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Reviving Boccaccio in Active Latin

By Ashlie Canipe


Part I: Finding Ourselves and Our Sodales in Boccaccio


Salvēte, omnēs!” I would rank myself in the beginning-est of beginning stages of using active Latin: the most comfortable phrases for me are still the few I teach students every year: salvē, mihi nōmen est, and mihi placet. In this post, I’ll unite the two things in Lupercal that are new for me: Boccaccio and conversational Latin! 


This post was also inspired by the isolation of sōla ausa est from Bocaccio’s account of Hortensia in the Lupercal t-shirts on Bonfire. By the end of this post, you may find phrases worthy of inscribing on a card to a pal or scribbling on a sticky note by your laptop to have handy when you’d like to address the Lupercalēs and other Latinitsts in your life with a phrase that appreciates their qualities!


As I work on this post, Parks and Rec’s characters Ann and Leslie come to mind: Leslie pumps up her gal pal Ann with such killer epithets as “poetic and noble land mermaid”, “opalescent tree shark”, and “beautiful rule-breaking moth.” Giving myself the task of isolating such potential epithets in Boccaccio has also had the double effect of encouraging me to read selections that Lupercalēs already discussed. The selections below are not exhaustive, and I have chosen them based on their one-liner qualities: they can be understood outside their context and have a snappy, witty, or pithy nature.


As I read, I found many descriptors whose inclusion in this list are worthy of debate. For example, Boccaccio qualifies Athaliah’s action with the ablative absolute pulsā femineā pietāte. If we interpret femineā as “taught to women” or “attributed to women”, the phrase might be apt for any woman who has foregone her socially encouraged sense of duty in order to accomplish a goal. However, in context, Athaliah has acted without her sense of duty in order to commit additional murders-- and therein lies the complication of using that phrase as a compliment. There are many similar examples.


Additionally, as one might expect in Boccaccio, some phrases praise wealth and other qualities that we may not wish to praise when we use active Latin, as when Boccaccio writes about Athaliah, “undique regiīs coruscāret honoribus.” Boccaccio seems to praise Athaliah’s social position as a mother of a king and, formerly, the daughter and sister of previous kings. In omitting regiīs from a potential use of this phrase, one might understand the phrase undique coruscāret honoribus as appropriate for a woman actively involved in the successes of her nearest and dearest.


I have also not included praises of physical beauty or inherited fame, power, and wealth, which are also frequent.


The process of considering the potential uses of these descriptors encourages readers to weigh our own values: What qualities do I wish to name or compliment in others? In what ways do I wish to emulate the women as Boccaccio describes them? These questions were also at the heart of Latin discussions led by Melissa Marturano and Lyla Cerulli after reading Boccaccio’s narrative about the Amazons. As I recognize that the praise of women in Boccaccio is informed by the perspective of wealthy, educated men, I also recognize that using Boccaccio’s phrases as a springboard for our related and unrelated purposes is empowering and empowered.


So, without further delay, some Boccaccian phrases to tuck in your back pocket for describing fellow Lupercalēs and Latinists of all sorts-- 



Part II: A Small Collection of Descriptions from Boccaccio


I have marked each quotation with the name of the woman whose biography it appears in, and I have edited forms to reflect classical spellings. I have placed an asterisk after words in the descriptions which are useful in considering the original context but which might be removed or replaced to indicate praise of character rather than violence, power, or wealth. Replacing such words also allows for customization of phrases for the situations in which these descriptions might be used!


For validating someone’s persistence through difficulties...

  • multīs infortūniīs agitāta (Athaliah, re: a period during which she was married and her brother ruled)

  • silvās et nemora coluisse plūrimum (Zenobia, re: how she spent her time in childhood)

  • ausa [est] sub divō somnōs etiam per noctem capere, imbrēs, aestūs et frigora mīra tolerāntia superāre (Zenobia, re: her childhood)


For when you want to say “I see you working hard over there!”...

  • in dēsīderium regnī* accēnsa (Athaliah, re: her feelings about ruling Jerusalem)

  • veterem pectorī generōsitātem* gerens (Lavinia, re: her new role as queen; N.B. “generositatem” seems to praise her lineage, not her character)

  • vīvens summā cum dīligentiā (Lavinia, re:her rule as queen)

  • ōtiō torpōre passa nōn est (Gaia Cirilla, re:her time in the royal palace; N.B. Here, as in some ancient examples, ōtium seems to include some intellectual stimulation rather than total disengagement from ideas and activity.)

  • cuius inaudīta temeritas ut orbī totō nōtissima fiēret et in posterum noscerētur effēcit (Papa Iohannes)

  • et Veneris et lit[t]erarum mīlitāvit studiīs (Papa Iohannes, re: shadowing her lover, who was a student)

  • illam indēbita audentem (Papa Iohannes, re: passing as a man in the office of Pope)

  • imō studiīs vigilanter insistens (Papa Iohannes)

  • scientiā mirabilī praedita (Papa Iohannes)

  • in līberālibus et sacrīs litterīs prōfēcit (Papa Iohannes)

  • nōn verita ascendere Piscātōris* cathedram (Papa Iohannes)


For expressing awe or appreciation...

  • regiīs* coruscāret honoribus (Athaliah, re: seeing her son rule Jerusalem)

  • praestantissimī ingeniī fēmina (Gaia Cirilla)

  • ēgregiam opificem atque solertem (Gaia Cirilla, re: her woolworking) 

  • mirābilis et amantissima fēmina (Gaia Cirilla)

  • optima et plūrimum laudānda mulier (Gaia Cirilla, re: her woolworking [and frugality?])

  • sē cōgnōsc[it] ingeniō valēre et dulcēdine trah[itur] scientiae (Papa Iohannes)

  • inclita fāma (Zenobia, re: her virtue)

  • nunc dūcis, nunc mīlitis officia peragens (Zenobia, re: her actions disguised as a man in the military; N.B. While there is implied praise of military violence here, it seems particularly alluring to use the structure and metaphor of this phrase. E.g., nunc discipulae, nunc magistrae… or nunc poetae, nunc historicae…)


  • longē magis quam sexuī convenīret, gubernāvit (Zenobia, re: the length of time she was queen; N.B. Boccaccio’s phrasing implies sexist context; our contemporary use has the potential to recognize defiance of gender norms.)

Now, your turn! 


What’s your favorite epithet, descriptor, or compliment from Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Clarīs? Is there someone in your life or someone famous that you’d use it for? Comment below to share it with us!


I'm Ashlie Canipe: I live in Durham, NC, where I teach middle school students. I came into FClassics through high school Latin courses, even though I attended a school specializing in science and mathematics. I talk at great length about the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Sophocles’ Philoctetes to anyone who will listen, and I am a current a student of anti-racist and pro-Black praxis, Spanish, and banjo.


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