Introductory post: undergraduate volunteer Astrid Khoo

Astrid Khoo is a second year undergraduate student in Classics. Here she explains how she came to Latin and why she is keen to volunteer to help with the project during part of the summer vacation:

I learned no Latin until I was sixteen. As a child, enraptured by the sound and the fury of literature, I instead studied the languages of Mann, Zola, and Dostoyevsky. Latin was a fantasy tongue, belonging only to Asterix, the Pope, and lawyers.

In retrospect, however, a love for Latin has always lurked in my imagination. When I was five, I invented the game ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. To play Cleopatra I wrapped a towel around my waist; to play Antony I threw the same towel over my right shoulder, toga-style. More worrying, perhaps, were my pretensions to Latin teaching. In primary school I taught a friend Catullus 16, the favourite poem of all beginner students. Though well aware of the fact that I could not read Latin, I considered it a mere technicality. In any case, we never made it past the first line as we considered Pedicabo ego vos… extraordinarily amusing.

At sixteen, driven by some unknown furor, in the double sense of ‘madness’ and ‘inspiration’, I wrote to a Latin tutor and asked him to teach me all that he knew. We began with the Gesta Romanorum (‘Deeds of the Romans’) and Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum (‘Gallic Wars’). From the beginning, therefore, I was trained to read non-Classical Latin. Nevertheless, even when I had gotten into the habit of reading and writing Latin regularly – my compositions can be found on my blog Latine Scribo – I never imagined that I would study Latin at university, let alone choose Classics as a career path.

In fact, I started off as a History student upon arriving at King’s. Hungry for Latin practice, however, I audited Dr. Daniel Hadas’ postgraduate module on Medieval Latin. I greatly enjoyed this course, as it involved collating manuscript variants and working with untranslated texts. On the advice of Dr. Hadas I began attending the Neo-Latin reading group, led by Dr. Victoria Moul, who also kindly allowed me to audit her module on Neo-Latin Poetry. At the same time, I began collecting Latin books, for which I won two prizes in 2017. Courses in palaeography and codicology fuelled my interest for the early modern period, that brave new world teeming with incunabula.

Through these activities I discovered neo-Latin, which I consider to be ‘new’ both chronologically and stylistically. It is undoubtedly funny, as evident from Bohuslav Hasištejnský z Lobkovic’s witty guide to Prague. I also love the subversiveness of neo-Latin, as exemplified by Nicholas Chorier’s pornographic Satyra Sotadica. Furthermore, the range and diversity of neo-Latin excites me; I am currently working on the ‘Brazilian Georgics’ of José Rodrigues de Melo. Most of all, however, neo-Latin derives its appeal from its colour and audacity. Milton’s Defensio pro Populo Anglicano (‘Defence of the English People’, last term’s text for the neo-Latin reading group) is no mere reception of Cicero, but rather a reinvigoration. Milton does not add fuel to the fire, but rather fire to the fuel: his prose explodes out of the page.

Therefore, when I heard that Dr. Victoria Moul had successfully applied for Leverhulme funding for her research project on post-medieval Latin poetry in early modern English manuscripts, I simply had to get involved. I wanted to learn more about neo-Latin poetry; I wanted to touch it, transcribe it, and think about it outside the classroom. My palaeographical training pushed me towards manuscript material and especially early modern scripts. I was curious about metre, to which I had been introduced by the Latin metre reading group. Most of all, however, I wished to experience working as part of a project group with highly skilled team members, from whom I expect to learn very much indeed.



King’s College London Medieval/Renaissance Latin Play 2018 – George Ruggle’s “Ignoramus”

This post reproduces the programme notes on the literary context to Ignoramus which Victoria wrote for the performance of the play at KCL in March:

Latin school and university plays were a typical element of secondary and tertiary education throughout the early modern period: Montaigne, for instance, acted in George Buchanan’s Latin tragedies while his pupil at the Collège de Guyenne in the 1540s. A large number of such plays are extant in manuscript sources, and many others are known to have been put on, although the texts do not survive; relatively few however were published in print and of these even fewer had anything like a ‘popular’ success. George Ruggle’s (1575-1622) Ignoramus, by contrast, was a major hit: first performed in 1615 at Cambridge for the entertainment of the visiting King James I, it was performed repeatedly well into the 18th century, reprinted multiple times (11 editions between 1630 and 1787) and also translated into English at least three times in the latter part of the seventeenth century.

The enormous and enduring popularity of the play is particularly evident in surviving manuscript material: excerpts, especially the prologues and songs from the play, appear in many commonplace books and miscellanies, and bespoke prologues – written to accompany later performances, with up-to-date contemporary jokes – are extant from as late as 1763. Unfortunately, there is no modern print edition, though an online text, translation and brief notes can be found at

Ruggle’s sprawling work – apparently running in its original performance to over five hours – satirises the character and (especially) the poor Latin of ‘Ignoramus’, the college recorder: that is, a common lawyer in a town of scholars. As such, it belongs broadly to the enduringly popular genre of legal satire – a kind of Better Call Saul for the early seventeenth century. (More closely contemporary examples include Donne’s Satires of the 1590s and the Trebatius scenes in Jonson’s Poetaster (1601).) The specifically dramatic tradition to which it belongs is that of Plautus’ Pseudolus (itself a popular school play), though Ignoramus is based most directly upon an Italian version of Plautus’ play (Giambattista Della Porta’s La Trappolaria). Tonight’s performance has been significantly cut to a running time of only around 40 minutes, but this too is traditional – several of the extant manuscript sources suggest that the play was regularly abridged in performance.

The most distinctive feature of the play is its linguistic inventiveness: Ignoramus’ hodge-podge of half-baked Latin, English and French is still very funny. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, ‘macaronic’ verse – that is, verse in a mixture of two or more languages – had strong satirical overtones. The frequent use of rhyming Latin verse in the songs is also associated, in this period, with satirical or humourous material. Though barely known even to scholars today, the popular Latin literary “hits” of the early seventeenth century almost all included similar elements to those found in Ruggle’s play: John Barclay’s Latin novel, Argenis (1621), for instance, has multiple romantic sub-plots and includes Latin songs which were widely excerpted; William Drummond’s (1585-1649) mock-epic Polemo-Middiana (‘The Battle of the Dunghill’) is macaronic to very similar comic effect to Ignoramus; and the enormously popular Barnabae Itinerarium (‘Drunken Barnaby’s Journey’) by Richard Braithwaite (1588-1673) is a long comic poem about the hapless exploits of the eponymous Barnaby, composed in rhyming Latin verse with a parallel English version. Ignoramus is therefore typical of a lively, albeit now forgotten, culture of popular neo-Latin literature.


KCL Medieval/Renaissance Latin play: playing Ignoramus

On Friday the 23rd of March, it was happening … The 13th annual King’s College London Medieval / Renaissance Latin play: George Ruggle’s Ignoramus. It was first performed for King James I in 1615, who liked it so much that he asked to see it again.

We started rehearsing in February. Our directors, Laura Vivio and Alessandro Trinca, were very professional and, first things first, taught us about stage directions (upstage, downstage, stage left, stage right, counter, etc.). We blocked the various scenes, so we would know where we had to be throughout each of them. Of course, we also had to learn our lines! I was playing Ignoramus himself, which meant I had to speak a mix of Latin, French and English. Such a mix of Latin and other languages is known as macaronic Latin. Funnily enough, the vernacular words with Latin endings and the inaccurate Latin grammar did not make my lines that hard to remember (in places, they were very memorable). I struggled the most with the legal Latin in my part, because I wasn’t sure what it was saying. Looking at a legal dictionary frequently didn’t help; as the brief introduction to our script (the performing edition prepared by Dr. D.K. Money for performance at the conference of the International Association for Neo-Latin Studies, 2000) points out: “in some places the meaning is less than clear”. However, I managed to learn all of it and so did the other performers. And in spite of our busy schedules and ‘the Beast from the East’ getting in the way, it all came together on the night. We had a nice and hard-working team, consisting of students from BA to PhD level. Some of them had done very little Latin, but were brave enough to take on the challenge of performing in Latin – very impressive!

The plot premise of the play is a familiar one: a fool who falls in love with a pretty girl who isn’t interested in him, is tricked into giving up his pursuit of her (the threat of castration plays a role) by a cunning character so she can end up with the man who loves her.

Playing Ignoramus was great fun! I really enjoyed making a fool out of myself. I could be dramatic (o valde caleor; o chaud, chaud: precor Deum non meltavi meum pingue!) and be angry with scholars (Sunt magnae idiotae. Et clerici nihilorum, isti universitantes). In the final scene, I got to hide behind Trico (the cunning servant who devised the plot to betray me), before being discovered by my opponent Antonius, holding a pair of huge scissors.

The response of the audience really contributed to the experience. It is very encouraging to hear laughter whilst performing. And the humour of this play is timeless; the actions of the characters are frequently very much like slapstick. A great example is the scene in which Rosabella (Ignoramus’s and Antonius’s love interest) and Antonius are finally able to talk, while Trico is distracting Surda (Rosabella’s deaf servant who has been instructed to keep an eye on her). In an attempt to deceive Surda, the lovers pretend to be angry with each other while they say loving things. Meanwhile, Trico pretends to be in love with Surda, passionately calling her the most hideous things.

People in the 17th century must have enjoyed the play’s humour as well. Once we knew that Ignoramus would be performed at King’s, we started to notice extracts of verse from the play (such as Ignoramus’s Versus legales de Rosabella) during the survey for our project on verse miscellanies. In fact, we had come across it several times during our survey before this point, which shows just how popular it was.

To read a bit more about the literary context of the play, see Victoria’s programme notes, which we’ll post as a blog tomorrow.