Latin in medieval Britain was the language of written culture, construed in its broad sense of collection of the ‘ideas, customs, social behaviour, products, or way of life’ (OED) of British society. 

The reasons for this are mainly the authority and tradition of Latin as the language of culture since Roman times and its use as the official language of the Western Catholic Church, but it also had a practical value as a lingua franca across the multilingual societies of Britain (first British and English, and then, after the Conquest, English and French) and Europe.

British society throughout the Middle Ages was essentially religious and Christian, and this reverberated in every aspect of life, including its written culture. Moreover, in Medieval Britain the Church, especially through the monasteries, was the most important centre of education and production of texts, generally written in Latin.

However, the Christian character of the texts and the circumstances of their production do not mean that the corpus of British Medieval Latin is simply a collection of sermons, theological or exegetical works, and liturgy (which actually form only a very small part of the overall corpus).

In fact, the range of texts written in Latin in medieval Britain is vast and includes all the possible forms of written texts and documents produced by a vibrant society: rolls and charters recording the life of the state, a city, or a manor, letters, legal documents, tax records, scientific works, philosophical treatises, poetry, histories and chronicles, glossaries, etc. etc.

It is true that the ‘quality’ of Medieval Latin was sometimes, indeed often, ‘inferior’ when measured against the standards of Classical Latin and its highest literary register, which forms a major part of what survives from the classical period. However, the apparent medieval diversity reflects not only the simple fact that Latin was no longer a native language but also that more evidence of how the language was used in different functions has been preserved from the medieval period than is the case for Latin from the classical period: actually, the very ‘mediocrity’ and diffusion are signs of the vitality and productivity of Medieval Latin and of the culture using it.

Medieval Latin contrasts similarly with the use of Latin down into the early modern and modern period, after the Renaissance and — especially in England — the Reformation. A gradual increase in the prestige of the everyday vernacular languages led these languages to be used in place of Latin in many of its earlier functions. Thus the diversity of types of Latin texts and documents began to diminish. Alongside this, humanism and the Renaissance raised the amount of attention paid to Latin conforming to high Classical norms when used in its remaining high functions such as literature and science.

Click on the links to the right to find out more about some of the different types of texts written in Latin in medieval Britain.

Further reading

F. A. C. Mantello & A. G. Rigg (1996) Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press)