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.”


Mysterious ciphers

The Cultural Heritage Group regularly receives persons who want to discover some parts of the collections. Last week, two researchers, from the University of Southern California and Uppsala University, visited the manuscript department. In 2011, this international team cracked the « Copiale cipher » a famous encrypted manuscript that deals with a secret society in the XVIII century.

Who hasn’t dreamt of secret method of communication and mysterious encoded documents ? Cryptography is a science based on linguistic and mathematics. The reader who knows me a little might be floored that I’ve decided to write about this topic since I usually faint at the simple evocation of the word mathematics. But my fondness for enigmatic subjects get the better of me against my fear of numbers.

P1110061An investigation into our collections became clearly unavoidable and it quickly appeared that the Manuscript department shelters some cryptic documents. Would you like to start with a fleeting medieval excursion ?

Welcome in Vadstena, Östergötland County, a monastery founded by Saint Brigitta – one of the six patron saints of Europe – and soon to be famous as the mother-house of the order she founded in 1346. Sweden is still a Catholic country, we are more than one hundred years before the Reformation. All around Europe, lots of men and women decided to leave in retreat, into a life of prayers, far from the everyday life.

A Musical journey with the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos:

Let’s walk wordlessly around the cloister and the scriptorium, the room devoted to the copying of manuscripts by monastic scribes, and open up one manuscript after another, rummage through the papers to find some curiosities. But here is a monk approaching. His name is Störkarus Thurgillus. Wait, he is handing a manuscript, the one that we now keep in the shelves of the Cultural Heritage Group.

P1110092He explains that he copied this volume in 1379 that contains religious treatises and sermons. But it’s impossible to talk further with this monk, we should inquire about it somewhere else. This manuscript is one of the very few that is currently known to contain cipher notations. There are indeed only about two dozen in Europe, a minuscule fraction of the medieval manuscripts.

It seems important to notice that nowhere in the medieval sources is any word equivalent to the English « cipher ». They are simply referred to as figures or numbers.

This small encoded note on our manuscript is a valuable proof that ciphers were known in Sweden in the late XIV century. According to the professor David A. King, the cipher might deal with magic and could be used as an invocation or more likely a curse involving devils. The mystery still partly surrounds.

P1110075I highly advise you to read the Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and to watch the excellent adaptation movie by Jean-Jacques Annaud if you wish to extend the travel into the captivating world of medieval libraries and scriptoriums.

It is now time to jump through ages. A time warp to the XVIII century. At that time, cryptographic methods were abundantly used especially by diplomats for whom it was a necessary tool of communication. The different diplomatic representations were trying to hide their political secrets and never-ending plots of all types. Monarchs, ministers, ambassadors, they were all accustomed to refined ciphers.

Postal spying was ever-present and the letters were often unsealed. Thus, the French Countess of Egmont, correspondent of the Swedish king Gustav III, warned him that he should not, on any accounts, trust the postal service : « An even more important precaution is to only write by mail what you want to be publicly known (…) because it is certain that all the letters are unsealed, and even often not properly returned ».

Count Gustaf Philip Creutz, Swedish ambassador at the French court for 17 years, between 1766 and 1783, was exasperated by the bad habit of the Cabinet Noir, the office where the letters of suspected persons (but almost everyone was potentially a suspect !) were opened and read by public officials before being forwarded to their destination. This is why, as much as possible, Creutz sent his letters and dispatches by private route, taking for instance the opportunity of a friend or a close relation’s departure to the homeland. Here is the beginning of a letter he wrote to Gustav III :

« As this is by a sure hand that this letter will be delivered to Your Majesty, I take this opportunity to make him aware of some features that I would not even wish entrust to the postal service despite the cipher (…). I beg Your Majesty to burn this letter. There are spies everywhere and if ever the King here knew the contents of this letter, we should never ever think of France anymore ».

But the travelers were also controlled so cunning was compulsory : « Mr. Kling Sporr on which I can absolutely count will sew this package in his coat lining and so shirk it of all accidents ».

The use of a foreign tongue was also a good way to hide some information. The Count of Creutz often switched between French (most of his letters are written in the language of Molière) and Swedish for political news that he wanted to hide from curious people. It is also possible to mix in one sentence different languages and then encode it. It will be almost impossible to discover the meaning of it without the good interpretation key.
 Of course, There are thousands of different ciphers, each using different techniques .

P1110049The Manuscript department still has a sumptuous portfolio that contained various documents about French ciphers from the second part of the XVIII century. The perfect ambassador’s kit.

P1110046A technique, among many others, was to state the opposite of the reality. Pointed by brackets or other signs ascertained in advance, the meaning of the contained was actually diametrically reverse. An example : « The Queen is still ill but will recover soon » was to be understood as « she will pass away soon ». However, the common technique to protect writings from undesired eyes was to represent every letter and some words and proper noun by a number. See the picture, the queen of France was, in this case, encoded by the number 16.

If you don’t know what to do of your spare time, feel free to contact us, you can have a great fun trying to decode some political letters that might contains invaluable undisclosed data. And who knows, your training attempts might help you to be the first to unveil the secret of the Voynich manuscript, the world’s most famous mysterious manuscript.


Note: All the pictures are from our collections. A huge amount of Creutz letters are in the Gustavian Collection in the Manuscript department.

USC Scientist Cracks Mysterious « Copiale Cipher »:

Library in the Name of the Rose:

The Book That Can’t Be Read, a documentary about the Voynich manuscript: