Hands up those of us who did Latin in school?.....three? five? ..OK 12 of us. I know Latin is still sold to some young students as the key to understanding European culture and heritage. Old school masters argue that Latin is better for you than Sudoku, better, even, that The Irish Times Crosaire crossword. Yet when I came across my old Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer, I was filled with an old familiar dread. There it all was, the boring conjunctions of verbs, and the declensions of nouns; all the miserable rules of grammar and syntax, possibly the driest book ever created, and not a joke between its covers.
I hated Latin, but I think I would have loved it, or at least had a laugh, if the schoolbook was ‘Latin Dialogues, Collected from the Best Latin Writers for the Use of Schools, 4th edition, published in London 1819. This volume was a little gem of discovery by retired NUIG professor Noel Wilkins, an acknowledged expert of our coastline, harbors and piers, maritime public works and the shellfisheries of Ireland.* He is also a collector of books. And like many book collectors has, what he calls, An Odd Shelf on which rests a small but mysterious collection of volumes, completely unrelated to the rest of his library but bought for the pleasure of their unusual subject matter, or simply for their attractive binding.
Several famous authors had much the same habit. George Orwell kept a bound set of ladies’ magazines from the 1860s; while Philip Larkin kept a shelf crammed with pornography, with the emphasis on spanking. I hasten to add no such disreputable volume appears on Noel’s Odd Shelf, but perfectly good and decent volumes such as an early Bible, with interesting annotations, an account of the canonisation of St Ignatius Loyola, and others including the amusing Latin Dialogues.
The author of Latin Dialogues remained anonymous probably for reasons that will become obvious later. The book sets out: ‘The principal use of this little work is to supply the classical student with the best phrases on the common occurrences of life...’
It begins well enough with the obvious hail and farewell - Ave and vale. All the usual salutations and solicitations regarding health and the weather are there. Quid agitur? (how goes it? ), Recte, ut vales (very well, how are you? ), Nox pluvium ne colligit vereor (I fear it will rain tonight ), are the trivia without which civilized life would hardly be possible.
But what about ‘My spurs are rusty’ (Calcaria sunt obducta rubigine ), or ‘Tell the maid to bring me a clean shirt’? What do these not tell us about the life of a young gentleman (for truly the book was directed at boys rather than girls ) used to getting his own way?
Why, when a schoolmate fails to answer him, should he reply: ‘Speak or I will kick you’ (Aut dic accipe calcem )? Bullying is no new thing ‘he pulled my hair and called me names’, ‘He slapped my face’, ‘He beat me all over’ and ‘He will not let me alone’ are all translated, although it is not clear how saying them in Latin made the experiences any less painful. You begin to see why the author might have wished to remain anonymous.
Table talk starts modestly enough: ‘Pray give me that dish’, ‘Shall I cut you a slice of roast’, and ‘This is our daily fare, our usual food’ are phrases still used commonly enough today. But what are we to make of ‘Shall I carve the thrushes?’ which is even more unsavoury in Latin: An turdos hosce dissecabo? - to which the suggested reply is: ‘They are so small that you must take them whole’ - together with, or after, the pheasant, duck, capon, pigeon and hare.
Verses in bed
And so to bed. The pleasantries begin gently enough although with questionable relevence to the proper education of young schoolboys. Perhaps the following early phrases were tucked away for use when the scholars would later become young officers and cease to be young gentlemen. ‘Why do you not get up and go to bed with me?’ ‘Can you not sleep alone?’ ‘I cannot help sleeping with you tonight but another night you may lie alone for me.’
Things then go steadily down hill. ‘These sheets have scarcely been washed these three months’ and ‘The bed is so hard it will hurt me.’ It soon reaches its nadir: ‘The fleas bite horribly and if I catch any they shall pay for it’. ‘I find more fault with these coarse sheets than with the fleas.’
But gentility, or is it love, wins out: ‘I love to make verses in bed, I think it is the best place for it’, and the night closes with sweet reasonableness: ‘You may snore if you please’ (‘Per me vel stertas licet‘ ).
Wives and partners please copy!
NOTES: I wrote last week about Noel’s Humble Works for Humble People - A History of the Fishery Piers of County Galway and North Clare 1800- -1922, published by Irish Academic Press, on sale €29.99
I am taking the above from The Odd Shelf of a Common Reader - again by Noel P Wilkins, published by the author in 2016, on sale €12. It’s not easy to find. But Vinnie in Charlie Byrnes will locate a copy of this slim, and very happy book, which is well worth the search.