13

I have been reading about European history in the XII century and I am finding out that several of the modern day languages hadn't yet evolved to what they are now: Langue d'oïl was still being used in France & Belgium, Old Saxon was still in vigor as well as Anglo-Saxon and Old East Slavic / Old Russian.

Was there an "official" language among monarchies just as English is nowadays for most governments? There were already agreements, marriage pacts and even crusades planned among different monarchies so they must have established communication somehow... I'm leaning towards the equivalent of French at the time, however I couldn't get any official sources to confirm this.

Wikipedia lists some of the monarchs of the time here: 12th-century monarchs in Europe

4

4 Answers 4

24

When it comes to western Europe, medieval Latin would be closer to an "official" language, especially for international affairs. The Roman Catholic Church's power and influence at the time was unparalleled and several major events of the era started with a Papal Bull. Here's a short list of Papal Bulls that were political in nature and were addressed, formally or informally, to the monarchs of the era:

  • Sicut Judaeis (1120): Provides protection for the Jews who suffered from the hands of the participants in the First Crusade,
  • Omne Datum Optimum (1139): Endorses the Knights Templar,
  • Quantum praedecessores (1145): Calls for the Second Crusade,
  • Laudabiliter (1155): Gives the English King Henry II lordship over Ireland,
  • Manifestis Probatum (1179): Recognition of the kingdom of Portugal and Afonso Henriques as the first king,
  • Audita tremendi (1187): Calls for the Third Crusade,
  • Cum universi (1192): Defined the Scottish Church as immediately subject to the Holy See,
  • Post Miserabile (1198): Calls for the Fourth Crusade.

Several other historical documents of the 12th century are written in medieval Latin, even if not issued by the Pope or the Roman Catholic Church. For example:

One document that stands out is the Charter of Liberties (1100), a forerunner to the Magna Carta. While apparently the original was most probably written in Latin, several copies of it were made in other languages depending on the intended audience, and all could have been considered authoritative at the time. The Magna Carta itself though was originally issued in Latin (and 15 years into the 13th century), and then translated to French.

In the east, however, Byzantine Greek had replaced Latin as the official language of the Byzantine Empire since 620, when Emperor Heraclius started styling himself as Βασιλεύς1 instead of the Latin Augustus. Official documents of the era were written in Byzantine Greek, although it's not unreasonable to assume that at least some of the documents that were addressed to European Monarchs would be written in medieval Latin.

Given that "official" at the time mostly meant sanctioned by the church, either the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church, I'd say that medieval Latin and Byzantine Greek would be very close to what we would today consider official languages.

1 King; sovereign.

2
  • Latin was the court language in Poland/Lithuania until 1795.
    – Spencer
    Jun 20, 2023 at 19:03
  • It misses the 12th century by 2 (or 3, depending on how one counts) - but Liber Abaci by Leonardo of Pisa, aka Fibonacci, published 1202, must be regarded as one of the most influential mathematics books of any age, introducing Arabic numbers and positional notation to Western Europe amongst many other contributions. Jun 21, 2023 at 0:42
7

Here are the official titles of Catholic European kings in the 13th century.

Lithuania 1261:

Mindowe, Dei gratia rex Littowie

Hungary and Croatia 1270:

Stephanus dei gracia Hungarie, Dalmacie, Croacie, Rame, Seruie, Gallicie, Lodomerie, Cumanie Bulgarieque rex

Denmark and the Wends 1251:

Abel dej gracia Danorum Slauorumque rex dux Jucie

The Franks (France) 1246:

Ludovicus, Dei gratia Francie rex

The Swedes and the Goths 1276:

Magnus dei gracia sweuorum gotorumque rex

Bohemia 1291:

Nos Wencezlaus, dei gratia rex Bohemie, dux Cracouie et Sandomerie, marchioque Morauie

England 1261:

Henricus, dei gracia Rex Anglie Dominus Hibernie et Dux Aquitannie

The Scots 1240:

Alexander dei gracia Rex Scottorum

Sicily Naples 1289:

Karolus secundus, Dei gracia rex Jerusalem Cicilie, ducatus Apulie & principatus Capue princeps Achaye, andegavie provincie et forcalquerii comes

the other Sicily 1282:

Petrus dei gracia Aragonum et Sicilie Rex

Latin Empire of Constantinople 1205:

Balduinus, eadem [Dei] gracia fidelissimus in Christo imperator, a Deo coronatus, Romanorum moderator et semper augustus, Flandrie et Hainoie comes

Jerusalem 1258:

Conradus dei gratia Ierusalem et Sicilie rex, dux Swevie

Antioch 1219:

ego Raymundus Rupini dei gracia princeps Antiochenus, Raymundi principis fili

Cyprus 1252:

Nos Henricus Dei gratia rex Cypri

Norway 1264:

Magnus dei gratia rex Norwagie

Poland 1295:

nos Premislius secundus, Dei gracia rex Polonie et dux Pomoranie

Portugal 1259:

ego Alfonsus dei gratia Rex Portugalie

Aragon, etc. 1231:

nos Jacobus, Dei gracia, rex Aragonum et regni Majoricarum, comes Barchinonensis et dominus Montispessulani

Castile, etc. 1249:

ferdinandus Dei gratia, Rex Castelle et Toleti et Legionis et Gallicie et Seuille et Corduue et Murcie et Jaheni

Navarre 1223:

nos Sancius, Dei gratia rex Nauarre

Emperor 1226:

Fridericus secundus divina favente clementia Romanorum imperator semper augustus, Jerusalem et Sicilie rex

http://eurulers.altervista.org/index.html1

What language are these title from 13th century documents written in? Almos t all are in Latin. They show that many documents in Catholic European countries were written in Latin.

5

According to wikipedia, Anglo-Norman French (the dialect of French spoken by the Norman conquerors) was used for that purpose in England in the 13th century. Before that it was typically Latin, and afterwards English.

(BTW: langues d'oïl basically means a dialect of French where oui is used to mean "yes". Anglo-Norman French was in fact one of those).

For diplomatic communications, Latin was generally used. Remember that the "Romance Languages" (French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, etc.) were just regional dialects of Latin that slowly drifted into mutual-unintelligability.

1

What needs to be pointed out, in addition to the existing answers, that languages in XII-th century did not exist in their modern form - where they are more or less the same for millions of people, living across territories extending for thousands of kilometers and often codified in a standard form via textbooks, grammars, and dictionaries. Rather, in those times languages existed in forms of dialect continua, where French spoken in the South of France was quite distinct (and perhaps incomprehensible) from the French spoken in Paris, although both were clearly different from German varieties. In the same way, a person in the South of France would be more likely to understand a Catalan or Spaniard, who by modern standard speak languages closely related but not mutually comprehensible to French. In some places this state of affairs still exists - like Bosnian-Croatian-Sebian, or Norwegian, Danish and Swedish, or the Swiss and Alsatian dialects of German. In Germany proper dialects have vanished only recently.

This state of affairs had sharply changed with the spread of literacy and the emergence of nation state (which would politically impose a standard language variety, e.g., via schooling or demanding that the official paperwork is done in a certain language.) E.g., Luther's translation of the Bible is often credited with creating modern standard German/

Martin Luther's translation of the Bible in 1522 was an important development towards an early standardization of written German. Luther based his translation largely on the already developed language of the Saxon chancery, which was more widely understood than other dialects and as a Central German dialect, was felt to be "halfway" between the dialects of the north and south. Luther drew principally on Eastern Upper and East Central German dialects and preserved much of the grammatical system of Middle High German.

Thus, the monarch had to communicate either in some highly standardized language that all of them new (such as Latin) or via the help of translators or multilingual individuals, familiar with the necessary language variety. Another standardized language widely spread in Europe was Hebrew - it is not likely that it was actively used by Kings, but it was relevant for merchants and perhaps communicating on economic matters (which were frequently outsources to Jews.) In Spain and nearby areas Arabic was also in common use. I think that ancient Greek had not been yet widespread among educated public in the XII-th century.

1
  • 1
    this is the basic context that similar questions need to address. Most european languages were not standardized enough to allow written communication about important matters over large distances. Dialectal differences, no dictionaries, no TV... They could sing in vernacular, no harm if 100 km northwards people misunderstand the lyrics. But important stuff had to be in Latin. Literacy was not the point - children learned to read first in Latin, and then, with enough time and inclination, in vernacular. In peaceful eras and rich regions, literacy could be ~40% due to parochial schools.
    – Luiz
    Jun 22, 2023 at 15:56

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.