manuscripts in Latin
Latin was the premier language of the West in the Middle Ages, and it was considered to grant religious, academic, and textual authority. Entering a monastic order meant learning Latin; going to school meant learning Latin; being formally trained to write meant knowing Latin; being literate most often meant having learned Latin; and going to Mass meant, at the very least, hearing formulaic Latin on a regular basis. Latin was foundational, but it was not fossilized. No language, however powerful, can be everything—or even the same thing—to everyone. Latin retained significant cultural capital throughout the Renaissance in England thanks to the humanistic impulse to return ad fontes ("to the source").
Beinecke MS 401 provides an example of the prose Anglo-Latin hermeneutic style in a fragment from a ninth-century copy of Aldhelm’s treatise De laudibus virginitatis. In this manuscript, glosses translating difficult Latin words into Old English were subtly scratched, without the use of ink, onto the parchment, probably by a student. These “dry point glosses” have the advantage of not giving the page a cluttered appearance, as glosses sometimes do.
Beinecke MS 154 contains another genre frequently written in Latin, the biblical commentary. This manuscript contains the commentaries of Robert of Bridlington, also called Robert the Scribe. Across this opening, we see the transition from Robert’s commentary on 1 Corinthians to that on 2 Corinthians.
Last, we should remember that Latin was no one’s native language and, thus, that everyone had to start somewhere. When someone did start, it may have been with a book like Beinecke MS 594, a Latin-English dictionary with charming illustrations.