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New Left Review 10, July-August 2001


Peter Burke on Françoise Waquet, Latin or the Empire of a Sign. The first comprehensive study of the role of Europe’s dead language in the culture and social structure of the modern age.

PETER BURKE

USES OF THE USELESS

Historians of Europe have sometimes drawn a rather simple contrast between a Middle Ages in which scholars and churchmen used Latin to communicate with one another and a modern period characterized by the rise of the vernacular. They have described the sixteenth century as the age of Ariosto, Montaigne, Shakespeare and Cervantes and drawn attention to Luther’s decision to write his pamphlets in German; to Paracelsus daring to lecture in the university in the same language; to Du Bellay’s defence of French as a fit idiom for poetry, and to a group of scholars from Portugal to Poland who published treatises in praise of their respective mother tongues. Thus the American scholar Richard Jones called his classic study of attitudes to English between 1460 and 1660 The Triumph of the English Language, while Ferdinand Brunot offered an equally patriotic account of linguistic change in his multi-volume Histoire de la langue française.

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