Friday, September 18, 2015

Taking Other People's Word About Some Linguistic Aspects Of The Middle Ages

As Confucius said, "The more I learn about people, the more I like dogs." People are very often unreliable in the things that they say. It's well known that the more expert a person is in a given area, the more likely he or she is to become infuriated by news coverage or depictions in movies of that particular topic, because the newspeople or moviemakers are getting it all wrong.

The more I learn about history, the more I learn that people tend to talk non-stop mess about it. Very often in this blog I've railed against people *coughcough Paulkovich coughcough* who present themselves as experts on a given subject, and in the process betray an almost complete unfamiliarity with that topic.

If you believe, as I do, that the study of history is important, this is discouraging. If you study history to a certain degree, you will find that the people blithely chattering nonsense about it very often include those academics who are supposed to be the experts about history.

Academic historians tend to be much, much more accurate than some others *coughcough Vridar, Carrier coughcough* who present themselves as experts. But they still leave a lot to be desired.

Take for example some widespread notions, widely spread not by New Atheist bloggers but by history professors, about the Middle Ages: we have been told, for example, that between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Renaissance, when many people suddenly started to insist that good Latin meant imitating Cicero's prose, the quality of Latin declined to a miserable state, and that the knowledge of Greek practically disappeared from Western Europe, and that the West became re-acquainted with writers such as Plato and Aristotle when texts which had been translated from Greek to Arabic were in turn translates from Arabic into Latin.

It's easy enough to clear up that last one: BUZZERSOUND, untrue. It's true that a lot of Greek medical knowledge made its way to Western Europe by going from Greek to Arabic to Latin. But there were not a lot of Latin manuscripts of Plato or Aristotle which translated from Arabic translations. I doubt if such much as one entire volume went this double-translation route.

As far as Medieval Latin being miserable in quality: yeah, a lot of it was. I for one am certain that a lot of ancient Latin was also miserable in quality, and that the very bad ancient stuff has for the most part disappeared. For the *coughcough Nepos coughcough* most part. Along with the badly-written Medieval Latin which has been preserved, however, a lot of very well-written Medieval Latin has also survived. For example, the works of Boethius, Isidore, Bede, Alcuin, Einhard, John Scotus, Anastasius, Notker, Orderic, Abelard, William of Tyre, Matthew Paris, Roger Bacon, William of Occam, to name just a few of the brightest highlights, and so many other very good writers that it really makes you wonder just exactly how so very many people who were paid decent salaries to spend their entire careers looking into such things could manage to fit their heads so far up their own asses. Makes you wonder how many of the people who are supposed to be our authorities for Medieval history and culture can actually read Latin. If you're wondering whether reading proficiency in Latin is important in order to be in a position to tell other people what was what in the Middle Ages: stop wondering. It should be the first priority. And if some tenured full professors of Medieval Studies disagree, well then some of those professors are full of shit.

It seems that over the course of the past century, this notion about Medieval Latin having been uniformly very poor in quality has been corrected to a great degree. Whether this is because over the past century a great many professors of Medieval Studies have read great Medieval Latin literature, or because they've just happened to take the word of authorities who are more accurate on this point, I don't know. I certainly hope it's the former.

All of the Medieval Latin writers listed above had at least some interest in ancient Latin literature. And it's difficult to have any interest in ancient Latin literature without becoming quite curious about Greek culture and the Greek language. Indeed, quite a few of the ancient Latin authors quote so much Greek in their works that it's very difficult to understand them without some mastery of Greek.

When it comes to how widespread knowledge of Greek remained in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, I have to take other people's word for it, because my Greek isn't good enough for me to look at the relevant primary sources for myself and see what was up. And the authorities don't all seem to be in complete agreement. And when they are in agreement, their statements are so often so close to word-for-word identical that I have to wonder whether they're all taking the word of one person.

If great hordes of Medieval scholars were completely fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, we wouldn't have these kinds of problems. (I imagine that a great many, these days, are in fact fluent in Latin. But I don't know. I'd bet on it but I don't know.)

I suppose it might reasonably be countered that very few people give a rat's ass about such things. I believe that the study of history is very important, but I realize that not everyone does. It would be even more reasonable to opine that I sound rather odd for a 54-year-old man who didn't begin to study Latin intensively until his 40's, and who knows very little Greek. Yes, given my biography and skills, It might very well be said that I am being quite unreasonable, angrily denouncing people for leaving undone things which I myself have left undone.

Anywho: there's seems to be little if any disagreement with the assertion that Boethius (c. 480 – 525) was highly fluent in Greek. It seems that the opinion that Isidore (c. 560–636) was a master of Greek is much less widely-held than it used to be. (Because more people with great expertise in Greek have looked into the matter lately, or because people are now taking a different authority's word for it? Probably the former. I hope it's the former.)

Bede's level of competence in Greek seems to be somewhat controversial. John Scotus (815-877) and Anastasius (810-878) seem to be acknowledged, at least by some, to have been the greatest Western scholars of Greek of their time, but the level of their skills in the language seems to be under dispute. And it seems -- that is to say: I am taking other people's word for it when I say -- that a great spread of Greek scholarship in the West began, not with the Renaissance in the 15th century, but long before that, with the spread of universities beginning in the 11th century.

And to make all of this just that much more wonderful: measurement of linguistic skill remains, of course, irreducibly subjective. And prejudice, along with evidence, may influence the judgements of even the most authoritative authority, in this as in all human things. For example, a Christian apologist may want to portray the early Middle Ages in a very positive light, and as a part of this he or she may want to portray Isidore as being more learned, or the instruction in the earliest Medieval universities as being more advanced, than the evidence shows; or, an atheist historian may wish to portray the entire Middle Ages as a Christian disaster, and may also highly prize ancient Greek culture, and may therefore want to portray Medieval familiarity with Greek as being more tenuous than the evidence shows. Subjectivity is everywhere in human discourse, distorting away. Everywhere. In this blog too. I try to overcome it, but I hardly believe that I succeed entirely.

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