UCLA Spotlight

Rediscovering the lost world of Neo-Latin

  • By Aaron Dalton
  • Published Aug 11, 2010 8:30 AM

Neo-Latin text

Ask someone to name a Latin author, and the first names that come to mind would be the giants of the Roman Empire. But Latin remained the preeminent language of literature, law, medicine, and the arts for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, and major works were written in Latin into the 1800s.

"No other language has had the global reach or intellectual scope of Latin," says Shane Butler, professor in the Department of Classics and associate dean of the humanities. "The history of medicine, the social sciences, and the humanities are all rooted in Latin of an age much more recent than Rome."

"If you were an English scholar in 1600 and you wanted an international audience for your works, you wrote in Latin," says Debora Shuger, distinguished professor of English. "English was known to nobody other than English people."

Shuger and Butler are both experts in the field of Neo-Latin studies, the study of the use of Latin during the 14th to 17th centuries — a time roughly corresponding with the Renaissance in Europe.

What sort of long-forgotten material might Neo-Latin scholars reveal?


Shane Butler

"The study of works in Latin is incredibly important for law, literature, history, art history, and national culture," says Shuger. "There are Latin texts about the conquests, the rights of Native Americans, about humanism, intellectual history, astronomy, and mathematics.

"Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes, and some others have been translated, of course, but 90 percent of the Latin texts from the Renaissance have never been available in translation."

At the heart of this project is the knowledge that exploring Neo-Latin pertains to the study of everything else during the same time period. To understand Shakespeare, it helps to know that Hamlet’s ghost is quoting a Latin prayer for souls in purgatory.

Contemporary technology — the Internet and digitized manuscripts from far-flung libraries — have made Neo-Latin treasures more accessible than ever before. However, the irony is that researchers will inevitably hit a brick wall if they do not have the skills to decipher the untranslated original Latin texts.


Debora Shuger

That’s why Shuger, Butler, and UCLA colleagues are creating a program to train a new generation of Neo-Latin scholars. Butler and Shuger plan to recruit students with college-level Latin competency. Building on what the students already know about classical Latin, the professors will introduce their students to the Neo-Latin writings from the likes of Descartes, Leibniz and Petrarch.

Inevitably, the students will arrive in the Latin sections of the UCLA library, where they will find the Patrologia Latina, a 19th-century effort to reprint all major Christian Latin writings up to the 12th century. Printed in tiny font, the Patrologia Latina runs over some 300 volumes, each as big as a phone book.

"In many cases these volumes have not circulated in a century," said Butler. "Right here, we have a whole world that we have lost contact with."

There is truly a lost continent of Neo-Latin works waiting to be discovered.

Adapted from a story in UCLA College Report, Summer 2010.