Literary Discoveries.

Ramblings in an Eclectic Library.

Who Will Raise the Literary Atlantis?

It seems to have been James Hankins who described the Latin works of the Renaissance and later as “a lost continent of literature.” But how big is this lost continent? Suppose we pick an arbitrary year—say, 1609—and ask how literature was distributed among the various European languages. We can use science to find the answer.

Here is our method: we ask the Internet Archive to give us all its books dated 1609. We get 823 results, distributed in five columns in the usual thumbnail display. To make the task manageable, we can just go down the first column, counting the number of books in each European language. (This will involve leaving out five Chinese volumes, which appear to be multiple parts of the same work, and a number of miscellaneous things like drawings and engravings.) Our results, therefore, are based on a random fifth of the books from 1609 in the Internet Archive:

    Portuguese, 2
    English, 5
    French, 7
    Spanish, 11
    Dutch, 15
    Italian, 22
    All vernacular languages combined, 62

    Latin, 92

If these results are representative, then there were more books published in Latin in 1609 than in all the vernacular languages put together.

Of course these results are not truly representative: these are the books that were actually judged worth keeping by libraries in Europe and the Americas. Our blindness to all but the vernacular literatures of that time might make books in vernacular languages more likely to survive; thus the proportion of books in the vernacular would be overestimated. On the other hand, ephemera like broadsides and chapbooks were much more likely to be thrown away, and those would have been in the vernacular. So all we can say is that, in the collections that have survived, there are half again as many books in Latin as in all the vernacular languages combined.

This is how much literature is out there waiting to be discovered. We might say that it is commonly dismissed as worthless, but that would probably be inaccurate. It is not that most academics dismiss this literature: it is simply invisible to them. They know in the abstract that it exists, but when they see a book in Latin they see a rectangular object of no more relevance than an empty cardboard box.

Are these books all irretrievably dull? Let us have a look.

De monstris humanis includes many engravings of things like “Acephalos: Homo sine capite natum, cui oculorum effigies in pectore expressa fuerit” (a man born without a head with things like eyes in his chest). Is that dull?

Romanarum antiquitatum libri decem is filled with information about ancient Roman culture gathered from all the best antique writers.

The Vita illustrissimae, ac piissimae dominae Magdalenae Montis-Acuti in Anglia vicecomitissae is a biography of Magdalen Dacre, Viscountess Montagu, a fascinating Elizabethan character who managed to stay Catholic and friendly with Queen Elizabeth at the same time.

These are not dull books. They are the kinds of books that make a large library an endless adventure. And now they can be found on our page of Miscellaneous Neo-Latin Literature.

Fortunately there is at least one project to translate and publish some of the best of these books, raising at least a small part of the sunken literary Atlantis. The I Tatti Renaissance Library is edited by Professor Hankins, and has already published dozens of translations in attractive hardbacks for the benefit of English-speaking readers whose Latin is not what it should be.

If, however, you are persuaded that it would be worthwhile to know more Latin, you will find everything you need on our Latin References page.

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