the verses comprise lines in French, English, and Latin, in that order. These are not great works of art, but they are linguistically complex. In one poem the Latin lines (apart from one) comprise only one word each, but these arguably go beyond mere tags, and certainly make an essential contribution to the poem’s meaning.46 There are errors in the Latin of the second poem, but whether they derive from the (p.117) master text or are just transcriptional (so reflecting on the Latinity of the scribe) cannot be determined.47

The three languages coexisted, to be mixed and matched, or separated out, as needed. They were in competition, but the relationships between them changed over time. The 15th century attests growing use and visibility of English in the sources; and in some areas English rose to something close to prominence and dominance—notably in literature and devotional works, in ordinary letter writing, in urban records, and in the petitions submitted to the Court of Chancery. It is suggested that most scientific and medical texts were written in English by 1500;48 royal proclamations switched from Latin to English in the reign of Edward IV.49 Translations made increasing amounts of Latin material directly available. Nevertheless, in many respects, and in almost every significant bureaucratic and administrative sphere, Latin remained the default language.50 Rising literacy rates meant that more people were writing English; but to emphasise the increase in English writing ignores the concomitant increase in accessible Latin material, and a possible symbiotic increase in the numbers accessing it. It is probably exaggerating unreliable evidence to suggest that 40 per cent of male Londoners could read Latin around 1470;51 but how many actually could, either there or within England as a whole, cannot realistically be known—it is a reasonable proposition that the percentage was lower in rural areas than in towns.52 To reiterate an earlier point: more English did not have to mean less Latin, and might mean more—the language which did decline, across the board, was French, sometimes replaced by Latin.53

There is a sense that new lines between the languages were being drawn after 1400, perhaps particularly as the erosion of French reconfigured the boundaries between English and Latin. Boundaries had, of course, long existed, most obviously in the common law between use of law French as the main language for instruction and for recording debates between lawyers in the ‘Year Books’, and Latin as the courts’ archival and bureaucratic language.54 (p.118) Similar boundaries appear in other government records, with some 15th-century shifts.55

Equivalent boundaries occur in the separatist but symbiotic relationship between Latin and English found in documents relating to indulgences. During the 15th century, a strong but not absolutely rigid divide developed between two of the principal relevant genres. Before 1400, written statements of the spiritual benefits available through indulgences were probably usually issued in Latin, to be translated into English by the agents on their rounds;56 but after 1400 similar publicity documents were almost wholly in English. These might derive from a Latin master, sometimes itself distributed for translation; but at the lowest level they were disseminated in English. This is most obvious in the arrangements to publicise the indulgence for the anti-Hussite crusade of 1429;57 it is implicit in statements on later publicity texts noting the collation of the English text with the original (Latin) papal bulls to check the translation. Some confessional letters bore similar notes.58 This suggests a sense of divergent linguistic utility for basic communication, which perhaps became particularly important as print emerged and publicity material turned into posters. Such documents remained in English, but became more expansive when printed.59 The letters of confraternity which listed the spiritual privileges on offer, and some of the instructions for local agents, were issued in Latin, regardless of whether the texts were manuscripts or printed. (A few confraternity letters were printed in English.)60 The royal letters of protection which pardoners carried with them were also issued in Latin. The manuscript form letters were relatively short; but the speed of printing meant that more documents could be produced more cheaply, and they became larger. The printed letters for the Boston guild of Our Lady from the 1520s and 1530s were considerably more verbose than the surviving manuscript letter of 1492.61

The printed confessional letters offer intriguing hints on contemporary Latinity. Several printed texts are imperfect: typos pass undetected, suggesting that the printers did not fully understand their copy texts (or did not care, as long as they were paid). Where the current pope is misnamed (naming one (p.119) nine years dead), or the Latin text is a fairly blatant forgery, the printers maybe were totally ignorant of the text they were printing, merely replicating what they were given.62 Yet the documents anticipated Latinity in their users and sellers. At the least, the priest who actually conferred the indulgence needed to understand what he was granting, appreciate the small print, and read the appropriate absolution. In sophisticated instances, the seller might need to select among variant Latin texts for one appropriate to the customer.63 Not infrequently, blank spaces were left to insert the purchaser’s name and the date of purchase, or to complete the grammatical endings of verbs for singular or plural buyers.64

The rubrics attached to indulgenced prayers in books of hours and some other contexts demonstrate similar linguistic awareness. The headings frequently appear in English, setting out how the prayers should be said, and detailing the pardon on offer. The prayers are in Latin, to be read and said in that language—with or without understanding. Some indulgences differentiate between levels of Latinity: the ‘lewd’ said the standard rote-learned Creed, Our Father, and Hail Mary (in Latin), but the ‘literate’ recited more difficult Latin prayers (although these could also be rote-learned). An example is an indulgence to reward prayers for Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, and Princess Mary, issued in the 1520s.65

However, the linguistic divide for indulgences was not absolutely rigid. Strikingly, the two known indulgence formulae from church windows—overtly public texts—were in Latin. One might have been understood in a quasi-Pavlovian manner, like similar indulgence rubrics; but the other (rewarding Marian devotion) needed more decoding.66 Possibly Latin was used here primarily for its authoritative connotations, as in the continued use of Latin for confessional letters; but the texts still had to be deciphered and understood. The linguistic division was not always a barrier. When Humphrey Newton of Pownall in Cheshire catalogued his indulgences he noted the benefits in English, but was almost certainly drawing on confraternity letters written (or even printed) in Latin.67

(p.120) While there are generic divisions between England’s three languages in some contexts, it is clearly wrong to impose a linguistic apartheid. Instead, there is mixing and cross-fertilisation, as English became increasingly Latinate, and Latin documents absorbed English vocabulary.

Whether the intrusion of English into Latin documents amounts to erosion or debasement is debatable. In institutional accounts, the final text is usually in Latin, but may distil from earlier stages which incorporated English material. Traces of those preliminary documents may be revealed in retained English or words which, formerly French, could now count as Middle English. At its most complex, this material challenges linguistic categorisation, and can raise real questions about whether the final text should or can validly be assigned to any one language at all.68 Where the text is more obviously Latinate, different issues arise. Do retained place-names and surnames count as intruded English? Can they legitimately be expected always to be rendered into an artificial and unrecognisable Latin form which would need to be converted back into English to be meaningful (and so require retranslation into the original version)? Late medieval surnames are especially problematic: the Latin form makes sense if Johannes faber really was John the smith; but not if he was simply one of the Smith family.

The appearance of other seemingly English words is no less challenging. To label them English assumes that there was a Latin alternative, which the writer should have known. Sometimes that assumption may be justified; but many of these words occur as technical terms which had no Latin equivalent. Their presence makes the Latin more precisely comprehensible. To identify a Latin ‘boat’ as a ‘lighter’ was not laziness, but clarification in the absence of an adequate Latin term. With no central body to approve and disseminate neologisms—no medieval equivalent of the present-day Vatican’s Lexicon recentis latinitatis—such choices had to be spontaneous. These words resisted declension, so could not immediately be fully Latinised.69 Nevertheless, the words occur in Latin texts, and if Medieval Latin is to be respected and not dismissed as bad Latin, in some contexts possibly they should be treated as Latin.70 If ‘genuine Latin’ was not ‘normal Latin’, retrospective imposition of expected prescriptions becomes a questionable tactic.

The humanists did eventually complain about the dilution and besmirching of pristine Latin by non-Latin intrusions. In contrast to that prissiness, (p.121) seemingly almost no one was concerned to protect good plain English from Latin intrusions. The late Middle Ages and Tudor period saw extensive Latinisation of English, both in vocabulary and the approach to grammar, apparently with little contemporary comment.71 Much of this new vocabulary did not seep into the general language, the core conversational lexicon. While some may have provided potential bridges into Latin, or at least awareness of some Latin words and their meanings,72 usually it was confined to specific ‘disciplinary’ terminologies, or reflected investment to claim cultural status.73

Some Latinisation of the appropriate English vocabulary was almost a prerequisite for the rise of ‘vernacular theology’: the necessary words had to be newly minted in English. Slightly different motivations stimulated Latinisation associated with ‘vernacular humanism’,74 but produced essentially the same outcome. (How much of this new vocabulary derived directly from Latin, or came via French, is irrelevant here: whatever the strict etymology, it could be perceived, read, and understood as Latinate.) From hindsight, this Latinity seeped in, became English, and is now unproblematic. Yet when introduced, intruded, it was novel and noticeable, and its meanings perhaps not immediately obvious. Until the words were absorbed, their comprehension was essentially predicated on prior knowledge of Latin, almost requiring back-formation to the Latin to get the meaning, and accordingly intimately associated with Latinate (even proto-humanist) circles. Hence its frequent initial appearance (certainly for works of vernacular humanism) is in association with parallel texts, or accompanied by Latin glosses and commentaries.75 Lydgate was apparently renowned for his ‘halff chongyd latyn’,76 while the Latinate vocabulary used by Mercy in the play of Mankind, written around 1470, brought the charge—from another character—that his ‘body ys full of Englysch Laten’.77

Some of this Latinisation laid claim to cultural capital. Other novelties reflected different imperatives—notably in the vexed field of Bible translation. With the onset of Reformation in England in the 1530s, a major desideratum for the reformers was an authorised and authoritative English Bible, to make the text accessible, and to replace the outdated ‘Wycliffite’ or ‘Lollard’ Bible. Yet if English was to become a lingua sacra, it had to encode and replicate the meaning of the original text. Could that be done in English, specifically in an (p.122) English which was not explicitly Latinate in its theological and doctrinal vocabulary? English, after all, imposed meanings; it gave the translated texts precisions absent in the Latin. That was the problem with the translations of Tyndale and Coverdale, which conservatives criticised primarily because they provided selected meanings, imposed by choosing English words which constrained the interpretative range inherent in the Latin. Stephen Gardiner’s attempt in 1541 to produce an alternative, more Latinate, version to eliminate some of the interpretative problems may be considered a reactionary gesture, but shows a real concern to preclude translational precision which he thought doctrinally wrong.78

This hybridisation of English was not always welcome, even in the circles which initiated it. At one end of the spectrum lies the subversive mockery contained in Mankind;79 at the other stands the minor backlash evident among Henrician lawyers who called for more Latin (although their call was issued in English). In 1535, Richard Morison proposed that English law be wholly codified in Latin, as the most appropriate language. He explicitly rejected the use of hybrid English, as a ‘tonge that smelleth of the Latynyte but in deade [is] barbarouse and far from it’.80 Thomas Starkey even called for the complete introduction of Roman law, which would certainly have given Latin a new lease of life. He would do away with laws in ‘thys barbarouse tong [English] and old French’.81

The cross-fertilisation of English and Latin, and more generally the inherent vitality of Medieval Latin as a specific form of Latin across much of Europe, began to raise a fundamental question in early Tudor England: What was ‘Latin’? The ‘Medieval Latin’ which underpinned international and national culture was challenged and derided by the heirs to Petrarch, anxious to restore the antique language to its pristine purity, and paranoid about the barbaric evolutions which gave contemporary Latin its vitality. The truly seismic shift came in England when the humanist approach conquered basic education, bringing a new approach to the teaching of Latin grammar. This sea-change sought to transform the character of Latin in England, and in due course succeeded.82 The overall humanist influence is reflected in the appointment of (p.123) successive Italians as specifically Latin secretaries to the first Tudor kings.83 The transition made English Latin a focus for name-calling and competitive mud-slinging both between humanists and scholastics (as proxies for ‘classical’ and ‘barbarous’ Latin), and between competing humanists.84 Arguably, struggles among the Latinists were as detrimental for Latin’s role in England as the rise of English. The new grammarians made learning the language more dependent on the ancient (but novel) classics, now bound by stricter rules. Determined to remove the ‘barbarities’ which were proof of Latin’s medieval vitality, they pushed classical Latin into a linguistic corner, if not quite a dead-end.

4. Conclusion(s)

The complex Latinate culture of pre-Reformation England began to disappear in the 1530s. The rot perhaps set in with the loss of liturgical Latin, so that Latin, comprehended or not, was no longer automatically ingested across the ecclesiastical year, no longer the foundation for a common textual culture.85 The engrained Latinity eroded, as the hitherto ubiquitous culture which it had inscribed on parchment, paper, glass, stone, and wood, and not least minds, became mere cultural flotsam and jetsam.

Yet Medieval Latin, and by extension the literate culture it generated, remains challenging, precisely because the heritage of the Renaissance leads us to think of it as not ‘genuine’ Latin. Arguably, though, it should not be treated any differently from the other languages of late medieval England. Regardless of its being an acquired additional language, it can perhaps be considered one of polyglot England’s vernaculars.86 As a vernacular which was also a hybrid, it confirms the sense of numerous fluid linguistic spectra in late medieval England. England’s different languages in some ways resisted differentiation and separation, blurring and bleeding into each other. Access to and participation in the range of linguistic activities—speaking, reading, writing, hearing—ranged in each case across the full spectrum from monolingualism to facility with each and all, singly and in varying degrees of combination. Clearly not every butcher—maybe not any butcher—would berate a fleeing shoplifter in Latin (as one does in Mankind);87 yet Wolsey was a butcher’s son.

(p.124) A final verdict on England’s pre-Reformation Latinate culture is unavoidably subjective. Hindsight’s confirmation that Latin was living under a death sentence may condemn it prematurely: it is worth repeating (again) the claim that between 1400 and 1530 more English did not necessarily mean less Latin. The continuity with the previous centuries is important. After 1400 the literate culture as a whole was clearly expanding; its Latinate content at least remained stable, and may have increased, with a froth of aureate Latinised English on top.

Arguably, Latin in pre-Reformation England was almost as much an English language as English itself. Even in the early 16th century Latin and Latinity remained foundational to England’s administrative, ecclesiastical, and archival culture. The ‘rise of English’ is undeniable; but the seismic cultural shift which made Latin not just a minority language, but a minor one in England’s cultural landscape, came only slowly.88 The Reformation introduced a new linguistic fault-line, maybe a critical one; but Latin was only wounded, and not necessarily fatally. It would be some time before the elephant left the room.


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(1.) Conc. Const. v. 93; translation from Crowder (1977: 121). Fuller discussion of Polton’s views in Swanson (2014: 57–87).

(3.) Baker (2000: 133–5). Increasing amounts of this material are now available online, via the website on the ‘Anglo-American Legal Tradition’ at http://aalt.law.uh.edu/

(4.) Extant catalogues are now being published in the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues. See also Ker (1964); Watson (1987).

(5.) For the problems surrounding parochial liturgy and its books, Pfaff (2009: 509–28); for scattered evidence of ownership of liturgical books by London churches c. 1400–c.1535, Kisby (2003: 309).

(6.) Donahue (1994: 109–52); the rest of the volume surveys other surviving English material. Most of the York cause papers are now accessible online, via http://dlibcausepapers.york.ac.uk/yodl/app/home/index

(7.) The 15th- and 16th-century documents from the main series of papal registers are calendared in Cal. Reg. Pap. GB & Ir. from vol. 4 onwards. For 15th-century penitentiary dispensations for England and Wales—one of the most numerous classes of papal document—see Supplic. EW.

(10.) Sargent (1976: 231–2, 234–6); Hellinga & Trapp (1999: 17). For use in England of texts translated from English into Latin, Miles (2011: 449–66).

(11.) It is thus minimised, and to some extent dismissed, in Powell (2011: 524). I suspect that the critical factor was the economics of supply rather than demand.

(13.) Pfaff (2009: 547–9); over half of the editions of Latin books of hours for the English market were printed overseas: Hoskins (1901: xxiii–xxvi, xli–xliv, l, 1–44, 578).

(15.) Lichfield Record Office, B/C/2/1, f. 129v. For the survival of another 12th-century archiepiscopal confirmation of a Ranton charter into the 17th century, see Act. Ep. Cant. 301. See also the Bishop of Exeter’s inspeximus of 1477 reciting 12th-century charters for a court case, in Truro, Cornwall Record Office, ART/6/5.

(16.) e.g. MS Cambridge University Library Ee.5.4 Gonville and Caius 85.167, 63.157; Peterhouse 35; St John’s 4; Trinity O.4.14—these references derived from [Brett & Owen] (1984: 10–12).

(18.) Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 123, ff. 151r–204v; see Swanson (2013a: 33–44).

(20.) Cullum & Goldberg (2000: 231–2); Scase (1993: 81–96, esp. 92–6). For a broader approach, including continental examples, Sheingorn (1993: 69–80).

(24.) Wright (2000: 150–2); Rothwell (1994: 51–2). See also the chapters by Childs and L. Wright (this vol., chs 4 and 12).

(25.) Cf. Hellinga (1991: 218), referring to ‘merchants, who would not have attended university and thus would not have read languages other than English’. Her discussion notably says nothing of imported liturgical books, particularly books of hours.

(28.) British Library, MS Harley 2179, ff. 164r–v. The actual monition appears on the dorse in English, in a hand different from those of the Latin text and the English return (see also f. 165). The compliant cleric offers a Latinate attestation: ‘per me Willm Astley, curat’ de Wygan’.

(29.) Dalton (1670: 162–74). See comment at p. 174: ‘false Latin is not greatly material in the return of a writ’. For one discussion of such matters in an actual case, Cases Hen. VIII ii. 454–61.

(30.) I have not seen any Latin endorsements; but this Cheshire document is the only endorsed original archidiaconal mandate I know—again indicative of the scale of the total losses.

(32.) Forde (1989: 204–41) reveals a notary recording a sermon he had heard. The small slip attached to Oxford, New College Archives, 9157, notes (in Latin) responses to the accompanying list of interrogatories, before they were formally written up. It fits among the documentation for the case discussed in Swanson (1995b: 241–57). Compare also Brand (this vol., ch. 6) on secular law courts in an earlier period.

(33.) Chaucer CT 33 l. 646. See also secular legal tags in Mankind: Macro Plays 175 (l. 666), 176 (ll. 687, 689–90, 693), 179 (ll. 780–1)).

(34.) The main outline is still Gabel (1928). Traditionally, there was a ‘neck verse’ (see e.g. Macro Plays 171 l. 520). Learned by rote, this would reduce the need to read.

(35.) Baker (2000: 185). He notes (ibid. n. 109) the case of a clerk rejected because ‘he did not read like a clerk’, but the record does not explain what this actually means.

(36.) British Library, MS Hargrave 87, f. 304r: ‘par erudicion, et non par naturall elocucion, comme lez Italians fount’; Swanson (1989: 150–1).

(38.) Arguably Wakelin (2007: 135–6) misrepresents the situation. As an acquired language, Latin was always taught through the vernacular; in 1385, John Trevisa suggested that teaching through English had replaced teaching through French since the Black Death (Orme 2006: 106).

(39.) Kempe Bk 150. The episode is set in the context of the ‘language wars’ between vernacular and Latinate theology in Kemp (1999: 242). For a provocative, but occasionally questionable, argument that Margery was much more fluent in Latin than is usually allowed, and suggesting broader distribution of Latin linguistic ability than is generally acknowledged, see Furrow (1996: 240–51).

(40.) On these, Wenzel (1994); for subsequent editions, Horner (2006) and Johnson (2012).

(41.) See above.

(42.) Wenzel (1994: 119–28). The possibility is strongly challenged in Fletcher (2013: 137–51), but I am not convinced, if his intention is to deny all possibility of such code-switching sermons being delivered. Cf. Schendl (2013: 153–69).

(44.) Manchester, Chetham’s Library, MS Mun.E.6.10(4) (Armburgh Papers).

(45.) Armburgh Papers 155–6, 160–1. A poem in alternating French and English lines is at 156–7.

(46.) Armburgh Papers 155–6: CarissimaDulcissimaLaus ChristoConsistoAmareGrauareSuspiroRequiroTeneteValete.

(48.) Voigts (1996: 813–26). As the manuscripts still survived, the reading was probably still often bilingual.

(52.) Cf. the differing percentages for urban and rural deponents in Latin in the canonisation enquiries for St Thomas of Hereford in the early 14th century: Bartlett (2013: 63).

(53.) See e.g. Dodd (2011a: 225–66, with shifts from French to Latin noted at 264–6). See also Dodd (2011b: 117–50).

(54.) Baker (2000: 229–46). Latin appears occasionally in the Year Books, e.g. Year Bks Hen. VII: Easter Term, 21 Henry VII, ff. 20r–21r. See also Brand (this vol., ch. 6).

(55.) A core argument in Dodd (2011b: 246–7, 253–66).

(56.) Swanson (2011: 120; 2007a: 165–6).

(58.) Swanson (2011: 129–30; 2007a: 177;2007b: 194).

(59.) See, e.g., publicity schedules for Santo Spirito Hospital, Rome (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Crawford Indulgences, Box 6, no.3, text in Swanson 2007b: 189–94) or for Beverley Minster (Pollard & Redgrave 1976–91: 14077c.26).

(61.) London, British Library, Stowe ch. 614; for a printed version of 1530 see Swanson (2007a: 378). That can also be contrasted with the handwritten confessional letter of 1526 for Burton Lazars hospital: Exeter, Devon Record Office, 312M/TY.195.

(62.) For letters in English, Swanson (2011: 128–9); for the forgery, Swanson (2007a: 459–61, the document reproduced at 460).

(67.) Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Lat.Misc.c.66, f. 17v; Swanson (2007a: 403–5).

(69.) For examples of fuller integration from English Clanchy (2011: 23–4); Baker (2000: 226, 231).

(70.) Here I clearly differ from Rothwell (1994: 51). His insistence on ‘genuine Latin’ (presumably the ‘dead construct’ of p. 45) and denial of its vernacular character fits ill with his more positive appreciations of the macaronic language at p. 50.

(71.) The developments summarised in Blake (2000: 78–9).

(72.) As anticipated in the Mirror of Our Lady (2–3).

(74.) A coinage of Wakelin (2007: 3).

(75.) A picture derived from Wakelin (2003: chs 2–4 passim). Such Latinate glossing also occurs in some copies of Chaucer and other works: see Baswell (2007: 46–8).

(76.) Cited in Wakelin (2007: 60).

(78.) See Redworth (1990: 159–64). For the words contentiously translated see Conc. iii. 861. The old dismissal of Gardiner’s efforts which misrepresents his actions is nevertheless repeated in recent work on the early English Bible: see Daniell (2003: 228); Bobrick (2003: 158–9).

(79.) Macro Plays 155–6 ll. 54–63, 158 ll. 125–33. See also Dillon (1993: 41–64); Forest-Hill (2003: 30–2) (although I am not convinced by elements of the encompassing readings).

(86.) See also comments in Johnson (2011: 326–8).

(88.) See remarks on the slowness and contingency of the rise of English in Machan (2002: 323–4).