Latin or English terms?

Posted: Feb. 24, 2015, 11:27 a.m. by Edward Roberts

The Charlemagne's Europe database browsing filters (facets) mostly contain English terms, but some of these lists have been left in Latin, while others contain a mixture of English and Latin terminology. The lack of consistency here is generally due to the fact that Latin translation can often be a hazardous affair. Debates rage among medieval historians about the meanings of different words. Language is not static, and meaning changes over time and space. A classic example is the word servus, which in the Roman world meant 'slave', but by the later Middle Ages referred to a 'serf'. Historians thus argue about when (and/or where) 'slavery' ends and 'serfdom' begins.

Place descriptors - words used to describe estates, localities, boundary demarcations, etc. - are notoriously tricky to translate accurately, with meaning varying significantly across the different regions of Charlemagne's empire. We therefore elected to leave these in Latin and to offer some basic definitions of the most common terms in a glossary. For fairly obvious reasons, the 'Latin term' facet contains only Latin words.

On the other hand, some authority lists were rendered entirely in English. In order to make clear the roles of individuals involved in the different flows of possessions recorded in our charters (that is, the activities which underpin the transaction/event, or 'factoid', model which is at the core of our database), we used only English terms in the 'agent role' facet. Agent roles are not translations from charters (e.g. an agent with role 'buyer' is probably not described in a charter in Latin as 'I, so-and-so, the buyer, pay so-and-so the sum of...'), but rather editorial decisions taken by the team based on what any given agent is actually doing in a transaction or charter. The 'transaction/event type' authority list is similar: these are all given in English because, although a charter may sometimes say it is, e.g., a 'notice of a sale', more often than not it doesn't; these are categories determined by us. In the user guide section, we have included a list of definitions for most agent roles and their associated transaction types.

A number of facets contain both English and Latin terms. We strove to avoid having bilingual authority lists, but when it came to lists such as 'object type' and 'attribute/relationship type', it proved impractical. Once again, we encountered big problems consistently translating Latin terms used in different ways to describe places, such as curtis and marca. But at the same time, it seemed unnecessary to leave easily translatable entities such as 'pig', 'grain' and 'wool' in their original Latin. Likewise, when it came to attributes and relationships, many ranks, titles, relationships and occupations have obvious English translations, e.g. 'bishop', 'abbot', 'duke', 'mother', 'blacksmith'. Others were very difficult to translate or had such varied meanings that no single translation would suffice. A vicarius, for instance, refers to a representative of some sort, but that could be either a secular office ('royal officer', 'manorial agent') or an ecclesiastical rank (i.e. a representative of God, used to denote a 'pope', 'bishop', 'abbot', or 'priest'). A primicerius could be a dignitary or chief notary of an imperial or royal court, or perhaps a dignitary of a monastery, episcopal church or papal court. Dependants were often left in their original Latin on account of variation in the different states of dependency that existed in this period (but many, most notably those described as mancipia, have been input under the wide-ranging attribute 'unfree'). Once again, the most common Latin attributes and relationships have been defined in the glossary.

Depending on what you're looking for, it's often worth checking under 'Latin terms' as well as the 'attribute/relationship type' facet. For instance, in the agent browse option, the database currently has 9 agents with the attribute 'judge'. However, the database contains 17 agents whose names are given with the term iudex, the classical Latin word for 'judge'. This discrepancy arises because, upon closer inspection, 8 of these iudices have in fact been entered as terms for the attribute 'administrator'. Indeed, in the early Middle Ages, iudex does commonly refer to someone exercising administrative functions. But if we remove the Latin term facet and look only for individuals with the attribute 'administrator', we find 20 individuals, because other terms such as actor, agens and maior have also been input to describe someone acting in an 'administrative' capacity. All this is to say that translating between Latin and English is an imperfect business. The ways Carolingian charters describe individuals and places often don't easily conform to the ways we might wish to arrange them in a database like this. Our choice of trying to balance Latin and English terminology isn't ideal, but until we can find a better solution, it will have to suffice for now.