The Multilingual Nature of the Catalogus Librorum and the Florissant Seminary

The following is the second installment in Maria Palacio’s exploration of the 1836 catalog from the Florissant Seminary. Here she tackles what we make of the multiplicity of languages found and used throughout its pages.

One of the most interesting characteristics of the Catalogus Librorum Alphabeticus Domus Probationis St. Stanislai is its multilingual character. The categories which structure the catalog are written in Latin, marginal notes in English and French, and the titles of the holdings are in these three languages as well as German, Greek, and Flemish (Fig. 1). A close study of the languages used in the Catalogus Librorum can help us better understand the intellectual and spiritual life of the Florissant Seminary, the people who lived there, and the books they read. Each of the segments of the Catalogus Librorum, from the two catalogs of the collection to the lists that served to record borrowing, can help us study this topic from different perspectives. This blog post will explore several questions (and suggest some answers) raised by the multilingual nature of the complex manuscript.

Fig 1. An example of the multilingual nature the Alphabetical Catalog: titles in Latin and notes in English. Collection of Jesuit Archives, Central United States

Fig 1. An example of the multilingual nature the “Alphabetical Catalog”:
titles in Latin and notes in English.
Collection of Jesuit Archives, Central United States

To begin, it is important to draw a distinction between the different types of language employed in this document: the one in which the two catalogs were structured, the ones in which the listed books were written, and the ones used for marginal comments. As was already mentioned, the Catalogus Librorum is primarily written in Latin, English, and French, but other languages appear in the document as well. I would not consider the Catalogus Librorum a multilingual document if it was just organized in one language (Latin) but also listed titles of books in the languages in which they were written. This happens in most modern catalogs. Instead, in this catalog the marginal notes, or the parts that let us understand the catalog, were written in multiple languages. It reminds us that Latin, French, and English were used in different capacities at Florissant; Latin being the “official” written language, French one of the main languages of daily interaction (let us remember that the Seminary was initially established by seven Belgian novices), and English the language members of the Florissant community were encouraged to learn to reach American audiences.

The fact that Latin was employed to organize the Catalogus Librorum should not be surprising, since it was, and still is in some particular cases, the official language of Catholicism. Official documents of the Seminary would have been written in Latin. However, the use of English to make clarifications, such as the “Note for the Librarian” at the start of the volume or the location and number of copies of certain titles, and French to make small annotations about the content of the titles within the “Alphabetical Catalog,” supports the idea that English and French were commonly spoken at the Seminary (Fig. 2). Although English was properly used throughout the “Alphabetical Catalog,” there are a few exceptions that suggest it was not the native language of the catalog’s author (Fig. 3). For instance, in at least eleven cases, the author wrote “on the garret” instead of “in the garret” in reference to the location of some of the titles, a mistake a native English speaker is not likely to make. Moreover, most of the annotations that explain the content of the titles are either written in Latin (when the title was in Latin) or in French, sometimes even if the title was not written in French. This might suggest that the author of this catalog felt more comfortable writing in Latin and French than in other languages.

Fig 2. Comments in English and French in the “Alphabetical Catalog” Collection of Jesuit Archives, Central United States

Fig 2. Comments in English and French in the “Alphabetical Catalog”
Collection of Jesuit Archives, Central United States

Fig 3. Example of a grammatical mistake in the “Alphabetical Catalog” Collection of Jesuit Archives, Central United States

Fig 3. Example of a grammatical mistake in the “Alphabetical Catalog”
Collection of Jesuit Archives, Central United States

The languages in which the listed titles were written reflected the community gathered at Florissant. For instance, in the first three pages of the “Alphabetical Catalog,” which correspond to the letters A and B, there are 16 titles in English, 26 in French, and 34 in Latin. The great number of titles in Latin should not be surprising due to the fact that, at that time, many Catholic ecclesiastical texts were written in that language. What is really interesting is the fact that the number of texts in French is significantly more than the number of titles in English. This reflects the fact that the Florissant community was initially established by seven Belgian novices and supports the notion that, even if the Seminary was in the United States, most of its members had French, and not English, as their main language, or even mother tongue. However, through the course of time, members of other nationalities joined. Thanks to the Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, I had access to lists of Jesuits in the Missouri Vice Province over the nineteenth century. The lists from 1835 and 1837 helpfully give an idea of the possible nationalities of the members of the Florissant community. Names of the missionaries indicate that for many their country of origin was probably Belgium. Yet we also see those who were perhaps more comfortable with English, men with lasts names like Fitzgerald and O’Connor (on the membership lists) and O’Connel, O’Brien, O’Neill, and Smith (on the borrowing lists, Fig. 4), many perhaps who were Irish or of Irish descent.

Fig. 4: Names on the Borrowing List. Collection of Jesuit Archives, Central United States

Fig. 4: Names on the Borrowing List.
Collection of Jesuit Archives, Central United States

Another proof of the multilingual nature of the community is the number and diversity of dictionaries in the library’s collection (Fig. 5). There are a total of 21 dictionaries listed in the “Alphabetical Catalog”: 4 English, 5 French-English, 1 English-Latin, 1 Greek-English, 1 French-Dutch, 2 French-Latin, 1 French-Flemish, 1 Greek-French, and 2 Latin-Greek dictionaries, as well as a tetralingual dictionary. Moreover, there are 20 grammar books listed in the “Alphabetical Catalog”: 6 Latin, 5 French, 8 English, and 1 Greek. If we cross reference the catalog with the borrowing ledger lists, which have around 180 entries, we can find that at least 10% of the books lent by the library correspond to language books such as dictionaries and grammars. This shows that language books were important circulation items in Florissant’s library collection.

Fig. 5: Dictionaries listed in the “Alphabetical Catalog” Collection of Jesuit Archives, Central United States

Fig. 5: Dictionaries listed in the “Alphabetical Catalog”
Collection of Jesuit Archives, Central United States

By studying the books listed in the Catalogus Librorum we can also establish that Florissant’s library collection favored the learning of the English language over other languages. Apart from the grammars and dictionaries, there are other kinds of language-learning books listed that are only available in English. The presence in the catalog of books such as the English Reader, Modern English Conversation, and Webster’s English Spelling book, show that there was a special interest in helping members of the Florissant community improve their English. It is also worth mentioning that many of the English grammars in the Catalogus Librorum were written in German or French. Given that most Seminary members did not come from English-speaking territories but needed to preach to English-speaking communities, it is not surprising that the library’s collection placed such an emphasis on the learning of English.

Finally, examining the different languages that appear in the Catalogus Librorum reveals an intriguing absence of books written in Spanish. The original Belgian novices at Florissant probably did not speak Spanish, although Belgium was under control of the Spanish crown from 1581 to 1714. However, it rapidly grew to be an important center for the Society of Jesus in North America. Yet the lack of Spanish-speaking members (or books for them) in the Florissant community is perhaps surprising given that by the beginning of the nineteenth century Spanish was already the official language of most Latin American countries. The expulsion of the Society of Jesus from Spain and other Latin American countries during the third decade of the nineteenth century could plausibly brought asylum seekers to Florissant.

Moreover, the Catalogus Librorum lists titles written by at least three important Spanish saints and priests: St. Ignatius, St. Therese, and Alphonse Rodriguez. They all lived in Spain during the sixteenth century, or the Spanish Golden Age, which was a time in with the Spanish language was at its cultural peak. Therefore, they all spoke Spanish and wrote some of their works in that language. For instance, St. Therese wrote Exclamaciones del alma a Dios in Spanish, but the Catalogus Librorum only held a French translation for this work. While Alphonse Rodriguez’s Exertitiam Perfectionem and St. Ignatius’ Exercitia Spiritualia were both originally written in Latin, this works were very rapidly translated to Spanish and widely circulated in the Spanish territories and colonies. However, the Catalogus Librorum only holds copies of these books in Latin, English, and French. In the nineteenth century, Spanish speakers in the Midwest appear not to have been as numerous as nowadays.

In 1836, the Florissant Seminary was a diverse multilingual community that privileged the knowledge of French, Latin, Dutch, German, and Flemish as well as English. Not surprisingly, its catalog was written in more than one language, proof that various languages were spoken in the Seminary at the same time. Latin, the official language of the Catholic Church, was used to write official documents, like the structure of the catalog, and was the language in a majority of the ecclesiastical texts on the library’s shelves. French was used by many in their the daily interactions as evidenced by their Belgian origins, presence of a large number of books, and some marginal annotations to the catalog in that language. English was the third most common language within the catalog, the language used to write explanatory comments, and the one whose learning was encouraged by the Seminary, probably because its members had to address to English-speaking communities in their preaching and pastoral work. Other languages appear in the catalog with less frequency. The presence of titles in Dutch, German, and Flemish is equally valuable to establish the linguistic and cultural diversity of the Florissant community. This presence in rural Missouri mirrored the diversity of the cosmopolitan Belgian territories from which they hailed. Both offered favorable conditions for a multilingual environment.

In the end, the questions that we cannot answer with the information offered by the catalog offer an interesting starting point for further research: How fluent were the members of the community in English and French? Were they equally facile with their writing and speaking? Did small dialects appeared due to the interaction between bilingual, and often trilingual, members of this community? And finally, how long after 1836 did this community retain its multilingual character and what were the forces that shaped its subsequent development?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s