Book review: A Natural History of Latin

9780191622656_p0_v1_s260x420When describing Pliny’s Naturalis historia, Janson admits:

The title of the book you are reading is of course adapted from Pliny’s famous work, in the hope that it will provide a suitable blend of useful information and entertaining anecdote, just as his volumes do. (65)

Janson’s short (176 p.) succeeds at that task rather admirably.  He charts the history of the Latin language from the first inscription 2500 to its present survival in etymology, medicine, and all European languages.  He does so by anecdote and story rather than analysis.

The saga of Latin is difficult to date, but one plausible beginning is the Lapis Niger, a fifth-century inscription in archaic letters dedicating a shrine to the king and cursing anyone who defiles it.


 One thing I always like knowing about an ancient language is what sorts of texts we have in it.  Janson describes different genres and their famous writers in Classical Latin: the histories of Livy and Tacitus, the drama of Plautus, the oratory of Cicero, the philosophy of Lucretius and Seneca, the poetry and myth of Horace, Virgil, and Ovid.  These descriptions would be a useful guide to a beginning Latin student seeking a goal.  Personally I’d want to read Ovid and Virgil.

Although Classical Latin gets the most attention, far more manuscripts are from the medieval church, one of the few institutions that still uses Latin.  Janson describes the Christianization of Latin:

The word confiteri means ‘confess’ and is in origin a term used in court, but among the Christians it acquires the meaning ‘to confess one’s faith in,’ and the related noun confessio in turn comes to mean ‘a confession of one’s faith.’ … The Latin language did not have any terms for the core Christian concepts, so they had to be created either by giving old words new meanings, as in the example we have just seen, or else simply by borrowing words from Greek. (79)

Medieval Latin flourished and diminished at various times and in various places, following the fortunes of Christian rulers who promoted Latin (Charlemagne) or energetic clergy (Alcuin, Cassiodorus).  Much of it is bible commentary, not very interesting today.  But other genres and authors enjoy more popularity: hagiographies, hymns, histories, sermons, theological treatises, and decidedly non-Church works such as the Carmina Burana and the love letters of Abelard and Heloise.  I began Latin seeking to read these works, and in my quest for resources I have run up against what Janson describes:

Thanks to the work of many generations of paleographers and textual critics we now have all the ancient texts in printed editions which are both easy to read and more correct than any of the surviving manuscripts. This is not, however, the case with texts from the Middle Ages, since there are many more of them and they have attracted much less interest from Latin specialists. … Many more texts have not been published at all, but are waiting in libraries for someone to read them and prepare an edition. There is a limitless amount of valuable work waiting to be done by those who would like to devote themselves to Latin and the Middle Ages. (122)

In our time we often make fun of the middle ages as a backward and ignorant time, but Janson is sympathetic to its literary giants.

7th-century English Book of Durrow: the Gospel of Mark.  Source:

7th-century English Book of Durrow: the Gospel of Mark. Source:

Latin is often deemed a ‘dead’ language.  Janson (and I) take exception to this; Latin is very much alive!  That said, Janson describes several points at which Latin fell out of particular uses. If Latin died, when did it happen?  Perhaps it was when Latin died out as a spoken language in late antiquity.  Or was it at some point in Latin’s transformation into French, Spanish, and Italian?  Perhaps it was in the sixteenth century when theologians and poets (e.g. Luther, Milton) began writing in their vernacular.  Or in the seventeenth century when scientists began shedding Latin, most notably Galileo.  Or in the twentieth century, when Latin was dropped as a prerequisite for high culture and university degrees.  Latin’s decline has been gradual, in stages, not a one-time event.

Still, the lingua latina lives on, whether in classics departments or medical and biological taxonomy.  My favorite part of this book is the appendix of famous aphorisms.  Caveat lector (let the reader beware), this is an engrossing book for anyone interested in Latin.

2 thoughts on “Book review: A Natural History of Latin

  1. Jacob Cerone

    Thanks for the review. The lack of modern Medieval Latin texts is a sad truth. Last semester I translated the first 5 chapters of the Glossa Ordinaria. Before translating, though, I had to spend most of my time transcribing the text including making sense of the abbreviations.

    1. Post author

      I know how you feel. I am just jumping from my introductory grammar to full texts, but I am not yet ready to jump into the unannotated Loeb and Dumbarton Oaks volumes. Next quarter I am working through some Vulgate passages with my professor.

      Another resource for readers on medieval Latin are the readers of Augustine, Bede, and Sentences published by Bolzachy-Carducci.


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