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.

Yet as a picture of European culture in the sixteenth century, this stress on the vernacular is extremely one-sided. Renaissance humanists not only wrote in Latin most of the time but spent much of their energies debating what kind of Latin to use. Latin remained the language of the Catholic Church, and was introduced by missionaries to cultures beyond Europe, from China to Mexico. It was also the language favoured by critics of the Church, such as Erasmus, not only because his native language, Dutch, was spoken by relatively few people but also because he wanted his message to reach educated Europeans wherever they lived. Luther, by contrast, used German because he thought that the social diffusion of his ideas was more important than their geographical diffusion, and Calvin used French for the same reason. All the same, the Protestant reformers continued to write in Latin some of the time. After the Renaissance and the Reformation, Latin remained ‘the vernacular of the learned’, as the Swedish scholar Petrus Ekerman called it as late as 1741—the lingua franca of the Republic of Letters. For example, when Galileo switched from Latin to Italian as the language of his scientific works, readers from outside Italy wrote to him to complain, while Newton and Descartes published major books in Latin as well as, respectively, English and French.

It says something about the culture of the period that at least a thousand books were translated from European vernaculars into Latin between 1500 and 1800, extending all the way from treatises on navigation and glass-making to epic poems such as Jerusalem Delivered and Paradise Lost, as well as Machiavelli’s Prince, Pascal’s Provinciales, the picaresque novel Lazarillo de Tormes and the devotional writings of Teresa of Ávila. There was a demand for these translations, mainly from the Romance languages, because—however counter-intuitive this observation may seem today—Englishmen and Germans found it much easier to cope with Latin than with Spanish or Italian or even French. If we were to draw a graph of these translations, the peak would come between 1600 and 1650, while the decline only became serious as late as 1750 or so.

The importance of what might be described as the ‘Latin culture’ of early modern Europe has become increasingly well known in the last thirty years or so, a time in which we have witnessed the rise of ‘neo-Latin studies’, the foundation of journals and the organization of international conferences with titles such as Acta Conventus Neolatini Lovaniensis—although the papers themselves are generally given in English, French or German. As the footnotes to Françoise Waquet’s book testify, recent studies on the use of Latin after 1500 are abundant.

What was long lacking, though, was a general overview of the fortunes of modern (or at any rate ‘post-medæval’) Latin. This gap was partly filled by the Companion to Neo-Latin Literature (1977) by the Belgian scholar Jozef Ijsewijn (a major force supporting neo-Latin studies), by the Catalan Lluís Vicent Aracil’s Breu història del llati europeu (1988) and by the Swede Bo Lindberg’s Europa och Latinet (1993)—the special interest in Latin shown by Europeans whose native language is not widely spoken is clear enough from these examples. Wacquet’s study, however, first published in French in 1998 and now available in a fluent English translation by John Howe, is not only the most accessible but also the fullest and the most analytical of these general works.

Waquet is best known for her work on the history of the world of learning, including a monograph on the Italian scholarly world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and its relation to the dominant French model, as well as a history of the European Republic of Letters written in collaboration with the Dutch scholar, Hans Bots. Her new book on the cultural history of Latin over the last five hundred years is characteristically scholarly, balanced and lucid—it is good to see that the tradition of la clarté française has survived. She offers a detached account of a topic that still arouses strong emotions in some quarters; concluding with the argument that the best hope for Latin today lies in being treated as a study for specialists, with a few people studying it well rather than many people studying it badly, as was so often the case in the past.

Latin: or the Empire of a Sign, whose title alludes not only to Roland Barthes’s famous semiotic analysis of Japanese culture but also to Joseph de Maistre’s description of Latin as the signe européen, is divided into three parts (the commonplace comparison to Cæsar’s Gaul seems for once to be reasonably appropriate). The book begins with a general survey of the place of Latin in European culture, especially in the worlds of the school and the church. It notes, for example, that boys did not only study Latin in school; they studied in Latin. Until the middle of the eighteenth century it was unusual to use the vernacular in class, and in many schools pupils were forbidden to speak their mother tongue even in the playground. One of the pupils (known as the lupus, the ‘wolf’), was supposed to give the teacher the names of everyone who had broken this rule. In the case of the Church, criticisms were sometimes made of Latin in the sixteenth century to the effect that it reinforced the dominance of the clergy by forcing the laity to rely on their mediation. All the same, the Council of Trent reaffirmed the place of Latin as the language of the liturgy, a position which it would keep in the Catholic world for another four hundred years. Other domains in which Latin was of practical value were diplomacy and travel. In Hungary, for example, English or French travellers found—to their surprise—that it was possible to use Latin as a kind of lingua franca to communicate with ostlers and inn keepers. The Hungarian noble István Bathory, who was elected King of Poland in the late sixteenth century, used Latin to communicate with his subjects. Latin retained its uses as a lingua franca until quite recently. In Cracow after the Second World War, Primo Levi used Latin to ask a priest the whereabouts of the nearest soup kitchen. I can well believe Levi’s story, since I lost my way in Warsaw in 1964 and found it again after asking a passing priest for directions in the same language.