Tag Archives: Latin

Honey, I started the Reformation

Martin Luther famously wrote down all his beefs with the Church and nailed them to the front door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. They were the 95 Theses (plural of thesis)—ideas to be discussed. His goal was simply to reform the Church, get it back on track. He didn’t take into account that people were tired of overbearing institutions like the feudal system and the Church. Martin Luther had set off unintentionally the Protestant Reformation. Oops. Copies of his 95 Theses spread across Germany and Europe. People seized on these theses and seethed. The Pope was not happy with Martin Luther and put him on trial. Luther refused to take back what he said. The upshot was Luther was excommunicated—made an outlaw who couldn’t be part of the Church any more. He couldn’t even attend mass. So Martin Luther started up his own church. This branch of the Christian Church, which includes Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, &c, &c, is called ‘Protestant.’ To differentiate it, the old Church is called ‘Catholic,’ which means universal.

While he was in exile (and this is why I brought up the Reformation), Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin into German so Germans could read it. What a guy! The only problem was, handwritten books are expensive. Getting a team of monks to write out a whole bible is no picnic. The Bible (KJV) has 783,137 words. Up until around the Year of our Lord 1450, owning a bible was a rich-guy luxury, whatever the language. If only there were some way to make more bibles, cheaper and faster.**

** Martin Luther left out 7 books from his translation of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) because they’d been rejected by the Jewish Council of Jamnia in ad 90. Those books are still in the Catholic Bible tucked in between the Old & New Testaments. They’re known as the Apocrypha. 

ps—Luther, like the Church he reformed, was flawed. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that he was capable of the antisemitism that must have been common in Europe 500 years ago—he published a screed against Jews. As I said last post: we’re imperfect; we try to learn from our mistakes and trust G-d loves us anyway.

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https://www.history.com/topics/reformation/martin-luther-and-the-95-theses
https://lutheranreformation.org/theology/sola-gratia/
https://www.biography.com/religious-figure/martin-luther
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/luther/
https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/thesis
https://wordcounter.net/blog/2015/12/08/10975_how-many-words-bible.html
https://www.britannica.com/topic/apocrypha

Martin Luther

My take on Lucas Cranach’s portrait of Martin Luther. His studio cranked out a bunch of these. There’s one at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436047 They got Joseph Fiennes to play Luther in the 2003 movie. I think they should have gone with a beefier actor like Phillip Seymour Hoffman (wasn’t he still alive back then?). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0309820/

I wrote in earlier posts about 2 things that were troubling about the mediæval Church:
1) the Bible was not accessible to ordinary shmos, mainly because it was in Latin. Hardly anybody spoke Latin anymore. Hardly anybody could even read.
2) the clergy sold indulgences, which promoted the idea you could buy your way into Heaven.*

Both of these conditions were troubling to a monk in Saxony (where Germany is now) named Martin Luther (ad 1483 – 1546). He was a philosopher as well as a religious scholar. His philosophical mind told him there should be nothing to stand between you and G-d. The clergy shouldn’t need to intercede on your behalf—anybody can have a conversation with G-d directly in the form of prayer.

Why? Because Jesus was crucified to pay for our sins. That’s it. Paid in full. Selling indulgences to absolve sin belittles Jesus’ sacrifice. Martin Luther put forth the idea that only your faith and G-d’s grace are needed to get into Heaven. Grace is a gift freely given. You have merely to believe in Christ’s sacrifice to benefit from it. 

* I want to reassure my Catholic Christian pals that the corruption of the Church we’re talking about was from 500 years ago. I’m not knocking Catholicism nor promoting Protestantism. Churches, like human beings, aren’t perfect. We muddle along. We try to learn from our mistakes and trust that G-d loves us in spite of them.

https://lutheranreformation.org/theology/sola-gratia/
https://www.biography.com/religious-figure/martin-luther
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/luther/

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Another monopoly on communications

If you were a member of the population’s majority (serfs and short-on-cash freemen), you were feeling left out. You couldn’t afford books and you couldn’t read them and you couldn’t understand the language they’re written in. You went to church but couldn’t understand what was being read out of the Bible.

Devout Christians wanted to connect with their Savior but it seemed like the only people who could talk to Jesus were the clergy, because they spoke Latin. The priests must have believed that they alone had access to G-d. That was a problem.*

Religion concerns itself with the afterlife: where do we go when we die? The Bible tells us we each are a soul with a body attached. Because we have weak, material, worldly bodies, we’re all prone to sin. In the Christian Church, sin is to disobey the Ten Commandments or to disobey the teaching of Christ. If you haven’t properly confessed and atoned for a sin you committed, the sin could keep you out of Heaven. The Church had a process whereby a Christian confessed sin and was told what he had to do (prayer and/or good works) to get his soul back on track.** But beginning in the thirteenth century, churches were selling indulgences—people gave money to the church to make sure they got into Heaven right away after they died.

So once again, a small handful of elites were in sole control of communication—this time it was communication between human beings and G-d. The illiterate shmos had little access to that communication. Not everyone in the clergy was happy about that. Just as we saw with the ancient Egyptian scribes when the alphabet hit, big things were about to shake loose.

* I’m a Presbyterian who enjoys going to other people’s churches now and then. I have to tell you, a Catholic mass in Latin (maybe it was here https://sites.google.com/site/unavocepittsburgh/latinmasspittsburgh) is an almost transcendental experience. I didn’t understand the particulars of what was said—anyone can figure out the obvious bits—but it was moving. I guess I’m saying my take on what’s coming up next is complicated.

**As usual, I’m simplifying this topic.

https://brewminate.com/forgiveness-for-sale-indulgences-in-the-medieval-church/
https://www.thoughtco.com/indulgences-their-role-in-the-reformation-1221776

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A fine romance

‘Salve’ is Latin for ‘hello’ (so it says on the interwebs) but it doesn’t really fit with the others. Maybe I should have written ‘die enim bona’ (good day).

Back when we were all a lot younger I observed that across the Holy Roman Empire, Latin was turning into vernacular regional languages. Frankish people were speaking something like French, the Alemanni were speaking something like German…meanwhile, good old Latin Classic® was still the language of the Church and government and music and literature. So once again the shmoes got left behind. If you went to Mass, it was celebrated in Latin. The hymns were sung in Latin. Everyone in government spoke Latin; royal edicts were decreed in Latin. If you were sued, the judge heard your case in Latin; the lawyers spoke Latin. If you saw a doctor he’d consult with his colleagues in Latin. All the books, even ones read for entertainment, were written in Latin.

By the way, whenever you come across the term ‘romance language,’ it means a language that grew out of Latin. https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/romance-languages
https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-1-e&q=english+latin+translation

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From their lips to God’s ears

My take on Saint Jerome in his study by one of my heroes, Albrecht Dürer. Who doesn’t have a human skull laying around in one’s study?

As we saw in ancient Egypt, there’s a down side to concentrating literacy exclusively into one thin slice of the population. The Egyptian scribes had protected their monopoly on hieroglyphics. Their world fell apart when the Phoenicians invented the alphabet. Was that about to happen again?

In mediæval Europe, literacy gave the clergy access to the Bible. They encouraged the idea that access to the Bible meant access to G-d, and that regular shmoes needed the clergy to talk to G-d on their behalf.* I don’t condemn the clergy entirely for doing this. Probably most were doing their best to keep a faithful interpretation of G-d’s Word (there were some wacky interpretations and heresies back then). Friends, that’s a lot of responsibility. It’s a great temptation to assign power to oneself. As we will see, the clergy would give in to that temptation.

*Saint Jerome had translated the Bible from Hebrew & Greek into Latin in the ad 300s. He worked directly from the original languages and so his translation was very accurate. St Jerome’s Bible, in ‘vulgate Latin,’ was the officially approved Church Bible. But by the Middle Ages, most people didn’t speak Latin anymore.

https://ourworldindata.org/literacy
https://www.quora.com/What-were-literacy-rates-in-Medieval-Europe-How-did-they-compare-to-literacy-rates-in-the-Roman-Empire
https://spartacus-educational.com/YALDeducation.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerome

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Alcuin solves the problem

This guy, Alcuin. Not only did he run Charlemagne’s palace school, standardize calligraphy throughout the Holy Roman Empire, invent punctuation (like the question mark), set up the way Latin ought to be pronounced in church—he invented musical notation, too.

It got under Charlemagne’s skin that the Empire’s churches and monasteries sang the same hymns but each church gave a hymn a different tune. Charlemagne was relentless in his campaign to standardize everything. He put Alcuin in charge of making sure every choir sang the same tune. So Alcuin invented musical notation.



Musical notation was meant simply to record the tune of a song. Each note represents a particular pitch, depending on where it sits on a scale. The scale is horizontal lines—it’s a frame of reference. Notes at the top of the scale are sung higher than notes at the bottom of the scale. Thanks to Alcuin, choirs throughout the Empire knew exactly what tune to sing just by looking at the written musical notes.

Here are a couple of quick explanations of how musical notation works:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZN41d7Txcq0
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFaKNR7eeJk

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Same words, different tune

Charlemagne had a problem. He had an empire full of churches and no two of them sang a hymn the same way. They knew the words, but it was tough to remember the tune for every hymn. Remember, there was often a lot of distance between churches. Communication of words was made easier with the standardization of writing. Tunes you had to memorize. Maybe by the time a monk got from one church to another he might forget the tunes to all the hymns and te Deums and requiems and responsories. So they made ‘em up. One church might sing a hymn to a particular tune:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60euxXvw5aA
And another church would sing the same hymn but with an entirely different tune:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0EN_Hmq534

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The Style Book of Alcuin

Alcuin’s style book is probably waiting to be discovered in a church basement somewhere

Something that’s intrigued me for many years: besides standardizing written Latin, did Alcuin standardize its pronunciation, too? I’ve been told that Alcuin instituted a policy of one consonant = one sound only, or one vowel = one sound only. I don’t know if a style guide by Alcuin exists. It’s hard to believe he didn’t write one. It would be such an Alcuin thing to do.

I suspect we have ecclesiastical (church) Latin because that’s the pronunciation Alcuin made official. Ecclesiastical Latin is why around Christmastime we sing “in eks SEL sees Dayo” and not “in eks KEL sees Dayo.” We use a soft palatal s or ch sound instead of the hard gutteral k sound the old Romans would have used. My own personal theory is that Alcuin was English, that’s the way they pronounced Latin in England, so that’s the pronunciation that got his stamp of approval. Who knows?

Angels We Have Heard on High:

From a few years back. I idiotically informed everyone that Alcuin was Irish: https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/western-civ/

This guy gets into the weeds a bit but he’s well worth the listen:

Embrace your inner Latin nerd! This is what the internet was built for. When I was a kid you’d have to go to college to hear a great lecture like this:

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/cambridge-classical-journal/article/abs/english-pronunciation-of-latin-its-rise-and-fall/A0860C6625BE5A0E45FD58A18797E6FB
https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/philosophy-and-religion/roman-catholic-and-orthodox-churches-general-biographies/alcuin
https://latin.stackexchange.com/questions/13984/how-old-is-ecclesiastical-latin-pronunciation
https://www.fisheaters.com/latin.html

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Lettering as sweet as the dew on the vine, so it is

You can still find the uncial style of writing every March on Saint Patrick’s Day cards and furniture-sale advertisements. Uncial style looks Irish. It was popular with the Irish monks.

Uncials

The old-style square-cap Latin was written in all capital letters, as if the ‘caps lock’ button were on the whole time. It reads like you’re being yelled at (maybe that was the idea).

In Alcuin’s day, monks wrote on parchment. Parchment isn’t cheap and all-caps takes up a lot of space. The monks learned to conserve space by making the first letter of a sentence a big capital letter and writing the rest of the sentence in small letters. The small letters were only an inch high—an ‘uncia’ in Latin—so this style of writing is called ‘uncial’ (OON se al).*

Uncials. Look how round they are compared to the Latin square-caps.

The small letters are called miniscules. The monks formed them with pens, so they became more round in contrast to the chiseled-in-stone letters of the old days. The miniscules grew tails, like ‘d’ or ‘p’ which extended up or down. They look different from capital letters.

The big capital letters are called maguscules MAH-juss-kyoolz). In time the maguscules became large versions of the miniscules.

This is the style Alcuin updated to Carolingian and promoted across the Holy Roman Empire. Latin translations of Arabic texts would be written in the Carolingian style. Alcuin dreamed up an additional feature: punctuation. Thanks to Alcuin you can tell when sentences end and new ones begin because they’re marked with a period. You can tell if the writer is asking a question, because there’s a question mark at the end. I’m personally grateful for the M-dash—which I probably overuse.

*…or maybe the monks shouldn’t be taken too literally. ‘Uncial’ may have been their jokey way of saying the letters are small.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/uncial
https://www.britannica.com/topic/uncial
http://www.designhistory.org/Handwriting_pages/Uncials.html
http://www.designhistory.org/Handwriting_pages/Carolingian.html
https://www.britannica.com/topic/majuscule
I wanted to get a take on uncials from a calligrapher. Here’s that wonderful lady who makes her own ink. She says it’s St Jerome’s fault they’re called uncials. She shows you how to write them:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VU-dHTEkAx0&t=335s
You weirdos who’ve been loyally following this blog will no doubt remember this post:
https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2019/07/04/measuring-distance-in-rome/

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