Philology is the study of language as it is found in written historical sources. Words are dense repositories of historical information. Languages and inflections change subtly in morphology and syntax with the passing of years, and by being attuned to these changes, we can learn a great deal. Any native speaker of a language can look at a text and discern, even with a casual reading, the general age of the piece. Specialized techniques can reveal much more.
The British scholar Richard Bentley, writing in 1699, had this to say on the subject:
Every living language, like the perspiring bodies of living creatures, is in perpetual motion and alteration; some words go off and become obsolete; others are taken in and by degrees grow into common use; or the same word is inverted to a new sense and notion, which in tract of time makes as observable a change in the air and features of a language as age makes in the lines and mien of a face. All are sensible of this in their native tongues, where continual use makes every man a critic.
Every language is subject to these forces, Bentley reminds us. But while it can be easy to identify such nuances in one’s native tongue, few reach the level of fluency in a foreign tongue to apply the same level of critical scrutiny. Bentley was one of the few who could. He was a towering figure of classical erudition, mastering Latin, Greek, and Hebrew by the age of twenty nine. Soon thereafter he dared to venture into academic disputes with some of the most learned men of his day.
One such dispute put Bentley’s formidable erudition on display. It began harmlessly enough, with the publication in 1690 of a pamphlet entitled Of Ancient And Modern Learning by Sir William Temple. The purpose of the essay was to weigh the comparative merits of ancient and modern literature. Temple had the misfortune of praising the literary merit of a collection of ancient Greek epistles that tradition had ascribed to a sixth-century B.C. writer named Phalaris. Many other scholars had come to agree with Temple that the letters were authentic.
Bentley was asked to give his opinion on the matter, and he responded in great detail in his 1699 treatise Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris. He picked apart the text, using his extraordinary knowledge of the historical phases of the Greek language, and demonstrated that the letters were most likely written in the second century A.D. In other words, the letters were not written by Phalaris. Bentley’s arguments were basically unassailable, since he had based them all on a critical examination of the words of the text.
But without doubt, the most compelling philological demolition in history was Lorenzo Valla’s exposure of the so-called “Donation of Constantine” as a forgery. We must first understand the context, in order to appreciate fully the magnitude of his victory. Tradition had attributed to the Roman emperor Constantine the Great the authorship of a document that gave the Roman Catholic Church title to the lands of Western Europe upon his death. The document, allegedly written by Constantine shortly before his death in A.D. 337, purported to give Pope Sylvester I this privilege.
The donation had been used by the Church as evidence for the validity of its ecclesiastical and temporal powers in Europe. It had achieved general, if grumbling, acceptance in the Middle Ages, but had never quite freed itself of the taint of fraud. Nicolas of Cusa had called it into question, and it is likely that other men who cared about such matters had nursed their own doubts. But it was Lorenzo Valla, however, who proved the document to be a fraud beyond all doubt. He was an aggressive, opinionated man, much given to quarrels and vain to a fault. Yet his knowledge of the Latin language was unsurpassed, and he had the good fortune to be working for Alfonso, King of Aragon and Sicily in 1440, the year in which he wrote his indictment of the donation. Alfonso was at that time involved in a political dispute with the papacy, and it would have been amusing to him to have a literary bulldog like Valla shred the pride of the papal see in Rome.
Valla did not disappoint. He examined the text line by line, and wrote out his conclusions in a treatise entitled De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione (On the Forged and Fraudulent Donation of Constantine). The treatise is not written as we might expect; it takes the form of a rhetorical work, not an explanatory paper. Valla’s Latin is refined, complex, and of a very high quality. The content of its speeches do not move our passions today; what makes the work important is that here, finally, is a systematic attempt at philological analysis. Valla demonstrated conclusively that the donation must have been written at least five hundred years after the date it was supposed to have been written, and thus could not have come from Constantine.
We may judge its effectiveness from the fact that it was placed on the Church’s index of prohibited books in 1559. The expose of the fraud was embarrassing to the Church, and made Valla a legion of enemies in Rome. A few cardinals made belated efforts to have Valla retract his conclusions, but predictably he refused. What man could reasonably be expected to back away from so crushing a victory?
This sample gives a taste of the scorching nature of Valla’s prose, as he attacks the forged donation:
Should I more point out the stupidity of ideas, or of words? You have heard about the ideas. And now here is the stupidity of words. He says that the Senate “should have adorned” [here referencing the language of the donation], as if it were not already decorated; and also “adorned in glory.” And what may be happening, he wants to have been done. So he uses “we have promulgated” [promulgavimus] instead of “we promulgate” [promulgamus] as it sounds more majestic this way. And it is the same thing as he speaks in the present tense and the preterite tense, as “we decree” and “we have decreed.” And everything is imbued with these tones: we decree, we adorn, imperial, magisterial, power, glory…he has [even] put “exists” in the place of “is”…and “bedmates” [concubitores] for “companions” [contubernales]: bedmates are those who sleep together and have sex, and must be understood to be whores.
Valla’s abilities are evident from a reading of the passage above. It is from this point that we can date the advent of modern philology. Obviously, these feats of detective work require a high level of fluency in a language. The philologist must have familiarity with texts of varying historical periods in order to be able to spot inconsistencies in phrasing and words that are out of place.
While not all of us are capable of being a Valla or a Bentley, we can still do more than we might believe. Diligent study of foreign language will reveal that each historical period generates its own “flavor” of the language. And even with our own native language, the principle is the same.
Philology is a weapon, and its moving components dance across every page of a written text. Words have tremendous power, if we know how to mine them for information. If we attune our sensitivities to these things, words have much to tell us. They are repositories of knowledge, each and every one of them containing its own hidden secrets.
 Translation mine. The Latin text used here is the one provided in the I Tatti edition On the Donation of Constantine, Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2007, p. 94.
Read more in the new translation of Cicero’s Stoic Paradoxes, which also includes the essay The Dream of Scipio: