Medieval Latin

Medieval Latin
Medieval Latin
Carmina Cantabrigiensia Manuscr-C-fol436v.jpg
Carmina Cantabrigiensia, Medieval Latin manuscript
Spoken in Numerous small states
Region Most of western Europe
Extinct replaced by Renaissance Latin
Language family
Writing system Latin alphabet
Official status
Regulated by No official regulation
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Linguist List lat-med
Europe 1000.jpg
Europe, 1000 AD

Medieval Latin was the form of Latin used in the Middle Ages, primarily as a medium of scholarly exchange and as the liturgical language of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, but also as a language of science, literature, law, and administration. Despite the clerical origin of many of its authors, medieval Latin should not be confused with Ecclesiastical Latin. There is no real consensus on the exact boundary where Late Latin ends and medieval Latin begins. Some scholarly surveys begin with the rise of early Ecclesiastical Latin in the middle of the 4th century, others around the year 500 AD,[1] and still others with the replacement of written Late Latin by written Romance languages starting around the year 900 (see under Late Latin).



Influence of Christian Latin

Medieval Latin was characterized by an enlarged vocabulary, which freely borrowed from other sources. It was heavily influenced by the language of the Vulgate, which contained many peculiarities alien to Classical Latin that were the consequence of more or less direct translation from Greek and Hebrew; these peculiarities were mirrored not only in its vocabulary, but also in its grammar and syntax. Greek provided much of the technical vocabulary of Christianity. The various Germanic languages spoken by the Germanic tribes, who invaded western Europe, were also major sources of new words. Germanic leaders became the rulers of western Europe, and words from their languages were freely imported into the vocabulary of law. Other more ordinary words were replaced by coinages from Vulgar Latin or Germanic sources because the classical words had fallen into disuse.

Latin was also spread to areas such as Ireland and Germany, where Romance languages were not spoken and which had never known Roman rule. Works written in these lands where Latin was a learned language with no relation to the local vernacular also influenced the vocabulary and syntax of medieval Latin.

Since abstract subjects like science and philosophy were communicated in Latin, the Latin vocabulary developed for them is the source of a great many technical words in modern languages. English words like abstract, subject, communicate, matter, probable and their cognates in other European languages generally have the meanings given to them in medieval Latin.[2]

An illuminated manuscript of a Book of Hours contains prayers in medieval Latin.

Influence of Vulgar Latin

The influence of Vulgar Latin was also apparent in the syntax of some medieval Latin writers, although Classical Latin continued to be held in high esteem and studied as models for literary compositions. The high point of development of medieval Latin as a literary language came with the Carolingian renaissance, a rebirth of learning kindled under the patronage of Charlemagne, king of the Franks. Alcuin was Charlemagne's Latin secretary and an important writer in his own right; his influence led to a rebirth of Latin literature and learning after the depressed period following the final disintegration of Roman authority in Western Europe.

Although it was simultaneously developing into the Romance languages, Latin itself remained very conservative, as it was no longer a native language and there were many ancient and medieval grammar books to give one standard form. On the other hand, strictly speaking there was no single form of "medieval Latin". Every Latin author in the medieval period spoke Latin as a second language, to varying degrees of fluency, and syntax, grammar, and vocabulary were often influenced by an author's native language. This was especially true beginning around the 12th century, after which the language became increasingly adulterated: late-medieval Latin documents written by French speakers tend to show similarities to medieval French grammar and vocabulary; those written by Germans tend to show similarities to German, etc. For instance, rather than following the classical Latin practice of generally placing the verb at the end, medieval writers would often follow the conventions of their own native language instead. Whereas Latin had no definite or indefinite articles, medieval writers sometimes used forms of unus as an indefinite article, and forms of ille (reflecting usage in the Romance languages) or even quidam (meaning "a certain one/thing" in Classical Latin) as something like a definite article. Unlike in classical Latin, where esse ("to be") was used as the only auxiliary verb, medieval Latin writers might use habere ("to have"), as Germanic and Romance languages do. The accusative infinitive construction in classical Latin was often ignored, in favour of introducing a subordinate clause with the word quod or quia. This is almost identical, for example, to the use of que in similar constructions in French.

In every age from the late 8th century onwards, there were learned writers (especially within the Church) who were familiar enough with classical syntax to be aware that these forms and usages were 'wrong' and able to resist their use. Thus the Latin of a theologian like St. Thomas Aquinas or an erudite clerical historian such as William of Tyre tends to avoid most of the characteristics described above, showing its period in vocabulary and spelling alone; the features listed are much more prominent in the language of lawyers (e.g. the 11th-century English Domesday Book), physicians, technical writers and secular chroniclers. However, the last-mentioned point — the indirect-statement construction with quod — was especially pervasive and is found at all levels.

Changes in vocabulary, syntax, grammar and orthography

Medieval Latin had ceased to be a living language, but a scholarly language of the handful of educated men in medieval Europe, used for making official documents more than for sundry everyday communication. This results in two major features of Medieval Latin when compared with Classical Latin. First, many authors will attempt to "show off" how much Classical Latin they know by intentionally using rare or archaic constructions, sometimes anachronistically (i.e. haphazardly mixing constructions from Republican and Imperial Latin, which in real-life usage existed centuries apart). Second, education was so poorly developed in the middle ages that many lesser scholars had a limited grasp of "proper" Latin, or were increasingly influenced by Vulgar Latin which was mutating into the Romance languages.


  • In general, word order tended towards that of the vernacular language of the author, and not the artificial and polished word order of Classical Latin. Conversely, an erudite scholar would attempt to "show off" by intentionally making a very complicated sentence. Because Latin is an inflected language, it is technically possible to place related words at opposite ends of a paragraph-long sentence, and due to the complexity of achieving this it was seen as a sign of great skill.
  • Typically, prepositions are used much more frequently (in imitation of Romance languages) for greater clarity, instead of using the Ablative case alone. For example, while "amico" and "cum amico" both mean "with a friend" in Classical and Medieval Latin, for the sake of clarity Medieval Latin would simply use the version that includes the preposition "cum". Further, in Classical Latin the subject of a verb was often left implied, unless it was being stressed: "videt" = "he sees". For clarity, Medieval Latin will more frequently write out in full "is videt" = "he sees", without necessarily stressing the subject.
  • Indirect Discourse, which in Classical Latin was achieved by using a Subject Accusative and Infinitive, was now often simply replaced by the new words for "that" such as Quod, Quia, or Quoniam. There was a high level of overlap between the old and new constructions, even within the same author's work, and it was often a matter of preference. A particularly famous and often cited example is from the Venerable Bede, using both constructions within the same sentence: "Dico me scire et quod sum ignobilis" = "I say (that) I know and that I am ignorant".
  • Substitutions were often used for Subjunctive clause constructions, such as using the Present Participle in place of Qui or Cum clauses. "Habeo" and "Debeo" would be used to express obligation more often than the gerundive.
  • Certain words have been mixed into different declensions or conjugations. Many new compound verbs have been formed.
  • Chaos in the usage of demonstrative pronouns. Hic, Ille, Iste, and even the intensive Ipse are often used virtually interchangeably. In anticipation of Romance languages, Hic and Ille are also frequently used to simply express the definite article "the", which Classical Latin did not possess.
  • The usage of sum changed significantly: it was frequently omitted or implied. Further, many medieval authors did not feel that it made sense for the Perfect Passive construction "laudatus sum" to use the present-tense of sum in a past-tense construction, so they began using the past-perfect of sum, fui, interchangeably with sum.
  • Classical Latin used Ablative Absolute, but in Medieval Latin examples of Nominative Absolute or Accusative Absolute may be found. This instance is actually a point on which the "Ecclesiastical Latin" of the clergy and the "Vulgar Latin" of the laity, which existed alongside it, differed. The educated clergy knew that it was impossible for proper Latin to use Nominative or Accusative in Absolute constructions, and that only the Ablative case could do this. While these constructions are observed in the medieval era, they are mutations that developed among the uneducated commoners.
  • Due to heavy use of biblical terms, there was a large influx of new words borrowed from Greek and Hebrew, and even some grammatical influences. This obviously largely occurred only among priests and scholars, not the laity. In general, it is difficult to express abstract concepts in Latin, and many scholars admitted as much. For example, Plato's abstract concept of "The Truth" could only be expressed in Latin as literally "that which is always true". Medieval scholars and theologians, translating both the Bible and Greek philosophers out of the Koine and Classical Greek, cobbled-together many new abstract-concept words for Latin when attempting to make these translations.
  • Classical Latin verbs only have two Voices, active and passive, however Greek has a third voice between the two. The so-called "Greek Middle Voice", also known as reflexive voice, is used to express when the subject is acting upon itself, for example "Achilles put the armor onto himself" or "Jesus clothed himself in the robe" would use Middle Voice. Because Latin had no way of expressing an entirely separate grammatical Voice, Medieval Latin translates such concepts by putting the verb in passive voice, but translating it using active voice (similar to Latin deponent verbs). For example, the Medieval Latin translation of Genesis literally states in Latin that "God was moved over the waters". While this may lead to startling theological implications over who could have moved God, it is actually just the Medieval Latin usage of Greek Middle Voice, translating as "God moved over the waters".


The Prüfening dedicatory inscription of 1119, composed in medieval Latin.

Many striking differences between classical and medieval Latin are found in orthography. Some of the most frequently occurring differences are:

  • Following the Carolingian reforms of the 9th century, Carolingian minuscule was widely adopted, leading to a clear differentiation between capital and lowercase letters.
  • A partial or full differentiation between v and u, and between j and i.
  • The diphthong ae is usually collapsed and simply written as e (or e caudata, ę); for example, puellae might be written puelle (or puellę). The same happens with the diphthong oe, for example in pena, Edipus, from poena, Oedipus. This feature is already found on coin-inscriptions of the 4th century (e.g. reipublice for reipublicae). Conversely an original "e" in Classical Latin was often represented by "ae" or "oe" (e.g. "aecclesia" and "coena" )
  • Because of a severe decline of the knowledge of Greek, in loanwords and foreign names from or transmitted through Greek, y and i might be used more or less interchangeably: Ysidorus, Egiptus, from Isidorus, Aegyptus. This is also found in pure Latin words: ocius ('more swiftly') appears as ocyus and silva as sylva, this last being a form which survived into the 18th century and so became embedded in modern botanical Latin.
  • h might be lost, so that habere becomes abere, or mihi becomes mi (the latter also occurred in Classical Latin); or, mihi may be written michi, indicating the h came to be pronounced as k. This pronunciation is not found in Classical Latin.
  • The loss of h in pronunciation also led to the addition of h in writing where it did not previously belong, especially in the vicinity of r, such as chorona for corona, a tendency also sometimes seen in Classical Latin.
  • -ti- before a vowel is often written as -ci- [tsi], so that divitiae becomes diviciae (or divicie), tertius becomes tercius, vitium vicium.
  • The combination mn might have another plosive inserted, so that alumnus becomes alumpnus, somnus sompnus.
  • Single consonants were often doubled, or vice versa, so that tranquillitas becomes tranquilitas and Africa becomes Affrica.
  • vi, especially in verbs in the perfect tense, might be lost, so that novisse becomes nosse (this occurred in Classical Latin as well but was more frequent in medieval Latin).

These orthographical differences were often due to changes in pronunciation or, as in the previous example, morphology, which authors reflected in their writing. By the 16th century, Erasmus complained that speakers from different countries were unable to understand each other's form of Latin.[3]

The gradual change of Latin did not escape the notice of contemporaries. Petrarch, writing in the 14th century, complained about this linguistic "decline", which helped fuel his general dissatisfaction with his own era.

Medieval Latin literature

The corpus of medieval Latin literature encompasses a wide range of texts, including such diverse works as sermons, hymns, hagiographical texts, travel literature, histories, epics, and lyric poetry.

The first half of the 5th century saw the literary activities of the great Christian authors Jerome (c. 347–420) and Augustine of Hippo (354–430), whose texts had an enormous influence on theological thought of the Middle Ages, and of the latter's disciple Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390-455). Of the later 5th century and early 6th century, Sidonius Apollinaris (c. 430 – after 489) and Ennodius (474–521), both from Gaul, are well-known for their poems, as is Venantius Fortunatus (c. 530–600). This was also a period of transmission: the Roman patrician Boethius (c. 480–524) translated part of Aristotle's logical corpus, thus preserving it for the Latin West, and wrote the influential literary and philosophical treatise De consolatione Philosophiae; Cassiodorus (c. 485–585) founded an important library at the monastery of Vivarium near Squillace where many texts from Antiquity were to be preserved. Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636) collected all scientifical knowledge still available in his time into what might be called the first encyclopedia, the Etymologiae.

Gregory of Tours (c. 538–594) wrote a lengthy history of the Frankish kings. Gregory came from a Gallo-Roman aristocratic family, and his Latin, which shows many aberrations from the classical forms, testifies to the declining significance of classical education in Gaul. At the same time, good knowledge of Latin and even of Greek was being preserved in monastic culture in Ireland and was brought to England and the European mainland by missionaries in the course of the 6th and 7th centuries, such as Columbanus (543–615), who founded the monastery of Bobbio in Northern Italy. Ireland was also the birthplace of a strange poetic style known as Hisperic Latin. Other important Insular authors include the historian Gildas (c. 500–570) and the poet Aldhelm (c. 640–709). Benedict Biscop (c. 628–690) founded the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow and furnished it with books which he had taken home from a journey to Rome and which were later used by Bede (c. 672–735) to write his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Many medieval Latin works have been published in the series Patrologia Latina, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum and Corpus Christianorum.

Important medieval Latin authors

4th–5th centuries

6th–8th centuries

9th century

10th century

11th century

12th century

13th century

14th century

For 14th century authors that are no longer medieval in outlook (practically all of them Italian) see Renaissance Latin

Medieval Latin literary movements

Important medieval Latin works


  1. ^ Ziolkowski, Jan M. (1996), "Towards a History of Medieval Latin Literature", in Mantello, F. A. C.; Rigg, A. G., Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide, pp. 505-536 (pp. 510-511) 
  2. ^ J. Franklin, Mental furniture from the philosophers, Et Cetera 40 (1983), 177-91.
  3. ^ See Desiderius Erasmus, De recta Latini Graecique sermonis pronunciatione dialogus, Basel (Frobenius), 1528.


  • K. P. Harrington, J. Pucci, and A. G. Elliott, Medieval Latin (2nd ed.), (Univ. Chicago Press, 1997) ISBN 0-226-31712-9

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Medieval Latin — n. the Latin language as it was used throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, from c.A.D. 600 to c. 1500, with many Latinized borrowings from other languages …   English World dictionary

  • Medieval Latin — the Latin language of the literature of the Middle Ages, usually dated A.D. 700 to 1500, including many Latinized words from other languages. Abbr.: ML, M.L. Also called Middle Latin. [1880 85] * * * …   Universalium

  • Medieval Latin — noun The Latin language as spoken and written during the Middle Ages. Syn: Middle Latin …   Wiktionary

  • Medieval Latin — noun Latin used for liturgical purposes during the Middle Ages • Hypernyms: ↑Low Latin …   Useful english dictionary

  • Medieval Latin — noun Date: 1855 the Latin used especially for liturgical and literary purposes from the 7th to the 15th centuries inclusive …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • medieval Latin — noun Latin of about AD 600–1500 …   English new terms dictionary

  • Medieval Latin — Me′die′val Lat′in n. peo the Latin language as used in the Middle Ages, from c700 to c1500 Abbr.: ML • Etymology: 1880–85 …   From formal English to slang

  • Medieval Latin — /mɛdiivəl ˈlætn/ (say medeeeevuhl latn) noun the Latin language of the literature of the Middle Ages (usually dated AD 700 to 1500), including many Latinised words from other languages …   Australian English dictionary

  • Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources —   Author(s) Ronald Edward Latham, Dav …   Wikipedia

  • Dacorum (medieval Latin word) — Dacorum may refer to:* Dacorum is a (medieval) Latin word meaning of the Dacians. * Dacorum is a local government district and borough in Hertfordshire, England. That borough name derives from the medieval Latin Dacorum designating the Danes: see …   Wikipedia

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