By Melanie Racette-Campbell
Latin was the international language for academics and intellectuals during Sloane’s lifetime; an Englishman and an Italian might not share a common modern language, but if they were educated they both knew Latin. Many of the Latin letters were published in whole or in part in the Philosophical Transactions, but Latin was also used for personal correspondence, requests for patronage, and medical consultation – in other words, for the same range of purposes as Sloane’s correspondence as a whole.
Most of Sloane’s Latin correspondents were either professional or amateur scientists of some sort, especially botanists, anatomists, and naturalists. Many of the writers of Latin letters either were or would become fellows or foreign members of the Royal Society, and the content of the letters reflects this: they were almost always on scholarly matters, at least in part. These were generally short reports on a specific incident or findings, as for example the report sent by a certain Dr. Bullen about an unusually large bladder stone or barometric records sent from Switzerland by Jacob Scheuchzer, a physician and naturalist. A particularly frequent correspondent, Pieter Hotton of Leiden, sent catalogues of recently published books or else the books themselves to Sloane. Along with scholarly matters, the Latin correspondents (as Hotton did here) often included messages to mutual friends in England, requests for news about these friends, and announcements about significant personal events. The Latin letters were social as well as scholarly, and show us a tightly knit international community of scholars.
But the Latin letters came not only from continental Europe: more of Sloane’s Latin correspondents wrote from the United Kingdom than any single other country, and one letter included text copied from a letter from a Jesuit priest in Japan. When residents of the British Isles wrote in Latin, they were generally writing for scholarly purposes, just like the European letter writers. In fact, two letters written in Latin by an English speaker, the Scottish surgeon/apothecary Patrick Blair, outline a plan for a scientific book on medicinal plants to be written in Latin. This suggests that even between those who shared the same language, Latin was often still considered the right language for intellectual matters.
Melanie Racette-Campbell, who is just finishing her Ph.D. in Classics at the University of Toronto, worked as a research assistant on the Sir Hans Sloane Correspondence Online Project. She received her B.A. in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology and M.A. in Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance Studies from the University of Saskatchewan. Her research interests include Latin poetry and gender and sexuality in the classical world.