Latin Language and Literature

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Latin Language and
Literature

Latin was the most important language in Europe during the Renaissance. Throughout the Middle Ages, Latin had been essential to learning, religion, and government. During this period the language had changed considerably from the Latin spoken and written in ancient Rome. It had also taken different forms in different parts of Europe and in different fields of study. Renaissance scholars sought to restore a consistent, elegant Latin based strictly on the work of ancient authors.

In the early 1300s, a small group of learned people in northern Italy began a movement to revive the language, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome. These scholars, known as humanists*, sought to return the Latin language to its Roman roots. Authors such as the Italian poet Petrarch studied ancient works and used them as models for their own writing. Their efforts gave rise to a tradition of writing new Latin works in a classical* style. Such "Neo-Latin" literature flourished throughout Europe in the Renaissance.


Studying Latin. As the humanist movement spread, schools began to focus on the study of ancient poets, orators, and historians. Students at humanist schools read works by such famous Roman poets as Virgil, Ovid, and Horace. Renaissance readers took these classical writers as examples, both for writing Latin and for living a moral life.

Schoolbooks from the Renaissance provide evidence about the ways that students approached classical works. In some cases, they read books straight through from beginning to end. In others, they skipped around, searching the text for well-turned phrases. Teachers often instructed their students to keep "commonplace books," in which they recorded their favorite lines from classical writings. They might copy well-written passages to use as models for their own writing, as well as lines that illustrated moral virtues.

While humanists agreed on the value of imitating classical authors, they disagreed about which authors were the best models. Some, such as the Italian scholar Lorenzo Valla, favored learning from a wide variety of ancient writers. In the 1440s Valla wrote one of the most influential books on the use of Latin, Six Books of the Elegances of the Latin Language. Based on Valla's careful study of ancient Roman literature, this work taught Renaissance scholars how to use an eclectic Latin—that is, a style that combined the best elements of many ancient authors. However, other scholars focused heavily on the works of the Roman orator Cicero, whom they considered the finest writer of the ancient world. Some took this view to extremes, claiming that Cicero was the only model Renaissance authors should imitate.

Nonetheless, Renaissance authors turned to many classical writers for models and inspiration. One of the most influential was the Roman poet Virgil, whose works took a central place in Renaissance schools. Virgil's great epic* the Aeneid described the travels of the hero Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome. Petrarch used this work as a model for his own epic poem, Africa, which praised the ancient Roman warrior Scipio Africanus. Virgil's works also inspired such celebrated authors as Ludovico Ariosto in Italy, Clément Marot in France, and Edmund Spenser in England.

Authors drew on the works of the ancient writers Ovid, Plautus, Terence, and Seneca as well. Ovid's love stories served as models for the tales in the Decameron, a collection of stories by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio. Plautus and Terence, two Roman playwrights, inspired many comedies by the English dramatist William Shakespeare. Seneca was a major source for Shakespeare's tragedies.


Writing in Latin. Neo-Latin literature based on the classics spread across Europe much the same way that humanism did. It was already flourishing in Italy in the 1400s, and Italian humanists helped spread it to other areas. By the end of the century it had spread to northern Europe, eastern Europe, and Britain, and in the mid-1500s it took root in the Scandinavian countries.

Authors used Latin for many types of written works. Scholarly writings, including works on philosophy, theology*, and science, made up a large part of the body of Neo-Latin texts. Renaissance writers also adopted Latin for poetry, dialogues, and essays published in the form of letters. Many Neo-Latin works of this type were studied in schools alongside the writings of ancient authors. Other important genres* of Neo-Latin writing include speeches, drama (both comedy and tragedy), travel accounts, and satire*.

Educated writers chose to write in Latin for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, the use of Latin made their works understandable to readers across Europe. Many writers who did not aim to reach an international audience still chose Latin because it had been the accepted language of scholarship since the time of ancient Rome. Writing in Latin gave their works weight and authority. Another advantage of classical Latin was its stability. While local languages were constantly changing, Latin provided a secure and well-defined medium for ideas—one that future generations would be likely to understand.

Writers could not keep classical Latin completely pure. During the Middle Ages, writers had needed to create new words to describe new things not found in ancient Rome. Neo-Latin writers had little choice but to use these terms when discussing new political, religious, and scholarly concepts. They also gave new meanings to some words that had existed in ancient Rome.

Latin remained the language of learning and science throughout the Renaissance. Toward the end of the period, vernacular* languages began to take its place in some parts of Europe. In northern and eastern regions, however, scholarly Latin lasted well into the 1700s. In addition, Latin remained the official language of the Roman Catholic Church, used in ceremonies and spoken at gatherings of high church officials.


Speaking Latin. Neo-Latin was mostly a literary language. It took its form from a particular body of texts, not from the speech of people in the streets. However, in some circles Latin also served as a spoken language. In many parts of northern Europe, students in Latin schools were required to speak only Latin in school once they had acquired a basic knowledge of the language. Latin was also the teaching language at Renaissance universities. Thus, students needed to be able to read textbooks, understand lectures, and answer questions in Latin. Latin could also serve as a common language among educated people throughout Europe, enabling them to communicate without the aid of interpreters.

(See alsoClassical Scholarship; Education; Humanism; Literature. )

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* epic

long poem about the adventures of a hero

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

* genre

literary form

* satire

literary or artistic work ridiculing human wickedness and foolishness

* vernacular

native language or dialect of a region or country