The fall of Latin

One of the earlier forms of capitalist enterprise, book-publishing felt all of capitalism’s restless search for markets. The early printers established branches all over Europe: ‘in this way a veritable “international” of publishing houses, which ignored national [sic] frontiers, was created.’ And since the years 1500-1550 were a period of exceptional European prosperity, publishing shared in the general boom. ‘More than at any other time’ it was ‘a great industry under the control of wealthy capitalists.’ Naturally, ‘booksellers were primarily concerned to make a profit and to sell their products, and consequently they sought out first and foremost those works which were of interest to the largest possible number of their contemporaries.’

The initial market was literate Europe, a wide but thin stratum of Latin-readers. Saturation of this market took about a hundred and fifty years. The determinative fact about Latin — aside from its sacrality — was that it was a language of bilinguals. Relatively few were born to speak it and even fewer, one imagines, dreamed in it. …

The logic of capitalism thus meant that once the elite Latin market was saturated, the potentially huge markets represented by the monoglot masses would beckon. …

The revolutionary vernacularizing thrust of capitalism was given further impetus by three extraneous factors, two of which contributed directly to the rise of national consciousness. The first, and ultimately the least important, was a change in the character of Latin itself. Thanks to the labours of the Humanists in reviving the broad literature of pre-Christian antiquity and spreading it through the print-market, a new appreciation of the sophisticated stylistic achievements of the ancients was apparent among the trans-European intelligentsia. The Latin they now aspired to write became more and more Ciceronian, and, by the same token, increasingly removed from ecclesiastical and everyday life. In this way it acquired an esoteric quality quite different from that of Church Latin in mediaeval times. For the older Latin was not arcane because of its subject matter or style, but simply because it was written at all, i.e. because of its status as text. Now it became arcane because of what was written, because of the language-in-itself.

Second was the impact of the Reformation, which, at the same time, owed much of its success to print-capitalism. Before the age of print, Rome easily won every war against heresy in Western Europe because it always had better internal lines of communication than its challengers. But when in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his theses to the chapel-door in Wittenberg, they were printed up in German translation, and ‘within 15 days [had been] seen in every part of the country.’ In the two decades 1520—1540 three times as many books were published in German as in the period 1500—1520, an astonishing transformation to which Luther was absolutely central. His works represented no less than one third of all German-language books sold between 1518 and 1525. Between 1522 and 1546, a total of 430 editions (whole or partial) of his Biblical translations appeared. ‘We have here for the first time a truly mass readership and a popular literature within everybody’s reach.’ In effect, Luther became the first best-selling author so known. Or, to put it another way, the first writer who could ‘sell’ his new books on the basis of his name.

Where Luther led, others quickly followed, opening the colossal religious propaganda war that raged across Europe for the next century. In this titanic ‘battle for men’s minds’, Protestantism was always fundamentally on the offensive, precisely because it knew how to make use of the expanding vernacular print-market being created by capitalism, while the Counter-Reformation defended the citadel of Latin. The emblem for this is the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum — to which there was no Protestant counterpart — a novel catalogue made necessary by the sheer volume of printed subversion. Nothing gives a better sense of this siege mentality than Francois I’s panicked 1535 ban on the printing of any books in his realm — on pain of death by hanging! The reason for both the ban and its unenforceability was that by then his realm’s eastern borders were ringed with Protestant states and cities producing a massive stream of smugglable print. To take Calvin’s Geneva alone: between 1533 and 1540 only 42 editions were published there, but the numbers swelled to 527 between 1550 and 1564, by which latter date no less than 40 separate printing-presses were working overtime.

The coalition between Protestantism and print-capitalism, exploiting cheap popular editions, quickly created large new reading publics — not least among merchants and women, who typically knew little or no Latin — and simultaneously mobilized them for politico-religious purposes. Inevitably, it was not merely the Church that was shaken to its core. The same earthquake produced Europe’s first important non-dynastic, non-city states in the Dutch Republic and the Commonwealth of the Puritans. (Francois I’s panic was as much political as religious.)

Third was the slow, geographically uneven, spread of particular vernaculars as instruments of administrative centralization by certain well-positioned would-be absolutist monarchs. Here it is useful to remember that the universality of Latin in mediaeval Western Europe never corresponded to a universal political system. The contrast with Imperial China, where the reach of the mandarinal bureaucracy and of painted characters largely coincided, is instructive. In effect, the political fragmentation of Western Europe after the collapse of the Western Empire meant that no sovereign could monopolize Latin and make it his-and-only-his language-of-state, and thus Latin’s religious authority never had a true political analogue.

The birth of administrative vernaculars predated both print and the religious upheaval of the sixteenth century, and must therefore be regarded (at least initially) as an independent factor in the erosion of the sacred imagined community. At the same time, nothing suggests that any deep-seated ideological, let alone proto-national, impulses underlay this vernacularization where it occurred.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities.

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One response to “The fall of Latin

  1. Pingback: The fall of Latin | Reaction Times

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