Neo-Latinity and the Neoteric in Early Modern England

Mots et usages d'une catégorie historiographique

Neo-Latinity and the Neoteric in Early Modern England

Katie Mennis (Somerville College, Oxford)

In An Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668), John Wilkins provides a list of words denoting ‘newness’:Renovation, innovate, renew, anew, Neoteric, Neophyte, novel, Novice, Puny, modern, fresh, upstart, green, late, last, a little while.[1] Wilkins gathers this collection of nouns, adjectives and adverbs to show that they are either ‘synonymous to’ or ‘to be defined by’ newness, and that such multiplicity might be replaced by a new, more efficient universal language. But, as Wilkins knows (and laments), these words are polysemous and far from fully synonymous or comprehensive: ‘renaissance’ is missing, but ‘modern’ (as in ‘early modern’) appears, with several other terms surveyed in these lexical notes, such as those with the nov- root and mots de retour’ with the re- prefix, and some more metaphorical or transferred additions (‘green’).

It is the fifth word in Wilkins’s list, ‘Neoteric’, that interests me here. It stands out as one of two less familiar, ostentatiously Greek terms, alongside ‘Neophyte’, which has a narrower application, to a person or plant; its etymological origin, in νεωτερικός (ultimately νεώτερος), meaning ‘newer than’, suggests that it is merely a relative term that lacks the richer connotations of ‘Puny’ or ‘upstart’. It appears most commonly in early modernity describing modern writing as opposed to ancient or antique writing, in comparative constructions.[2] For example, in Flowers of Epigrammes, Out of Sundrie the Moste Singular Authours Selected, as well Auncient a Late Writers, Timothy Kendall includes ‘the best writers, as well antique as neoterique, of Epigrammes’, ‘neoteric’ evidently being straightforwardly a synonym of the titular ‘Late’.[3] It is even more commonly used in this way of scientific rather than literary writers, as suggested, for example, by its frequent usage in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and by its definition in A Physical Dictionary (1657): ‘Neotericks’ are ‘modern Writers either in Physick or any other Art so called in opposition to the Antients’.[4] Today, the term ‘neoteric’ has highly specific connotations for classical scholars, which I will discuss below. Was neotericity really as dispensable a notion in early modern England as Wilkins suggests, wholly replaceable by the idea of ‘relative newness’, or did it have a more distinctive valence like most of the other terms in Wilkins’s collection? Can ‘neoteric’ usefully be included in the family of terms that denoted an idea of the Renaissance to Renaissance writers and, if so, what kind of Renaissance did it denote?

Two instances of the term, one in English and one in Latin, prompted this inquiry. In Have With You to Saffron Walden (1596), Thomas Nashe’s final pamphlet attacking his literary antagonist Gabriel Harvey, Nashe taunts both Harvey and the pamphlet’s dedicatee Richard Lichfield, barber-surgeon of Trinity College, Cambridge and an ally of Harvey, for their neoteric proclivities:

To utter unto thee my fancie as touching those Neoterick tongues thou [Lichfield] professest, in whose pronunciation old Tooly and thou varie as much, as Stephen Gardineer and Sir Iohn Cheek about the pronunciation of the Greeke tongue: loe, for a testifying incouragement how much I wish thy increase in those languages, I haue here tooke the paines to nit and louze ouer the Doctours [Harvey’s] Booke, and though manie cholericke Cookes about London in a mad rage haue dismembred it, and thrust it piping hot into the ouen vnder the bottomes of dowsets, and impiously prickt the torne sheetes of it for basting paper, on the outsides of Geese and roasting Beefe, to keepe them from burning; yet haue I naturally cherisht it and hugd it in my bosome, euen as a Carrier of Bosomes Inne dooth a Cheese vnder his arme, and the purest Parmesan magget Phrases therein, culld and pickt out to present thee with.[5]

To understand the meaning of the word ‘neoteric’ in this instance, it is necessary to decipher some of Nashe’s obscure allusions. The OED quotes this passage as an example of its second definition of neoteric’that is, modern, recent, new, especially of beliefs and practices, frequently with disparaging connotations; objectionably novel, or ‘newfangled’.[6] This definition seems correct here, but it does not necessarily help us to identify what kind of neoteric tongues Lichfield professes and Harvey uses in the Booke to which Nashe is responding, Harvey’s Pierces Supererogation, or, A New Prayse of the Old Asse (1593), from which he selects magget Phrasesto encourage Lichfield’s further ‘increase.

One answer that presents itself is modern vernaculars. This is how Edward Kellett uses ‘neoteric’ when he asks what Adam would do ‘if he heard our mongrell Neoterick languages’, and Clement Barksdale when he writes that Dr Miles Smith was as ‘plentifully stored’ with the ‘antient Classical [] languages [] as with the Neoterick (just as Nashe contrasts the neoteric with the Greek).[7] As studies of Harvey’s books have demonstrated, he certainly ‘profess[ed]’ modern languages: he owned and annotated language manuals for French, Spanish and Italian and regarded Ariosto, Tasso and Du Bartas very highly.[8] Nashe’s reference to ‘old Tooly (presumably Harvey, with whom Lichfield disagrees over pronunciation) both bolsters and complicates this interpretation. In Harvey’s published letters to Edmund Spenser, rather than celebrating the neoteric, he complains of the adulation given to modern languages and newness at Cambridge University:

Tully, and Demosthenes nothing so much studyed, as they were wonte: [] much verball and sophisticall jangling: little subtile and effectuall disputing: noble and royall Eloquence, the best and persuasiblest Eloquence: no such Orators againe, as redheadded Angelles: An excéeding greate difference, betwéene the countenaunces, and portes of those, that are brave and gallaunt, and of those, that are basely, or meanly apparelled: betwene the learned, and unlearned, Tully, and Tom Tooly, in effect none at all.

Matchiavell a great man: Castilio of no small reputation: Petrach, and Boccace in euery mans mouth: Galateo and Guazzo never so happy: ouer many acquainted with Unico Aretino: The French and Italian when so highlye regarded of Scholiers? The Latine and Greeke, when so lightly? [] all inquisitive after Newes, newe Bookes, newe Fashions, newe Lawes, newe Officers, and some after newe Elementes, and some after newe Heavens, and Helles to. [9]

Harvey’s nicknames for ‘the learned and unlearned, Tully and Tom Tooly’, are derived from Cicero’s middle name, Tully signifying the classics and eloquent oratory, and Tom Tooly a vernacularisation signifying abrave and gallaunt’ but shallow Englishman with a sophistic interest inFrench and Italian and ‘Newes. Nashe’s ‘old Tooly’ who wrangles with Harvey over pronunciation surely cites Harvey’s Tom Tooly, suggesting that ‘those Neoterick tonguesare indeed modern vernaculars. By appropriating Harvey’s Tom Tooly, Nashe highlights Harvey’s hypocrisy in criticizing the elevation of modern languages and novelty while also professing them himself. There is in effect no [difference] at all’ between Harvey and the students he mocks, just as there is ‘none’ between Harvey and Lichfield, ‘Stephen Gardineer and Sir Iohn Cheek’.

However, Nashe’s ‘Neoterick’ surely bears some relation to another term that he uses of Lichfield’s ‘tongues’: macaronic. As Rebecca Hasler notes, Lichfield’s ‘tongue’ is one of the ‘key words or concepts upon which Nashe riffs relentlessly in Have With You (Lichfield himself parodies Nashe’s tongue-repetition in his responding 1597 pamphlet, The Trimming of Thomas Nashe).[10] Later in Have With You, Nashe’s persona Piers refers back to

one Dick Litchfield the Barber of Trinity Colledge, a rare ingenuous odde merry Greeke, who (as I haue heard) hath translated my Piers Pennilesse [1592] into the Macaronicall tongue, wherein I wish hee had been more tongue-tide, since in some mens incensed judgements it hath too much tongue alreadie; being above 2. yeres since maimedly translated into the French tongue, and in the English tongue so rascally printed and ill interpreted, as heart can thinke, or tongue can tell.[11]

Since the term ‘macaronic’ derives from the pasta shape, in Have With You Nashe concocts a macaroni cheese from Lichfield’s language, by sprinkling is characteristic ‘Macaronicall tongue with extra ‘Parmesan [] Phrases’ from Harvey’s writing. ‘Macaronic’ chiefly denotes the insertion of vernacular or ‘neoteric’ words into Latin, although it can refer to other kinds of linguistic mix (it is not clear what languages the alleged translation was based on); Nashe calls Lichfield a ‘merry Greeke here, a conventional phrase that nonetheless recalls Nashe’s mention of the pronunciation of theGreeke tongue’ in the earlier passage; he also compares a ‘maimed’ translation ‘into the French tongue’. This mishmash is consistent with three ‘inkhorn’ terms that Nashe ‘cull[s] and pick[s] out’ to riff on: aenigmaticall’, derived from Greek; probatorie’, from Latin, and connivence’, from French. The frame of reference of ‘neoteric’ then tips further away from ‘[t]he French and Italian’ towards ‘[t]he Latine and Greeke’, or at least Latinate coinages, when Nashe accuses Harvey (not Lichfield) in the next paragraph of ‘consulting a whole quarter of a yeare with Textors Epithites’,[12] a Latin collection although the neologisms that Harvey produces from this research may yet be Frenchified or Italianate, like ‘connivence (ultimately from the Latin conivere). The final kind of language that possibly lies behind Nashe’s gibe at (Lichfield’s and) Harvey’s professed ‘Neoterick tongues is quantitative verse in English, given the reference to the Spenser-Harvey correspondence, in which it was pioneered, and Lichfield and Harvey’s disagreement about pronunciation, as quantitative metre potentially distorts English pronunciation. It seems likely that Nashe playfully intends his use of the word ‘neoteric’ to be extendible to all these ‘new’ kinds of tongue, ranging from common vernaculars (which, as Edward Kellett noted above, are inherently ‘mongrel’) to more actively neologistic or macaronic language, from the modernising or vernacularising to the more revivalist or classicising, and to encompass both Lichfield’s and Harvey’s differing linguistic habits – which Nashe himself hypocritically shares.

The other instance of the word neoteric – or, more accurately, neotericus that prompted this enquiry occurs in the preface to Francis Kynaston’s Amores Troili et Cresseidae, a translation of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde into Latin published in 1635. This parallel-text translation was intended by Kynaston to make Chaucer’s obsolete language accessible to foreign readers and more intelligible to readers of English. In the preface, Kynaston explains his decision to invent a new Latin rhyme royal stanza approximating the Chaucerian one, instead of the more conventional classical elegiacs which would make the translation more Ovidian (in line with its title) the inverse of Harvey’s attempt to impose quantitative measure on English verse. Here is the first stanza of the translation, for example, alongside Chaucer’s lines (as printed in parallel):

Dolorem Troili duplicem narrare,

Qui Priami Regis Trojae fuit gnatus,

Ut primam illi contigit amare,

Ut miser, felix, et infortunatus

Erat, decessum ante sum conatus.

Tisiphone fer opem recensere

Hos versus, qui, dum scribe, visi flere.


The double sorrow of Troilus to tellen,

That was King Priamus Sonne of Troy,

In loving, how his Aventures fellen,

From Woe to Wele, and after out of Joy,

My purpose is, er that I part froy.

Thou Thesiphone, thou helpe me for tendite

Theis wofull Verses, that wepen as I write.[13]


Kynaston writes that it was his recollection of the examples of celeberrimi Torquati, Tassi, atque elegantissimi Ludovici Ariosti [the most distinguished Torquato Tasso and the most elegant Ludovico Ariosto] in particular, and other French, Spanish, Italian and English poets who use melodious, rhyming, seven-line stanzas, that prompted him to

Tentare mihi visum est, quid Lingua Latina posset, & experiri, num grata forent carmina Idiomate Romano pacta & concinnata, quae in linguis derivativis & modernis, tantam obtinuerunt per tot secula sequiora existimationem.

[to test what the Latin language could do, and to find out whether songs, which had enjoyed so much honour in derivative and modern languages during all following ages, would be pleasing if reproduced in the Roman language]

Kynaston’s use of the word neoteric occurs when he is refuting those who would see his rhyming Latin as medieval, replicating the ‘prerancidos et faecutinos imperitorum Monachorum rythmos [sour and tasteless rhythms of ancient monks], rather than modern, as he sees it, evoking the ‘divina Neotericorum poematum modulamina [divine melodies of our neoteric poems].[14] The implication is that these ‘neoteric poems’ are the early modern European examples that he has mentioned, especially those of Tasso and Ariosto (recalling Gabriel Harvey’s taste). Although ‘neoteric’ refers more clearly and straightforwardly to modern vernaculars here than in Nashe’s usage, it is connected with a kind of macaronism again: Kynaston’s characteristically Renaissance mixture of the classical with the modern and, whatever he says at this moment in the preface, the medieval.

Although there is some overlap, the different tonal connotations of ‘neoteric’ in these two examples invite a new question: does the idea of the ‘neoteric’ differ in English and Latin, perhaps being more neutral or positive in Latin? Following Kynaston, is there any such thing as a ‘neoteric neo-Latinity’ in the early modern period and, if so, what were its characteristics? Is there any connection to the modern critical use of the term ‘neoteric’ in classical studies to refer to a school of Roman poets of the first century BC, of whom the most prominent was Catullus?

The Latin word neotericus is post-classical, but it is not defined in any dictionary of Renaissance Latin that I have consulted, although its close relation, the noun neoterismus, is defined as ‘neologism’ in Brill’s Dictionary of Renaissance Latin from Prose Sources, with an example from Henri Estienne.[15] As in English, it is used very frequently as a relative term alongside veteris or priscus, meaning ancient’ or ‘antique’, in phrases like ‘cum veterum cum neotericorum’,[16] the equivalent of the English ‘as well antique as neoterique’. A subset of this category is its usage in titles of anthologies that include neo-Latin verse, such as William Dillingham’s unpublished collection Poemata Selecta ex Autoribus qua Veteribus, qua Neotericis amplius Quadraginta fere non tam in vulgus nota [Forty poems selected from authors both ancient and neoteric that are not very well-known]. The neoteric authors represented here include the Anglo-Latin poets William Barclay, Giles Fletcher, and Thomas Masters, and continental authors like Theodore Beza and Natale Conti.[17] Like ‘neoteric’, neotericus is used of science as well as literature, in a neutral or positive sense. In a 1693 lecture titled Nova Philosophia Veteri Praeferenda Est [The new philosophy is preferable to the old], for example, Joseph Addison praises modern science, epitomised by the microscope, for rendering our eyes more penetrating, saying, oculi acriores fiunt Neotericorum artibus [our eyes become more sharp through neoteric practices].[18]

It is actually an English usage that suggests that the label ‘neoteric’ could denote more specific literary characteristics in neo-Latin verse than just modernity. Francis Meres writes, in Palladis Tamia,

As these Neoterickes, Iouianus Pontanus, Politianus, Marullus Tarchaniota, the two Strozæ, the father and the son, Palingenius, Mantuanus, Philelphus, Quintianus Stoa, and Germanus Brixius have obtained renown and good place among the ancient Latine poets: so also these Englishmen, being Latine poets, Gualter Haddon, Nicholas Car, Gabriel Haruey, Christopher Ocland, Thomas Newton with his Leyland, Thomas Watson, Thomas Campion, Brunswerd, and Willey haue attained good report and honourable aduancement in the Latin empyre.[19]

Again, we find a combination of English and continental neo-Latin poets. Melissa Rack notes the preponderance of neo-Catullan poets here – that is, neo-Latin poets who imitated the Catullan metres, styles and tropes (particularly kisses and sparrows) that we now call ‘neoteric’, since R.O.A.M. Lyne coined the critical term in 1978.[20] Lyne was following Cicero, who describes a school of poets as neoteroi – using the Greek word, not Latin – and poetae novi, new poets. The generic markers of this school include self-reflexivity, innovation, a preoccupation with artifice and artificiality, things and thingliness, self-styling and the interplay of personae. Rack uses this quotation from Meres to argue that ‘neoteric is a term associated with a certain type of Catullan practice during the sixteenth century’, and therefore that it is not anachronistic to talk about Spenser’s use of a ‘neoteric poetics’ in poems like the Daphnaïda.[21] If this is true, we can even take Spenser’s self-identification as ‘the New Poete’ in The Shepheardes Calender as affiliating himself with this kind of neotericity.[22] I am not certain that Meres’ list is as neo-Catullan as Rack claims, but two figures in the list have some relation to examples of neotericity that I have mentioned above: Politianus, who was translated by Thomas Kendall in his Flowers of Epigrammes and, of course, Gabriel Harvey, whose neo-Latin verse, it seems, also identified him as a neoteric.

From this enquiry, it is clear that neoteric and neotericus are closely related to other terms for novelty that are used to characterise the Renaissance, but that they have their own distinct, albeit variable, connotations. Nashe’s example exemplifies the productive flexibility of the term which, in his case, makes it a multivalent attack. One of its connotations, I would suggest, is playfulness and a self-conscious mode of innovation, which is often but not always macaronic or metrical, especially in its English usages. This is probably linked to the visibility of the word as a borrowing in English. Neotericus is a borrowed word in Latin, too, but its meaning seems to be more neutral. There does seem to be a ‘neoteric neo-Latinity’ in the early modern period that is broadly neo-Catullan, but Francis Kynaston tries to invent a different kind of neoteric Latin that is derived from modern European epic examples. This exploration of the neoteric perhaps strengthens the case for using the term neo-Latin (which has been criticised)[23] for the Latin of the period, since it was frequently identified as neo-’ in early modernity.

  1. John Wilkins, An Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (London, 1668), p. 187. On Wilkins’ project, see Sidonie Clauss, ‘John Wilkins’s “Essay Toward a Real Character”: Its Place in the Seventeenth-Century Episteme’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 43.4 (1982), 531-553.

  2. OED Online, ‘neoteric, adj. and n.’, sense 1.

  3. Timothy Kendall, Flowers of Epigrammes (London, 1577), sig. A2v.

  4. A Physical Dictionary (London, 1657), sig. K2.

  5. Thomas Nashe, ‘Epistle Dedicatorie’ to Richard Lichfield, Have With You to Saffron Walden. Or, Gabriell Harveys Hunt is Up (London, 1596), sig. C.

  6. OED Online, ‘neoteric, adj. and n.’, sense 2.

  7. Edward Kellett, Miscellanies of Divinitie Divided into Three Books (London, 1635), p. 48; Clement Barksdale, Memorials of Worthy Persons the Third Decad, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1662), p. 98.

  8. See Caroline Brown Bourland, Gabriel Harvey and the Modern Languages’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 4.1 (1940), 85-106.

  9. Edmund Spenser, Three Proper, and Wittie, Familiar Letters: Lately Passed Betweene Two Universitie Men (London, 1580), pp. 27-28.

  10. Rebecca Hasler, ‘“Tossing and turning your booke upside downe: The Trimming of Thomas Nashe, Cambridge, and Scholarly Reading’, Renaissance Studies, 33.3 (2018), 375-96, p. 389.

  11. Nashe, Have With You to Saffron Walden, sigs. E4v-F.

  12. Ibid., sig. Cv.

  13. Francis Kynaston, trans. Amores Troili et Cresseidae (Oxford, 1635), pp. 1-2.

  14. Ibid., sigs. †v-2v.

  15. ‘Neoterismus’ in René Hoven, ed. Dictionary of Renaissance Latin from Prose Sources (Accessed 3 December 2021; first published online February 2016).

  16. For example, Robert Morison, Plantarum Historiæ Universalis Oxoniensis (Oxford, 1680), p. 57.

  17. See Estelle Haan, Sporting with the Classics: The Latin Poetry of William Dillingham’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 100.1 (2010), 1-123, p. 7.

  18. See Estelle Haan, Vergilius Redivivus: Studies in Joseph Addison’s Latin Poetry (Philadelphia, 2005), p. 33.

  19. Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia (London, 1598), pp. 279-80.

  20. Melissa J. Rack, ‘A Song of Silence: Plaintive Dissonance and Neoteric Method in Spenser’s Daphnaïda’, Studies in Philology, 116.4 (2019), 668-695; see R.O.A.M. Lyne, ‘The Neoteric Poets’, Classical Quarterly, 28.1 (1978), 167-187.

  21. Rack, ‘A Song of Silence’, p. 676.

  22. In ‘Pium Vestrum Catullum Britannum: The influence of Catullus’ Poetry on John Skelton’, Sociedad Española de Estudios Renacentistas Ingleses, 14 (2004), 3-16, Juan Manuel Castro Carracedo argues that, in The Garland of Laurel, John Skelton, with whom Spenser affiliates himself as a new poet, means to emphasize his own innovations, both formally and in the use of the vernacular, in line with Catullus’s well-known status as a ‘neoteric’. According to Carracedo, ‘Skelton feels that his work is different from everything written before, even different from his contemporaries. [] By calling himself the “British Catullus” he demands the label of New Poet, he wants to be, for the English letters, what Catullus meant in his time’ (pp. 13-14).

  23. D.K. Money, for example, writes in The English Horace: Anthony Alsop and the Tradition of British Latin Verse (Oxford, 1998) that ‘The term used to describe this vast amount of writing is “Neo-Latin” [] the term is not wholly satisfactory, in that it might suggest, to some people, something rather minor, derivative, ersatz, or second-rate. The “neo-” prefix invites comparison with “neo-classical”, not always a term of praise: its regular use in architecture and other fields (including even economics) tends also to reduce its helpfulness as a literary term. Neo-Latin is not an inferior language to ancient Latin. It is, in effect, the same language, with minor variations (much less intrusive than the medieval version) and an enlarged vocabulary[]’ (p. 7).

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