Examining Light Novels: Latin in the Middle Ages

The eleventh volume of Spice and Wolf includes a set of two short stories and a novella.  Like in volume seven, the two short stories remind me of something an author might write for his eyes only in order to get to know the characters better.  I have decided to put off reading the novella because something caught my eye in the short story “The Wolf and The Golden Promise”: the Church of Hasekura’s world also uses an official language—similar to how the Catholic Church uses Latin.


Lawrence and Holo stumble upon a colony while on their travels.  This colony is more akin to the Roman colonia, literally “farm,” than the modern concept of a colony. Colonia derives from colonus, “farmer,” which itself derives from the verb colere, “to till or cultivate.”  (Interestingly, the words cult and culture also derive from colere, which has the additional meaning of “to worship.”)  An assembly of farmers dwell in this colony, and a land dispute breaks out during Lawrence and Holo’s stay.  The village elder begs Lawrence to help: they have a document written in the Church’s language, but no one is able to translate it.  Lawrence fortunately knows enough of this language to discern who owns how much land, which solves an initial dispute; yet, more follow and Lawrence finds himself not up to the task of translating the whole document.

In the early Middle Ages, finding a person who both knew how to read his own language but not Latin would be a difficult task.  The Roman Empire had a huge impact on Europe, and its literature was much revered in the centuries following.  The classical subjects of language education (the Trivium) were logic, grammar, and rhetoric, and by “grammar” they meant Latin grammar.  Even today, you’ll find that students never master grammar until they study a foreign language.  Why concern oneself with the ins and outs of what comes intuitively?  Latin language and literature, both of Rome and of the Church, became the basis of education for the Middle Ages.  As a matter of fact, a German with fluency in Latin could enter university in France, England, Spain, etc., but could not even attend a university within his own country without knowledge of the language!


I’d say that it was not until the twelfth century that vernacular literature garnered much importance in Europe.  Around that century, one could begin to find some literate people capable of reading in their native tongue but not in Latin.  England was the exception.  England was fortunate in having St. Theodore of Tarsus for their ninth Archbishop of Canterbury, who established a school teaching both Latin and Greek and also encouraged the development of Anglo-Saxon.  English, however, lacked standardized spelling, and people wrote phonetically according to their dialect. Compare England’s London dialect:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth (Canterbury Tales, lines 1-5)

To England’s West Midlands dialect (the Þ = th, and the ȝ = gh):

SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,

Þe borȝ brittened and brent to brondeȝ and askez,

Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wroȝt

Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erthe:

Hit watz Ennias þe athel, and his highe kynde, (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 1-5)

And these were two contemporaries writing in the fourteenth century!  You better believe that if Chaucer and the Pearl-Poet corresponded with each other, they would probably prefer Latin to English—about as much as you would prefer being pen pals with Chaucer over the Pearl-Poet.  So, when the farmers in Spice and Wolf produce a legal document in the Church’s language, that’s accurate to the Middle Ages.  Also, since Hasekura’s world is essentially the High Middle Ages, it would make sense that one would find people both literate and ignorant of Latin.


Thus, Latin was an incredibly important language in the Middle Ages, functioning as the language of learning, law, international correspondence, and religion.  The Catholic Church and the Vatican still have Latin as their official language, which is why papal encyclicals have a Latin name: they were originally written in Latin!  So, this classicist was pleased that Hasekura created a plot where Latin, or rather a language synonymous to it, played an important role.

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