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Annuaire du Collège de France 2010-2011
Résumé des cours et travaux 111e année
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The Roles of Latin in Early Modern Europe

Hans Helander
p. 885-887

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1During the 17th and the 18th centuries, the status of Latin was gradually transformed, and the roles of the ancient roman language changed in a radical way. I shall try to give a picture of that metamorphosis in my lecture.

2Up to the 18th century educated people learnt nearly everything they knew by means of literature written in Latin. This holds true for all disciplines, including the sciences. In Early Modern Europe, the Latin texts reflect the rise of the nation states, the geographical discoveries, the Protestant movement, the Counter-Reformation and the scientific revolution. Latin was the vehicle of all the new ideas, beliefs and insights generated by these processes, from Early Renaissance up to the end of the 18th century. This is a long period of dynamic innovations, and the world of 15th century Italian scholars is very different from the conditions of the baroque theatrum mundi of the mid-17th century, and these in turn are utterly dissimilar to the Age of Reason that was to follow. In addition to scholarly and scientific works, learned men produced an enormous quantity of epic and panegyric works in Latin, to a large part occasional literature, extolling the virtues of their sovereigns in their struggle for the True Religion, often in close imitation of the tributes that Virgil, Horace and Ovid had paid to Augustus.

  • 1  The statistical material is taken from Françoise Waquet, Le Latin ou l’empire d’un signe, 1998, 10 (...)

3Of all the publications mentioned in Bibliothèque raisonnée des ouvrages des savants de l’Europe 1728-1740, 31% were still in Latin1. In many European countries, academic dissertations were normally written in Latin at least up to the beginning of the 19th century.

4There are geographical differences to take into account, between various countries and regions of Europe, but the general pattern for Western Europe seems to be remarkably uniform, and the changing roles of Latin can be seen and explained as an expression of a general cultural and mental development that mirrors the European transition from the baroque world of religious orthodoxy and royal absolutism to the enlightenment.

5At the beginning of the 18th century, the basic conditions for works in Latin change. In the course of one or two decades, the world seems to have become different. The spirit of the early enlightenment had for some decades gradually transformed Europe, and the scholars that were born and brought up during the latter part of the 17th century were necessarily influenced by these new ideas. In this new world there is suddenly little need of Latin epic works and panegyrics in honor of warrior kings. Religious zeal and obscurantism slowly but gradually abate. The muses string their lyres to new tunes, the humanists start praising their sovereigns in the vernaculars, in French or other languages, and the shift in outlook and focus witnesses to the changes that the enlightenment brought about in the European conception of the world

6The changing roles of Latin, and the use of Latin in the sciences, were frequently discussed by leading European scholars. This was a most important issue, of immediate concern for all respublica literaria.

7One of the best-known expressions of the new attitudes can be found in the preface of the French Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (to the first edition of 1751), d’Alembert declares that it is ridiculous to write Latin verse and latin panegyrics. That is literature that decidedly belongs to the past. However, says d’Alembert, Latin well deserves to be the main language of the sciences. The famous French philosopher thus makes a clear difference between literary Latin and the pragmatic and technical language of the various scientific disciplines.

8To sum up: Occasional Latin literature died at the beginning of the 18th century, whereas scientific and scholarly Latin continued to thrive under the extremely prosperous period of the sciences which dominated the European intellectual scene during the 18th century, and the scientists themselves were throughout the century enthusiastic supporters of the use of Latin. It is worthwhile to say a few words about some typical features of this scientific and scholarly Neo-Latin that lived a real and vital life so much longer than literary Latin:

9The Latin language used during these centuries was subject to change, as all other living languages. The general vocabulary was firmly – and of course programmatically – rooted in ancient Latin, but it was nevertheless all the time affected by small semantic changes and the vicissitudes of fashion. And, above all, the progress of the sciences necessarily promoted neologism in order to provide the disciplines with new terminology and new nomenclature.

10Words were consequently coined all the time. This was inevitable given the enormous growth of knowledge. Scholars who comment on the actual usage sometimes feel themselves obliged to refer to Cicero’s famous words in De finibus 3,3: Imponenda nova novis rebus nomina, which may be translated, in a slightly modernized way, as “New words must be invented for new concepts”.

11A great many new Latin words were thus formed, as technical terms, by means of new derivations based on existing stems. Especially in the biological sciences hundreds of new compound adjectives were formed to describe the properties of various species. The Latin vocabulary was often felt to be insufficient. Instead, the resources of Greek were systematically exploited in a creative process that has generated hundreds of technical terms from the Renaissance up to our own time. The Greek element is so important that it requires a special treatment.

12The study of Latin scholarly and scientific prose has not attracted many Neo-Latin scholars. Modern Latinists will often be surprised at the occurrence of words and expressions that do belong to ancient Latin but are rare there, or seem to have changed their sense in an unexpected way. It is remarkable that several of the words that belong to the categories just mentioned actually turn out to be key-words in the dissertational discourse and part of the academic jargon, words that refer to the very nucleus and core of a treatise, that is: the aim and purpose of the work, delimitations, definitions, and the classification and subdivisions of the material, the focus and emphasis of the investigation and the outcome of the investigation. We find phrases like proponere sibi scopum (aim at); ad id collimare (strive for; aim at); haec consideranda veniunt (these things should be taken into account); de rebus haec concernentibus (about things that have to do with these matters); intuitu primae originis (with special regard to the first origin of …); qua animum, qua corpus (with regard to the soul, with regard to the body); in quinque libros illam dispescit historiam (he divides his narrative into five books).

13Scientific and scholarly Latin bears witness to the rapidly growing knowledge in all fields and disciplines, from the 15th century and onwards. New words were taken into use to express new concepts, and those neologisms were regularly formed from Latin – and not the least – from Greek stems. This language was a living language with characteristic features and with its own typical jargon, expressions and phrases.

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1  The statistical material is taken from Françoise Waquet, Le Latin ou l’empire d’un signe, 1998, 105.

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Cours et travaux du Collège de France. Annuaire 111e année, Collège de France, Paris, avril 2012, p. 885-887. ISBN 978-2-7226-0156-7

Référence électronique

Hans Helander, « The Roles of Latin in Early Modern Europe », L’annuaire du Collège de France [En ligne], 111 | 2012, mis en ligne le 22 novembre 2013, consulté le 07 août 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Hans Helander

Professeur à l’Université d’Uppsala (Suède)

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Droits d’auteur

Collège de France

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