Data so far: some numbers

We are now nearing the end of the ‘survey’ phase of the project. We have visited all the major collections and, of the smaller local collections, we have visited what we hope is a representative selection. This is not aiming to be a complete survey of neo-Latin verse in English manuscript holdings of the period: such an undertaking would take many years in its own right, since so many of the existing catalogues and indexes do not itemise Latin verse. The project is aiming to have made a ‘representative’ survey of this material. No such survey has been attempted before and we hope that future scholarship will be able to build on this foundation.

So how many poems have we found?

We have found about 15,000 neo-Latin poems in about 1000 individual manuscripts in thirty libraries or archives. Here ‘poems’ range from single lines of verse to a handful of hexameter poems which are hundreds of pages long. We have not counted Latin drama, even where it is in verse, though we have included excerpted Latin songs from plays and some marginal cases of apparently ‘dramatic poems’.

We have found so far 40 manuscripts with 100 or more neo-Latin poems in (this number will probably increase slightly as we are still working on the full descriptions of some of the richest sources), with one manuscript containing 712 individual Latin epigrams! At the other extreme 311 manuscripts contain just one neo-Latin poem (some of these will be one very long poem), and we have looked at about 250 manuscripts which proved to contain no material relevant to our survey (for instance, no Latin verse at all, or Latin verse which is either entirely classical, medieval or neo-Latin verse certainly dating from after the early 18th century). We are still working on the descriptions of around 50 particularly rich or complex manuscripts, and we have a handful of archive visits still to go.

What form are these poems?

The most common metre is elegiac couplets, and the most common form or genre is (almost certainly) the epigram – we can’t be completely sure of this yet as we have not yet assigned all the items we’ve found a generic category. But some manuscripts contain hundreds of individual epigrams, especially in the period between about 1610 and 1630 when these were particularly fashionable (the manuscript with over 700 poems is an epigram collection). Equally, in many of the instances where we found only a single Latin poem in a manuscript, the poem in question was an epigram. Hexameters are the second most common metrical form throughout most of our period, though in the earliest manuscripts (of the mid-16th century) they are in fact significantly more common than elegiacs, the trend for which seems to be a latter-16th century innovation, probably influenced by the rising fashion for the briefest kind of epigrams, which tend to be in elegiacs. In the latest material (from the early 18th century) Latin lyrics are found more commonly than hexameter verse, and displace hexameter as the second most frequent type of poem. Of course if we were counting numbers of lines rather than individual poems, the data would look different, since nearly all of the very long poems we have found are in hexameters.


A significant proportion of these sources are bilingual to varying degrees and I personally am particularly interested in the relationship between Latin and English literature throughout this period: it’s not just that many of our manuscripts include both Latin and English verse (though this is certainly true) – it’s also that a significant proportion of what we have found is as it were ‘actively’ bilingual – most commonly, paired poems in Latin and English versions but also including other related phenomena (such as a response or answer poem in another language, and translations into and out of Latin into other languages, most commonly Ancient Greek, Hebrew, French, Dutch and Italian).

In short, this is a very large and extremely varied corpus. In the course of this project we shall of course only be able to transcribe a small proportion of these poems (though we are hoping to be able to put together a first-line index for a relatively large proportion of them), and translate, annotate and analyse in detail only a still smaller fraction. But since there has been no previous scholarly attempt even to get an overview of this material, a significant aim of our project is precisely to offer such an overview, trying for the first time to give some sense of the ‘big picture’: the overall role of the reading, writing and circulation of post-medieval Latin verse in early modern England.

Raffaella’s first research trip outside London

This blog was suspended over the period of the UCU industrial action; but we are now pleased to return with a post Raffaella wrote a few weeks ago about her first trip to a local archive outside London. She writes:

Last week I did my first manuscript trip outside London. I was very excited about visiting a new archive after my first month and a half spent at the British Library. I went to the East Sussex Record Office, situated on the edge of Brighton, where we knew there were around ten manuscripts useful for our research.

I was surprised at the variety of documents I had in my hands through the day: family account notebooks, a diary, some commonplace books containing orations and classical quotations, a couple of parish registers and some loose sheets as well. All these materials contained some Neo-Latin verse in different percentages, but all of them proved very interesting. It is always curious to see that people scribbled a Latin epigram in the middle of some annotations of their expenses, or an epitaph on someone’s death in the parish register that normally contains only the list of births and burials. I reckon that this aspect is much more visible when visiting a local archive rather than a big library such as the BL. In smaller archives or libraries, of course, there are fewer Latin documents, so in just one day you can read also the ones that normally you would consider less important.

However, I had to go very quickly through all the items I had to examine, because the third or fourth I required (you can only have one per time on your table) proved extremely full of Neo-Latin poetry. Except for a few letters written in Latin prose, almost all the 250 pages of the manuscript FRE/690 contain poems, that were written by various authors including Alexander Gill, Charles Blake and many fellows of St. John’s College Oxford in the 17th century. It was exciting to discover that many pieces were quite long (up to nearly 30 pages of hexameters in one case!) and that there were many different themes in the various poems: celebrations for sovereigns, religious matters, poems for weddings and philosophical poems as well.

This trip has been a very useful experience to me for several reasons. I’ve learnt that when you’re visiting a new archive you must be well prepared for what you expect to find, but also flexible and ready to adapt as what’s there is never quite what you envisaged.  Once at the archives, it’s important to optimise your time.  I found more interesting things than we expected and I couldn’t analyse all the material while at the archive, so I decided to take pictures first and defer some of the descriptions, on which I worked in the following days looking at images. Finally, it was great to taste the local dimension of Latin poetry that can be found in an account book or in a parish register, and it was lovely as well to work for one day in a smaller archive where people usually do researches on local history or family genealogy and more rarely on literature (not to mention Neo-Latin!).

Latin metre group – a guest post by Jill Woodberry

Today we have a guest post from Jill Woodberry, a PhD student at King’s who helps to organise a Latin metre reading group at KCL. Jill writes:

The idea for the metre group was conceived after one of Victoria’s neo-Latin reading group sessions, when a few of us found ourselves bemoaning that, though we might manage to translate a Latin poem, we had little idea how its rhythms should sound. We decided to meet regularly to try to get to grips with Latin metre, and count ourselves very fortunate that Caroline Spearing agreed to ‘lead’ us in a regular reading group. The meetings were made possible through the sterling work of Lucy Jackson in dealing with the complexities of KCL room bookings and general admin.

As a foundational practice we concentrated on hexameter. At first we would take one line each, and painstakingly work out the scansion mathematically before reading it out loud in turn. Gradually however we became more adept at speaking unprepared lines as we grew more familiar with the rhythmic patterns of the hexameter. We looked at Virgil, Catullus and Ovid, and noted in particular stylistic differences in their use of elision. We then moved on to elegiac couplets and Catullan hendecasyllables.

Towards the end of the semester, Lois Potter, as expert on early-modern drama, gave us a fascinating talk on the shifting use of metre in Shakespearean drama. At the end of the session we read the ‘echo’ scene from Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, noting the comparison with Ovid’s treatment of the echoing voice in the story of Echo and Narcissus which we had read some weeks earlier.

This semester we have moved on to the very different lyric metres, reading poems by Horace as well as some by Cowley and Sarbiewski (the latter in part to coincide with the neo-Latin reading group). We began with Alcaics, followed by Sapphics. Though our sessions are largely practical, sometimes an element of the theoretical enters in; a vexed issue for us from the conceptual/technical standpoint, is how far it is relevant to consider these lyric metres in terms of smaller units of ‘feet’, as is possible with hexameter and pentameter, or whether each line should be considered a ‘colon’ in its own right. The fact that authorities seem to differ in the way they divide lines suggests that there is no definite rule. We are just beginning to look at Asclepiads, and here, arguably, we do return to an idea of the basic unit of the choriamb as a kind of ‘foot’.

The continuing success of our group is due in part to the enthusiasm of members for hearing spoken Latin poetry, and in part to its interdisciplinary nature, with our very varied interests, expertise and scholarly backgrounds resulting in stimulating and illuminating comment and discussion.

Later, when the survey stage of the Leverhulme project is complete, we look forward to a talk by Victoria on the wide variety of metres that have been discovered in early modern texts.

Finally, this semester we have timed our sessions to align with the main neo-Latin reading group, i.e. 2-3pm on Mondays, and if anyone would like to join us they are very welcome (room is S2.38). Contact details are:;;