Latin or French?

One of the first articles in this blog was entitled “Students of the past”: Here, I want to expand more on this topic with this new article.

P1120642A Latinist is nowadays quite a rare specimen, if not endangered, although the Carolina Rediviva seems to gather a large number of those who are still left in Sweden. Latin is still often associated with the notion of excellence, a recollection of Antiquity and highly related to what is considered to be classical culture. In the 19th century, Gustave Flaubert wrote in its Dictionary of Received Idea that Latin is “only useful for reading inscriptions on public fountains”, but some whispers says that there is a new trend about learning Latin. That is the reason why I’m now going to recommend a wonderful textbook to get you accustomed to this language.

A fantastic introduction to Latin, very distinct from the ordinary boring and somewhat depressing teaching method of many a schoolbook. One might retort that it’s old. Well, depends what you consider old, I mean, it is only from the late 15th century. And since we don’t really speak Latin anymore – although I have to confess that I do have some friends who used to have a answering machine for their phone in Latin, but it’s pretty uncommon I guess – the grammar has not changed since that time.

In the 15th century, to study Latin and to have a perfect command of it was a prerequisite for anyone pretending to be learned. It was a language of communication, many books were written in Latin and, of course, Latin idioms and phraseology were adopted by philosophers and theologians in their writings.

 Thanks to a note written in French at the beginning of the manuscript, we can partly recount its history. It came from the library of a Benedictine monastery in Selingsadt, Germany. Thereafter the manuscript “ was put with the other books in Hanau (another German town), and placed in the attic by the Dutch church to protect the library from the Swedish during the Thirty Year’s War.” A lovely habit of the Swedish army during this war was indeed to take from and pillage the contents of libraries around Europe. In 1774, the manuscript was given as a present in Hanau to a Swedish. It is now kept at the Manuscript department.

 Thanks to this textbook, it became almost a pleasure to learn the ablative and dative plural, the fourth declension… The illustrations of the text, hand drawings, are absolutely exquisite.

Thus, from the Medieval Age to the 18th century, Latin was the international language. It is then supplanted by national languages and especially ousted by French. However, Latin is still used but not exclusively any longer. For instance, here is an extract of a letter kept at the Manuscript department and written in 1781 by the king Gustav III to his ambassador in France, the count of Creutz: “Here is, my dear count, the edict of tolerance. (…) I send to you the Swedish copy; I’m sending one in Latin to Marmontel. If you would find it appropriate to translate it into French and to publish in the Gazette de France, you will please me.” Jean-François Marmontel is a philosophe, that’s probably why Gustav III sends to him the Latin version.

Gustav III is a monarch but, as a child, he also used to be a student. The Gustavian collection kept in our library is a real treasure to see right throughout the life of this king. And a man of such a position must have a good education. We sheltered two lovely notebooks, covered with blue silk that were the writing exercises of the little prince realized between 1754 and 1755. The future Gustav III is 8 years old. His handwriting is at first hesitant but by and by the royal student improves more and more. It is moving to read and sense his improvement. He is training to write properly “Konung” which means “King”.

However, if some pages are in Swedish, most of the writings are in French. At the age of just three Gustav already is preparing to have an audience with the French Ambassador and to open with a few French sentences known by heart. Gustav will soon be a master in French. He is probably at that time, among European monarchs, the one who best handles the language of Molière.

 Even the French philosopher Denis Diderot was impressed by his skills: “Our language must be commonplace in all these Northern regions, because his letters could have been written by the most courteous seigneur of our court that they would not be any better.”




And you, what is your favourite treasure from the Cultural Heritage Group? I’ve asked this question to Lars Björdal, senior conservator at the department. I’ve always thought that he might work as a fashion expert at Vogue in another life. If you want to learn how to deal with moths or pests, Lars is the one you need to meet. It is a very serious matter for a conservator who is also a member of a board dedicated to these subjects.

P1120597Lars used to be a student at Uppsala University -of course- and then in Copenhagen, in the School of Conservation, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Before his current position, he worked in various places such as the National Archives in Stockholm. He also spent a lot of time teaching, from being an extern professor at the School of Conservation of Gothenburg to giving lectures in different local museums about how to treat collections in a proper and good way.

“It is never easy to sum up in few lines what you are doing”. Lars is in charge to keep the collections in good conditions, “I’m also monitoring the stacks problems due to the climate, or the light. But you are always working in a team”.

Concerning the Cultural Heritage Collections “our work is mainly based on projects. For instance, we made protective boxes for Incunabula (books printed before the year 1501) because researchers often request them. But we cannot have an “open door” otherwise it would be an open stack here with so many things to fix. Moreover, we don’t go very deeply into conservation and restoration. When I was educated, we were, for example, using lots of heavy treatments. Nowadays we try to be very careful and not to over-restore. Thanks to historians, we know that bookbinders have made lots of mistakes and destroyed lots of books by replacing covers for instance. We really try to maintain the object and not to change it”.

Material is sometimes lent out for exhibitions. But you cannot let a 13th century medieval manuscript take a plane on its own. Thus, at the beginning of the month, Lars was in Corsica to escort an item to be shown in a French museum. This kind of loan requires a lot of preparation. Besides, Lars is also member of the team who is in charge of organizing exhibitions, here, at Carolina.

 We also alluded to the central question of digitalization, the current passion in every single library. A good way to preserve old books and manuscripts indeed since it’s supposed to protect them by not being directly handled. But what is the essence of a book if it’s not to be used but to be kept in cold and deserted stacks forever? But let’s switch to the crucial question, Lars’ top three favourite rare pearls from the library:

“I have to start with the Silver Bible because…it’s amazing, written in gothic and so very old! And its story is very good too!” And Lars surely knows what he is talking about. He is in the team who is in charge of the conservation of the manuscript and is one of the few who had the chance to touch it : “But you know it’s so complicated to handle the pages. I’m so glad it’s now digitalized”.

“Then? I’ve always been fond of a small drawing from the early 15th century realized with a silver point. I like it because of the technique. I like it because it’s just so beautiful!”

Silverstift“The third one? It’s hard to select. There is this series in the scriptorium… » Let’s have a look. I was glad to discover that I have also noticed these three lovely books, among the thousands of others, during one of my wanderings. “It’s a very nice paper, so clean, so well preserved. I also like the typefaces. These books written in Italian are from the 18th century. I like the simple beauty of their covers.”

I will just conclude this article by quoting Lars’ words: “It’s amazing what we can learn from the past from old books and manuscripts. And I’m not just talking about the object itself but also its provenance, the annotations you can find in it, I have a very nice job you know”.


The Silver Bible and the metal point drawing are on display in our permanent exhibition.