Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sighcula Sighculorum

I always rather enjoyed my occasional visits to a blog which came out of Westminster Cathedral in London, Solomon, I Have Surpassed Thee. That blog came to a close two and a half years ago in September 2008. What I personally found particularly useful about it was the wonderful historical photos it published from Westminster Cathedral, as well as some "inside views" that one might not otherwise see.

I mention this because, quite by accident, I came across this blog again the other day when looking up another topic, wherein I ran into a rather interesting post about a book published by the English Alcuin Club entitled Latin in Church: Episodes in the History of its Pronunciation which details some of the controversies and passions which have surrounded Latin pronunciation in the academia and how that translated over into the ecclesiastical world.

Here is an excerpt from the post (which includes excerpts from the aforementioned book):

I picked a funny little book from my bookshelf yesterday; 'Latin in Church: The history of its pronunciation', written in 1934 by F. Brittain, Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge, and University Lecturer in Medieval Latin. My edition is a 1955 reprint.

It is an entertaining tract, much of it concentrating on the 'battle' between the classical pronunciation and the 'italian' pronunciation of the Victorian Catholic Church. Brittain notes that in the 1870s, a new pronunciation was introduced to Oxford and Cambridge by those who sought classical authenticity - rather than the flat 'english' pronunication that had been regularly used in this country. This new pronunciation occasioned controversy in the Catholic Church, where the Ultramontane movement had been encouraging an italianate pronunciation. Cardinal Manning, famously, tried hard - but with mixed success - to adopt an italian pronunciation. Wilfred Meynell writes:

Like all ecclesiastics he had acquired what is considered to be the italian pronunication, and had even taken evident pains to be very Italian indeed, as an act of homage to the Italian conditions of modern English Catholicism ... But the English tongue made of his Latin the most British thing conceivable, all the same. I never heard him speak French, but I know precisely the kind he must have had.

Despite the enthusiasm for italianate pronunciation, Brittain notes that the new 'classical' pronunication was gleefully taken up by some 'Roman Catholic clergy who, about the beginning of the twentieth century, had the greatest enthusiasm for it.' He continues:

..the rhythmical, rhymed verses of St Thomas Aquinas and Thomas of Celano, with their homely, half-romance vocabulary, were sung to the accents of Virgil, Horace and Cicero.

The main champions of the classical pronunication were the monasteries, notably Downside and Ampleforth. But it intruded into other spheres as well (and here is the reason for today's posting!):

The new (ie classical) pronunciation was used by some, though not all, of the clergy at Westminster Cathedral in 1903. Its use was never officially adopted there, neither did it survive very long. One priest, however, who heard it there always retained the clearest recollection of its effect on him. He had always been brought up on the Italian pronunication, and had not come into contact with the classical pronunication before. .. Consequently, when he heard some of the clergy singing in sighcula sighculorum, his first impression was that this must be a Cockney pronunciation of Latin; and when the preacher went up into the pulpit - it was a feast of the Blessed Virgin - he expected to hear him describe Our Lady as 'Our Lidy'.

Of course, lest anyone so think, I am not trying to engage in or rekindle the debate about the pronunciation of Ecclesiastical Latin versus that of the classicists -- indeed, not even ever so slightly. However, it does strike me as an entertaining read and account of a very particular episode in the modern history of the Latin liturgical language.

Read the entire post, Speaking Latin (and do make certain to also read the comments).

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