Mira quaedam vis

I’ve been spending a lot of my summer, happily but quite unexpectedly, in the late Nineteenth Century. This is partly related to a book I’m co-writing on the origins of archaeology in Swat, modern Pakistan, but also to a week I spent translating an issue of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’ Latin newsletter Alaudae (“Larks”).

My translation of issue 27 of Alaudae, from May 1893, is part of a project coordinated by Michael Lombardi-Nash to get all issues of Alaudae — there were 33 of them between 1889 and 1895, the year of Ulrichs’ death — translated into English in time for the bicentenary of Ulrichs’ birth in 2025. Ulrichs, a lawyer and journalist from Hanover, was a passionate promoter of the Latin language, but his greater significance lies elsewhere, as a fearless campaigner for the recognition and acceptance of same-sex attraction in writings and public statements that required, in nineteenth-century Germany, immense personal courage. This is a good account of Ulrich’s life and importance.

Toward the end of his life, disenchanted with his reception in Germany and with broader developments there, Ulrichs relocated to Italy, and settled in L’Aquila as the guest of Niccolò Persichetti, who shared his interest in Greco-Roman antiquity and was sympathetic to his campaigning in defence of homosexuality. It was from L’Aquila that Ulrichs published Alaudae, and in issue 27 at least this meant gathering together items in Latin that had been sent to him from all corners.

It makes for a wonderful mishmash of material. On a train into London I found myself translating the Latin oration for a graduation ceremony at Trinity College Dublin, where an honorary degree was being conferred on General Sir George Stuart White. An hour later I was looking at a statue of George Stuart White, a man I confess I’d never heard of before, as I hurried down Portland Place. Ulrichs is not very sympathetic to the military, it’s fair to say, having encountered too many militaristic Prussians back home, no doubt, and he spends more time humorously discussing the kilt worn by Major Napier of the 92nd (Gordon Highlanders), who was accompanying White to the ceremony. When I talk about vivid glimpses of the late Nineteenth Century, though, I don’t mean British generals so much as things like Ulrichs’ source for this chunk of Latin from Trinity Dublin. He was sent it by W. H. Brayden, the editor (who is later mentioned in Joyce’s Ulysses) of the “constitutional nationalist” newspaper the Freeman’s Journal—you are reading Latin in Alaudae, in other words, then suddenly deep in the complicated politics of pre-Easter-Rising Ireland.

Most of the issue I was translating was taken up by a celebration of the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s arrival as a teacher at the University of Padua in 1592, to which Padua had invited, in Latin of course, representatives from universities across Europe and in the United States, and received Latin responses back from a number of them. Ulrichs reproduces a few, and we’ll return later to the Latin letter from the University of Kazan on the Volga,  an important centre for Classical studies, as my colleague Georgy Kantor has informed me. I’ll also come back later to a dance card sent to Ulrichs from a Society of Pharmacists in Brno, now the Czech Republic (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), written in Latin so as not to upset either Czech or German pharmacists in this bilingual city. It’s again odd to view this after an intervening century of Czech-German relations, though my immediate need was for someone to make sense of Latin terms for dances like Polonaisa, Polka Frankogallica and Saltatio germanica. My colleague Sophie Bocksberger, an expert on dance ancient and modern, stepped deftly into the breach. But for Ulrichs such an event embodied the motto that prefaces every issue of Alaudae, Latinae linguae mira quaedam vis inest ad jungendas nationes, “The Latin language has a remarkable power to bring nations together”—Latin, no one’s language and thus potentially everyone’s.

I volunteered for this project because Ulrichs deserves all the recognition he can get, and because Latin and late-nineteenth-century intellectual life are a couple of my favourite things. But I found here something far more varied and interesting than I anticipated, and closely engaged with a fascinating moment in European history. What holds it all together, though, are Ulrichs’ journalistic skills of editing and composition, and the light touch and humour with which he threads it all together. He skips out of Latin at the end of my issue to share a French joke that is of its time but still quite funny, explaining why the English use “Esq.” in addresses: we are rather chilly in manner, and it stands for Esquimau. It’s a great project that Michael is leading, in short, and it deserves success—deserves, dare I say it, a publisher who’ll put these remarkable documents from a formative time between hard covers. If anyone is interested, feel free to get in touch.

However, two tiny and trivial thoughts that occurred to me while translating, chosen because they brought me quite close to Ulrichs and to these other people speaking Latin to each other 130 years ago.

At the end of the elegant Latin letter from Kazan University to Padua, a copy of which Kazan had sent him, Ulrichs gives the names of the Rector of the University and the Secretary, K. Boporuuno and M. Solovieff. A conversation on Twitter ensued between myself and Georgy Kantor, who like me initially thought that Boporuuno must be a Finnish name, but then established that the Rector in 1893 was not K. Boporuuno but Konstantin Voroshilov. The explanation is clearly that Ulrichs read Voroshilov’s name in Cyrillic, Ворошилов, as if it was in Latin script. But it can’t be quite that simple because Ulrichs reads printed Cyrillic elsewhere in the document from Kazan (and elsewhere again in issue 27) quite happily, identifying Latin derivations in administrative Russian. What’s happened, then, I think, is that Ulrichs was presented with two signatures from Rector and Secretary. One of them, that of Secretary M. Solovieff, was in Latin characters, leading Ulrichs to assume that the Rector’s was too. I can easily imagine a handwritten К. Ворощилов being read as K. Boporuuno. As for Ulrichs, to err is human, and one can encounter the human in a silly mistake. Here I felt like I was looking over Ulrichs’ shoulder as he struggled to decipher someone’s handwriting, something I’ve done quite a bit of myself in the recent past.

I’m not at all sure about my second thought. But it takes us back to those pharmacists in Brno. I couldn’t initially make sense of an abbreviation that prefaces each half of the dance card, “Rp.”: Rp. Polonaisa. Saltat. german. Polka francogallica … Rp. Saltat. german. Polka mazur. IVta Quadrilla …, and I think Ulrichs was as foxed as I was. But then I had a thought. One piece of Latin that’s quite peculiar to pharmacists, or at least pharmacists in Central Europe, is “Rp./” short for “Recipe”, “Take…”, the instruction from the medical practitioner to the chemist/pharmacist as to what they should give the patient. (An English “recipe” was originally a medical prescription; and Rx or ℞ is the local equivalent of Rp./, I believe.) Here is a guide to writing medical prescriptions that I was delighted to find on the website of Masaryk University, Brno, with some important abbreviations on the first page, and a model prescription on p. 7. The invocatio, Rp., is what we’re concerned with:

“Take a Polonaise, Allemande, Polka Française…” instructs the pharmacists’ dance card. If I’m wrong about this, and it’s very likely, errare est humanum and I do it a lot. If I’m right, though, how absolutely lovely that is, pharmacists telling each other, whether they be Czech or German, that an evening of dancing together is just what the doctor ordered.

My thanks to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs for telling me about about this, and to Michael Lombardi-Nash for introducing me to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs.

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

One response to “Mira quaedam vis”

  1. Frederico says :

    I always look forward to your posts, which are unfailingly fascinating! Let’s have lots more, please!

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