Meet the Warburg: Lucy Nicholas, Lecturer in Latin and Ancient Greek

In this blog series, we introduce you to the people who bring the Warburg to life. From library staff to lecturers, find out more about the people working at the Warburg Institute.

In this interview, we spoke with our Lecturer in Latin and Ancient Greek, Dr Lucy Nicholas. Read on to discover how Lucy’s career has led her to the Warburg, how working at the Institute helps to inform her wider research interests and what you can expect in one of her classes.

Could you tell us a bit about your background and career?

Following three years in Cambridge studying for a Classics degree, I trained as a lawyer, and practised in that profession for a lustrum or more, before plunging back into academe. From 2006-2013 I taught Classics and Ancient History at various schools in London, including St Paul’s Boys’ School and Harrow, while in parallel working towards a PhD in Neo-Latin. I was awarded a postdoctoral year in Israel at Tel Aviv University, and then moved back into university life in the UK.

What led you to teaching Latin and Greek at the Warburg?

The Warburg is a cradle of medieval and early modern studies, specialising in the history of humanism and the classical tradition. For a Neo-Latinist, it’s Eden. When the Institute advertised for a post in May 2017, I leapt at the chance to apply. In 2019 it was agreed that the Warburg would resurrect the teaching of Greek which had been in abeyance for some time. While Latin has long been recognised as the lingua franca of the early modern period, Greek was also being mastered and used, and it played a key part in seismic events, such as the Reformation. It’s a privilege to be able to teach both Latin and Greek apud sedes Guarburgienses (or sedem belli!).

The Warburg is a cradle of medieval and early modern studies, specialising in the history of humanism and the classical tradition. For a Neo-Latinist, it’s Eden.

Could you tell us a little bit about the courses that you teach and the other events you are currently organising at the Warburg? 

I run courses on Medieval and Renaissance Latin at all levels. These involve linguistic instruction, but also exposure to a wide range of Latin texts. This academic year I will also teach Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced Greek.

The Warburg has very kindly hosted several Neo-Latin days on themes such as ‘Baroque Latinity’, which attracted postgraduates and scholars from across Europe. We plan to run more of these in the coming years, including an event on ‘Neo-Latin and the Vernacular’ (to be held online in October 2020).

What can someone expect from a course with yourself? 

My lessons tend not to follow a set structure, as I usually try to tailor classes to the interests and strengths of any particular cohort. The content will vary from level to level, but usually, a class can bank on some grammar, syntax and translation work. I am always keen too that students develop a sense of the evolution of Latin as a language over the centuries and its vast scope. The Latin prose and verse texts we read together engage with a whole spectrum of areas, including theology, historiography, science, philosophy, the Republic of Letters.

My lessons tend not to follow a set structure, as I usually try to tailor classes to the interests and strengths of any particular cohort.

How do the language courses you teach help postgraduate students at the Warburg, and how do they respond to learning Latin and Greek?

The majority of Warburg MA students study Latin, and a good number of plucky postgraduates have also signed up for Greek. Warburg students tend to be alive to the fact that a substantial portion of the texts of the past were composed in Latin. Indeed, Latin has a relevance for all periods of history from the classical on, and it represents an entire register of communication across Europe. If language is the clothing of ideas, then Latin is the vehicle for some fairly major ideas. Thomas More’s Utopia was in Latin, so too was Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and Newton’s Mathematical Principles. Latin is the medium through which thoughts were not only conceived but also processed and progressed, students quickly appreciate that we’re going to miss an entire layer of understanding and nuance if we only read works in translation. Much of the Latin of this era has never been rendered into English, and such texts have the potential to inform a range of fields in startling and innovative ways. Latin and to a lesser extent Greek, are in fact terribly important languages for historical research.

1518 Latin version Thomas More’s Utopia

How does your work at the Warburg inform your wider research interests?

The focus of my own research is the Latin of the sixteenth century produced by humanists such as Roger Ascham, Walter Haddon, Gabriel Harvey and Johannes Sturm. The Latinity of their works is of great interest, but so too are the historical and cultural contexts of their output. These figures did not just sit in an ivory tower and write Latin, they lived real lives. Many of them knew each other as friends; they were deeply immersed in university life and often involved in public affairs at court and overseas. My post at the Warburg offers a singular opportunity to learn more about the complex dynamics of the early modern world that these figures inhabited.

Do you have a particular favourite moment whilst working at the Institute?

Most lessons are my ‘favourite moment’ for the students at the Warburg tend to be brimful of ideas and questions. They provoke and they challenge, and with every text we read, they open up different perspectives and angles.

What do you love most about the Warburg?

I enjoy many aspects of working at the Warburg. The wonderful library is an obvious asset. The generous and learned community is another highlight. Perhaps most of all, I value the truly interdisciplinary culture that has been fostered at the Warburg, an Institution which displays a gleeful contempt for the meretricious boundaries of modern times that artificially demarcate knowledge. E. M. Forster’s phrase ‘Only connect!’ might as well be the Warburg’s motto.

With the Warburg Renaissance building project coming up what are you looking forward to about the new design?

The idea of a more permanent presence of a centre that prides itself on intellectual exploration across time and space.

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Dr Lucy Rachel Nicholas teaches Medieval and Renaissance Latin and Classical Greek at the Warburg Institute. She is particularly interested in classical reception and projects which bridge the fields of Neo-Latin and early modern Reformation history. Her doctoral thesis entailed a translation and contextual analysis of a Latin treatise on the Eucharist by the sixteenth-century English humanist and Cambridge classical scholar, Roger Ascham. Aspects of this have been published as ‘Roger Ascham’s Defence of the Lord’s Supper’, Reformation, vol. 20 (2015), 26-61 and Roger Ascham’s ‘A Defence of the Lord’s Supper’: Latin Text and English Translation (Brill, 2017). She has recently co-edited an interdisciplinary volume on Roger Ascham (Brill, 2020) and two Neo-Latin anthologies on Britain and Europe (Bloomsbury, 2020). The Latin works of Walter Haddon represent the focus of her current research.