By the 9th Century, the only place where real Latin survived was within the walls of churches and monasteries. That is not to say that everyone yet knew, or at least would acknowledge, that the language of the Romans was no longer truly a living one. The French recorded the first quasi-Romance official document in 842, and Italians would be in denial for well over a century longer. Further centuries later, Greeks and Arabs knew crusading interlopers from France, Italy, England, and Germany all alike as “Latins.”
Paradoxically, the recognition that Latin was kind of dead actually bolstered its standing. As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages into the High Middle Ages, Latin was cemented as the sole official language of learning, religion, and government. Paris’ Quartier latin got its name from the lingua franca shared by scholars from across Europe who dwelt there.
In 813, Church leaders had bowed to reality and authorised priests to preach in the vernacular. That went out the window in 1199, when Pope Innocent III decreed that “as by the old law, the beast touching the holy mount was to be stoned to death, so simple and uneducated men [are] not to touch the Bible or venture to preach its doctrines.” Any translation of Scripture, along with its translator, was to be consigned to the flames. (Interestingly, the escalating insistence on Latin coincided with the first inquisitions and formalisation of the doctrines of purgatory and clerical celibacy, all of which would come back to bite in the Reformation).
Innocent and his ilk would have been embarrassed to learn that even their gold standard of linguistic purity would have sounded vulgar to St. Augustine. The standard Latin version of the Bible was penned by St. Jerome in the 4th Century with the common man of the time in mind. Somehow the fact that it is literally called the Vulgate did not make much of an impression on anyone.
During the Middle Ages, Church Latin developed as a language distinct from the proper Latin of the late Republic. Its most glaring feature is its heavily-Italianised phonology. To elucidate with one well-known example, Julius Caesar would have pronounced famous declaration Veni, Vidi, Vici “weni, widi, wiki,” and his own name “Yooleeus Kaesar.” Diehard Latin Rite Catholics to this day preach the importance of ancient tradition and purity, but do so with soft c’s and hard v’s that derive from Medieval Italian slang. Erudite men of the time like St. Thomas Aquinas and William of Tyre decried these and other more serious errors in Church renderings of Christian texts, but their objections went right over everyone else’s heads.
They may have been voces clamantes in deserto in their own time, but their cause did ultimately get people’s attention. Purifying Latin was a core goal of Renaissance men. Petrarch’s Africa, chronicling the triumph of Scipio Africanus, was the first Latin epic penned in a thousand years. Thanks to his eccentric humanist father, Michel de Montaigne grew up speaking Latin as his first language. Educated Romance speakers sometimes adopted corrected Latin versions of words back into their languages.
More controversially, Renaissance scholars turned their attention to religion. The Donation of Constantine, an imperial edict purportedly granting the pope broad spiritual and temporal sovereignty (supposedly in gratitude for his having slain a local dragon), was proven to be a medieval forgery. Erasmus, the doyen of the movement, pointed out important errors in the Vulgate. If the official version of the Bible itself was flawed, the Church’s authority was on shaky ground. Erasmus and his peers remained devout Catholics, but Martin Luther stood on their shoulders.
Even in Protestant nations for whom translation of the Bible into the vernacular was a pillar of the faith, Latin’s intellectual and cultural standing was in no wise reduced. However, Latin’s second golden age also saw the dawn of a new day. Beginning with Dante, vernacular tongues began to be seen not as the sermo vulgaris, but as serious languages in their own right.
Still, the ancient self-deprecating bias in favour of proper Latin (for more on this see Part II) lived on. Petrarch set the tone for future generations by penning epics in Latin, and sonnets in Italian (thus the other meaning of “Romance” in English and many other languages). The earliest Romance classics, including the Decameron, Don Quixote, and the bawdy works of François Rabelais, are not exactly serious.
In 1539, King Francis I signed the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, establishing French as the official language of his kingdom. It is the oldest law still on the books in France, and one of the most important. Thanks to Francis and his descendant Louis XIV, French eclipsed Latin as Europe’s language of statecraft. We see little new literature in Latin after the 17th Century. Science was a key redoubt, but even nerdy scholars began to see the appeal to writing about esoteric subjects in less esoteric languages. It should also be remembered that one whole half of society, women, used the vernacular almost exclusively even before the Renaissance. Merchants had never been snobbish about the languages they used, but commercial preeminence became the launchpad for the ascendance of English.
Although the establishment of standard registers gradually homogenised the nations of Western Europe (it is worth noting that today’s political boundaries correspond closely with Roman provincial ones), it did also pull them from their common roots. Texts written in France and Spain in 1500 are noticeably closer to each other than ones written today. If Frenchmen, for whatever reason, felt the need to nasalise one third part of the host of sounds in their language, they could now legitimise that desire in French orthography, rather than keep clinging to the vestigial Latinisms.
Whatever befall in this world, however, Latin still ruled the higher plane. So long as priests spoke Latin, it was still a part of the daily lives of millions of believers across Europe and beyond. When the Second Vatican Council authorised, and indeed all but mandated, mass in the vernacular in 1962, it sounded the death knell for an entire age. When Pope Benedict XVI announced his abdication in 2013, one Italian reporter got a momentous scoop because she was the only one in the Vatican press briefing room who understood him.
In 1960, the University of Oxford dropped its Latin requirement for applicants. Knowledge of the language dropped precipitously. The 1979 Monty Python film The Life of Brian makes a lengthy joke of a centurion correcting a graffitist’s Latin grammar, which presumably was familiar to audiences then, but today just seems bizarre. Speaking from personal experience, present-day Oxford students’ familiarity with the language their predecessors lived in is limited to hearing it at hall in the evenings and a few college mottos. Everyone at Magdalen College, for example, knows Magdalena floreat, but when I renamed a groupchat Dominus inebriatio mea, a boozy play on the university motto, no one got it.
To some extent, Latin is still with us. It is ever-present in law, medicine, science, and even more colloquially in the form of erudite allusions. Catholic parishioners and American fraternity members (watching lax pinney-clad brothers at Columbia University hack their way through quotes from Constantine was a singular experience for me) still memorise creeds that made a lot more sense to their forebears. Even practical people who have no idea what a declension is seem to have an irresistible subconscious urge to give new cars, phones, and hedge funds Latin-sounding names.
In a more real way, we have slid back into the Dark Ages. But paradoxically, Latin’s indirect influence has never been so potent. A billion people in every corner of the world live their lives in various dialects of Vulgar Latin. More of them live in that part of the New World that bears the language’s name than on the shores of the Mediterranean. Even in many languages whose roots are far from Latium (including artificial coding languages), it is difficult to do without Latin words. In no language is this truer than in English. Fifteen more centuries from now, in some form it will still be there. The Romans in The Life of Brian did eventually heed the graffiti and go away, but their language never will.