For more than a millennium after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Latin language remained dominant as both a mode and a code of communication in European society. Yet, amongst the peculiarities of this long history is that Latin seems to have been in constant decline in the minds of many of its most accomplished users, in a cycle of existential crises, continuously confronting decadence, desuetude, and dying. Laments for the decline of Latin are a constant feature of its literature in the post-Classical world, and so the historiography of the language is one of constant decay and renewal, of perpetual Dark Ages and Renaissances. Writers as varied as Gregory of Tours, the Carolingian court, Álvaro de Córdoba, and even Alfred the Great lamented the decline of Latin in their various societies, and scholars have tended to take each at face value, as empirical statements of the state of the language. But if all these laments are instead considered together as a genre, they turn out to be evidence not so much, or at least not only, for the history of Latin as such, in the sense of its change over time as a language, but for its consistent sociocultural capital, its constant function as an instrument by which authors could identify and situate themselves. Each of the writers studied here were positioning themselves through their laments with respect to Latin; the commonality is their consciousness of an ideal of correct Latin, and their willingness to manipulate it for their own ends. When Petrarch demarcated his own age of rebirth from the preceding age of darkness with reference to the quality of their respective Latin, he may or may not have been stating a linguistic fact, but he was certainly participating in a rhetorical tradition. The paradox of the constant decline of Latin is its constant possession and provision of sociocultural capital, its constant function as an instrument of self-definition, in spite of the multiple refashionings of the nature and purpose of Latinity during the Middle Ages and beyond. As writers continued to define themselves with respect to bad Latin, however understood, they offered testimony of how good Latin retained its social and cultural capital, even as it has to the present day
The philosophy of 12th-century, western Europe includes two, almost conflicting theories about language and the origins of its authority. In summative if reductive terms, these theories can be described as allegorical vs grammatical, figurative vs structural, or intellectual vs natural. In De planctu Naturae (DPC), Alain de Lille attempts to reform the separate theories into one, using allegory to write of sexual mistakes in grammatical metaphors, while also proposing kinship between the rules of language and those of ‘natural’ sexuality. Recent criticism of DPC tends to suggest the work is self-contradictory, especially about homoerotic desire; but when viewed through the lens of the two theories, DPC has a kind of logic, even if it does reveal a troubled position within them.