Latin: Or the Empire of a Sign Review

Latin: Or the Empire of a Sign
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Latin: Or the Empire of a Sign ReviewAs the XVIII century advanced, the Latin language tended increasingly to decline in favour of the French, which reigned for the whole XIX century, before itself meeting competition from English.
In a sense it was the end of an era, a long late summer appropriately marked by the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars and the ensuing spreading of nationalisms. The "death" of Latin was more a kind of slow fading away: while it was increasingly superseded by French in the Republic of Letters and in the international diplomacy, it knew his last melancholy bright days with the philological studies in the German universities and the creation of Gymnasium: dissected, revered and enshrined it was no more than the cadaver of that great sovereign who ruled the European continent for so many centuries.
Universal language par excellence, Latin never ceased to be used in Europe even after the fall of the Roman Empire and the spreading of the new national languages. But in the meanwhile its use had changed substantially: from everyday language, increasingly to universal language in the double role of "sacred" language (for liturgy and Scriptures) and language of power and diplomacy. Then with Renaissance it finds a new role as language of culture: it is a second spring, because it becomes the supranational official language of the humanism first, and then of the so called Republic of Letters. Decline is only slowed none the less. Parallel to these roles, others are less obvious: aristocratic language, with its power of exclusion, the power to "say and conceal" and its obvious immediate uselessness that can become a mark of distinction for a proto-leisure class (Veblen).
"Latin or the Empire of a Sign. From the XVI to the XX century" is an outstanding essay on the evolution and role of this language in the European culture.
Well written, in a lively and colloquial style, sprinkled with examples, citations and anecdotes, it successfully captures the attention of the reader.
Certainly, the theme is very specific and targeted to an readership interested in the development of European culture and in Greco-Latin philology, none the less the writer has been able to arrange a "reader-friendly" text: all Latin citations are translated, every theme is carefully expressed in a way that also uninitiated can fully understand.
I found this book almost by chance: a few years ago had read a very flattering review of it, but as often happens, I forgot and reading did not follow. This is a study that springs from a former essay written by Francoise Waquet with Hans Bots: "La République des Lettres" (unfortunately still not translated into English), of which Latin was the common jargon.
So why Latin could be such an alluring theme?
Well, because it was a common primeval language, a common mark in the identity of a culture before the Babel-like fragmentation of the Romantic period.
By looking at the story of the decadence of Latin, the development of the Continental culture can be understood more clearly: the decision of Louis XIV to favor a national literary language and the French great literary blooming (the age of Racine, Molière, Pascal,...) that precede the spread of French as common language of the European Enlightenment, the rise of bourgeoisie and the French Revolution, up to Vatican II Council in the XX century. But still in the XVII century Spinoza, by family and culture Ladino and Dutch-speaking , had to learn Latin to compose his treaties - and we can guess he did speak and write Latin with the Great Condé, with Leibniz and Oldenburg.
So first sacred language of religion and priesthood, then universal language for the Renaissance savants, diplomatic jargon in the European court and common idiom of the European cultural space, increasingly threatened by new national ambitions: the French decision to use national language for diplomatic treaties (to mark the national grandeur) and the development of true national cultures favored by the rise of a new middle class.
Mme Waquet is neutral in presenting the argument: she is neither against Latin nor nostalgic of the Latin golden age: she carefully gives voice to all parties in a well balanced and very convincing portrait. Most of the chapters actually deal with the pedagogic means used to learn Latin, and the contrabanded "virtues" of the fluency in that language.
Nevertheless sometimes the books presents passages of a great evocative force: the title in the first place with its suggestive "Empire of a Sign", the chapters dealing with the French Restoration (the "signe Européen" of Joseph the Maistre, Chateaubriand,...) up to scattered citations. One especially got my attention, and truly deserves to be fully cited:
"The writer Marie Noel, who regarded herself as "ignorant" ("I know no more Latin than my mother, my grandmother and their servants"), gives an admirable description of this experience which was certainly not hers alone: «The words, many times repeated, of Veni Creator, Miserere, De Profundis, Magnificat, Te Deum and all the others had become within us our family treasure». Her "Notes intimes" give a clear impression of what it was like to have contact with a language that - apart from everything else - was neither read nor-spoken, but sung, and that was therefore inseparable from its musical coating: «The little girl of Auxerre will begin ... on hearing Christmas carols, the moving monody of the Stabat, . . . to become aware of the power of words». Words, moreover, that resounded in the nave of a cathedral whose rich decor accentuated the impression they made.
«I had just turned nine, my grandmother took me with her. For me it the entrance to a sublime world, outside the other one, a world in which god and men exchanged unprecedented words that had no meaning in other countries. On the evening of All Saints' Day, at six o'clock, the two of us made our way into the great Night of the Cathedral which at that hour, under its prodigious vaults, had neither beginning nor end... In the tower the knell tolled... that admirable knell of Auxerre Cathedral, a tragic group of deep bells that burst suddenly into sobbing - five or six heartbreaking notes - and then fell back into silence from which, after a few minutes of anguish, they would break out once more in sombre tears drawn from some unknowable well of suffering and fear... Nevertheless, we sang along with the priests! »" (pag.102)
I did read this book because of my passion for the history of the European culture and also because of my old studies in Greco-Latin philology.
This book is unique in his genre, and while I strongly recommend it, it is not easy to suggest other books on the same theme. Nonetheless, I think that these titles could be excellent associates:
-"The Republic of Letters. A cultural History of the French Enlightenment" by Dena Goodman. Very interesting and well written, but uneven in the result, and sometimes with a too marked militant feminist approach (yet the author doesn't seem to appreciate the fact that Enlightenment was the first period in which women had a true relevant cultural role).
-"The Age of Conversation" by Benedetta Craveri - a must read for sure! Gripping like a novel and hugely learned, this is the story of the development of that culture of bonne manieres, intelligent conversation, informal culture and tact that we now tend to associate with Enlightenment and the last years of the Ancien Regime.
- "The Renaissance Bazaar. From the silk road to Michelangelo" by Jerry Brotton. One of the best presentation of the European Renaissance I had the chance to read: extremely lively and hugely learned (if interested, I have written a review on it)
- "Scribes and Scholars" by L.D. Reynold & N.G. Wilson, still unsurpassed introduction to classical philology. One of the few books in which academic and poetical are not incompatible adjectives. Extremely interesting the chapters dealing with the re-discovery of classical Latin texts, the struggle to emendate from errors and improve understanding.
You are truly welcome if you can suggest other readings or just share ideas and comments!
Thanks for reading.Latin: Or the Empire of a Sign OverviewThis work explores the institutional contexts in which the language was adopted and transmitted as well as the privilege it came to confer on those that studied it. Waquet demonstrates how Latin became a symbol of status and ultimately shows that rather than disappearing this has given way to a nostalgic exoticism such that water companies and car-models now use Latin names.

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