I’ve gotten the following request:

I am looking for Latin reading material I could reasonably give to a curious high-school student. My brother has been taught Latin for the past 4-5 years and he wants to try some “natural” Latin for fun. He’s not interested in the classics of antiquity, but does like reading about the European Renaissance. Realizing that Renaissance Latin is not exactly what students learn in high school, I’d like to find something that’s both COOL and that he can also try to make some actual headway into. My first instinct was a work by Paracelsus or even Kepler’s Somnium. However, I can’t read Latin of any variety and my knowledge of these and similar authors is minimal. Can you think of something you could recommend in this situation? We’re mainly looking for primary documents (i.e., not Hobbitus Ille), preferably in the physical sciences, rather than history or literature. Tractates, manuals, and thesauri are all good.

I, alas, am unable to help, my Latinity being as exiguous and little employed as it is, but I’m sure some of my readers will have recommendations. Fire away!


  1. Bill Walderman says
  2. Isidore’s Etymologiae? It’s from late antiquity (7th c.), but was popular in the Renaissance. It can be pretty amusing for the (what we now see as) ccrazy ideas about things… 🙂

  3. Bill Walderman says

    You might suggest having a look at the works available in the I Tatti Renaissance Library, published by Harvard University Press. It’s a series similar to the Loebs that encompasses Renaissance Latin texts, with accompanying translations on the facing pages.
    Also, Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger) is a relatively short book written originally in Latin. It’s, of course, a classic, foundational scientific text. I haven’t been able to track down an edition of the Latin text, though. Studying the Sidereus Nuncius might make a good project for a young man with some background in Latin and an interest in science.
    Another work that might be of interest is Copernicus’ De revolutionibus.
    Newton’s Principia is in Latin, but long. It’s available from Amazon in one of those awful photocopied reprints of a 19th century edition of the Latin text.
    You might try contacting Noel Swerdlow, who is a specialist in Renaissance astronomy:
    Hope this helps!

  4. Newton’s Principia? If the whole is a slog, there’s excerpts.
    For High Renaissance wacky, you can’t beat Kircher; bonus: they’re densely illustrated.

  5. How about the Malleus Maleficarum?

  6. Not really physical science or Renaissance, but since you’re talking about a high school student I’m going to go ahead and assume that he enjoys things that are, well, fun, and make an off-topic suggestion:
    The Latin I personally always found easiest to read for pleasure was stuff like the Legenda Aurea or Gesta Romanorum. Since they’re more or less fairy tales you can usually keep a clear view of who’s doing what to whom, and to my autodidact’s eye the sentence structure is more often like French or Italian and less tortuous than the grammar of more “literate” works. And the stories are short and self-contained.

  7. Gesta Romanorum – it’s a bunch of semi-familiar stories that are short and not too difficult.

  8. I’d like to find something that’s both COOL and that he can also try to make some actual headway into. … We’re mainly looking for primary documents (i.e., not Hobbitus Ille), preferably in the physical sciences, rather than history or literature.
    My Latinity is just as exiguous and underemployed as Hat’s, yet I still have a go at Renaissance-and-onwards Latin from time to time. I have Latin/German edition of Spinoza and Descartes, for example, and find the Latin eminently understandable (with the help of the translation). The bits of the Principia I’ve read were not that hard either, nothing like that convoluted “Classical antiquity” stuff. Euler is accessible if you want a look at old-timey modern mathematics, in particular infinite series.
    I am interested to see what suggestions people have come up with here, and which ones are still to come. There’s bound to be something there for myself as well. While waiting, I’d like to comment briefly on the reading of such texts.
    Making actual headway with cool medieval/Renaissance texts is not easy, but it’s still worth doing for reasons that may be unexpected. Reading these older texts is not like reading the latest scientific report on whether the consumption of butter clogs your arteries. The texts are not mere discursive compendia of knowledge, no more than newer ones are. Even before statistics came into the picture, science was already an art of persuasion rather than of demonstration. “Facts” are dumb, you have to talk them up.
    The thing is, the older texts are from a world in which people thought differently. Not mistakenly, but differently. Even individual words don’t necessarily mean what you initially think they mean based on their resemblance to cognate English words.
    Believers in “scientific progess” will find in these texts that what occurred was neither linear nor cumulative. Things can of course often be redacted to look that way in retrospect. Reading these texts, especially the physical science ones, requires an investigation of other writers of the epoch, and a willingness to be taken by surprise. I expect that when this student makes headway he will find himself going in a very different direction from the one he expected, more like Alice down the rabbit-hole – which is much cooler, in my view, than fact-collecting.

  9. My first thought was John Hall’s medical notebooks, but it looks like they never were published in the original Latin.

  10. David Derbes says

    I think Galileo’s Starry Messenger is an excellent choice. There are a handful of letters extant between Kepler and Galileo that are worth a read (I first encountered these going the other way, in a Latin Prose Composition course taught by David Furley forty-one years ago.)
    I think the Principia is a terrible choice, to be honest. Newton is extremely difficult even in English. Another classic (which I have not read but should have) is Harvey’s De Motu Cordis, on the motion of blood; there is a suggestion that Harvey and Galileo met each other at Padua, but whether this is true or not I have no idea. (Galileo’s father wanted him to study medicine, and follow in the steps of his well known and well-off grandfather.) Finally, there’s Kepler’s De nive sexangula, on the six-sided snowflake, a short, charming work designed as a New Year’s gift for a patron. The English translation has recently been reissued in paperback by Paul Dry Books.

  11. David Derbes says

    Err.. Cordis is heart; the actual title is Exertatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus
    (never post without sufficient coffee…)

    Italian psychedelic literature of 1499
    a very strange read — and some really cool illustrations

  13. Bill Walderman says

    According to the Wikipedia article, Hypnertomachia seems to be written in “a Latinate Italian”.

  14. Bill Walderman says

    I found it! The Latin text of Sidereus Nuncius is available from Amazon:
    Of course, I had to order a copy for myself.

  15. The first thing that sprung to mind was Alberti’s Momus and Poggio Bracciolini’s Facetiae, both of which are much fun. But they are literature. What about More’s Utopia? Still not ‘physical science’. (Nor are most of your readers’ other suggestions.) The Somnium and Sidereus Nuncius are indeed good standard beginners’ Latin works of the Renaissance. Paracelsus a definite no-no (what Latin there is is pretty weird). Copernicus is tough. Newton tougher. Among scientific works, I don’t know of any written in easier (but very good) Latin than Melanchthon’s introduction to physics:
    If you’re willing to look at more advanced things, there are a number of more enjoyable works of science, e.g. Hevelius’s description of the moon:
    Or Kircher’s work on music:
    Or Vesalius on anatomy:
    Or Pomponazzi’s scathing attack on magic and superstition (this came out in a nice edition a year or two ago):
    Or Della Porta on natural magic:

  16. Just to chime in on Newton’s Principia— no, not for high-school students, and not intelligible, generally, to modern scientists either. However, if you really do want to get a feel for Newton’s achievement, and you are, as we say, ‘mathematically mature’, there’s this:

  17. For finding specific texts online, The Philological Museum. It says “Humanistic Letters,” but the bibliography tracks pretty much anything scanned in post-medieval Latin.
    The Latin Library has a Neo-Latin page, with shorter transcribed texts. A few are bawdy, which means that they are exactly what teenagers want, though their teachers may disapprove.

  18. I figured you’d show up with some good suggestions, Conrad!

  19. Happy to help. I hope he does make some headway on something; when I was learning Latin I found it tremendously difficult to move from “grammar-book” Latin to the real stuff. I’d advise anyone to attempt that jump as soon as possible, as there’s only so far the abstract rules can take you.

  20. John Emerson says

    I don’t read Latin at all but Johannes Secundus has been highly recommended:

  21. Just occurred to me, a foundational work of Renaissance science, which exists in both Latin and English versions, and is very easy to get hold of: Bacon’s ‘De augmentis scientiarum’ / ‘Advancement of Learning’. I don’t know how hard the Latin is though.

  22. Just took a look at it via Google Books, and it didn’t look that hard (as far as my meager Latinity allows me to judge, of course).

  23. This web page probably is not related about your request but, at least, is a curious radio station whose news are in Latin:

  24. Anyone know where to find the really juicy crime news the Times used to put in Latin?

  25. The Nuntii latini report, for example, that Obama alterum quadriennium coepit. (Nuntii Latini, conspectus rerum internationalium hebdomadalis, est programma Radiophoniae Finnicae Generalis in terrarum orbe unicum.)
    On a lighter note, there are the Asterix albums in latin. Opening lines: Anno A.D.N.L.: Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres… Gallia celtica total a romanis tandem occupata est… Tota? Minime vero! Vicus quidem, cuius invictus galli incolae sunt, … (etc.)

  26. David Marjanović says

    How about some Linnæus? A bit late for Renaissance, but so fluently written.

  27. I sometimes taught Latin with Erasmus’ various dialogues. Indeed, they were composed exactly for that. Easy, didactically compiled, full of humor. See this chunk, for example:

  28. A lot of the recommendations above are very difficult – Newton, More, Galileo, etc. Even Erasmus, who wrote for classroom use, wrote to teach elegant Latin, not basic Latin. I definitely recommend the Gesta Romanorum, which has been mentioned, and the similar Legenda Aurea. These things are not scientific at all but relatively simple and are actual stories, which makes them interesting. For science I recommend Linnaeus, especially the Systema Naturae. These are basically species descriptions, but hence very simple and actually quite interesting. I was present for a whole debate about which animals “retro mingere possunt,” (can piss backwards), which Linnaeus uses as a describer. The parts about lions and tigers are especially good.

  29. Another useful anthology, which extends a range of interesting passages in Latin from Ennius (239-169 BC) to L.P. Wilkinson in 1951 is “Alive on Men’s Lips” ed. Dora Pym and Nancy Silver, (151 pp.) It has passages on Renaissance Scientists (32 pp.) and much, much else; and I’ve always found it fascinating these last 45 years! Although it must be out of print (and it bears no date) , I have discovered there are currently two copies available on – one quite cheap.
    Insuper, I’m surprised no-one has suggested Dante’s De Vulgari Eloquentia (mediaeval dialectology – and much else), Erasmus’s Ciceronianus (affected Latin style as a mania), and Thomas More’s Utopia. All very original, totally of their own times and fascinating.

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