A Great Neo-Latin Scholar

Jozef IJsewijn and his Life’s Work

‘Classical philology leads to all the rest, provided one gets out of it’. This was certainly the case for Jozef IJsewijn (1932-). When, after studying classical philology in Leuven, he chose to pursue an academic career, the only avenue open to him was papyrology. In 1961 the Latin version of his thesis appeared, and heralded his departure from the world of papyrology. IJsewijn’s great love, after all, was Latin which, for him, was and is by no means a dead language. Thus in that same year, 1961, he published a general survey of Latin poetry in the twentieth century, and headed across the Alps to Rome with his wife and children. In Rome he expanded his field to the Latin literature of the humanist period, and set up an ambitious study programme for neo-Latin literature (by neo-Latin we mean all writings in Latin since the dawn of humanism in Italy, from about 1300 CE, say from Petrarch down to the present day). That this programme of study was ambitious is all the more evident if we consider that while the corpus of texts from antiquity takes up a number of bookcases, and that from the Middle Ages a seminary library, for the neo-Latin corpus an entire building is required.

In 1963 IJsewijn, now back in Leuven, was responsible for courses in Classical Philology and a new course in neo-Latin literature. In 1966 he was given an assistant and the Seminarium Philologiae Humanisticae was founded. Towards the end of the 1960s, IJsewijn managed to breathe new life into the journal Humanistica Lovaniensia, in which he switched from French to English. He turned the publication into the leading journal in the field of neo-Latin literature, containing among other things the important annual Instrumentum bibliographicum Neolatinum. In 1971 the Seminarium organised the first International Congress for Neo-Latin Studies in Leuven. The fact that this congress was attended by more than 200 participants from 19 European countries, the United States, Canada and Australia is proof of the steadily growing interest in this rich field of scholarship. In 1997 the tenth congress was held in Avila, Spain. By now the number of participants and papers had doubled. The Leuven congress also led to the establishment of the International Association for Neo-Latin Studies in Amsterdam in 1973. Its first president was, of course, Jozef IJsewijn. The Articles of Agreement of the Association appeared in Humanistica Lovaniensia and were translated by IJsewijn into elegant Latin. Throughout these years, he has, with that same remarkable elegance, transcribed official documents, degree certificates and diplomas from his Leuven alma mater into the language of Cicero.

1977 saw the publication of the first edition of IJsewijn’s magnum opus, Companion to Neo-Latin Studies. It evidently met a long-felt want and was very soon out of print. The first volume of the second edition of this standard work was published in 1990, and the second volume appeared in 1998. In 1980 IJsewijn was awarded the Francqui Prize, the highest Belgian award for scholars, for his achievements. In order to promote neo-Latin scholarship in wider circles, the members of the Seminarium and IJsewijn in particular collaborated in encyclopaedias and general works such as Encyclopaedia Britannica. With the same purpose in mind, exhibitions and commemorations were organised, such as those on Erasmus in 1969 and 1986, and Justus Lipsius in 1997.

I was fortunate enough to be a student of IJsewijn’s during the late 1970s. He opened up the whole world of Latinatas for me – then a student of ancient languages ensconced in antiquity. He taught me that Latin is the language not only of Cicero and Virgil, but also of the nervous genius Pico della Mirandola, the Low Countries’ greatest love poet Janus Secundus, the jurist and philosopher Grotius, Newton (who wrote his Principia Mathematica in Latin and was probably the last to write a pioneering scientific work in that language), and Spinoza (whose Ethics was probably the last philosophical work to be written in the language of Lucretius). Latin was, in other words, the cultural and intellectual lingua franca in Europe until the end of the seventeenth century, when it began to be replaced by French. Today it seems to be English which has become the global koine. IJsewijn has accepted that primacy by promoting English as the working language at conferences – much to the chagrin of the nostalgics who continue to swear by Latin – and by writing his magnum opus, Companion to Neo-Latin Studies, in English. In the introduction, however, he wrote: ‘The loss of Latin as the international academic means of communication was and is a heavy blow to all scholars and scientists who speak a minor language. As a native speaker of Dutch myself, I know the problem at first hand. Latin put us all on the same level, since everybody had to learn it and, writing in Latin, one could never hurt the linguistic sensitivity of native speakers. Now, to be born in an English-speaking country is an immense privilege, and to compete with such privileged persons is almost impossible.’ Objection noted.

Above all he warned of a Europe that would no longer have access to its own history if the scholarly knowledge of Latin were to be lost. To mark IJsewijn’s retirement, his two colleagues at Leuven, Gilbert Tournoy and Dirk Sacre, published a Liber Amicorum. In the preface Tournoy wrote: ‘(…) it is our hope and our expectation – if we can count upon the loyal help of all collaborators – that the life-work of Jozef IJsewijn, this “centre of excellence” (the Seminarium and its unique library) as it is called, can continue to grow into the next millennium and beyond. After all, it is primarily his dedication and expertise that have made Neo-Latin accepted and appreciated on an international level, so that it can take its rightful place in European literary history.’

If I may quote some (Catullan) Latin: ‘plus uno saeclo (‘May he and his work live longer than a lifetime’).

By Luc Devoldere
Translated by Yvette Mead

First published in The Low Countries, 1998


Further Reading

IJSEWIJN, JOZEF, Companion to Neo-Latin Studies. Part I: History and Diffusion of Neo-Latin Literature. Leuven, 1990.
IJSEWIJN, JOZEF and SACRE, DIRK, Companion to Neo-Latin Studies. Part II, Literary, Linguistic Philological and Editorial Questions. Leuven, 1998.
TOURNOY, GILBERT and SACRE, DIRK (ed.), Ut granum sinapis. Essays on Neo-Latin Literature in Honour of Jozef IJsewijn. In: Supplementa Humanistica Lovaniensia XII. Leuven, 1997.