From Latin to the Vernacular

The 12th century saw a literary revolution in Europe

Hannah Johnson (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

The 12th century saw the rise of vernacular literature - a literary revolution in Europe. In actuality, the first vernacular texts appeared on the continent as early as the 8th or 9th centuries, but such examples are rare.

At first vernacular texts were largely written in verse. Popular 12th century genres of vernacular literature include chansons de geste (quite similar to epic poetry, often about war and warriors), romans (romances) in verse (these are the classic tales of knights and chivalry, like the earlier arthurian texts), and troubadour poetry (mostly love poems).

In the 13th century, prose triumphed as more and more vernacular texts were written in prose.

This is when romans (romances) in prose begin to appear. These were still typically about knights and chivalry, like later Arthurian texts where we find the Holy Grail, as well as chronicles in the vernacular (in particular, chronicles of the Crusades in this form were popular), and translations of Latin texts into vernacular.

Vernacular literature appealed to and was read by a mostly lay (outside of the Church) readership, especially in the 12th and 13th centuries. The rise of vernacular literature reflects the development of a literature which valourises the lay aristocratic moral code which is different from that of the Church authorities. While clerical writing (in Latin) encourages religious values (such as celibacy and poverty), lay writing concerns itself with values such as the chivalric code (for example, how to be a good knight and a good vassal) and fin’amor (what we call ‘courtly love’ today: how to be a good lover).

Despite these seemingly disparate moral values, Latin and vernacular literature continue to influence one another from the 12th century onwards. For example, in the 12th century, Andreas Capellanus wrote De amore in Latin - a treatise about love and how to practice the art of ‘courtly’ love. Going in the opposite direction, the Grail romances of the 13th century show the gradual Christianisation of courtly literature, as the perfect knight becomes more commonly portrayed as a perfect Christian (chaste and pious), like Galahad, rather than as the perfect lover (complete devotion to his lady), like Lancelot.

With the passing of time, literacy in the vernacular became more common than literacy in Latin, though they both continued to influence and inform one another. As both a symptom and a cause of this shift, the late Middle Ages saw an increasingly vast number of texts translated from Latin into the vernacular.

One of the most deliberate and vigourous projects of translation was instigated by King Charles V of France, also known as ‘Charles the Wise’. He commissioned translations of literature from every historical period and from every branch of literature (science, fiction, theology, etc.). As his contemporaries explain, his commission ensured that both the Latin-speaking clerks and also men who were quite intelligent and well-spoken - but could not grasp Latin - could read and educate themselves.

Through these translations, Charles V sought to make French the language of both governance and science, in the same way that, in antiquity, Latin became a language of science equally as valid as Greek (the language of science). Because this campaign necessarily expanded French vocabulary and provided access to texts otherwise inaccessible to a number of people, it significantly contributed to the prominence of vernacular texts as opposed to Latin texts in the late Middle Ages.

This blog is part of the Art of Reading in the Middle Ages project which explores how medieval reading culture evolved and became a fundamental aspect of European culture.