The passing of time and all of its crimes: English translations of Romance words derived from Latin saeculum

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The passing of time and all of its crimes: English translations of Romance words derived from Latin saeculum

Romance languages (French, Italian, and Spanish, among others) derive their words to measure time from Latin saeculum, a word that had taken on a religious meaning with the Vulgate translation of the New Testament (in saecula saeculorum) but that was gradually… secularised until the meaning of “a period of one hundred years” became the most frequent one in current usage (hence the distinction between séculier and culaire in French, the first adjective deriving from the religious strand of meaning, the second from the lay sense of siècle). While English did borrow and adapt the adjective “secular” from the French séculier (Old French seculer) as early as the thirteenth century in its religious meaning (human affairs as opposed to the world of God), it turned to the Latin adjective saecularis in the late sixteenth century to inflect the meaning of “secular” to refer to periods of time, whether a generation or one hundred years, which were the original meanings of saeculum, and only to talk about cultural specificities in the Roman world (ludi saeculares, the “secular games” which were held once in a period of 120 years). In the sense of “long-lasting”, the use of “secular” is first attested in the early seventeenth century, in John Donne’s sermons, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (s.v. “secular”).

As for the term currently used in the sense of “a hundred years” and more precisely each unit of one hundred years counting from the date established for the birth of Christ in Christianity, namely “century”, it predominantly had its original Roman meaning: a collection of one hundred items (a meaning now only resonant for sports fans). Collections of poems were “centuries” (see for instance Thomas Watson’s Hekatompathia or Passionate Centurie of Love, published in 1582). Yet the temporal meaning was developing at the same time: the earliest examples listed in the Oxford English Dictionary with the meaning “a period of 100 years” date from the 1580s and 1590s (s.v. “century” II and III).[1] My working hypothesis here will be that its lack of religious undertones and its origin in the precise measurement of quantity made “century” an unlikely candidate to translate French siècle, Italian secolo, or Spanish siglo, as they were used in texts whose authors reflected on the passing of time from a moral perspective, commenting on the present by comparing it to the past and the future, colouring the two temporal meanings – a generation / a long period of time – with religious symbolism.

My examples will be drawn from French and Spanish (hopefully a third example from Italian will be added soon). Taking my cue from work done by Mathieu de La Gorce on Henri Estienne’s Apologie pour Hérodote (first published in 1566) and Philippe Rabaté on Bartolomé de las Casas’ Brevísima relación de la destruición de las Indias (first published in 1552) (see the relevant posts here and here), I shall look at the translations of siècle and siglo respectively in the following texts to document how the English language dealt with the layers of meaning of Romance words derived from saeculum:

 Henri Estienne, A world of vvonders: or An introduction to a treatise touching the conformitie of ancient and moderne wonders or a preparatiue treatise to the Apologie for Herodotus, trans. by Richard Carew (attrib.), London, [Richard Field] for John Norton, 1607  
 Bartolomé de las Casas, The Spanish colonie, or Briefe chronicle of the acts and gestes of the Spaniardes in the West Indies, called the newe world, for the space of xl. yeeres: written in the Castilian tongue by the reuerend Bishop Bartholomew de las Cases or Casaus, a friar of the order of S. Dominicke. And nowe first translated into english, by M.M.S., [anonymous translation of Jacques de Miggrode’s 1579 French translation], London, William Brome, 1583

Access to searchable versions of both texts has been possible via EEBO-TCP, an open-access database (

As these two translations were produced about 25 years apart, it will be interesting to trace potential evolutions in uses and meanings.[2] Both original authors are harshly critical of behaviours associated with Catholicism – and of acts perpetrated in the name of religion, which they had witnessed at first hand: Estienne, a Protestant printer and humanist, was never really safe in Paris; Casas, a Dominican friar, became the first bishop of Chiapas. With the rising tension between England and Spain in the 1580s (which culminated in the launch of a Spanish “Armada” to attack England in 1588) and with the anti-Catholic measures taken in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot (1605), timing was excellent each time for the two translations to be published.

My first point is about a glaring absence: “century” is not used in its temporal meaning in either translation. While it does not feature at all in Casas (which is not surprising considering the date compared with the first attested occurrences of the term),[3] the word is used by the English translator of the Apologie in his epistle dedicatory to praise the “festivity, variety, brevity and perspicuity” of Estienne’s French: “he hath so artificially couched divers Centuries of our strangest modern histories (as an abridgment of the wonders of former Ages)” (¶4) – meaning that Estienne has collected hundreds of anecdotes. This passage from the paratext does contain a word that has the same meaning as the French siècle: not “century” then, but “age”, here with a capital initial.[4]

The word “age” was derived from Latin via French (more precisely Anglo-Norman). And it was used in the late sixteenth century as the equivalent of Latin saeculum in its temporal meaning, as appears from explanations provided by John Bridges (Seculum an age, is commonly understood for an hundred years”[5]) and Thomas Blundeville (“The space of an hundred years, called in Latin seculum, and in English an age”[6]), for instance (see Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “age”). Of course earlier sixteenth-century English people knew that saeculum meant one hundred years, but they seem to have had no specific word for “the space of an hundred years”. In the greatest Latin-English dictionary of the first half of the century, Thomas Elyot’s Bibliotheca, saeculum is explained thus: “Saeculum, is properly the space of a hundred years: it is commonly taken for a space of time, wherein one fashion of the world hath continued.[7] If “age” could serve as an apt equivalent of saeculum in its “numerical” meaning, it had also been used as a synonym for “generation” since at least the fourteenth century (the second meaning in Elyot’s definition). “Properly”, saeculum is 100 years, but “commonly” it is a generation; this common sense, which it shares with its Romance cognates, French âge / Spanish edad, and with and French siècle / Spanish siglo, made it an apt choice to translate siècle and siglo.[8] In Thomas Cooper’s expanded version of Elyot’s Bibliotheca, “time” is added as a synonym for “age” to translate saeculum: Secula circūflexa. Clau. Ages or time passed in compasse.[9] Considering the great number of occurrences of siècle, but also of temps and âge in Estienne’s Apologie, which were translated as “time” and “age” too, I shall focus on a few significant examples.

Chapters I and II of the Apologie describe the Golden Age, which they call “premier siècle, nommé siècle de Saturne, & siècle d’or par les poëtes”, and Chapter II offers an explicit comparison between that “premier siècle” and Estienne’s own: “en quel sens notre siècle peut avoir ces deux titres du premier siècle.”[10] In the English translation, Chapter I is entitled “A description of the first Age of the world, called by Poets Saturnes, and the golden Age” and Chapter II discusses in what sence those two Epithets may be giuen to the Age wherein we liue”. In English as in French, the present is referred to as a collective experience involving the author and his readers with the use of the first person plural: “notre siècle” and “the Age wherein we live”. Periods in the past are “former times”, which are opposed to “our own” (Chap. X, p. 53), or “the Age last past”, “the former Age” (Chap. XI, title and first line, p. 57), translating “siècles précédents” (p. 68), “siècle prochain” and “siècle dernier et prochain voisin du nôtre” (p. 77). The spatial metaphor that serves to insist on the immediate proximity between the two periods Estienne is comparing (“prochain”) is not as strong in English.

English resorts to its own spatial metaphor to oppose past and present by playing on the this/that opposition: the past is “those times” and the present “these times”: “those times … these ages” (p. 53), “these times … those times … these times” (p. 57). The exact word used to translate siècle – or temps, or âge, for that matter – seems to be less important than the feeling of belonging, whether it is expressed as in French with the first person plural or with the opposition between near and far, here and there, now and then, us and them, contained in the this/that binary, or indeed with both: “these wherein we live” (p. 57), translating “[le] présent” (p. 77), and “Of this our age” (Chap. XL, p. 357), translating “du siècle nous sommes(p. 592).

The meaning of “age” as the span of a lifetime, reflecting a conception of time as a phenomenon incarnated in human existence, becomes apparent in the translation of a passage from Estienne’s epistle to the reader (emphasis mine in the two following quotations):

Men at this day live not ordinarily above 80. or 90. years: and yet we dare not deny but that some (not to speak of Methuselah) have lived six or seven ages longer. And besides those mentioned in the holy writ, we find that many (long since their time) have lived so exceeding long (though not so long as those mentioned in Scripture) that there is no comparison between their years and ours. (“to the Reader”, p. 6)

That “age” here means “lifetime” is clear from the French original, whose phrasing is slightly different:

Nature n’entretient point aujourd’hui les hommes, en vie plus de quatre-vingts (quant à l’ordinaire) ou quatre-vingts & dix ans: & toutefois nous n’oserions nier que la vie de quelques anciens (sans compter Mathusalé) n’ait été six voire sept fois plus longue. Et outre ceux dont la Bible fait mention, … il n’y a aucune comparaison entre leur âge & l’âge des hommes de notre siècle. (“Au Lecteur”, [*7r-v])

To avoid confusion, French âge meaning number of years could not be translated by “age”; as a result, siècle is not translated and only the plural possessive serves to refer to present times.

The few examples studied above help understand what siècle may have meant in the sixteenth century and how its meanings were transposed for early seventeenth-century English readers, in a language which had not derived a noun from Latin saeculum. What emerges in the original as in the translation is a feeling of contemporaneity, the collective experience of being part of a generation. The use of the deictic binary this/that to express this feeling in plural phrases is particularly suited to translate Estienne’s irony aimed at his contemporaries who thought their times were more advanced than “the former Age”, for the paronomasia induced by the alternation of “these times” and “those times” sometimes ends up in a dizzying endless swing of the moral pendulum.

There are very few occurrences of the term siglo in Bartolomé de las Casas’ Brevísima relación but they are no less significant. Siglo is used three times to insist on the horrendous singularity of current times, and in particular the acts perpetrated by the Spaniards in America. As the English translator worked from a French intermediary translation, I shall indicate in note the corresponding passages in the French edition.[11] The first mention occurs as early as the first sentence of the “Argumento” at the onset of the narrative (emphasis mine in the two following quotations):

Todas las cosas que han acaecido en las Indias, han sido tan admirables y tan no creíbles que parecen haber añublado y puesto silencio, y bastantes a poner olvido, a todas cuantas, por hazañosas que fuesen, en los siglos pasados se vieron y oyeron en el mundo.[12]

The 1583 English translation – which the anonymous translators dedicates to the Low Countries to highlight the immediate topicality of Casas’ denunciation of Spanish cruelty – resorts to “age”, a standard equivalent for Romance words derived from saeculum as we have seen:

THe state of things happened in the Indies, … have in all degrees been so marvellous & incredible … that they may seem sufficient to darken and bury in oblivion and silence whatsoever else have passed in all former ages throughout the world, how great so ever is hath been. (“Argument”, ¶¶v)

There is a slight exaggeration of meaning with the addition of “all” – but this is in keeping with Casas’ hyperbolical rhetoric.[13]

Not only do these horrors pass former atrocities, they will frighten present and future times, as is said about Pedro de Alvarado’s exactions in Nueva España (emphasis mine):

podría expresar y colegir tantas maldades, tantos estragos, tantas muertes, tantas despoblaciones, tantas y tan fieras injusticias que espantasen los siglos presentes y venideros e hinchese dellas un gran libro, porque éste excedió a todos los pasados y presentes (ciiijv)

there might be made a great booke, of so many villanies, of so manie slaughters, so many desolations, and of so many outrages and brutishe vniustices, as were able to affright the age present and to come. (Cv)[14]

This time in the singular, “age” is used to translate siglo in its meaning referring to a generation. The 1699 translation of Casas’ collected works including the Relación and other pamphlets uses precisely this word, “generation”, to translate “siglos” in this passage: “to render the Spaniards formidable even to future Generations”.[15] In the sixteenth and earlier seventeenth century, “generation”, in Spanish or in English, had to do with life, and it meant “progeny” or “fecundity” (what is generated or what has generative properties), but towards the end of the century the English meaning seems to have evolved, making “generation” an apt word to translate siglo in its meaning of “a space of time, wherein one fashion of the world hath continued (Elyot’s definition of saeculum quoted above). It is to be noticed that in the same translation, the translator refers to “the bloody Croisades in the 12th and 13th Centuries” as a relevant analogue for the atrocities perpetrated by the Spaniards in America (An Account of the first voyages, 1699, A3v), thus confirming that broad terms such as “age” or “time” could be replaced with more precise words to measure time, just as the adjective “future” was now felt to be preferable to the periphrasis “to come”.

The last occurrence of siglo contrasts with the other two in that the religious meaning is prominent. When discussing the toils of pearl-fishing in Trinidad (la Isla de la Trinidad / the Isle of the Trinity), Casas exclaims (emphasis mine in both quotations):

La tiranía que los españoles ejercitan contra los indios en el sacar o pescar de las perlas es una de las crueles y condenadas cosas que pueden ser en el mundo. No hay vida infernal y desesperada en este siglo que se le pueda comparar (eiiv)

Which is translated into English thus (Spanish colonie, 1583):

The tyranny which the Spanish exercise over the Indians, to fish for Pearls, is one of the cruellest and cursedest things that is in the world. There is no hell in this life, nor other desperate state in this world, that may be compared unto it … (H4v)[16]

While Spanish can make a distinction between mundo and siglo, between the place human beings inhabit and the temporal/temporary abode of Christians before the next life, English only has “world” in both cases, like the French intermediary translation.[17] The meaning is made clearer by adding the demonstrative “this” in translating “no hay vida infernal”: “there is no hell in this life”; together, “hell”, “this life” and “this world” point to the eschatological dimension of the passage. Later translations do not emphasise this dimension, treating “en este siglo” as if it were a disposable part of the rhetorical strategy: “The detestable Cruelty and Tyranny of the Spaniards in ensnaring and seizing these poor Indians, when they go in quest of ’em to enslave ’em, and employ ’em in fishing for Pearls, is scarce to be imagin’d” (An Account of the first voyages, 1699, F4). Although the context is still religious in 1699 England (as reflected in the preface quoted above), the translation of this passage has erased the specifically religious vocabulary.[18] As opposed to other meanings of the term, the English language does not seem to have developed a specific word for this sense of saeculum.

Translation, especially when viewed diachronically as is possible with the four English versions of Casas’ Relación, can help understand the meanings of the original terms as they were perceived by the translators into other languages. It can also help trace lexical evolution in the target language, here English, which develops a precise vocabulary to measure time over the early modern period.

As for Romance words derived from saeculum, French siècle and Spanish siglo, their translations into English, a language which lacks an exact equivalent, shed light on a key aspect of the Renaissance, its perception of time, with the relationship between time measured and time felt, communal time and historical time, religious time and lay time. The nature of time as a continuum with moments of rupture is crucial in the ways both texts locate the present with regards to the past, but also, in Casas’ case, with regards to the future from a double perspective, secular and eschatological.

  1. The very first occurrences (from the 1560s), in the plural, refer more specifically to the “Centuries of Magdeburg” or “Magdeburg Centuries”, that is the Historia Ecclesiae Christi, “a thirteen-volume Protestant history of the Church from its beginnings to 1300, compiled at Magdeburg in the 16th century, each volume of which deals with a period of one hundred years” (see Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “century” II.4). The French term is “Centuries de Magdebourg”.

  2. Further translations of Casas’ text were published down the seventeenth century – which make no mention of the 1583 one – but there are few significant changes as far as siglo is concerned: The Tears of the Indians: Being An Historical and true Account Of the Cruel Massacres and Slaughters of above Twenty Millions of innocent People; Committed by the Spaniards In the Islands of Hispaniola, Cuba, Iamaica, &c. As also, in the Continent of Mexico, Peru, & other Places of the West-Indies, To the total destruction of those Countries. Written in Spanish by Casaus, an Eye-witness of those things; And made English by I. P., trans. by J. Phillips, London, Nath. Brook, 1656; Popery Truly Display’d in its Bloody Colours: Or, a Faithful Narrative of the Horrid and Unexampled Massacres, Butcheries, and all manner of Cruelties, that Hell and Malice could invent, committed by the Popish Spanish Party on the Inhabitants of West-India: Together With the Devastations of several Kingdoms in America by Fire and Sword, for the space of Forty and Two Years, from the time of its first Discovery by them. Composed first in Spanish by Bartholomew de las Casas, a Bishop there, and an Eye-Witness of most of these Barbarous Cruelties; afterward Translated by him into Latin, then by other hands, into High-Dutch, Low-Dutch, French, and now Taught to speak Modern English, [anonymous translator], London, R. Hewson, 1689. The dates are of course extremely meaningful: J. Phillips, the 1656 translator, compares the Spanish colonisation of South America with Spain’s intervention in Ireland and praises the behaviour of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector; and the late 1680s witnessed another rebellion against Stuart rule, the Glorious Revolution. I shall discuss a little more at length the collection of texts that was published in 1699 under the title: An account of the first voyages and discoveries made by the Spaniards in America containing the most exact relation hitherto publish’d, of their unparallel’d cruelties on the Indians, in the destruction of above forty millions of people: with the propositions offer’d to the King of Spain to prevent the further ruin of the West-Indies / by Don Bartholomew de las Casas, Bishop of Chiapa, who was an eye-witness of their cruelties; illustrated with cuts; to which is added, The art of travelling, shewing how a man may dispose his travels to the best advantage, [anonymous translator], London, D. Brown [and 2 others], 1699. Cf. Relation des voyages et des découvertes que les Espagnols ont fait dans les Indes occidentales; L’art de voyager utilement: Suivant la copie de Paris, trans. by J. B. Morvan de Bellegarde (Amsterdam, Chez Jean Louis de Lorme de l’imprimerie de Daniel Boulesteye de la Contie, 1698). On the European history of this work’s early modern translations, see Pierre Ragon, “La Très brève relation de la destruction des Indes et ses lecteurs européens (1578-1701)”, in Penser l’Amérique au temps de la domination espagnole. Espace, temps et société (XVIe-XVIIIe siècle), ed. by Jean-Pierre Berthe and Pierre Ragon, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2011; Luna Nájera and Niels Faber, “Early Modern Expressions of Nationhood in French and Dutch. Translations of Bartolomé de Las Casas’ Brevísima relación”, Traversea 4 (2014), 34-41.

  3. It does in the 1689 translation, where it is glossed in the text itself as a “Party of One Hundred Spaniards”.

  4. Spelling has been modernised in the quotations in the main body but not in the notes.

  5. John Bridges, A defence of the gouernment established in the Church of Englande for ecclesiasticall matters, London, Thomas Chard, 1587, X.935. Bridges was Bishop of Oxford, so the meaning may be temporal, but the context is definitely a religious one, especially as Bridges is glossing Calvin’s Latin in this passage: “But Caluine proceeding on this conclusion, saith: that nowe it was not an order of one age, meaning it was of more then one. And Seculum an age, is commonly vnderstoode for an hundreth yeares. As though it left not of in so short a space, and hereupon he puts him-selfe for proofe, to the declaration of the experience. But what time, or whether any mofull ages, or howe many: he him-selfe declareth not, but leaneth vs to search.”

  6. Thomas Blundeville, M. Blundevile his exercises containing sixe treatises, the titles wherof are set down in the next printed page: which treatises are verie necessarie to be read and learned of all yoong gentlemen that haue not bene exercised in such disciplines, and yet are desirous to haue knowledge as well in cosmographie, astronomie, and geographie, as also in the arte of navigation, London, John Windet, 1594, Treatise 3, Book 1, Chapter 36, p.167v-168: “Item the space of an hundred yeares, called in Latine seculum, and in English an age, wherof the playes that were celebrated in Rome euery hundred yeare, were called Ludi seculares, and last of all the space of a thousand yeares, called aeuum, contayning tenne ages”

  7. Thomas Elyot, Bibliotheca Eliotæ Eliotis librarie, London, Thomas Berthelet, 1542, s.v. “seculum”.

  8. See Claudius Hollyband, A Dictionarie French and English: Published for the benefite of the studious in that language, London, Thomas Woodcock, 1593, s.v. “siècle”: “Siécle, age, & en ce nostre siecle, in this our age. // Aux siécles à venir, m: in the time to come”; John Minsheu, A Dictionarie in Spanish and English, first published into the English tongue by Ric. Perciuale Gent., London, Edm. Bollifant, 1599, s.v. “siglo”: “an age”. Cf. John Florio, A Worlde of Wordes, Or Most copious, and exact Dictionarie in Italian and English, London, Edw. Blount, 1598: “Secolare, to perpetuate, to eternize, to make eternall. Also a temporall or secular man, a laie man. Also of or belonging to the space of an hundredth yeeres. // Secolaresco, worldly, following the vulgare, or temporall or secular. // Sécolo, an age, or space of time, conteining a hundreth yeeres. Some take it for a thousand, and some for thirtie.”

  9. Thomas Cooper, Thesaurus linguæ Romanæ & Britannicæ tam accurate congestus, vt nihil penè in eo desyderari possit, quod vel Latinè complectatur amplissimus Stephani Thesaurus, vel Anglicè, toties aucta Eliotæ Bibliotheca: opera & industria Thomæ Cooperi Magdalenensis, London, Henry Denham, 1578, s.v. “circunflexus”. The quotation is taken from Claudian’s Panegyricus de Sexto Consulatu Honorii Augusti where it refers to Roman ludi saeculares. Also see the quotation given in the entry on “ab”: “Ab seculo ad seculum viuunt. Plaut. From age to age.” This quotation from Miles Gloriosus is to be found in Robert Estienne’s own Thesaurus, which Cooper acknowledges in his title (“Stephani Thesaurus”). Estienne lists all possible durations for saeculum in Latin literature: according to some, he says, it is one hundred years, according to others one thousand (Robert Estienne, Dictionarium, seu Latinae linguae thesaurus, volume 2, Paris, Robert Estienne, 1531, s.v. “seculum”).

  10. The English translator refers to the following French edition, which is available on the website of the Geneva Library ( Henri Estienne, L’introduction au traitté de la conformité des merveilles anciennes avec les modernes : ou, traitté preparatif à l’Apologie pour Herodote, Lyons [Geneva], [Antoine Blanc pour François Le Preux] Benoît Rigaud, 1592.

  11. Bartolomé de las Casas, Tyrannies et cruautez des Espagnols perpétrées ès Indes occidentales, qu’on dit le Nouveau Monde, brièvement descrites en langue castillane par l’évesque Dom Frère Barthélemy de Las Casas ou Casaus, trans. by Jacques de Miggrode, Antwerp, François de Ravelenghien, 1579.

  12. Bartolomé de las Casas, Brevíssima relación de la destruyción de las Indias: colegida por el Obispo don fray Bartolomé de las Casas o Casaus, de la orden de Sancto Domingo. Año 1552, Seville, 1552, aiv; cf. Tyrannies et cruautez des Espagnols, p. 1: “aux siècles passés”.

  13. The rhetoric of mirabilia is common to Casas and Estienne: the full title of the Apologie contains the word merveilles (in English, “wonders”).

  14. Cf. Tyrannies et cruautez des Espagnols, p. 52: “épouvanter le siècle présent & à venir”.

  15. An Account of the first voyages, 1699, D4v.

  16. Tyrannies et cruautez des Espagnols, p. 89: “Il n’y a d’enfer ni autre vie en ce monde désespérée, qui y soit à comparer”.

  17. So does the Dutch translation from 1578, which has werelt both for mundo and siglo (Seer cort verhael vande destructie van d’Indien, n.p., 1578, Liij). It is therefore tempting to imagine that the translation of siglo in Dutch (a language which lacks a word derived from saeculum) influenced the French translation (for which siècle would have been available as an apt equivalent of siglo), which in turn was translated into English.

  18. Cf. the 1656 translation: “There is nothing more detestable or more cruel, then the tyranny which the Spaniards use toward the Indians for the getting of pearl. Surely the infernall torments cannot much exceed the anguish that they indure, by reason of that way of cruelty” (The Tears of the Indians, p. 86); and the 1689 version, with its own hyperbolic rhetoric: “There can be nothing more cruel and detestable then the Tyrannical usage of the Spaniards towards Indians in their Pearl-Fishing; for the Torments undergone in the unnatural Exenteration and tearing out with Paracidal hands the richer bowels of our common Mother, or the inward cruciating racks of the most profligate, Heaven daring Desperado can admit of no comparison with these” (Popery truly display’d, p. 54). The evolution is clear, not only in terms of translation strategies, but also of vocabulary choices, towards a minimising of the religious meaning of siglo, which is no longer felt to be a crucial concept, despite the strong religious/political outlook of the several seventeenth-century translators (emphasis mine – bold type – in both quotations).

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