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.”