Medieval multilingualism

I’ve never been fond of big narratives, linear descriptions, watertight explanations. For every book claiming that history moves from X to Y according to principle Z, there are a dozen others which show that reductionism is not the way to do history. From Hegel to latter-day brief histories of humankind, the temptation to explain big cultural change through simple principles has been irresistible. And yet, as any good course in historiography and historical criticism will show, the big is almost never reducible to the simple. And the simple is hard to see, anyway. Unless it’s in our head, in which case it seems clear and compelling.

One way historians methodologically challenge the reductionist urge of many authors and cultural pundits is by throwing exceptions, so to speak, into their wheels. Nothing is more irritating to one’s explanation than to realise that it doesn’t really apply to what it was meant to apply to or that there are enough exceptions for it to lose its explanatory edge.

An example is multilingualism. While many still believe that the West moved from the ignorance and darkness of the ancient and medieval periods to the knowledge and enlightenment of the modern age, it can be shown that in the area of multilingualism, the upward trend actually runs downwards. Few would argue that multilingualism is a culturally insignificant phenomenon. Access to other languages enlarges one’s mental horizon, reduces prejudice by exposing one to the lingually different, and contributes to the development of novel ideas.

In the 21st century, there are more people capable of reading, if not speaking, more than one language in Europe than there were in the 1st century BC or in the 12th century AD. No one’s going to argue with that. The historical progress in literacy and education was such that more of us today can understand people outside our closest circles than our distant ancestors did. Yet, when we shift the focus from the whole population to that of intellectuals, scientists, and other cultural movers and shakers, things begin to look different.

Take intellectuals, the thinkers and professionals of the written word.

The medieval West enjoyed a very peculiar linguistic arrangement, which I had opportunities to rant about in previous posts. While most people spoke their mother tongue then as they do now, Latin was the language of the elites, the language of culture, government, administration, both secular and ecclesiastical. Latin wasn’t the luxury of academic oddballs, but the key equipment of every intellectual. Despite the rise of vernacular languages as idioms of culture in the 12th century, Latin reigned supreme for the whole of the medieval period. To be an intellectual, a man (or sometimes a woman) of ideas and letters, one had to speak Latin, that is, speak a second language, since Latin wasn’t anyone’s mother tongue. This was true to the extent that Latin illiteracy was a instant disqualifying criterion for anyone aspiring to be taken seriously in the world of thought.

Now, fast forward to the 21 century. How many academics and intellectuals in highly developed countries can only speak one language? I haven’t seen any stats on this, but just based on my personal experience of countries such as the UK, US, France and Italy, I can say, there’s quite a lot, and what urges me on in this thought is that academic activity and intellectual distinction aren’t hampered by monolingualism. After all, there are enough tools out there for monolingual intellectuals to overcome their weakness.

This state of affairs is not surprising. Nor is the fact that monolingual intellectuals may more likely exist in countries where monolingualism is generally the norm, like the UK, the United States, France, countries sitting on the linguistic laurels of the past and present.

So to go back to the 12th century and to those intellectuals who could converse with Cicero as well as with the local market vendor in different languages. Those individuals were products of their own culture, one that had inherited the burden of Rome to which it superimposed its various ethnic layers. What should we say of medieval England with its documents issued in English, French and Latin by the same scribes, or Emperor Frederic II’s Sicilian chancery switching between Latin, Greek and Arabic? And what shall we say of modern-day US and UK with its overwhelming monolingual populations, proud that all you need is English nowadays in order to converse with Cicero, haggle with the market vendor or write silly blogs?


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