Students to study little-known scholarly language of the Renaissance
Latin, a language that presumably “died” more than 1,500 years ago with the Roman Empire and such writers as Cicero and Virgil, actually had a much longer lifespan than most people believe.
A form of the language evolved over centuries into what’s now called Neo- or Renaissance Latin. Neo-Latin outlived the Romans and became universally crowned as the lingua franca of intellectuals from the 14th to the 17th centuries, when historically important works in medicine, law, literature and the arts were written in that language.
Put simply, said Debora Shuger, distinguished professor of English, "If you were an English scholar in 1600 and you wanted an international audience for your works, you wrote in Latin. English was known to nobody other than English people."
Today, however, there are few universities where future scholars can learn to read these historically important texts — with one exception.
UCLA, it turns out, is “uniquely rich in scholars who work in Renaissance Latin, even though until now, they have had limited opportunity to teach such texts in the original,” said Classics Professor Shane Butler, who, like Shuger, is an expert in the field of Neo-Latin studies.
Those limitations are about to end, thanks to a $700,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that will make UCLA a preeminent center in the country for the teaching of Renaissance Latin. The grant to the Department of Classics will fund fellowships for post-baccalaureate and graduate students who want to work on Renaissance Latin texts written in a wide range of fields, from political science to literature. It will also enable UCLA to expand its core curriculum in Neo-Latin and host a lecture series to connect students to the wider world of Renaissance Latin studies.
“There really is nothing of this scale anywhere else in the United States,” Butler said of the new program which he will direct. “My Renaissance colleagues all over the country and beyond are incredibly excited about what we are doing here. They know that this could be a game-changer.”
This long-awaited infusion of new Neo-Latin scholars will provide the key to unlock a wealth of materials that have gone unexamined and untranslated for centuries. In fact, UCLA has one of the richest collections of rare Latin medical texts in the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library. Thanks to the Internet, digitized manuscripts in Neo-Latin are now widely available to scholars, although many go untranslated.
A poem written in Neo-Latin on syphilis is part of UCLA Library's collection of early Italian printed materials. Courtesy of Special Collections.
There are Neo-Latin texts about the rights of Native Americans, about humanism, intellectual history, astronomy and mathematics, said Shuger. “Isaac Newton, René Descartes, and some others have been translated, of course, but 90 percent of the Latin texts from the Renaissance have never been available in translation."
Among the untranslated Neo-Latin holdings at UCLA Library Special Collections, for example, are titles in the Ahmanson-Murphy Collection of Early Italian Printing, “a world-class collection of works printed in Italy in the late 15th and 16th centuries,” noted Thomas Hyry, director of Special Collections. In UCLA Library's collections of titles, students of Neo-Latin can find poetry and prose, religious and medical texts, as well as tales of love and adventure.
Hyry said he looks forward to welcoming a new cadre of scholars who want to work with UCLA Library’s Neo-Latin collections.
“The ability to work with texts in the language they are written enables scholars to obtain important insight unavailable in translated form. The library will serve as an eager partner in the training program,” Hyry said.
The UCLA Renaissance Latin Program is developing at an opportune time when there is a surging interest in the language and the Early Modern period when it was the principal scholarly language.
“Rightly or wrongly, we think of our present age as one of momentous change,” Butler explained. “So there’s a real drive to look back to Early Modernity, both to think about how we got to where we are and to see how another age of great transition confronted its own changes. Latin itself is part of that story.”
While many writers in the Renaissance tried to restore the language of antiquity, Butler explained, “Neo-Latin necessarily moved forward, inventing new terms for things and experiencing the steady influence from the evolving languages of everyday life.”
UCLA Library has hundreds of volumes of Neo-Latin texts that have never been translated. Tom Hyry (left), director of UCLA Library Special Collections, and Octavio Olvera, visual art specialist, are shown with some volumes from the library's early Italian printed materials collection.
So while a classicist who was raised on Cicero can read some Neo-Latin reasonably well, Butler said, “there’s still no escaping the fact that, by the Renaissance, the world had changed, and their Latin reflected that.”
The current void of Neo-Latin scholars was partly due to a series of paradoxes, Butler explained. Today, only scholars who work in the ancient world tend to be trained in Latin. But these classics students typically read only ancient Latin texts, although these are vastly outnumbered by surviving Neo-Latin texts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
By contrast, students who study the Early Modern world, when Neo-Latin was the dominant language of scholarship, “may learn one or more modern languages, but not Latin,” Butler said. Consequently, “most of Petrarch, the founding father of the Renaissance, falls through the cracks, and with him go much of Erasmus, Galileo, Leibnitz and countless others.”
The new training program will be administered in conjunction with the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at UCLA.
“It’s almost silly that we haven’t all found a way to solve this problem sooner,” Butler said. “But I’m very pleased that, with Mellon’s help, we’re going to have a first stab at it here at UCLA.”