Do you speak Rumauntsch? Raffaella attends an unusual summer school . . .

Quista sted eau d’he passo duas eivnas en Engiadina per un cuors da Rumauntsch. Oh, no, s-chüsa, sorry: this summer I spent a couple of weeks in Engadin (Switzerland) for a course of the local idiom, Rumauntsch Puter. Rumauntsch is a romance language spoken in the Kanton Graubünden, in the most eastern part of Switzerland. Although it is spoken by less than 1% of the whole population of Switzerland, it has the status of national language, along with German, French and Italian.

I discovered Rumantsch during my holidays in the region in the past few years, and I started listening to the local radio, Radio Rumantsch ( With an intense radio-listening training, I gradually started to understand the mechanisms of the language and I got more and more passionate about it. Meanwhile, during my studies in Italy, I took a couple of modules on romance philology and this exacerbated my enthusiasm for this minority and neglected language.

I then decided that it was time to take a proper course and discover a bit more about this language, and perhaps start to speak it. So, I enrolled for the course organized in Samedan by the Fundaziun Chesa Planta ( I didn’t know what to expect and I feared that most of the students might be much older than me and that everybody spoke only German (or worse, Schwitzerdutsch!). Luckily, I was wrong. I found a very dynamic and familiar environment and I was assigned to a class with a lot of young people. We had fun learning together the grammar rules and beginning to form more and more complex sentences with our own words (pleds, in Rumauntsch). But we didn’t focus just on grammar, because there were also some interesting activities such as the chaunt comünavel (a 20 minute daily singing session) and, twice a week, a short talk given by someone working with the Rumauntsch language and culture (see below). Moreover, two afternoons a week we had a baderleda (an informal chat in a café) with the organizer, Martina Shuler-Fluor, and we discussed (in Rumauntsch, of course) different topics that were of common interest. Two excursions, to the Museum Engiadinais in San Murezzan ( and a spassegeda poetica (poetic walk) in Zuoz, completed the offer.

Alongside all these activities, I went trekking with üna gruppa d’amihs (a group of friends) I met at the course, and we spoke adüna (always) Rumauntsch, strengthening our speaking abilities day by day and having fun making and correcting our own mistakes or looking up the dictionary for a quick check.

But why learn Rumauntsch? First of all, I love useless, disregarded, dying or dead languages, and I firmly believe that it’s great to discover minor languages that still transmit a culture which is different from what we are used to. Moreover, Rumauntsch sounds beautiful and may also be funny for someone who already knows other widely-spoken romance languages such as French or Italian. Its sounds are one of the greatest things of this language: with a lot of palatal sounds such as tsch, ch, sch, dsch, it reaches peaks of sweetness (and complexity to pronounce!) that other romance languages simply don’t have. Also, its vocabulary is incredible, and very interesting for someone passionate about Latin and/or modern romance languages. Rumauntsch has preserved many Latin roots that in other languages have disappeared, changed sense or are confined to a formal or archaic discourse. This example might be enough: book is cudesch, which come from the Latin codex. Code, codice, código mean nowadays something else, while French, Italian and Spanish languages have continued liber with libro and livre. Again, ‘to choose’ is tschernere, and ‘choice’ tscherna, from the Latin cernere.

As it is clear from this brief description, this course didn’t have much to do with my current PhD project. However, I found a link between Rumauntsch, London and manuscripts while I was in Samedan. Thanks to the conference held by Michele Badilatti, I discovered that the first person to conduct research on Rumauntsch in a proto-scientific way was Joseph Planta, whose father was from Engadin. Joseph Planta studied in Utrecht and Göttingen, before moving to England following his father, who was assistant librarian at the British Museum. At the death of his father, in 1773, Joseph Planta he took up his father’s job, before being promoted to keeper of the manuscripts and, in 1799, principal librarian. He studied and restored important manuscripts such as the only one containing the text of Beowulf (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV) and produced a catalogue of the Cotton collection of manuscripts. In his research (perscrutaziun in Rumantsch, another word I love!), he tried to demonstrate that Rumantsch was not a barbaric language, a mixture of all the neighbour idioms, but the most ancient and thus best of all the romance languages. Of course, these conclusions and the exaltation of a language as “ancient” or “beautiful” don’t fit with a modern approach to comparative linguistics, but it is interesting that a man of Rhaetian origins (as his burial inscription underlines), connected with the most vibrant intellectual culture of the time, was the first to attempt a proto-scientific description of such a “barbaric” language.

A day in the life: visiting a local archive

The majority of our manuscripts are now contained in very large collections – at the British Library, the Bodleian Library in Oxford,  the Cambridge University Library, the Portland Collection at Nottingham, the Brotherton Collection in Leeds and the manuscripts held in the John Rylands library in Manchester. These are all large collections which have over the centuries acquired sets of manuscripts from many different sources.

But today I thought it would be interesting to say a bit about what it’s like from a research point of view to visit a smaller collection. In the past year  we have visited local archives and record offices in, among others, Chester, Brighton, Woking, Stafford, Northampton, Hertford, Chelmsford, Aylesbury, Derby, Manchester, Leeds, Winchester, Taunton and Warwick as well as the National Archives (at Kew) and collections in Durham, the Society of Antiquaries in London and the Royal Society (also in London). One of the fascinating things about this project is how we are finding some examples of neo-Latin verse in almost every collection with significant material from the sixteenth or seventeenth century.

In February, for instance, I went to the Surrey History Centre in Woking.

Continue reading “A day in the life: visiting a local archive”

Schola Latina Corcagiensis

From the 6th to the 12th of June, I attended the Schola Latina at University College Cork, an immersive Latin summer school. On the night before the course started, we had the opportunity to meet the other participants in a pub whilst speaking English. The group was varied, including undergraduate students, postgraduate students of different ages, teachers and of course academic staff.

Before we started our classes the next day, we had to promise only to speak Latin for the duration of the course and when interacting with fellow students away from the campus, unless everyone made it clear they were happy to speak English for a bit. I had never spoken Latin before, so it was a completely new experience and I was a little nervous. We also all had to pick a Latin name. I chose Sulpicia, after the poetess whose verses were preserved with those of Tibullus. Once we started lessons, my nerves soon abated. I was able to understand almost everything that was said and was able to respond in some way (although especially at the start, there was occasionally some French thrown in!). As the week went on, I was more and more able to express myself.

We had a busy schedule, with classes from 9 till 6 every day (apart from the Sunday when they were from 1 till 5), but the programme was so diverse that the time flew by! We also had generous lunch breaks and the weather was lovely all week, so we got to enjoy that as well. Every morning, we were given an epigram and one or more adagia to learn by heart. We also had a session on grammar, covering among other things dativi, orationes conditionales and similitudines et differentia. On the first day we also had a tour of the college.

On most days we read one or more texts on the topic of gender,  the school’s theme this year, including a letter by Isotta Nogarola, Sannazaro’s Salices and a passage from Petrus Forestus’s Observationes et Curationes Medicinales. We often rephrased what we read, using different Latin words. It was interesting to read and understand texts without translating them. We also had sessions with ‘Ludi’ in which we played different games, including Latin Scrabble, a Latin version of “Who am I?” and vas vocabulorum (there are two teams and there is a container with Latin words. In each team the players take turns and have a couple of minutes to describe as many words as they can. The other members of their team guess the word. The team that has most points at the end, wins). In other lessons we described what happened in a video clip, or what we saw in pictures. We had a music session on the Saturday, during which we sang traditional Irish songs and some pop songs in Latin. On the last day, we each gave a short speech about something that interested us; some people talked about their hobbies, others about their research, one of us even wrote his own fairy-tale! This showed how much we had all learnt.

It was a lovely experience, being part of a group of people that is so excited about Latin and speaking a language I work on so much. I think using it actively, really helped to consolidate my knowledge of Latin. I hope to come back in anno proximo..!

      University College Cork

At school with Shakespeare

In this post Bianca describes one of the first outreach initiatives of our research team: a primary-school workshop on “Being at school in Shakespeare’s time”. This project has been awarded a Public Engagement Small Grant from the KCL Centre for Doctoral Studies. Designed by Bianca (main grant applicant) and supported by Victoria, the workshop has been developed collaboratively by the whole team and has benefitted greatly from Sharon’s extensive experience in teaching (Latin) in primary schools.

Through interactive discussion, practical activities, and games, our workshop introduces primary-school children in years 5 and 6 to the sixteenth-century classroom, pointing out that children at school in Shakespeare’s time were taught not in English, but in Latin, the international language of the day. During the workshop, children have a chance to look at manuscript Latin poems and school exercises, decipher and translate some Latin words, and *make their own manuscript* writing with a quill pen. We especially encourage children to think about what it means to learn in a second language and how this might be connected to literary creativity. The workshop is particularly suitable for schools with a high proportion of children who do not speak English at home, and are therefore (like Shakespeare!) being educated in their second language.


On the 21st May Sharon, Raffaella, and I delivered our first two workshop sessions at Holy Trinity and St. Silas, a Church of England primary school located in a colourful neighbourhood between Kentish Town and Camden Town.

We met in front of the school at 8:45 a.m., all carrying large bags filled with ink bottles, quills, photocopies and various sorts of paper. After unwrapping our materials and making some final arrangements with the school teachers, by 9:30 a.m. we were ready to start with our first session with Mr. McIntyre’s Year 5 class. This was a wonderful first-time experience!

The first part of our workshop consists in an interactive presentation on school curriculum, Latin-English bilingualism, and Latin verse exercises in Shakespeare’s time, with projected drawings of a sixteenth-century classroom and images of manuscripts from the period. Children were very interested and participated eagerly to the discussion: Sharon, who was in charge of this part, was overwhelmed with answers, guesses, and comments about the sixteenth-century school timetable, writing equipment, and non-technological classroom! Children quickly grasped the meaning of words such as “manu-script” and “bi-lingualism” based on their Latin components. When asked to reflect on ancient and contemporary bilingualism, children came up with very interesting observations and stories concerning the advantages of speaking more than one language as a way to communicate with different kinds of people, see and interpret the world, and better understand one’s own language.

In the second part of our workshop, children are asked to *read some real manuscripts*, looking at printed reproductions of manuscript pages and answering a few questions about some Latin words and their possible meaning. As a facilitator of this part, I was struck by how promptly children were able to decipher the relevant Latin words (e.g. “liber”) and make the connection with their English derivatives (e.g. “library”)! The last workshop activity – writing with quills – was welcomed with even more enthusiasm by children: they both followed our suggestion and copied the Latin words we had been discussing and, in some cases, engaged in very creative compositions:

After a short break, we moved to Ms Law’s Year 6 class and repeated the workshop. These slightly older children participated with similar vivacity and also made stimulating remarks on the creative potential of bilingualism. Before we left, some children stated that they prefer quills over pens and asked where they could buy a quill!

Overall, this was an extremely enriching and rewarding experience. We were able to engage about 60 children and discuss with them the overall context of our research (i.e. sixteenth-century literary culture), as well as such broad and current topics as bilingualism. We are looking forward to further outreach experiences!







Oddities 1: An English Tarantula in an 18th century manuscript at Chetham’s Library

Here Raffaella starts an occasional series of posts on some of the “oddities” we have found:

Our project is specifically concerned with Latin poems in manuscripts dating from between the second half of the 16th century and the first decade of the 18th century. However, we often find materials that are out of our scope because they are too early or too late for us – and sometimes these items are curious or funny in some way. This is the first post of a series that aims at pointing out some oddities we found so far.

In March, Bianca and I visited the Chetham’s Library in Manchester as we knew that it held some relevant materials for our research. We found and analysed a few manuscripts containing several poems each, some of which written by well-known British Latin authors such as William Alabaster.

However, the largest collection of Neo-Latin poetry we found was all composed in the late 18th century, and therefore out of scope for the project. Although too late for our purposes, we decided to have a look anyway at the miscellany contained in the six volumes catalogued as Mun. A. 4.8-13.

I came across some peculiar verse compositions, such a long hexametric poem on Wales, entitled Cambria, or another hexametric poem on the Globus aerostaticus, which testifies the interest in the scientific and technological discoveries – a field that produced many Latin poems in the 18th and 19th century both in England and abroad.

However, the most intriguing finding is undoubtedly the Tarantula, a poem about the Apulian tarantella and the related ‘tarantism’. This was a tradition deeply rooted in the ancient Apulian folklore and now remaining as a cultural heritage with music and dances.

I never expected to find a piece on a such local southern-Italian dimension in an English manuscript: I was so surprised! I was sure that after a research I could have traced down the history of this poem, and discover how it arrived from an Apulian 18th poet to the Chetham’s manuscript. I quickly identified this Tarantula, however, to have been composed by an English poet, a certain Lyne. The text was published in a Florentine edition in 1765, alongside the popular mock-epic poem Muscipula by the English poet Edward Holdsworth (which had already been published in England in 1709). This text can easily be accessed via Google Books (however, this version slightly differs from the one in the manuscript):

The Tarantula poem is structured as a description of the local and seasonal context of the phaenomenon, the alleged effects of the tarantula’s bite and its remedies. The description/narration is interlaced with some didactic hints and admonitions to a reader or viator, as he is mentioned in v. 7. At the beginning of the poem, an introduction is followed by a warning to the reader: ‘Incautum ne te nova vulnera cogant | exercere choros, cantusque haurire salubres’ (vv. 16-17: ‘don’t be imprudent, make sure that fresh wounds don’t force you to perform dances or absorb the sound of healing chants’). We then find the description of the effects of the bite of the spider, including nervous breakdowns, hallucinations, difficulties in speaking (‘quaerulo nunc murmure lingua | fracta gemit’, vv. 28-29), laugh (‘nunc effuso sonat alta cachinno’, v. 29) and torpidity. Doctors have troubles in curing this morbum and, in addition, a healing song good for a young unmarried woman (the most affected category) may not be effective on an old man. The healing sing and dance ceremony is so dynamic and uncontrolled that the author claims: ‘Dementes credas sacra orgia ducere Baccho | Moenadas’ (‘you might think that this demented people are Menades dancing a sacred Dionysian dance’, v. 49), taking the readers back to an ancient Greek tradition.

The conclusion is somehow intriguing and may have multiple explanations. The author states that the tarantula has touched the British land as well (‘tandem etiam nostros insana tarantula fines | attigit, inque tuos manans, Brittannia, fines’, vv. 74-5) – but a different type of disease (‘contagia morbi’, v. 76) is involved in this final and perhaps satirical section. There seems to be some topical and probably political force to the poet’s suggestion that any who wish to sing effeminate songs (‘femineos cantus’, v. 84), and try Bacchic dances or play the cithara, should at once leave England for Apulia: ‘ite procul molles […] | ite per arva | Appula, per campos, baccataque rura Choreis’ (vv. 80-82). Since I have not been able to determine the date of composition of this English Tarantula poem, it is impossible to be sure who, exactly, these final lines are aimed at. But any suggestions from readers would be very welcome!

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.


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!).