Thank you so much for your wonderfully kind comments. I hope to return to the city of canals later this year and I am really looking forward to it.
But it must be my week for Dutch connections because a comment on the news this morning strangely reminded me of the Netherlands again. On the BBC they were hotly debating a proposal by Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, that more schools should teach Latin. I struggled through Latin myself at school, taught by a wonderfully knowledgeable teacher. Unfortunately I was the least gifted pupil in the class and I well remember her shaking her head and telling me sorrowfully that one day I would be thankful I had learned Latin.
I think at the time I regarded this prophesy with the same disbelief as the others from teachers who told me that one day I’d be thankful I’d learned Pythagoras theorem, or grateful I had mastered that jolly useful conversational opener they tried to drum into me in French lessons –“The dog is not dead, it is asleep” – a phrase I have am still trying to work into a conversation whenever I go to France.
But maybe my Latin teacher was a greater prophet than I knew at the time, for who could have foreseen that I would one day be writing novels set in the Middle Ages, where Latin becomes a very useful tool not only for those church scenes, but also for medieval research. (Fortunately for my readers, my proof-reader at Penguin paid far more attention in her Latin classes in school than I did!)
But then when The Owl Killers was being translated into Dutch I found another vital use for Latin and for Greek too. In The Owl Killers and indeed Company of Liars, there are several references to herbs and flowers which the characters all know by different names. This reflects the situation at the time, when all herbs had common names which varied wildly from place to place and several different herbs often had the same name. The Dutch translator was anxious to find equivalent common names in Dutch to reflect this idea in the novel. But there was a further complication; the common names of herbs before the Reformation were, in many cases, extremely bawdy, bloodthirsty or pagan. For example, Arum maculatum had names such as Bloody Fingers and Jack in the Green as well as others which are too obscene to include in a blog. During the Reformation these names, especially on the lips of women and children, were considered shocking by the Puritan element and were replaced by more genteel names such as Lords and Ladies and Parson in the Pulpit. The only way the Dutch translator and I could communicate about the plants the characters were referring to was to for me to give her the botanic plant names, which are of course derived from Latin and Greek. From these she could then find the old Dutch folk name. So Latin did in that sense become the language of communication in the modern day. It seems my Latin teacher was right after all! And I am thankful for a little Latin learning.
Now if only I could find a practical use for the square of the hypotenuse or that sleeping French dog – any suggestions grateful received!