It is hard to imagine how a future United Europe (supposing there is ever such a thing) could grow a literature of its own - distinct, that is, from the literatures of the nations which compose it. Yet there exists a precedent for such a development in the Latin writings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Once Latin had ceased to be recognisable as a language of the Italian peninsula, it was free to be employed as a transnational medium, available to educated writers regardless of their native speech. It did not matter whether one had been trained in the schools of York, or Paris, or Bologna - Latin was your language, quite as much as if it had been learned in Rome, and you would write chronicles or treatises or poems in that language, not in the local vernacular. Peter Godman's anthology of poems of the Carolingian period provides some remarkable instances of this international character of Medieval Latin. Here in the eighth and ninth centuries, if ever, is a true European literature. Among the poets associated with Charlemagne himself are to be found Englishmen, Irishmen, Spaniards and Italians, as well as Franks, all speaking the same language in praise of the great emperor, magnificently styled pharus Europae - the beacon of Europe. Charlemagne's court at Aachen attracted writers from all parts of the empire and beyond, just as Rome had done in its palmy days. It was hailed as the new Rome, nova Roma: 'Our times are transformed into the civilisation of Antiquity. Golden Rome is reborn and restored anew to the world.'
LRB 17 October 1985 | PDF Download