“He should comment on the fact that their Latin is not very good.”

The industrial relations situation at my employers grows ever more Kafka-esque, to the extent where it’s probably not wise by now for me to make it clear on here whether I have been on strike or not as this post goes up. Therefore, I offer you a pre-written one that I have been keeping against a pressed occasion and a reassurance that, whether or not I am, lots of people are, and that as ever I think that their reasons are good and the employers’ response inadequate where even existent. And with that, let’s move it on to the past and the problems of writing about it.

Manresa, Arxiu Històric Comarcal, pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, núm. 3

Manresa, Arxiu Històric Comarcal, pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, núm. 3, published as Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, 3 vols, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 1594; I have to admit, I don’t know where I got this image now, but it is a very typical-looking charter and its Latin is very much of its time

In general I have escaped the whole Reviewer #2 thing fairly well, but one or two of my early article submissions got stung thus.1 The quote of the title might take the prize, however: it was the complete totality of the second review I got of an early article that in fact never emerged.2 (The first review was broadly positive; the journal in question sent it out to a third reviewer, who also said it should be published; and so the editor rejected it and didn’t answer any further e-mail. I won’t deal with that journal again.) The reason I tell you this now, however, is that it had when I wrote this just come up again in something I was reading, and I wanted to pause and wonder.

For those that love their Classical Latin, the language of the documents of the eleventh-century Spanish March come as a bit of a shock. Inflection is generally down to three cases only, but the indirect object case can be one of several options; the scribes were fairly evidently normalising to sound, not to spelling. Many of the spellings and indeed words are themselves fairly Romance; and yet it is clear from the odd patches where the actual vernacular turns up that the vernacular was not what they thought they were writing, even if they could probably have read out what they were writing and had people understand it, just as most UK English speakers can probably parse a modern writ but wouldn’t be able to write one.3 But still, that doesn’t explain the way that some scholars apparently think this means that this is all that can be said of them. That reviewer, whoever she or he was, was one; but it was kind of a comfort to find that Pierre Bonnassie, no less, got the same treatment as far back as 1968, at a famous conference in Toulouse whose proceedings are cited to this day.4 Working through this for other reasons, I decided that although I’d long ago read Bonnassie’s contribution elsewhere, I’d still probably profit from reading the discussion, which was printed, and there it is.5 The by-then venerable Robert Boutruche seems to have spent most of every paper’s discussion trying to shoehorn the southern social structures just described to him into a legalistic template of northern feudalism, with a barrage of terminological questions whose answers didn’t leave him any happier.6 He did this to Bonnassie too, briefly, but he had to begin, all the same, with how the documents’ Latin sucked. It’s interesting to see basically the same conversation as I’ve had, as I’ve seen even Wendy Davies having to have, being carried on there, with the same uncertainty about what the more traditional side of the conversation wants out of the discussion. I translate, with my commentary in square brackets, and you can find the actual French here if you want (p. 558):

    BOUTRUCHE: The first document you give here is very curious: bad Latin accompanied with terms in the vernacular.
    BONNASSIE: This is very common in Catalonia.
    BOUTRUCHE: It would have been good to emphasise this and to place it in its temporal context.
    [Why? Why would that have been good?]
    BONNASSIE: The Latin of the Catalans of the eleventh century is terrible. There’s a reason for this, which is tied up with the fact that Catalonia hardly knew the Carolingian Renaissance.
    [No! Why’d you give in, Bonnassie? I suppose you were only a postgrad at this point and he was the old man of the field, but still. Anyway, what you said wasn’t true, as Cullen Chandler has now shown.7]
    JEAN SCHNEIDER [moderating, or trying to]: Never forget, it’s a typical phenomenon: they wrote Latin more grammatically in the countries that didn’t speak a Romance language. Among the Anglo-Saxons and the Germans, they cultivated grammar because they jolly well had to learn it! But in Romance-language countries, one could imagine oneself understanding Latin.
    BOUTRUCHE: Well, here they didn’t know it.
    [What did you want, man, an apology from Bonnassie for studying these documents?]
    SCHNEIDER: Sure, but they could have imagined that they did.
    [No, you too have conceded! Weak! Infirm of purpose! And here the ghost of Jarrett future is ejected from proceedings by the ectoplasmic bouncers.]

From there, anyway, it moves on to whether there were vassals in Bonnassie’s documents or not, as a French lawyer would understand the word, but you see why it perplexes me. I’ve had this too; it’s as if these scholars feel that by making them deal with these documents we’ve tracked dirt over their mental carpet. But of course this isn’t Classical Latin! It was aged by a millennium from when that was new. I imagine Gerbert of Aurillac would have been pretty horrified by Boutruche’s French, too, but that kind of parallel never seems to occur. I suppose that the teaching point is that old one we make to our first-year students: everything is a primary source for something. These traditionalists want to see the Catalan (and indeed other northern Iberian) documents as a source for decline of intellectual standards, and what I want to insist on is that they are a source for what Latin was c. 1100; not better, not worse, but still doing its work after a millennium of evolution. That should be cool, not a reason to reject an article just because it’s about these things. At least that didn’t happen to Bonnassie, on this occasion anyway. But I wonder if he too had his Reviewer #2 story for this reason…

1. As with any of these things, the ‘Reviewer #2’ trend has generated meta-commentary, of which the quickest study if you haven’t heard of this phenomenon before is probably Rachael Pells, “Research intelligence: how to deal with the gruesome reviewer 2” in Times Higher Education (THE) (13 June 2019), online here; but someone actually doing analysis on it concluded that actually, if anyone, Reviewer 3 is the problem one: see David A. M. Peterson, “Dear Reviewer 2: Go F’ Yourself” in Social Science Quarterly Vol. 101 (Oxford 2020), pp. 1648–1652, DOI: 10.1111/ssqu.12824. Well, not for me, so far…

2. I presented the paper in a couple of places, most recently as “The Continuation of Carolingian Expansion: splitting hairs in medieval Catalonia” at the Second Conference of Historians of Medieval Spain and Portugal, Liverpool, 15 September 2003. It was to be sort of a first half to the second half that became Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 no. 2 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 1–22, DOI: 10.1484/J.TMJ.1.102535, explaining how it was still accurate to call Catalonia Carolingian even in the late tenth century given its apparent group-think on the issue, and it too was generated out of an attempt to answer criticism from snobby reviewers…

3. Of course, we have discussed these issues before, and I still need to engage properly with Roger Wright, Late Latin and Early Romance in Spain and Carolingian France, ARCA Classical and Medieval Texts Papers and Monographs 8 (Liverpool 1982), and his more recent work as well of course, and decide what I think, but for now I think I hold to the idea that Latin and the vernacular were not the same thing in Catalonia by 1050, even if they might have been mutually intelligible still.

4. Pierre Bonnassie, “Les conventions féodales dans la Catalogne du XIe siècle” in Annales du Midi, Colloque sur les structures sociales de l’Aquitaine, du Languedoc et de l’Espagne au premier âge féodal, Vol.80/no. 89 (Toulouse 1968), pp. 529–561, DOI: 10.3406/anami.1968.4455.

5. The discussion is ibid. pp. 551-561; I’d already read the paper as Pierre Bonnassie, “Feudal Conventions in Eleventh-Century Catalonia” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. Jean Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 170–194.

6. Bonnassie, “Conventions féodales”, pp. 557-558; also seen in M. De Boüard, “Quelques données archéologiques concernant le premier àge féodal” in Annales du Midi, Colloque sur les structures sociales de l’Aquitaine, du Languedoc et de l’Espagne au premier âge féodal, Vol.80/no. 89 (Toulouse 1968), pp. 383–404, DOI: 10.3406/anami.1968.4450 at pp. 399-401; Hilda Grassotti, “La durée des concessions bénéficiaires en Léon et Castille : les cessions ad tempus“, transl. André Gallego and Pierre Bonnassié [sic], ibid. pp. 421–455 at pp. 448-449; Élisabeth Magnou-Nortier, “Fidélité et féodalité méridionales d’après les serments de fidélité (Xe – début XIIe siècle)”, ibid. pp. 457–484, DOI: 10.3406/anami.1968.4453, at pp. 479-480; José-Maria Lacarra, “« Honores » et « tenencias » en Aragon (XIe siècle)”, transl. Pierre Bonnassie and Y. Bonnassie, ibid., pp 485–528, DOI: 10.3406/anami.1968.4454, at p. 523; and Paul Ourliac, “Le pays de La Selve à la fin du XIIe siècle”, ibid. pp. 581–602, DOI: 10.3406/anami.1968.4457 at p. 595!

7. See, of course, Cullen J. Chandler, Carolingian Catalonia: Politics, Culture, and Identity in an Imperial Province, 778–987, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 111 (Cambridge 2019), the book everyone wanted me to write but me and now done much better than I would have; and I’m not sure I’ve congratulated Cullen on it yet so, if you’re reading this note Cullen, congratulations and I’ll try and give it some proper blog attention in the near future!

6 responses to ““He should comment on the fact that their Latin is not very good.”

  1. I loathed Latin at school – gave it up as soon as I was allowed to. One part of my Latin schooling did stick though – I cannot abide the English, and therefore American, pronunciation of that tongue. Seezer? It’s Kaiser, you duffers!

    (And then decades on, visiting old English churches, I found I could read the bits of Latin on display. I suspect that this was partly because the writers were thinking in English and then using English word order in their Latin. This averted my need for much of the mechanics of parse-then-construe. Presumably this is well known to chaps in your trade but it came as a minor revelation to me.)

    Anyway, to the point: how do you pronounce medieval Catalan Latin (assuming you pronounce it at all)? How did the Catalans pronounce it? Can anyone know?

    • I’m not sure if we can know, but I’ve heard someone try, albeit with eleventh-century proto-Portuguese rather than Catalan. If anyone knows he does! But it is difficult to be sure, because in the mid-eleventh century the Catalan documents start actually to feature phrases which are clearly in the vernacular, and there is enough difference to be clear that the scribes didn’t think they were writing that ordinarily. That then raises the question of whether spoken pronunciation is much guide to how they thought what they presumably considered Latin, rather than what we call Romance, should be said out loud. I presume that it was a kind of understood language with a relation to the spoken tongue, but there’s room for other possibilities, as your example reminds us…

  2. Akin to reviewing Star Trek by complaining about the split infinitive.

    PS – I usually flinch at “Classical Latin”. Cicero and the graffiti writers of Pompeii are a long way apart

  3. Yes, I still check in here and read! Thank you for the nod and the kind words in the footnote. I am interested to see what you might have to say.

  4. Pingback: Translating Latin Texts: Combatting Basic Problems – The Historian's Sketchpad

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