Readers of this blog will know that I am an assiduous reader of death notices. I must be getting older because I used to read the birth notices too but I rarely do now. I guess that I’m looking for people that I know (knew). However, it’s not necessary that I’ve ever met them: I’ve often found myself in tears reading tributes to people who are complete strangers to me. I used to reassure myself that only old people die because the majority of death notices in The Age (my paper of choice) are for elderly people, although I must admit that I am disconcerted by the number of deaths occurring among people born around 1945- that’s getting a little too close for comfort. My gut-feeling is that there is a spike around sixty-five year olds then another one around eighty year olds, but I have no evidence for this and can’t be bothered monitoring it enough to prove it.
Anyhoo, there was a death notice in today’s Age (21 April) written entirely in Latin. I sat looking at it for some time. I don’t read Latin but I suppose that a certain generation (probably those born around 1945 or earlier), a certain educational class (i.e. privately-school educated) and certain professions (especially the law) still do. Generation after generation of Catholic congregations heard, and continue to hear, the Mass in Latin. Nonetheless, it still seems an odd thing to do: to pay to place a public notice that only selected people could read. Perhaps the quotation had a particular resonance in their relationship? Perhaps it was a form of in-knowledge amongst a group of peers who share a cultural, religious or professional heritage that includes Latin?
I can only wonder how the poor call-centre operator on the end of the phone coped with it. I’ve been exposed to more Latin than I’d like over the last few years because Judge Willis was particularly fond of breaking into Latin in his court-room, and so I have had to resort to good old Google to work out what he was quoting. Don’t you wonder now how we ever got on without the internet? Sometimes as I’m typing something into Google I wonder where I would have tried to find this information in a pre-Google world. But I must say that even Google fails me in translating this death notice. Perhaps it’s not a quote: it might be original.
As I say, Judge Willis was fond of Latin. His flights of Latin fancy occurred usually in an address to the jury, or in a speech that he knew would be reported in the newspapers- in fact, he used to pass on his addresses to the newspapers directly so that they would be quoted correctly, including, I assume the Latin. His lengthy letters to politicians often included a hefty dose as well. As Garryowen (Edmund Finn) tells us in his Chronicles of Early Melbourne:
It was Willis’s custom to open each monthly Criminal Session of the Supreme Court with an address or charge to the jury panel; but, in reality, more of an ultra-official oration to the general public. These fulminations had, however, the merit of careful preparation, and though more abusive than pungent, were on the whole clever specimens of tolerably readable, though overdone phraseology, highly spiced with well-fitting pedantry. They were crammed with quotations, ancient and modern, from languages living and dead. Never did one of them appear without Latin excerpta. (p. 943)
An article by David Lemmings called ‘Blackstone and Law Reform by Education: Preparation for the Bar and Lawyerly Culture in Eighteenth-Century England’ discusses the use of Latin in the courts. During the English Civil War the use of Latin was proscribed, but it was reinstated in the Restoration. Public resentment at the mystification of the law through use of Latin re-emerged, and in 1731 an Act was passed that, from 25 March 1733, all proceedings in English law courts (excluding the Admiralty Court) and in Scottish Exchequer courts would be in English. A number of clarifying acts permitted the continuation of Latin in the Exchequer and the retention of technical terms in Latin. As Lemmings writes:
Although the language of law had been ‘Englished’, it retained its own esoteric style and often archaic vocabulary that continued to bond lawyers together, while bemusing the public. (p. 74)
Nonetheless, Judge Willis was certainly fond of quoting lengthy slabs, generally for rhetorical effect. He seems to have done so far more than his brother judges in Sydney did. Latin was an essential part of a boy’s education, and even in Port Phillip he could be assured that fellow gentlemen, or even aspiring gentlemen, who had been exposed to formal schooling would understand him. As a shared marker of education and formality, Latin would have been much more common than it is today. Michael Cannon, for example, notes that after the Separation of what was to become Victoria from New South Wales was announced, an Elizabeth Street wheelwright constructed several “variegated inflatable balloons”, 10 ft in diameter, decorated with the word “Separation” carrying circulars printed in English and Latin to carry the news into the bush (Cannon p. 461.)
But perhaps Willis’ Latin was not all that I suppose it to be. Garryowen goes on to tell of Daniel O’Donovan, a young Irishman employed by Judge Willis as a horse-groom who was, perhaps, the best Latin and Greek scholar in the province. In the absence of Willis’ Tipstaff in court on one occasion, O’Donovan was engaged in a casual capacity and rigged up in a “cast-off white choker and swallow-tail” to act as Crier.
…after the disposal of one or two formalities, the Judge began his address. A quotation cropped up, but of this the Judge did not care, for, as hitherto, he would take it as a hunter does an ordinary jump, in tip-top style. It was a hackneyed passage from one of the Satires of Horace, and the orator stepped in amongst the hexameters with a graceful lisp, as if assured that what he was saying would be duly appreciated. In this manner he travelled safely over the fourth line, but in the fifth uttered a slight misquotation, when the new Crier was down upon his great superior, and figuratively shook him as a terrier would a rat. “I beg your Honor’s pardon” said the irate O’Donovan, “you are murdering my most favourite author, and this I cannot permit to be done by either Judge or Jury. If your Honor will kindly allow me I shall set you right; if fact, permit it or not I’ll do it. So now your Honor and gentleman of the Jury, listen to the only true and correct version”. Here followed some dozen lines of Horace, including the corrected reading of where the Judge had floundered. It is no exaggeration to say that all in Court except the Judge and his “Tip” were convulsed with laughter. As for Willis, he was flabbergasted at O’Donovan’s gross but unconscious contempt of Court, and at length screamed to the Sheriff to place the transgressing scoundrel under lock and key until he could command time and patience to consider how to best summarily deal with him…Mr Raymond, the Deputy-Sheriff, kept him under durance until the time for adjournment. He was then told to call next day for the wages due to him…” (p. 944).
I suppose that, as long as you can pronounce it correctly, a sprinkling of Latin confers a solemnity and authority onto one’s pronouncements. I’d do it myself, if I could. But I’m afraid that, with my 1960-70s Australian state-school education, all this Latin is Greek to me.
Michael Cannon Old Melbourne Town: Before the Gold Rush, Loch Haven, Main Ridge, 1991.
David Lemmings ‘Blackstone and Law Reform by Education: Preparation for the Bar and Lawyerly Culture in Eighteenth-Century England. Law and History Review, Vol 16, No 2 (Summer 1998) pp. 211-255
Garryowen (Edmund Finn) The Chronicles of Early Melbourne 1835-1851 Melbourne, Fergusson and Mitchell, 1888.