Conceptualizations of Functions of Latin in the Republic of Letters: the Metadiscourse of Educators, Scholars, Scientists from Florence and Rome to Uppsala and Åbo

Josef Eskhult

Ancient Latin – or classical Latin in broader sense – was not only revived and standardized by Renaissance humanists from the 15th century onwards, but was also made object of a reflexive discourse concerning its appropriate forms and functions. The question of the specific form of Latin was pertinent to the question of the literary model for imitation, which manifested itself in the famous Ciceronian controversies 1485–1528 (Cortesi–Poliziano, Pico della Mirandola–Bembo, Erasmus–Dolet). This is well known. But humanists also debated on functions of Latin, first in relation to scholastic technical Latin, then in relation to the emerging national languages of Europe, and finally the dichotomy between Latin as the language of learning and Latin as the language of science. In this metadiscourse, several functions of Latin were made clear and identified, namely its communicative, cultural, educational and social functions. In Italian Renaissance humanism, classical Latin was interpreted as national cultural heritage of the Italians as heirs of the Roman civilization. When Renaissance humanism moved beyond Italy and northwards to the Germans, the national cultural identification was given up, but communicative, educational, and social functions of Latin endured. In this paper, I will elucidate the metadiscourse on functions of Latin among educators, scholars, and scientists in Italian and German contexts from the 15th through the 18th century.


Josef Eskhult (Ph.D. in Latin, Uppsala University 2008), Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies alumnus, is active as researcher of Latin at Uppsala University. The main fields of his research are: history of comparative and historical linguistic thought in Romance, Germanic, and Semitic philology in Renaissance and early modern Europe (1400–1800), Neo-Latin philology: edition and interpretation of scholarly Latin texts from 1400 to 1800, theory of translation in Roman antiquity and in the Renaissance up to 1800, history of Latin Bible translations in the Renaissance and Reformation, Augustine’s linguistic theory on the nature of language and on linguistic multiplicity.