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Le latin ou l'empire d'un signe & Latin or the Empire of a Sign.

Francoise Waquet. Le latin ou l'empire d'un signe.

Paris: Editions Albin Michel, 1998. 414 pp. [euro]22.90. ISBN: 2-226-10679-0.

Francoise Waquet. Latin or the Empire of a Sign.

Trans. John Howe. London and New York: Verso Books, 2001.346 pp. index. $30. ISBN: 1-85984-615-7.

We can probably assume that this work will reach a wider reading public than most academic books, since it is available nor only in its original French language version, but now also in a fluent and accurate English translation by John Howe. My purpose here, however, is nor to assess the quality of Howe's rendition (which seems to me worthy of the highest praise), but rather the scholarly value of the original work. The author, drawing on a very wide range of sources, aims at nothing less than publication of a cultural history of Latin from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Though she adopts a "perspective supranationale," she eschews an encyclopaedic approach (Waquet, 11-13; Howe, 3-4). We suggest that Waquet's study would have benefited from a somewhat more encyclopaedic method. A student or scholar seeking, for example, the most authoritative overview of important writings in Neo-Latin and the various purposes for which Latin was used since the Renaissance will not find it not in Waquet's book, but i n the indispensable "Companion to Neo-Latin Studies" (J. IJsweijn, Companion to Neo-Latin Studies, part 1, History and Diffusion of Neo-Latin Literature, second entirely rewritten edition, Supplementa Humanistica Lovaniensia, 14 [Leuven 1990]; and J. IJsewijn/D. Sacre, Companion to Neo-Latin Studies, part 2, Literary, Linguistic, Philological and Editorial Questions, second entirely rewritten edition, Supplementa Humanistica Lovaniensia, 14 [Leuven 1998]).

Throughout her book Waquet strives to elucidate how education and culture based on Latin came to accord less and less with the actual needs, values, and preoccupations of Europeans, an evolution that began to accelerate from about the mid-seventeenth century. Yet she devotes much less effort to explaining another essential part of the story--why and how Latin culture occupied such a central and essential position up to that time.

We may readily agree with Waquet's surmise that the performance of students studying Latin in schools rarely during the whole of the modern period matched the expectations of teachers, and that only a small proportion of such pupils ever learned Latin really well (Waquet, 160-82, Howe, 132-51). If we turn away from Waquet and consider the work of other scholars, we can learn a great deal about the programs of study that were actually employed in Latin schools and gymnasia during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in which mastery of Latin was such an exclusive concern, that at least some of the students completing such a curriculum (we do not have to imagine a majority) could hardly have avoided acquiring a "nearly native" command of Latin as a language (see, for example, R. Hoven, "Programmes d'ecoles latines dans les Pays-Bas et la Principaute de Liege au XVIe siecle," Acta con ventus neo-latini Amstelodamensis, Proceedings of the Second International Congress of Neo-Latin Studies, Amsterdam 19-24 Aug ust 1973, P. Tuynman, G. C. Kuiper, E. Kessler, eds. [Munich, 1979], 546-59). As Waquet herself asserts, a major part of European culture and learning from the dawn of the Renaissance to the late seventeenth century, to say nothing of the Middle Ages that went before, was communicated and transmitted by Latin. How could such a situation last so long, unless at all times during this period there existed a substantial body of people who had learned Latin well and could use it with ease and skill?

Waquet stresses the testimony of eighteenth-century authors, a few of whom, such as Muratori, wrote in Latin as well as the vernacular, who voice a preference for the vernacular because of its greater convenience and the difficulty of finding the right Latin expressions for modern things (Waquet, 154-55; Howe, 127-28). As Waquet would have it, these statements identify one of the main reasons for the decline of Latin as the language of learning from the late seventeenth century onwards. Yet how are we to explain a group of passages from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century also cited by Waquer, but in another part of her book, which give nearly a contrary impression--that for many erudite people it was much easier to discuss some topics, especially those pertaining to the sciences and learned disciplines, in Latin than the vernacular (Waquet, 110-14; Howe, 88-91)? The fact that by the mid-eighteenth century a greater proportion of the learned world was finding the vernacular more convenient was surely not simply a linguistic issue, but the effect of a cultural evolution noted by Ijsewijn and other scholars. As the scope of education widened to include more social classes and professions, as the vernacular languages and literatures entered the universities in the eighteenth century, as the identity and dignity of national cultures solidified, the habit of using one's native tongue for learned questions became more entrenched, and the popular languages themselves acquired the vocabulary and resources of expression to treat such topics.

Waquet not only considers attitudes to Latin, but also attempts to assess the actual quality of the Latin which was employed in the period from the Renaissance to the twentieth century. She rightly observes that the latinity of Neo-Latin writers has received insufficient scholarly attention (Waquet, 151-52; Howe, 124-25). Nevertheless the number of studies in this field has been increasing, and the last few years have seen some significant contributions of which Waquet takes no account (one may find a survey of recent work on the usage of Neo-Latin authors in IJsewijnl Sacre, Companion, 2:377-41, a list which is not exhaustive, but mentions many of the major studies). Waquet passes over, for example, the work of Silvia Rizzo, L. Rivero Garcia, and others, whose findings help us put the "classicism" of some humanistic authors in historical context, and to understand the continuing vitality of medieval Latin vocabulary and usages into the period of "Neo-Latin." And Waquet's representation of the conclusions of other scholars sometimes needs correction.

The studies of James Binns, for example, are the basis for Waquet's remarks on the usage of Latin writers of the British Isles who flourished during the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. She points to their use of constructions borrowed from the English vernacular, specifically the conjunction "quod" to mean "that," and the "sobering conclusion" (une note moyenne) of Binns that the latinity of these authors could not be taken for classical Latin (Waquet, 151-52; Howe, 124-25). The actual words of Binns, however, indicate something rather different. He correctly identifies the use of "quod" to introduce indirect speech as a universal feature of Christian and medieval Latin that sometimes survives in authors of the humanist age, and he makes no attempt to link this to the English vernacular (J. Binns, Intellectual Culture in Elizabethan and Jacobean England: The Latin Writings of the Age [Leeds, 1990], 300). Binns adds that English Renaissance Latin authors generally employ a syntax close to that of ancient writ ers, but retain a certain amount of medieval vocabulary--especially for contemporary institutions; their latinity was a flexible, "living" idiom that was well-adapted to contemporary use (op. cit., 298-306).

Waquet's assessment of the latinity of the modern period is hampered by the fact that she never employs a consistent and clearly defined set of criteria by which to judge this Latin. She often speaks of Latin "guere Ciceronien," or unclassical Latin. But what do these terms actually mean? Sometimes she seems to refer to the norms of the whole of ancient Latin (Waquet, 185; Howe, 154), sometimes she appears to apply a more circumscribed idea of "classical"--i.e. the usage of Cicero himself and his contemporaries (Waquet, 153; Howe, 126), sometimes vocabulary and wordchoice seems to be the measure of good Latin (Waquet, 155-56; Howe, 128). Sometimes she implies that the latinity of authors who wrote simply and correctly, but without care for ornament, is less classical than the language of authors who were more conscious of rhetorical effects (Waquet, 153, 157; Howe, 126-27, 129), forgetful, it seems, that some ancient authors, such as the anonymous writer of the rhetorical textbook Ad Herennium, trear techni cal subjects in a simple and clear but dry and unadorned style. It is above all astonishing that Waquet attempts to assess early modern latinity without taking account of the famous Renaissance disputes between the Ciceronians and their more eclectic opponents about the correct mode of Latin expression. She might have noted that very many even of the Ciceronians sanctioned the use of new or non-ancient words for post-antique concepts (for just a few examples, see Binns, op. cit. 288; IJsewijn/Sacre, op. cit. 2:412-15. A fuller treatment may be found in D. Gagliardi, Il Ciceronismo nel primo Cinquecento e Ortensio Landi [Neapoli, 1967]).

One could go on with a more detailed commentary, but the examples given above should suffice to indicate where Waquet's work needs supplementation or correction. She has taken on an immense subject, one that actually deserves a much larger work, perhaps consisting of several volumes composed by a variety of specialists. Readers can be thankful to Waquet for bringing many issues and perspectives to their attention, but will gain by the realization that such derails and perspectives, as often as nor, represent just a part of the picture.
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Title Annotation:original French version and English translation
Author:Tunberg, Terence
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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