The 16th century and beyond


The 16th century and beyond

Though vernacular languages were gradually growing in prestige, Latin continued to be an important language for written communication in Britain and Europe into the Early Modern period.

In documentary sources there is no significant discontinuity in the use of Latin between 16th century and earlier periods: through the Tudor era (Henry VII to Elizabeth I, ob. 1603) Latin remains the standard language of official documents, both state (such as the Close Rolls, the Charter Rolls, and especially the Patent Rolls) and municipal (such as those collected in the corpus of the British Borough Charters). In the State Papers Domestic, a new series of government records inaugurated by the Tudor monarchs, Latin is the most common language after English.

In the first quarter of the 16th century, England was still a catholic country and Latin the language of its Church. The 16th century was, however, a turbulent period of religious conflicts, marked by the separation of the Anglican Church from Rome (1534), the dissolution of monasteries, and the bloody religious persecutions and rebellions under both Mary and Elizabeth. Records of this dramatic time can be found in the polemical works of Stephen Gardiner (ob. 1555), bishop of Winchester and a key figure in the politics of the first Tudor reigns, and in the Passio (1550) written by the Carthusian monk Maurice Chauncy, which tells of the persecution of the monastic orders under Henry VIII.

The wave of English nationalism after the separation from Rome and the promotion of the English language in Anglican liturgy and prayers did not lead to a complete prohibition or disappearance of Latin: records, registers, and cartularies of Anglican churches and bishoprics continued to be written in Latin well after the break from Rome; committed Anglican thinkers such as Bishop John Jewel (ob. 1571), the ‘bilious’ churchman John Bale (ob. 1563), and the theologian John Bekinsau (ob. 1559), use Latin in their respective works Apologia ecclesiae Anglicanae, Index Britanniae Scriptorum, and De supremo et absoluto regis imperio, this last a passionate defence of the supremacy of the king of England upon the British church. Even the scholar Roger Ascham (ob. 1568), a theorist of the use of the vernacular, wrote letters in Latin.

Indeed, the sixteenth century coincided also with a time of revival and flowering of Latin, under the impulse of Renaissance and humanistic thinkers and writers, including in particular Desiderius Erasmus, passionate advocate of the purification of Latin from the alleged corruption of the Middle Ages. Several Englishmen became correspondents of his and their letters are collected in the Opus epistolarum Erasmi: particularly notable among his friends were Thomas More, whose work Utopia (1518) is one of the most important English humanistic works, and the Scottish chronicler Hector Boece (ob. 1536), author of a Scotorum Historia.

Boece’s Historia is only one of the many historical works written in Latin in the century: among these, one can recall also the Historia Quatuor Regum Angliae by John Herd (ob. 1588), and, above all, Anglicae historiae libri by Polydore Virgil (ob. 1555), perhaps the most important historian of the Tudor era. Also in Latin is Camden’s Britannia, a historical and topographical survey of England and the last text by a named author to form part of the DMLBS corpus.

In an era characterized by geographical and scientific discoveries, the role of Latin as the standard language of science, culture, and knowledge found a new foundation: in England, the physician John Caius (ob. 1573), co-founder of Gonville & Caius College in Cambridge, wrote his pioneering zoological works in Latin; the mathematician and astrologer John Dee used Latin to explain the meaning of his exoteric symbol Hieroglyphic Monad (1564); the naturalist William Turner wrote his monumental herbal treatises in Latin. Latin continued also to be the technical language of law: an example of this is the Jus Feudale by the Scottish jurist Thomas Craig (ob. 1608).

The DMLBS includes not just these texts but many others belonging to this era. The chronological limit of the Dictionary is the end of the 16th century, by which time Britain had long ceased to be medieval, but the continuity of the Latin language in Britain, which we can trace right back to the early medieval period, is clear. Indeed Latin continued to be ‘alive’ and attested in a large variety of sources, especially for international communication, well beyond this date through the 17th century and into the 18th century.