Modern & Medieval Languages


Petrarch's Virgil

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What is Neo-Latin?

Neo-Latin is the term used for the Latin which developed in Renaissance Italy as a result of the renewed interest in classical civilisation, including classical philology, and which spread northwards as humanist education gradually replaced the medieval system based on scholasticism. Its origins are normally associated with Petrarch, much of whose work was written in Latin, and Italian humanists such as Boccaccio, Lorenzo Valla, and Poliziano. Latin was already the universal language of education throughout medieval Europe. This continued to be the case in the early modern period. Gradually, medieval Latin gave way to Neo-Latin in a linguistic movement which paralleled what was happening in the visual arts, literature, and thought.

The high point of Neo-Latin begins in Quattrocento Italy and spreads to other parts of Europe in the sixteenth century. Neo-Latin was the language of many of the world's masterpieces in the early modern period: all the works of Erasmus, including the Praise of Folly and the Adages, Thomas More's Utopia, Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, Descartes's Meditations, Francis Bacon's Essays, as well as a rich vein of poetry (e.g. Petrarch, Johannes Secundus, Du Bellay, John Milton), drama (Buchanan, Muret), and science (Newton, for example). Latin occupied the same position as a universal language in the arts and sciences that English does in the contemporary world.

Cambridge is the only British university which offers undergraduate courses in Neo-Latin. Paper NL1 has been offered for a number of years and is available for Part IB and Part II students. A second paper, NL2, was introduced for Part II students only in Tripos 2008.

See News and Events for details of topics covered in current and recent Neo Latin seminars.

Click here for a full list of on-line resources for students of Neo-Latin.

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Paper NL1: Introduction to Neo-Latin Literature 1350-1700

Paper NL1 is designed to be taken either by part IB or part II students who have done Classical Latin at A-level or in the Modern Languages Tripos, or by students who have not previously studied Latin, but who are prepared to work hard to learn the language, along the lines of the Occitan and Catalan papers at present.

The aims of the paper are to introduce you to a number of important texts written in Latin in a range of European countries, to address the issues involved in the use of Latin as a means of communication in early modern Europe, and to enable you to develop close reading skills with Neo-Latin texts. Since Latin was being used as a literary language alongside the vernacular, the Neo-Latin paper will offer valuable insights into the cultural and educational background of other national literatures.

Downloadable past papers

2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013.

The paper was not set in 2009. Exam papers which have been set since 2008 can also be downloaded from CamTools.

Structure of the Paper

The paper will have a tripartite structure:

  • Section A will consist of questions on set texts
  • Section B will have questions on prescribed topics
  • Section C will offer a choice of passages taken from the set texts for critical commentary.

Candidates will answer one question from each section. The commentary section will offer three passages selected from among the set texts, of which one must be chosen. You would not be expected to translate the text, but you would be expected in the commentary to show sensitivity to the use of language, as with commentaries on other papers.

NL1 texts and topics, 2013-2014

  • Giovanni Boccaccio, De claris mulieribus (selected chapters)
  • Johannes Secundus, Basia
  • Angelo Poliziano, Rusticus
  • John Milton, Epitaphium Damonis, Elizabeth Weston, Parthenica 1. 9, Anthony Alsop, Odes 1. 11
  • Joachim du Bellay, Elegiae
  • Andrew Marvell, Latin Poetry
  • Marco Girolamo Vida, De arte poetica, book 3
  • Ciceronian controversies: Gianfrancesco Pico's letter On Imitation to Pietro Bembo, and Bembo's reply
  • Neo-Latin and the vernacular
  • Neo-Latin and rhetoric and poetics
  • Classical models


Teaching is in the form of sixteen weekly lectures or seminars, and fortnightly supervisions on the authors and topics. In addition to this, Dr David Money will be offering language tuition sessions for those students wishing to improve their language skills. If you are an ab initio student, you should prepare before the start of next year by working your way through Wheelock's Latin

Click here to see the NL1 preliminary reading list.

Paper NL2: A special subject in Neo-Latin Literature: Selected Authors

Aims and scope of NL2

This paper is only available in Part II of the Tripos, and students taking it will be expected to have a good knowledge of Latin. Its aims are to offer the opportunity to study in depth four Neo-Latin poets, writing in a range of genres, and to consider theoretical issues relating to Neo-Latin poetry as well as studying the poetry itself. Students taking this paper will be expected to develop a familiarity with the philosophical, cultural, historical, and literary context of the works in question, which might include questions such as the influence of humanism on early modern writing, neo-Platonism, attitudes to allegory, the impact of the Reformation, rhetorical theory, etc. The following works form the basis of the course:

  • Jacopo Sannazaro, Ecologae Piscatoriae and Epigrammatum libri III
  • Théodore de Bèze, Iuvenilia
  • George Buchanan, Secular Poetry ('Franciscanus, Fratres fraterrimi, Elegiarum liber, Silvae, Hendecasyllabon liber, Iambon liber, Epigrammatum libri I-III, Miscellaneorum liber.)
  • John Milton, Latin poetry

Examination questions will require the close reading and analysis of texts as well as essay questions of a more discursive nature. Students taking this paper will be expected to develop habits of independent learning and research.

Downloadable past papers

2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.

The paper was not set in 2013. Exam papers which have been set since 2008 can also be downloaded from CamTools.

Important: Please note that Section B of the NL2 examination papers from 2012 onwards will have TWO questions on each poet, and TWO general questions. The number of passages in Section A will remain unchanged at THREE for each poet.


NL2 will be taught through a total of eight fortnightly seminars divided between the Michaelmas and the Lent terms (in odd weeks). In addition, students will receive fortnightly supervisions throughout the year (in even weeks). Teaching will be coordinated by Andrew Taylor, the convenor of the paper, with other contributions from Paul White, Philip Hardie and David Money.

Click here to see the NL2 preliminary reading list.


The examination will set out to test both the candidates' ability to engage in close reading of texts, and in writing essays of a more discursive nature. It will be divided into two parts. Section A will consist of a number of passages taken from the set texts, on which candidates will have to write a critical comparative commentary. Unlike critical commentaries in other MML papers, they will be expected to discuss points of literary and historical interest raised by the passages in the light of their knowledge of the poets and of the period they cover. Section B will consist of a number of questions which might be answered in relation to individual authors or to more than one author. Candidates will be required to answer Section A, and two questions from Section B. They will also be required to show a knowledge of at least three of the four poets in the paper as a whole, and, as normal, will be prohibited from drawing on substantially the same material in more than one question.


The MML library has a developing section of Neo-Latin literature, and the University Library offers very rich resources. Increasingly, Neo-Latin texts are being made available on the Internet. Because the texts which are studied are all central texts in European literature, translations in one or more modern languages are usually available.

Neo Latin News and Events