Decline but Not Death

By Ridley, Jane | The Spectator, August 18, 2001 | Go to article overview

Decline but Not Death


Ridley, Jane, The Spectator


LATIN OR THE EMPIRE OF A SIGN by Francoise Waquet Verso, L20.00, pp. 346 ISBN 1859846157

When the seven-year old Winston Churchill started Latin, he was told to learn a first-declension noun. Mensa, mensa ... a table, O table. Puzzled, Churchill asked the master to explain why mensa could mean both 'a table' and 'O table'. 'O table,' said the master. `You would use it in speaking to a table.' `But I never do,' blurted Churchill. `If you are impertinent, you will be punished, let me tell you, very severely,' said the master.

The surprising discovery of Franqoise Waquet's history of Latin since the 16th century is that Churchill (and I) were not alone. All over Europe for almost five hundred years Latin has made schoolchildren miserable. Schoolboys (they were mainly boys) shed tears over subjunctives, funked their gerundives and suffered mental torture from disgracefully bad textbooks like Kennedy's Latin Primer. For centuries they ground away at the same small collection of classical texts, censored of sex and violence, in which men marched, camps were struck and winter quarters gone into. In 18th-century France children even learned to read in Latin and they were expected to talk Latin in the classroom and in the playground.

Until the 1960s Roman Catholic priests mouthed a Latin liturgy which very few of them understood and which was utterly incomprehensible to their congregations. Latin was enforced in the Catholic Church by the leaders of the Counter-Reformation, who saw it as a weapon against schism and especially against Protestants, who used the vernacular. It made the liturgy mysterious but it also made it inaccessible and prevented participation, which was perhaps no bad thing.

Latin had an amazingly good run for its money. Humanist educators like Erasmus or Thomas More founded Latin or grammar schools which taught classical Latin, and invented the idea of a `humanist education' which still survives today. By the 18th century many people thought that Latin had outlived its usefulness, but Latin survived for another 200 years. The less useful it was, the more vigorously its defenders urged its case. …

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