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20.10.21 'Don't say the mysteries out loud'

(Credit: Karim Manjra, Unsplash)

‘And every warm, mouthwatering word of mouth’

- Seamus Heaney, ‘Höfn’, District and Circle (2006).

Imagine yourself somewhere in western Europe around the year 800. Are people speaking in Latin? And if so, what does it sound like? Medieval Latin covers a large amount of time and space, depending on where you want to draw its boundaries. At a generous estimate you could include everything from St. Augustine (writing around 400 CE) to the beginnings of the Renaissance (in the fifteenth century) across many different parts of Britain and Ireland, continental Europe and the Mediterranean world. The label is a large one, covering sermons and scripture, hymns and songs, law and philosophy, travel diaries and poetry, science and medicine, over a period of a thousand years. And yet in another way it’s quite narrow, covering only what has survived in writing.

What about speech? For Latin was also a spoken language throughout the medieval period. Speaking and writing are never quite the same thing, and still today our systems of writing are quite inaccurate transcriptions of how we speak (think of silent letters, accents, dialects). In Roman times we assume this natural gap between written and spoken language, and that as the centuries went on the written language became more and more removed from everyday usage, with an educated elite who were able to speak and write ‘good’ Latin but who increasingly spoke a different kind of language when out in the world. For Roger Wright, whose arguments I follow here, the decisive moment is the Carolingian renaissance, the court of the emperor Charlemagne around the year 800. It was there that scholars made a deliberate decision to revert to ‘classical’ ideals, to promote and enforce pronunciation, writing, and education for the imperial bureaucracy and clergy according to the standards of ancient models like Cicero, Donatus, and Priscian. In these years Latin went from being a very diverse language with more scholarly and more colloquial varieties to being many languages: the scholarly language was still to be called and written as ‘Latin’, but the language(s) people were speaking in the street were now given new names, and were written down as they were spoken for the first time. It is this moment that gives us the first written record of the Romance languages.

If you accept Wright’s hypothesis, then Latin itself – or what most people take to be Latin – is a creation, not of ancient Rome, but of Carolingian France: a language of verb tables, grammar books, and high culture, somewhat removed from daily life. This Latin is also full of riches: strange poetry and amazing survivals, the liturgy and music in which many people have lived their lives. But it is not allof what Latin was in medieval Europe.

Around the same time that the scholars of Charlemagne’s court were reimagining their relationship to Latin, and around the same time, too, that the monks of Iona were putting the finishing touches to the Book of Kells, some priests were gathering underground in the city of Rome. New regulations had recently been decreed for the saying of mass, and on a wall of what is now known as the Catacomb of Commodilla, somebody scratched a reminder that the mass should be said under one’s breath: non dicere ille secrita a bboce, or ‘don’t say the mysteries out loud’. The second b in bboce was added later by someone else, someone who felt the single b didn’t accurately transcribe the word’s sound. Petrucci notes that still today dicere survives in the dialects of central and southern Italy as the verb ‘to say’, in contrast to the standard Italian form dire. A little glimpse, then, of a language somewhere between Latin and Romance.

Further Reading

  • Petrucci, L. (1994), ‘Il problema delle origini e i più antici testi italiani’, in L. Serianni and P. Trifone (eds), Storia della lingua italiana (Turin), vol. 3, pp. 5–73.
  • Wright, R. (2003), ‘La periode de transition du Latin, de la lingua romana, et du français’, Médiévales 45, tr. C. Lucken. For readers of French, available online here.
  • Wright, R. (2016), ‘Latin and Romance in the medieval period: a sociophilological approach’, in A. Ledgeway and M. Maiden (eds), The Oxford Guide to the Romance Languages (Oxford), 14–23.