Since readers of Bryn Mawr Classical Review tilt toward Classics, let me start (and thus delay) my review of this wonderful new book with a proposition to contextualize it—a proposition of my own invention:
As classical Greek literature is to Hellenistic Greek literature,
so classical Latin literature is to the Latin literature of the Northern Renaissance.
Or to put it more simply,
The Northern Renaissance is Latin’s Hellenistic period.
As most Classicists know, the Hellenistic world saw the emergence of itinerant scholar-poets, many of them of non-Greek extraction. They roamed from one royal court or library to another, where they collected, edited, and lectured on the “classical” literature of Greece that had been written centuries earlier. They prized linguistic purity, equally cultivating philology and eloquence. They also wrote original literature in classical forms that showed great technical mastery, but that was as often as not marked by a detached, ironic, and frivolous attitude. The verse in particular tended toward baroque effects: rarities, novelties, in-jokes, wordplay, pattern poems, and so on. Fewer Classicists know, however, that exactly the same constellation of phenomena emerged once more in the Holy Roman Empire of the 16th century, a balkanized patchwork of petty kingdoms and principalities scattered throughout Germany, northern Italy, eastern France, and adjacent central Europe. This time, however, Latin rather than Greek was the language of choice. This period is variously known as the Northern Renaissance, the German Baroque, or the Early Modern period. It is also the period most closely associated with what this new book calls recentior Latinitas, “Neo-Latin.”1 The scholar-poets active at this time did more than just edit the first printed editions of most of the classics we have today. As this new book shows, they also generated an array of new texts in sparkling classical Latin.
As the title indicates, Milena Minkova’s Florilegium Recentioris Latinitatis ( A Neo-Latin Anthology) assembles a bouquet of greatest hits from the classical Latin literature of the Italian and Northern Renaissances. Because there is nothing like the I Tatti series for the literature of the Northern Renaissance, the latter emphasis makes the book especially important. It starts with early Italian authors—Petrarch, Lorenzo Valla, Jacopo Sannazaro—but quickly takes us northward to Erasmus, Philip Melanchthon, Thomas Hobbes, Justus Lipsius, Johannes Kepler, Hugo Grotius, Jacob Balde. These are names Classicists have probably heard, but they rarely get the opportunity to read their Latin texts in university courses.
Minkova presents selections from 35 authors, in all kinds of genres and in both prose and prose. The selections are arranged chronologically and range from one to fifteen pages. Among them you will find light and lyric verse, epic poetry (Petrarch, Hieronymus Fracastorius, Raphael Landivarius), orations on the dignity of being human (Johannes Pico Mirandula) or the scholarly life (Melanchthon), and just plain good stories (Thomas More’s Utopia, Kepler’s Somnium seu de Astronomia Lunari, Ludovicus Holbergius’s Nicolai Klimii Iter Subterraneum). If you want to know how people learned to speak Latin and practice speaking it, you can read any number of dialogues written for that purpose (Erasmus, Joannes Ludovicus Vives, Nicolaus Winmannus, Jacobus Pontanus), or you can, as Minkova suggests, even act out an entire play about Julius Caesar written in Senecan trimeters (Marcus Antonius Muretus).
I should also mention a special strength of the collection that will interest many readers today: globalization and human diversity. If your students’ eyes glaze over at Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, then show them the extracts of Landivarius’s Rusticatio Mexicana (here describing Mexico City):
Urbs erat occiduis procul hinc notissima terris
Mexicus ampla frequensque viris opibusque superba,
indigenis quondam multos dominata per annos:
nunc vero Hispani, populis Mavorte subactis,
sceptra tenent summaque urbem ditione gubernant.
Students will want to discuss this passage, especially when you tell them Landivarius (Landívar) was Guatemalan.2
Along similar lines, Minkova gives us two European narratives De Orbe Novo (Petrus Martyr, Joannes Genesius Sepulveda) as well as an epic poem about the Battle of Lepanto by Joannes Latinus (Juan Latino, 1518-96), a formerly enslaved black man who faces racism head-on in his cover poem (p. 152):
Quod si nostra tuis facies, Rex, nigra ministris
displicet, Aethiopum non placet alba viris.
Given these strengths, I was disappointed that no room was made for Elizabeth Jane Weston. As it is, the only woman among the 35 authors is Anna Maria a Schurman (1607-78). Schurman is certainly interesting, but Weston (1582-1612) was a supremely accomplished and impressive poet (albeit of dubious politics), and widely admired by her contemporaries as one of the best.3
All of Minkova’s material is flawlessly edited4 and attractively presented, though a few apex marks to disambiguate forms every now and then would have been nice. Minimal footnotes appear here and there. Some translate the occasional Greek word, others identify a Latin word as post-classical, and still others identify unfamiliar figures or place names—though what counts as unfamiliar will depend on your starting point. For example, here are the footnotes to a sentence in Petrarch’s first letter to Cicero (p. 4):
Omitto Dionysium 2, omitto fratrem tuum ac nepotem, omitto, si placet ipsum etiam Dolabellam 3 ….
2 Ciceronis magistrum 3 Maritum Tulliae
Minkova doesn’t identify fratrem tuum (Quintus) or Tullia because she assumes, rightly I think, that anyone who can read her book already knows the basics.
I say that confidently because Minkova’s book is written entirely in Latin. (It is published with help from the Academia Latinitati Fovendae —an organization, I should say, whose 2017 conference in Kentucky I attended, though I have no other involvement with it). At the end of her four-page preface, Minkova explains why (p. xiii):
Totum florilegium est Latine conscriptum non tantum quod haec est lingua rei publicae litterarum, cuius auctores in florilegio repraesentati sunt cives, sed etiam quo facilius in qualibet orbis terrarum regione adhibeatur. Si quis scripta Latina legere valet, praefationes quoque atque adnotationes ad ea Latine conscriptas nullo negotio leget.
The whole anthology is not only written in Latin because Latin is the language of the Republic of Letters, and the authors represented here are citizens of it. It’s also written in Latin so that it can be used anywhere on planet Earth. If you can read Latin literature, you won’t have any problem reading prefaces and notes written in Latin, too.
And as her prefaces to each author show, she is right. Many are miniature masterpieces, sized just right. Written in clear, fluent classical Latin, they tell you in a few sentences why each author or selection is interesting, important, relevant, or simply worth reading. Her introduction to Thomas More explains why Erasmus called him a homo omnium horarum, a man for all seasons. The introduction to Lorenzo Valla starts by telling you a bit about him (p. 15):
Laurentius Valla…in Latinitatem scholasticam vehementer est invectus, quae…verbis novatis nec semper indolis linguae Latinae propriis abundabat, e.g. “ens,” “haecceitas,” “quidditas,” ne articuli q.e. “ly” mentio fiat.
Valla assailed scholastic Latin with a passion, a language that abounded in weird, unnatural linguistic oddities like ens, haecceitas, and quidditas, not to mention the article ly.
Those exotic specimens should intrigue Latin lovers everywhere to want to read on. The same goes for her introduction to Fracastorius:
Huius carminis subtitulus q.e. Syphilis a pastoris Haitiani nomine originem duxit, qui contra Apollinem peccavit. Qui pastor … fortasse nuncupatus est a Sipylo filio Niobae ab Apolline eiusque sorore punito, de quo Ovidius in libro sexto Metamorphoseon narrat.
Syphilis, the subtitle of this poem, comes from the name of a Haitian shepherd who sinned against Apollo. It’s possible he is named for Sipylus, the son of Niobe who gets punished by Apollo and his sister, as Ovid recounts in Metamorphoses book six.
And so it goes with every one of the authors that Minkova introduces us to.
As with curricular requirements, periodization is the way that a discipline advertises the values that it holds dear. As Hellenistic is to Classical Greek, so Neo-Latin is to Classical Latin. If we expand our canon to make room for the authors included in this anthology, then students, scholars, and lovers of Latin everywhere will find an array of new texts and voices to inspire them.
1. The fundamental similarity between these two periods—Hellenistic Greece and Renaissance Germany—is captured perfectly in the title of Patrick Lucky Hadley’s 2015 book Athens in Rome, Rome in Germany: Nicodemus Frischlin and the Rehabilitation of Aristophanes in the 16th Century (Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag).
2. What does it say that Landívar (1731-93) has Wikipedia pages in Spanish, Nahuatl, Latin, Portuguese, and Romanian, but nothing in English?
3. See Donald Cheney and Brenda M. Hosington (eds.), Elizabeth Jane Weston: Collected Writings (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 2000. I quote her chronogram commemorating the invention of moveable type here.
4. In Fracastorius’s De Morbo Gallico v. 1, however, read quae < semina > morbum.