Alcuin & the “death” of Latin

Alcuin – or Ealhwine, Alhwin, or Alchoin – was an English monk who tutored Charlemagne and was later Abbot of the great monastery at Tours. He was one of the most influential scholars of the Carolingian renaissance: a period toward the end of the 8th Century beginning under the reign of Charles the Great (Charlemagne), the first Holy Roman Emperor of Europe.

This image of Alcuin from the Bamberg Bible (about 840 CE) is by no means a portrait. At the time of his role in Aachen, Alcuin was in his late 50

Of course, you know that Latin was the predominan language of Europe and the Mediterranean region for almost 600 years from the first century BCE to the fifth century CE. It wasn’t the only language by any means nor even the most ‘prestigious’: that role was probably reserved for Greek. But it was spoken and read in more or less the same form by millions of people in the largest and most powerful Empire outside China until the rise of the Persian Sassanids after the middle of the third century CE.

The end of the Western Roman Empire is traditionally dated to 476 CE (4 September, to be precise) when the last Roman Emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus whose capital was at Ravenna, abdicated at the insistence of Oadacer the Germanic ruler of Italy. This event did not, in fact, have much cultural or even administrative impact in Italy or the West: the Senate in Rome continued to make laws in the name of the “Senate and People of Rome” and to issue coinage. The Roman Church continued to be the only empire-wide bureaucracy in the West (the German conquerors were, of course, Christians themselves). The great landholders of Italy, Gaul and Hispania continued to administer their territories and tax their tenants much as they had done for hundreds of years. But the change did signal the continuing dissolution of central administration in the West.

By the way: I have three e-book albums of photos from Ravenna, the brilliant last capital of the Empire, here on my photos website that you can download. They reproduce the striking 5th and 6th century mosaics of San Vitale, the Neon Baptistry and the Mausoleum of Gallia Placida (the regent ‘Empress’ of the Empire’s last century)

From my photo albums from Ravenna (visit the site & download for much better versions)

But the Latin language that was, even then, different from the language — certainly from the literature — of the ‘classical’ period of 200 BCE to about 200 CE began to loose its unity. The difficulty of copying and distributing books made the language ‘vulnerable’ to local variation. The Christian scriptures were probably the most widely available books but there was no authoritative version of them until, in about 380, the Pope (Damasus) commissioned Jerome to create a standard Latin translation of the books that Rome considered ‘reputable’. St Jerome completed his ‘Vulgate’ translation – directly from Hebrew and Greek sources – in about 400 CE.

The Vulgate of St Jerome made a strong contribution to the continuation of Latin ‘unity’ everywhere around the Mediterranean. Over the next few centuries, however, the common speech in many regions of the former Empire changed to such a degree that many adults, including priests who had received little formal education, were no longer able to read or understand the language of the Vulgate or, at least, they pronounced the words that they saw on the page in a way that had little to do with the Latin St Jerome had spoken.

Jerome’s bible could not be mistaken for ‘classical’ Latin. The language has a much simpler structure, replacing the lengthy intertwining subordinate clauses (hypotaxis) of the Classical authors such as Cicero with a much simpler parataxis. Sentences are constructed from one or two clauses linked by conjunctions and only simple prepositions. Paragraphs can be just a collection of simple assertions and negations. The vocabulary, too, is less rich and nuanced. Still, the simplicity carried with it a regular classical grammar including use of the traditional inflected forms (declension of nouns andadjectives, conjugation of verbs etc).

Extent of Christianity in the empire c. 300-600 CE (note the later spread to England):: source

But, owing in part to the late establishment and relative isolation of the English and Celtic churches the Latin of St Jerome had been preserved and used especially in Ireland and England. The Cathedral School of York – where Alcuin had been educated and where he was the master before he met Charlemagne on a visit to Italy – was steeped in this tradition. So when Charlemagne met Alcuin while both were visiting Italy, he invited the English monk to his capital at Aachen, it seems, as part of a plan to bring English scholarship of the Latin language back to the continent. Charlemagne, who was only semi-literate, seems to have genuinely admired scholarship for its own sake. Still, there can be no doubt that the idea of a single, uniform language of religion, administration and law that took its roots from the Empire of Rome was important for imperial reasons, too, to the first Holy Roman Emperor.

At Charlemagne’s direction, Alcuin – and subsequently other scholars – began in the 780’s to restore the Latin used in the Church and in official documents to its late-classical form: approximately the form used in St Jerome’s 4th Century translation of the Vulgate (Bible). Charlemagne required bishops throughout his Empire to ensure that priests could read and write in this reformed language. He insisted that priests use this form for preaching rather than one of the ‘vulgar’ forms that were widespread in Europe and that would become the roots of modern ‘romance’ languages such as French, Spanish and Italian.

Alcuin’s reforms and Charlemagne’s regulations preserved for a thousand years a formal Latin language. They instituted the language of scholarship, classical literature, law and science that would be “rediscovered” and again promoted by the scholars of the 15th century Renaissance. But after the late 8th century, that language had quickly became still further separated — and then isolated — from everyday language. From Alcuin’s time onward, it could be said, Latin stopped being a ‘living’ tongue. It became instead, what it is still today: the ‘mother tongue’ of Western civilization.

I have translated a small ‘fun’ piece of Alcuin’s entitled “A dialog of the Royal and Noble Youth Pipin with the Scholar Albinus” that you’ll find here.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *