Languages Latin

Latin’s second homeland

Written by Ioannes Oculus

Latin is one of the Indo-European languages. Just like English or Polish. However, in the course of time, she became one of the Languages – big, important languages that shaped the world. Not only at the peak of the Roman Empire was she heard on three continents but even after the fall of its homeland, many continued the effort of keeping her not only alive but also vigorous. Through the centuries many people used her to express love, describe new inventions and share the deepest thought about the meaning of life. There is not a single place on the planet where Latin has not been used. However, with the fall of the Roman Empire, she has lost her homeland. For a long time, she could not find a place to settle. Many used her on formal occasions, put her on a pedestal, even adored her, but she remained a language of the elite, of the most educated. After a long exile from people’s everyday lives, she found her new home. It was found in a very surprising place. One could expect that it should be somewhere in the former Empire. One could not be more wrong. She was taken in most surprisingly by people who called themselves Poles, in a country that lies in the very heart of continental Europe – Poland.

At the time of the Roman Empire, the place was covered in deep forests with scarce settlements. At that time she came to the land for the first time. As a visitor with tradesmen who came here to buy the Northern Gold – amber. She probably never stopped for a longer time. Always in a hurry to do her errands and go back to the sun of Latium. The Amber Road connected the coast of the Baltic Sea with Rome. And it was not just one of the tiny insignificant trade routes. The business boom was so great that as Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History:

From Carnuntum in Pannonia, to the coasts of Germany from which the amber is brought, is a distance of about six hundred miles, a fact which has been only very recently ascertained; and there is still living a member of the equestrian order, who was sent thither by Julianus, the manager of the gladiatorial exhibitions for Emperor Nero, to procure a supply of this article. Traversing the coasts of that country and visiting the various markets there, he brought back amber, in such vast quantities, as to admit of the nets, which are used for protecting the podium against the wild beasts, being studded with amber. [1]

Not only amber was traded to the Empire. Another valuable good was iron from the regions of the Świętokrzyskie Mountains. What is left from that period are numerous coin treasures. Some of them weighed 10 kilograms of coins! [2]

Cicero’s speech must have resounded at the Vistula banks at the very same time when Seneca or the Pliny the Elder composed their writings. The fall of the Roman Empire brought all those great trade routes to an end and thus Latin disappeared from the land. But as mentioned before, Latin will return find an open door, people willing to learn, speak and write, use her as an everyday language.

The great return happened somewhere in the 10th century. Latin returned not with Roman merchants but with Christian priests and monks. Some time ago foundations of the Latin oratory from the end of the ninth century were discovered in the basement of the Gniezno cathedral, almost one hundred years earlier than the date of the baptism of Poland. Already then, it was heard at least during prayers and services.

Baptism received by Mieszko I in the Western Christian rite opened wide the door to the newly emerging country for Latin. From the 10th century, Latin becomes part of Polish culture and becomes so rooted in it that even today we mark the next centuries with Roman numerals, not with Arabic ones. Thus, over a thousand years ago, Polish culture began to grow and coalesce with Latin culture. Like two trees that grow so closely together that it is impossible to distinguish which one is which because their trunks have become one.

We know that in 1110 Wawel library included not only Latin liturgical books, but also works of ancient authors: Sallust, Terence, Persius, Ovid and Statius. Latin works were read very shortly after the introduction of Christianity. And since when was it used – written, spoken? It turns out that from the very beginning of the Latin presence in Poland. Latin texts were created – administrative and legal. They were, however, probably written by monks who came to the country from the West. We also know that the son of Bolesław Chrobry, the first king of Poland, Mieszko II had a great command of spoken and written Latin, he also knew Greek. His fate was tragic, and his daughter Gertrude immortalized it in the first Latin texts written by Poles. These are prayers written in poetic prose. Gertrude formed in the second half of the tenth century, less than 100 years after the adoption by Poland of Christianity and at the same time Latin on a larger scale. Less than a hundred years from the first steps to the first literary texts! In addition, in times when the ability to write and read was not the most important. Also written by a woman! Polish history is full of such pearls.

In addition, the lives of saints and songs in their honour were created, especially to honour St. Wojciech, who at the end of the tenth century suffered a martyr’s death and became the patron of Poland. In addition, annals and later chronicles are written and even chivalric poems. Unfortunately, not all texts have reached our times. Latin began to be used not only by the administration and the clergy but by knights and nobles. Master Wincenty Kadłubek in his chronicle wrote that in the court of Casimir II the Just (that is, in the twelfth century) the problems of the immortality of the soul were discussed in Latin at feasts! Of course, the knowledge of Latin is still not common in our understanding – most of the population does not know Latin and cannot read or write yet.

However, at the end of the 12th century and in the 12th century, the situation began to change. First schools are created, starting at the cathedrals, then at other churches. More and more people started studying, more and more learnt Latin. Students, in accordance with the commonly used education programme, learnt Latin during trivium, learn to read and write. They would also read some of the ancient authors. The aforementioned Wincenty Kadłubek himself quotes in his “Polish Chronicle” Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Cicero and many other ancient authors at large.

Poles wrote not only in Poland and about Poland. In the thirteenth century, Marcin Polak from Opava, staying at the courts of the popes, wrote “Chronicle of Popes and Emperors.” This work gained enormous popularity and was read all over Europe. It was translated into German and Czech. Then there are other authors, the whole galaxy of them. For example, Witelon – a scientist creating works, among others in the field of optics.

Over the centuries Poland, and then in the union with Lithuania as the Republic developed politically and culturally. It became a multinational empire in which Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Ruthenians, Jews, Armenians, Tatars and many others lived together. Krakow, the new capital of Poland, was growing and Queen Jadwiga founded there the first university in the country. Latin was used in Latin offices, Latin lectures and studies. Numerous works were created, which cannot be enumerated here. The article would be much, much longer. At the royal court, the ruling family knew Latin, because everyone learnt it from an early age. As early as in 1320 Elżbieta Łokietkówna was portrayed as a fifteen-year-old reader of Latin books. Among the other big names, let me mention Długosz, who wrote another chronicle. Latin becomes everyday language, a living language spoken by courtiers in Wawel, the royal castle. In the fifteenth century, two poets Stanisław Ciołek and Adam Świnka created not only numerous official texts but also more referring to everyday life, sometimes quite acrimonious. And outside the court? The 15th century is also the time when Latin Quartier appears on the Krakow market, a specific neighbourhood in which students from different parts of the world live and they had to find their common tongue. Although it was not Latinitas of university halls, as it was often mixed with loan-words from the languages ​​of the students’ country of origin, the language was alive, hot-blooded and full of passion. She often accompanied fights as a means for verbal abuse. It was also heard in love declarations, in pubs and on many other occasions. King Kazimierz Jagiellończyk, although he did not know Latin himself, founded many Latin schools and ordered that everyone applying for a higher dignity in the state must speak Latin.

With the advent of the Renaissance, the approach to Latin changed. It had to share the crown with another language because there was a new interesting one to be used in culture – Polish. Latin was no longer the only language of literature. However, at the time, people tried to use Latin more similar to classical Latin, the one used by, for example, Cicero. There were new schools in which Latin was taught. More Poles learnt Latin in Poland, and more went to study in different parts of the world. King Zygmunt Stary talked in Latin with his wife Bona, who was Italian. His son corresponded with his wife in Polish and Latin.

There were plenty of Latin authors who, if they were just to be mentioned, would turn this article into a phone book. Nicolaus Copernicus wrote his works in Latin, the very Polish scholar who revolutionized astronomy. He even translated Greek texts into Latin. Poets such as Jan Dantyszek, Mikołaj Hussowski and Klemens Janicki wrote at the time. Many write not only in Latin but also in Polish, e.g. Jan Kochanowski. Publicists such as Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski published in excellent Latin about modern state reforms. Latin so strongly affected Polish that at that time a typical Latin syntax – accusativus cum infinitivo – appears in the local language. Stephen Báthory (1533-1586), the king of Poland, said to one of the students of the school in Zamość: ‘disce puer latine, ego faciam te mocium panie’, what does it mean ‘you boy, learn Latin and I will make you a Lord’. As you can see, Latin could then bring someone to the heights of the career ladder! Mikołaj Rej, a Polish poet ridiculed about those who did not know the language:

those growing up as pigs,

who do not know Latin

In the mid-17th century in the Commonwealth, even stewards spoke Latin, at least in the possessions of wealthy nobles. There was almost not a single nobleman who could not speak Latin. There was a saying then ‘Eques Polonus sum, Latine loquor’ – I am a Polish nobleman, I speak Latin. At that time, those who travelled through our country wrote that people everywhere could speak Latin – from the bishop in Gniezno to the townspeople in Lviv. More and more was written and published in Latin. Although the times started getting harder for the country, Latin was widely used and travelled farther east, as far as the Commonwealth stretched. The Catholic Church, which performed its ceremonies in the language, had a significant influence on the usage of Latin. Most of the subjects of Polish kings were of Catholic origin and hence they were in daily contact with Latin during the prayers and services. It was at that time that the educational activity of the Jesuits flourishes and they paid great attention to Latin. At that time in the Commonwealth, Latin became one of the official languages ​​of the country. It was the golden age of Latin in Poland with the peak in the poetry of Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski, who lived and created in the 17th century. His works were in the centre of Jan Oko’s interest. He was my great-grandfather’s cousin and I can only say – noblesse oblige. The world called Sarbiewski the ‘Christian Horace’. His theoretical works and poetry were published and translated throughout Europe, among others into English. Never again has a Polish Latin poet reached such a high poetic skill.

The widespread use of Latin in the Commonwealth was noticed by foreigners. The French were astonished how educated our legates to the country were. When they visited Paris on the occasion of the election of Henry of Valois, Jean Chisnin wrote in his diary:

It is surprising that Latin, German and Italian are so commonly known here. Among a hundred nobles, you will find only two who would not speak those three languages. They teach them at schools and it is so natural as there is no village so secluded and no hamlet where there would be no people speaking in those three languages, and that is because in every even smallest village there is a school.

Another French writer De Thou described the arrival of the Polish mission in 1573 to Henry of Valois and recalled that from a large group of Poles who came to Paris, there was not a single one who would not speak Latin perfectly. They were to embarrass the local noblemen who did achieve that level of fluency. Henry of Valois ruled for a short time, barely a year later escaped to France to become Henry III of France and in 1575 the nobles chose the new king – Stefan Batory. He knew four languages, including Latin. However, he did not know Polish! He promised to learn it in a month, but it turned out that there was no need for that. He communicated in Latin with everyone everywhere.

The next decades are unfortunately a more difficult period for Poland. Also for Polish Latin, although there is still a lot of light in it. More is written and published but as experts say it is no longer the Latin of such high class as before. Such a paradox lasted at the end of the 17th century and at the beginning of the 18th century. Although the poor read Horace in the original, the newly created songs and poems could no longer match the splendour of the earlier ones. Latin spread so widely that it was possible to communicate in Latin almost everywhere and with almost everyone. Even a social dialect among the nobles emerged, on the basis of Polish and Latin, as if a new language was to be born. The nobles considered Latin to be one of the essential elements of everyday life.

Polish enlightenment is again a return to classical Latin. However, also the next step in its less participation in science, culture, and literature. Latin was purified from Polish borrowings and Polish from Latin. The teaching of Latin was gradually reduced and the grammatical-translation method was introduced, which distanced itself from a spoken use of Latin. The students knew more and more about Latin, but they were becoming less and less able to use it. There were also writers who wrote in Latin but fewer than earlier. The end of the 18th century brought the end of the existence of the Commonwealth. A powerful state where several nations lived together and where Latin was living and used everyday language ceased to exist.

As time went by people’s needs and interests changed. The greatest Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, wrote some poems in Latin but he wrote mostly in Polish. The ability to create in Latin became less and less common and even desired. One of the obstacles was also the education system imposed by the invaders, who often regarded Poles as second-class citizens and did not encourage them to study. The last efforts to revive the language were the nineteenth-century educational reforms which gave more attention to teaching Latin, it can be said, however, that these were the last days of her splendour. The beginning of the twentieth century saw the collapse of classical gymnasiums and the rise of education focused on what is useful here and now. After regaining independence, secondary schools again tried to educate young people in the field of classical languages and were even quite successful. The classical philology started developing again, and one of those who created it was Jan Oko, my great-grandfather’s cousin. However, I did not find any information that significant Latin works would be created at that time. Maybe that new beginning would have led to at least a silver age of Latin but the year 1939 saw the outbreak of the biggest horror in human history.

The tragedy of the Second World War and the methodical murdering of Polish scholars, the extermination of Polish intelligentsia by both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia devastated the cultural landscape of the country. Millions of Poles died and we are still struggling with this painful loss. As late as in the twenty first century, we are constantly rebuilding what we have lost at that time. After the war, the communism and socialism were imposed in Poland by USSR. The new people’s republic was a state without real freedom. Latin, as an element of the culture alien to Marxist ideology, had to fall victim to the new system. It became less and less present in schools, it was confined within the walls of universities. And although it is possible to enumerate many excellent scholars dealing with this language from the time of socialist Poland, it is a time of systematic disappearance of interest in this language. Few scientific dissertations in Latin were written but only those few who knew Latin could read them.

After the collapse of the totalitarian system in our country, the situation did not change much. For a moment Latin returned to a greater extent to some schools, but not for long. The interest in this language has been getting smaller since then. Only the very recent years have brought hope for a change. The trends of Latin revival are coming from the West where Latin is spoken, where new texts are created. People like Marcin Loch or Katarzyna Ochman are those who work hard to awake the Latin flame in Polish hearts.

The future is unknown to us. Speculations of returning to the glorious times of Latin will probably remain just wishes and dreams. Nevertheless, it should never become a dead language. It still holds vast sources of energy and vigour which are only waiting to be discovered by the descendants of Kadłubek, Długosz, Kopernik, Sarbiewski and others.

main sources:

Aleksander Brückner, Początki i rozwój języka polskiego, Warszawa 1974.

Jean Choisnin, O elekcyi Henryka Walezyusza na króla polskiego pamiętniki Jana Szoanę, Wilno 1818.

Aleksander Wojciech Mikołajczak, Łacina w kulturze polskiej, Wrocław 1998.

Zygmunt Gloger, Encyklopedia Staropolska.

[1] Pliny the Elder, The Natural History trans. John Bostock, H.T. Riley (London: George Bell & Sons, 1855), 37.11 (page 402).

[2] Cf. Stefan Bratkowski, Najkrótsza historia Polski (Warszawa: Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza, 1998), 35-36.

About the author

Ioannes Oculus

I am addicted to languages, both modern and ancient. No language is dead as long as we can read and understand it. I want to share my linguistic passion with like minded people. I am also interested in history, astronomy, genealogy, books and probably many others. My goals now are to write a novel in Latin, a textbook for Latin learners, Uzbek-Polish, Polish-Uzbek dictionary, modern Uzbek grammar and textbook for learners. My dream is to have a big house in UK or USA where I could keep all my books and have enough time and money to achieve my goals.

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