BMCR 2022.06.44

Europe and Europeanness in early modern Latin literature: “fuitne europa tunc unita?”

, Europe and Europeanness in early modern Latin literature: "fuitne europa tunc unita?". Brill research perspectives in Latinity and classical reception in the early modern period. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021. Pp. viii, 136. ISBN 9789004459540 €70,00.

The largest part of early modern literature in Latin lives in the shadows. Neglect is of course a problem in itself, but when it is no longer a matter of course to consider primary sources and literature in Latin, which for centuries was the second language in Europe, in historical, cultural and literary studies, many research results risk being misleading or incorrect. To be sure, Neo-Latin studies have in recent decades developed into something of a specialty of its own with handbooks, editions and translations, conferences and research projects, but the interaction with other subjects is still sporadic. ‘No wonder,’ many people would perhaps feel inclined to say, considering the enormous wealth of texts written in many different genres. Introductions are thus required.

The book under review takes up the cudgels for the importance of Latin texts in research into one specific subject, the historical background of the discourse on European integration. (The subtitle, Fuitne Europa tunc unita?, ‘Was Europe united in those days?’ (sc. the early modern period), alludes to the first line of an unofficial translation of a contemplated but never adopted anthem of the European Union: Est Europa nunc unita, ‘Europe is indeed united now’). The author of the book, Isabella Walser-Bürgler, states that when the implications of the combined concepts of ‘Latin’ and ‘Europe’ are under discussion, three major lines of reference usually come up: the legacy of the Roman Empire (law, administration, literature, etc.), the Romance languages and the linguistic heritage of Latin in general, and Western Christianity based on Latin in its different uses. But – and now she points to a big drawback – in the analysis of Europe and Europeanness, Neo-Latin literature often receives only scant attention. “Even the most noteworthy recent contributions to the history of Europe and the discourse of Europe in early modern times tend to show a striking ignorance regarding the Neo-Latin source material”(p. 4), and thus, paradoxically, “most of what we know about the development of ‘Europe’ as a term and the formation of Europe as an ideological entity still relies on vernacular sources” (p. 5). (The present reviewer has worked with a totally different subject: plantation slavery in 18th century America. One of the most important Latin sources has never been edited and scholars have to content themselves with a translation). It goes without saying that a lot is lost when Latin texts are neglected.

Walser-Bürgler chooses five aspects for her demonstration of the importance of Latin sources for the discourse on Europeanness. The first aspect she calls “Europe as the united res publica Christiana”, i. e. Europe as the Christian commonwealth. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the continued advances of the Ottomans (now generally called the ‘Turks’, an ethnonym with pejorative connotations) north- and westwards during the next 200 years, was a terrifying challenge for the Europeans, for a ‘Europe’ that gradually had become equated with Christianity. A great number of authors, humanists, diplomats, princes and prelates began to speak for Europe as their common home, their common nation, their common continent. ‘Unity’ was becoming the key word. In this chapter Walser-Bürgler discusses the roles of four Latin authors, Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1405–1464, Pope Pius II from 1458), author of the first book ever that carried the word ‘Europe’ in its title, viz. Aeneas Silvius in Europam), George of Podiebrad (1420–1471), King of Bohemia, the Croatian Marko Marulić (1450–1524), who in a letter composed after the fall of Belgrade to the Turks curses the discord among the Christians and calls for unity (“Desinite iam tandem, Christiani, adversus Christianos bella gerere!”), and Juan Luis Vives (1493–1540), who in a Lucianic dialogue harshly criticizes European disunity: “bellum ubique, discordiae, odia”. It seems that even with a strong common enemy and great issues at stake unity had to be fought for, and that fight was fought in part in Latin. Piccolomini had created the metaphor of Europe as patria, domus and sedes, which became a strong formula of European identity.

The second discourse Walser-Bürgler calls “Europe as a monarchia universalis” (the best-known text on this subject is probably Dante’s De monarchia). The idea flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries when Charles V and Louis XIV seemed able to play the role as universal monarchs. The third discourse, “one culture – one Europe: continentality and civilization”, discusses what is the essence of Europeanness that renders Europe distinct from the rest of the world and links the European nations together.

These three aspects focus on unity: unity in religion, unity in government, or unity in culture. But other tracks have been tried too.

The official motto of the European Union of today is in varietate concordia ‘in diversity, unity’ which was adopted in 2000. (Its translations in all the official languages of the EU have equal standing.) This formulation is meant to embrace the idea of multiculturalism as the goal of European integration unlike the goal of an emerging European identity that had used to be advocated previously. The new motto might at first sight seem paradoxical, but the aim is to call attention to the fact that it is diversity and variation that constitute Europeanness, in geography, religion, mentality, history, customs – and languages. This concept emphasizes Europe’s pluralistic tendencies and a federalist form of government. That approach too has deep roots in European soil. The Italian jurist Alberico Gentili (1552–1608) seems to have been the first to use the idea of a ‘union’ prevailing in the relationship between single states despite their political singularity.

The fifth aspect Walser-Bürgler explores is the legendary community of learned men (and a few women), the res publica literaria, citizens of which were all educated men and women all over Europe, scholars, scientists, poets etc. overbridging the differences of country, religion, politics, and social class. Classical knowledge and literature and the Christian tradition were unifying factors, and of course the common language, Latin. Undoubtedly the pure use of Latin could give prestige to a challenging topic such as European integration.

Isabella Walser-Bürgler’s book aims to demonstrate the genesis and development of an important discourse, the history of European integration, that Neo-Latin sources can elucidate in a much deeper way than only the use of vernacular sources can do. She provides a smörgåsbord of titles and quotations that undoubtedly will serve this purpose very well and makes us understand that a rich source material awaits those who immerse themselves in the treasuries of libraries and archives. The possibilities for new understanding not only for the past but also for topics that engage us directly today are legion.