Thursday, September 12, 2013

17th-Century Monarchs Conversing In Latin

So I'm reading The Siege of Viennaby John Stoye, and I'm at the very dramatic point after the siege (by the Ottoman Turks, in 1683) has been successfully repulsed, and the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, whose capital city, Vienna, has just been saved, is riding out east of the city with his staff to greet the Polish King John III Sobieski, whose army has played a large part in the victory. Page 269 in the 1965 Holt, Rinehart and Winston edition. The thing is that already, this Monday, the 13th of September, 1683, one day after the victory, the bickering over who owes whom how much respect and gratitude, with consequences affecting how the war will proceed as the united Christian forces chase the fleeing Turks across what had been the Ottoman frontier for some time, and questions such as who will be owed what newly-won land and booty, and all of this intimately tied up with what seem to us 300 years later to be bizarrely petty matters of address and manners -- the bickering is well underway. A word or a gesture on the part of the Emperor or the Polish King could be -- would be -- seen as an acknowledgement that the other was the Official Big Shot of the Day, to whom belonged the glory each regarded as his own. "The two men faced each other on horseback. There could be no question of either claiming precedence by being on the other's right, which was the crux of the ceremonial problem. The King remained uncovered for just as long as the Emperor, and no longer. They conversed in Latin for a few minutes --"

And with that, of course, I no longer cared about the precedence and ceremonial problems or how the war was going to proceed or even about the crazy gi-normous Louis XIV wigs one or both or them may have been wearing, because Stoye wrote "They conversed in Latin for a few minutes." And so from then on I was on a mission: are we SURE they spoke Latin? Could it be that they spoke French or German interspersed with a few Latin phrases? Was it a stiff and halting, artificial conversation, or was it entirely fluent Latin spoken as naturally as anything? A couple of centuries earlier you'd expect all the European royalty and high nobility -- anybody with any chance at all of becoming royalty -- to speak Latin. I searched Stoye's book for more mentions of language -- nothing. I couldn't find Stoye's source for the incident, Acta Regis Johannis III. ad res anno 1683, online. But I found other collections of primary materials on the Kingdom of Poland. My first impression is that Poland's governmental business in the late 17th century was conducted more in French than in Latin. The documents from the very early 16th century were mostly in Latin, as I expected, but there was also some German. Early-16th-century German is bizarre in its spelling and wording from a 21st-century perspective, but still comprehensible to a German-speaker, as you know if you're fluent in German and have read some German by Luther whose orthography has not been brought into conformity with contemporary usage.

Of course, if you're Polish, and quite possibly even if you're not, at this point what may be occupying your thoughts much more urgently than any of these matters of Latin and French and German, is: at what point did the rulers of Poland actually begin to conduct their affairs in Polish? It's a perfectly reasonable question, and I'm sorry that I have no idea when they did. I'm concerned with Latin and with how long it lasted in populations of what size. Certainly, European royalty retained a fluency in Latin until quite recently; in fact I wouldn't be at all surprised if some or even most of what is left of European royal families can carry on conversation in Latin to this day. Knowledge of Latin was even more lively for even longer in the Catholic Church, and despite the huge changes made by Vatican II, huge and catastrophic in this one regard of language, there are still a lot of Latin speakers in the Church today, maybe more than in Classics Departments, maybe not, but a lot. A century after Leopold and Sobieski sat their horses and -- possibly. Probably -- chatted for a while in Latin, Tom Paine looked at royalty and the Church and the way they still cultivated Latin, and urged throwing the language away -- urged it with a disastrously huge influence and effect. I'm every bit as anti-royal and atheist as Paine, but I look at Latin and draw exactly the opposite conclusion: why should royalty and clergy have all the fun? And also: who's going to keep an eye on the royals and clergy if we can't understand what they're saying? Two of the many reasons why Paine was wrong, and a much less effective opponent of the ancien regime than he could have been. And an idiot.

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