Medieval Latin vs. Classical Latin - What is the difference?
The number one question I am always asked is "What is the difference between classical and medieval Latin?"
The Latin you normally learn at school or university is Classical Latin (roughly 75 BC - 200 AD), the high literary language of Rome in the late Republican and early imperial periods - the kind of language used by Cicero, Virgil or Tacitus isn't exactly what the man on the street would have been saying in Rome, Lutetia or Verulamium, just like ordinary people in Elizabethan and Jacobean England would not have spoken like Spenser and Shakespeare.
Indeed, in some ways Classical Latin is deliberately archaic and conceals a lot of the evolution of the language at that time, that becomes more apparent with late Latin texts like the Vulgate Bible (382 AD). Generally, speaking, the shift was towards written Latin being based a lot less on tight grammatical rules and being more like the spoken idiom. Indeed, in a lot of late Latin/ medieval Latin texts you can see a lot of points of transition/ overlap with modern Romance languages like French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian. And of course, the language evolved to include many new words, including ones borrowed from Koine Greek (the language of the New Testament), Celtic and Germanic languages, as well as new words devised to describe new phenomena as society changed over time.
So - even if you know classical Latin, by learning Medieval Latin you will be able to access Medieval and Early Modern Latin material, two extremely vibrant periods of history. Equally, I choose to teach Medieval Latin through administrative documents (Charters, Wills, Court Rolls, etc.) which gives the reader a particular speciality that other, more general guides seemingly lack.
Why focus on charters in the study of Medieval Latin?
Quite simply, charters are among the most important documents in understanding the Middle Ages. Charters include a wide array of information: property transactions, pilgrim donations, monastic privileges, church or lay finances, royal decrees, or disputes. Thus, they are key for the study of all aspects of society in both the secular and religious world.
Charters, as a body of evidence for the study of England and the Continent, provide a wealth of information on topics such as the nature of social and political relationships between individuals, or between individuals and religious houses; the empire's economic organization; the customs and practices that made up society's fabric; and much more. Charters, as witnesses to medieval Europe's "nuts and bolts," provide a window into parts of society that contemporary narrative authors (chroniclers, annalists, biographers) normally take for granted. Charters can also provide glimpses into the lives of the lower classes, something narrative historians rarely provide because their gazes are drawn to the king and his entourage.
The vast bulk charters deal with land grants or transfers to churches and monasteries. As the Roman Empire's political, economic, and social systems began to crumble in the fifth century, the Church grew more institutionalised and bureaucratised. Historians have long disputed the nature of this complicated change. A Christian government took over many of the activities previously performed by Roman institutions and the roles previously held by Roman officials. An aristocrat may pursue a political career in the service of the Roman state during the Empire, but after the Empire's demise in the fifth century, such a person could now pursue those goals in the service of the Church.
Bishops were not just pastoral and spiritual leaders in the early Middle Ages; they were also statesmen who played key roles in both religious and secular affairs. As a result, the Church needed money to fund this new "civil service." It was expensive to keep the clergy - who grew to make up a sizable section of the population. Donations were also solicited to fund the expenditures of performing the liturgy (i.e. church services), church lighting, manuscript production (writing required large quantities of parchment made from animal skin), and other ecclesiastical building work and upkeep.
However, the advantages of giving were not one-sided: prospective donors stood to earn a lot by investing in the Church – especially in regard to the afterlife. They gave to atone for their sins and to please God and his saints, ensuring the eternal happiness of their and their families' souls in paradise. Furthermore, patronage had monetary rewards. In order to secure clerical or monastic posts for their sons and daughters, lay benefactors may offer property gifts.
The Church could also act as a kind of "land bank" for families seeking long-term security for their estates, and this requirement aided the development of new types of arrangements that allowed individuals to use their land while transferring the final titles to churches or monasteries. Giving to the Church might thus be used as an inheritance strategy to bring families and religious organizations together in spiritual, economic, and political interactions that benefit both parties.
As such, charters became extremely popular as administrative proceedings developed. And it is this reason why focus of learning should be made on charters themselves. Yet equally from a learning standpoint, charters are very formulaic which makes it easier to study Medieval Latin. Most charters can be boiled down to a standard pattern that includes a typical opening and a model whereby there is a transaction between two people. As such, it means the student can focus solely on translating the document without having to think about potential literary devices and multi-dimensional meanings found in fictitious Medieval materials.
I firmly believe that Medieval history is such a beautiful and vibrant period in history. The key to truly studying this period, however, lies in using medieval documents, wills, charters, and court rolls to piece together parts of this grand story and bring life to the people and events who dominated this era.
As such, I am honoured to have had the opportunity to undertake such a task as developing a self-taught course for current and future historians to use as a tool when taking on Latin documents. I hope that, as I begin my career as a historian, others can use my material to further theirs.
If you have any questions about Latin, the website, my book, business inquiries, or anything else, then please contact me.
- Luke Daly
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A concise and excellent book! As a medievalist, understanding Latin is vital to my studies. I found this book to be very useful in providing clear information in a nice short format. Where other books on the subject can be long and very dry, this book immediately takes the subject matter and makes it accessible. I highly recommend it to anyone studying medieval history!