What happens to national identity in an era of globalisation, and when the launch of the euro brings nearer effective membership of a single European community? Francoise Waquet's book is relevant, since it concerns the long reign in Europe of an "imperial sign" - Latin - from whose dominance our modern vernaculars have now emerged. Their escape from Latin's grip began in the 18th century, but was accelerated by the romantic nationalism of the 19th, for which "our language" was a marker of "our country".
Waquet's story begins in the 16th century when the spread of humanism brought with it the invasion of culture and education by Latin. This initiated what she calls the age of monopoly. Schoolboys read Latin texts and spoke dog-Latin in the playground. Colloquies were published that gave them dialogues in the language on everyday subjects. The Catholic Church was a central fortress of Latin learning and stood ready to defend its sacral language against attack. Even in 1858, when French Catholics petitioned the Vatican to be allowed to use the vernacular because of the feeble knowledge of Latin among rural priests, the request was denied on the ground that the use of French might promote schism in the universal church.
After the challenges to its authority from supporters of new knowledge in the 18th century, Latin nevertheless remained embedded in many spheres of life. This second era Waquet calls the age of royalty - Latin had a power, not absolute but successfully exerted over often-unwilling subjects. Finally, we come to the current age of option. Latin is taught and learnt, read, written, even spoken - but as a matter of choice.
For each of these ages, Waquet draws on colloquial speech, diplomatic documents and school-room memoirs to provide a wide-ranging and detailed account of how Latin was used and what it meant to those who used it. For some, Latin was simply the language in which one talked and wrote. For others, it was a powerful and mysterious resource drawn on by their social superiors - or by hucksters and patent-pill merchants, whose knowledge of the language was minimal. Latin was a powerful sign and a sign of power. Not only did this lead to constant attempts to restrict access to it by the social groups whose members mastered it, but also to resistant practices in classrooms, where pupils made their own ingenious sense of the language.
This book offers a valuable and pioneering map of an empire, although some provinces, such as Scandinavia, are less well covered than others. Of the minor factual errors, one perhaps deserves notice. Bradley's Arnold , a Latin prose composition textbook of the late 1840s still doing good service, was written not by Dr Arnold of Rugby, as others have assumed, nor by his son Matthew, as Waquet states, but by a country clergyman, T. K. Arnold.
More substantially, this is a French book that reflects the intellectual culture of France and its 19th-century attachment to Latin rather than Greek. An account written from an English perspective would have asked how the empire of Latin related to the passion for Greek language, literature and philosophy that became so dominant in some countries from the late 18th century. In Victorian Oxbridge it was Homer, Plato and Aristotle who reigned supreme. It was only towards the end of the century, assisted by a move to specialisation, that Latin began to move in the direction of parity.
Compulsory Latin lay at the heart of the grammar schools' self-image for 40 years, until it crumbled with the launch of Sputnik - and science's ascendance - in 1958. Here is a task for anyone who follows in the path Waquet has marked out so well. Much of the best historical work on knowledge and its implications has concentrated on natural science. How different would its results look if the humanities were included? Waquet has helped us towards such a wider analysis with this well-organised, crisply argued and fluently translated book: it deserves to be read not just by intellectual historians, but by anyone interested in the past and future of Europe.
Christopher Stray is honorary research fellow in classics, University of Wales, Swansea.
Latin: Or the Empire of a Sign
Author - Françoise Waquet
ISBN - 1 85984 615 7 and 402 2
Publisher - Verso
Price - £20.00 and £13.00
Pages - 346