Latin Versus English

Erasmus wrote in Latin, which included many different terms for the various things that English lumps together as ’love’. Much of the belief that Erasmus was gay arises from a failure to appreciate the meanings of these words – usually because most people read only the English translation, which can be misleading.

Moreover, we must be especially careful, because there were actually THREE different dialects of Latin in use. First was Church Latin, the language in common use among churchmen. It was looked down upon by the cognescenti because it had become “corrupted” over the centuries. Next came Classical Latin, the language of the Roman poets and writers. This was the Latin used by the adherents to the New Learning. Lastly, there was Ciceronian Latin, based on the extensive writings of M. Tullius Cicero, widely regarded as the finest Latin writer in history. Some scholars felt that the only pure Latin was Latin that was attested in Cicero’s writings. If a word didn’t appear there, it wasn’t “good” Latin.

Each of these dialects had its own slight differences in meanings. But, in general, the Latin words used in discussions of love and sex were:

Amo/Amor: This is the most general form, closest in meaning to English “love”. The verb form more commonly connotes love in its brotherly or charitable sense, but it has occasionally been used in an erotic sense. The noun form is applied equally often to erotic love and charitable love.

Ardor: these words meant pretty much the same thing that they mean in English.

Caritas: This noun never appears in an erotic sense; it connotes dearness, regard, or esteem.

Delecto, diligo: These forms emphasize pleasure rather than love. One version, dilector, explicitly refers to a lover, but more in the sense of a lover for sex than a lover for long-term relationship.

Studeo: These forms refer to zealous pursuit of something. It could be used to describe the zealous pursuit of learning (students), or a zealous fondness for a person.

Suavis: this form, most often appearing in Erasmus as “suavissimus”, is literally translated as “sweet” – but the English word, in the context of an interpersonal relationship, suggests more intimacy than the Latin term connotes. It could just as readily be translated to “delightful” or “pleasant”.

Voluptas: These forms mostly connote sensual pleasure, but they can occasionally be used to connote spiritual pleasure.

The Servatius letters contain no uses of the voluptas-form, the diligo-form, the ardor-form, or the studeo-form, usages that would suggest an erotic relationship. The total absence of these forms in such a voluminous correspondence certainly argues against any erotic interpretation of these letters.