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.”


Students of the past

What was it like to be a student in past centuries at Uppsala University? A little exploration in the Maps and Pictures collection might give us some keys on the subject. Just as a reminder, Uppsala University was found in 1477 which makes the establishment the oldest in Scandinavia.

Thanks to a small watercolour from the early XVII century, we can have an idea of the life of a new student at Uppsala University at that time, and believe me, the few first months weren’t a bed of roses, to put it mildly. This gouache of unknown origin describes an event that we would nowadays refer to as hazing. It was a compulsory initiation that every recent student has to pass through.

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Multi-coloured clothes, donkey´s ears and horns form a humiliating outfit. The young man (you still have to wait ages before you really encounter women), was then pushed in front of a scoffing and mocking audience. Then the highlight of the ceremony could happen; it consisted of removing the horns and the ears, symbols of the bestiality of the prospective student. Different kinds of lovely tools were used like saws and tongs. At the end, the master of the ritual put salt on the tongue of the man, poured wine on his head and officially declared him a free student. But that is not all, it was just the beginning of a bullying year during which the whipping-boy had to serve an older student. One can easily figure all the roughness of these acts and of course the foreseeable degenerations. The whole thing was finally forbidden in 1691. Better late than never.

Another ordinary unpleasant moment for a student is the examination. Nothing to compare, of course, with the above-mentioned tradition. In the first decade of the XVIII century, Carl Fredrik Piper was a student at Uppsala University. In his notebook, there is, among academic writings of different kind, a superb watercolour depicting a dissertation at the Gustavianum. Built in the 1620s, it was then the main building of the University. This is actually one of the few original pictures showing the life and work at Uppsala University at this time. It is an invaluable testimony! It must be known that the library, unlike the other pictures, is not the owner of this painting since the manuscript is still the property of the Piper family. However, you can find the watercolour in the database because the library purchased a digital copy of it a few months ago.

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Obviously, the scene takes place just before the beginning of the presentation. Have a look at the very casual way of sitting of some of the attending men while others are already gently waiting on their bench. And also we could speak hours, at least I could, about this wig fashion. Such an enthralling picture! Would you like to have a closer glimpse of the student style in the beginning of the XVIII century?

Sans titre3Let me introduce you, via an engraving, to this very elegant Uppsala student with his hat and walking stick. This perfect gentleman is probably ready to start, after some studies at the University, his Grand Tour, a long journey – usually a couple of years – around Europe. At the time, it was nearly a mandatory travel for young noblemen and member of the high society as it was seen as the ultimate way of refining their education.

Holland, England and France attracted lot of travellers. However, France was the first destination to reach. It was considered good manners, but it was also to improve their military skills and enhance their knowledge of the French language, which was the diplomatic and aristocratic language of Europe. I’ve discovered that a French diplomat named Antoine de Courtin, who went to Sweden and was at the service of the Swedish crown, is the author of one of the most popular manuals of politeness called Nouveau Traité de la Civilité (1671).

Don´t go assuming that these voyagers spend all their time in society. It was common to be accompanied by a private tutor and some of them also studied in many universities of the “old continent”. Indeed, even if the University of Lund was created in 1660s, Sweden was still dependent on foreign countries in terms of intellectual formations. For instance, Germany was definitely the destination for those who wanted to study theology.
The Swedish authorities were aware that it was an excellent thing in many ways for Swedes to travel abroad but they were also scared that the young men could be contaminated by the catholic “virus”. That’s why they really tried to control the students before their departure, especially the ones who wanted to go in catholic stronghold like the Sorbonne University in Paris. Thus, In the XVII century, in Uppsala University, the students were supposed to pass a little theology exam before leaving the Kingdom.

The reader as probably already noticed my love for digression. I can’t help it. My initial idea was to write about examination so here is another example. We are now, for your information, in the beginning of the XIX century. The Uppsala Professor Lars Georg Rabenius (1771-1846) is ready.

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He is a quite impressive character, sitting in his chair, waiting to examine a student that I don’t really envy, visible on the background.
The only thing we can do is wish for this student to be well prepared! And for that matter, here is a last drawing by the Swedish artist Johan Bernhard Theodor Beskow (1835-1912). Three sophisticated students from the 1850s are revising for their exams with the help of an old man in his slippers and dressing gown. It is a charming team!

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Students, researchers and curious readers, you should really have a look at our database; there are some real treasures to discover even if only a small part of the collection is available online yet. Nevertheless, there is a huge on-going digitalization work. And if you don’t find what you are looking for, please contact the Maps and Pictures section, they will be pleased to help you in your thirst for knowledge.


Antoine Courtin’s book, for those who wish to improve their good manners in an XVII century way. It can always be useful… French reading skills required:

The link to find the pictures and many others: