Secrets of a Lost Art, part 1: Latin Anagrams

Fun with Baroque Latin, part 1

Get your tin foil hat ready! Anagrams are a specialty of the Northern Renaissance.

Sure, you can find anagrams in classical Latin. Pulsa palus, the half line in Aeneid 7, is a nice one. The participle mimics the pool’s loops, as Fred Ahl points out. But they’re rare, and most of the time we can’t even tell if they’re deliberate.

If you want seriously good anagrams, you need to go Baroque, baby.

When most of us hear Renaissance, we think of Italy. A good Latin lover, though, should push northward to Germany, England, and Bohemia (Czechia) during the Reformation (1517–1648). The Latin poetry written in that period — also called the Northern Renaissance or Baroque — is characterized by extreme mastery of form and ironic effects, and it’s a ton of fun. It’s exactly analogous to the Hellenistic period of Greek literature, but many Latinists have never even heard of it.

Printed here.

They should. This is the period where we get Latin anagrams on steroids. The English poet George Herbert (1593–1633), for instance, has a poem that hits every variant of Roma/amor and makes sense of them. He even sets them into an easily-memorized hexameter (scan that title to see it in action — it’s off only by the last word, ămor).

But Herbert’s poem is a bit of a one-off. It isn’t half as much fun as what you usually find in the Baroque period. That’s when poets began refining the practice of anagramming someone’s name in Latin, and then writing a poem to explain and celebrate the anagram. This lost art has dropped down the memory hole, but it’s worth rediscovering — not only because it’s fun, but because it tells us a lot about the status of Latin poetry in the early modern period.


Many Latin poets of the Baroque were Imperial Poets Laureate of the Holy Roman Empire (the fancy name for Germany back then). That title basically referred to an advanced university degree you could get instead of an MA, and devising anagrams was a standard trick of the trade you learned as part of your training.

For Rudolf II (here)

The poets typically flag them with the Greek words ἀναγραμματιζόμενος (anagrammatizomenos) or ἀναγραμματισθείς (anagrammatistheis), both meaning “anagrammed.” The basic impulse behind all these poems is nomen, omen: the idea that your name conceals your fate. The poet’s goal was to discover or invent an ingenious similarity — no matter how strained — and then develop it with a poem, often called an evolutio, that explains the connection.

For example, the English-Czech poet Elizabeth Jane Weston (1582–1612) is one of the great figures of the Neo-Latin Baroque. A contemporary celebrated her writings by rearranging her name, Elissabeta Ioanna Westonia Angla (Elizabeth Jane Weston of England) as Ave vates Latina, bona, ingenio salsa. He then composed a hendecasyllabic poem to explain how the anagram suits her. It begins (1–6):

Not too shabby for a poet neither you or I have ever heard of! (His name is Georgius Carolides, 1579–1612).

We don’t know what Weston thought of this effort but elsewhere, she praises a poet for writing an anagram (now lost) in her honor:

Anagrammatismum in mei honorem feliciter concinnatum, libenter legi; magnique favoris indicium judicavi.

That is,

I enjoyed the anagram you so skillfully composed in my honor, and I regard it as a sign of your great esteem for me.
Anagrammatismorum Pleiades VII

There are zillions of these name anagrams from the Baroque period, and many of them are totally ingenious. Witness this 1614 collection titled Anagrammatismorum Pleiades. All seven books are done by just one guy, Bart Bilovius (1573–1615), who isn’t famous for anything (though you do have to admire how he connects his name, Bar(p)tolemaeus, with Ptolemy). As the cover page points out, each one “represents” a hero, aristocrat, theologian, lawyer, doctor, poet, philosopher, or “philomuse” of Germany.

If you study his examples, you’ll soon see some of the secrets and tricks the poets used. They’d add or subtract letters or use accepted variants (Johannes vs. Joannes vs. Janus, Elissa vs. Elisabetha, or Arendt vs. Arndt) or keep adding titles to someone’s name to make something work. That’s what Carolides did to make something impressive out of Weston’s name.

Abortive anagrams for Philippus Camerarius by Nicolaus von Reusnerhere.

Manuscripts sometimes let us peek in on poets trying different combinations out till they hit on something. Here’s one. It shows us Nicolaus von Reusner (1545–1602), one of the more accomplished imperial poets laureate, trying to come up with an anagram for Philippus Camerarius (son of the famous Joachim Camerarius). As you see, it takes him a while, and the end result isn’t very good. That’s probably why (as far as I can tell) it was never published.

There are other tricks. The Baroque era is rich in neologisms and words that joined the language after the fall of the Roman empire. That means you’re welcome to use postclassical words (not usually medieval ones, though), and especially classical Greek words. So, if you can’t make a good Latin word, then use something in Greek; and if you can’t get the word just right in Attic Greek, then use a dialect. And so on.

It doesn’t take long to realize that Latinists in the Baroque era had a lot more fun with Latin than we do. Witness this next gem.

You actually like this stuff? (here)

On the last page of a collection of his anagrams, the author rearranges his own name to ask serione haec laudas? (“You actually like this stuff?”). He then puts that question to his anticipated critic and urges him to criticize the collection, not praise it, because critics and poets don’t like each other anyway. That’s the kind of irony the Baroque period has in common with Hellenistic Greek. (Not coincidentally, that’s also when Zoilus, whose name is the usual word for a critic in Baroque Latin, thrived.)

Et in Arcadia Ego → I! Tego arcana mundi

In an intellectual and literary climate like this, it’s understandable why some people in the Baroque period began to think Et in Arcadia Ego (You’ll find me even in Arcadia) is really a secret code for I! Tego arcana Dei (Get lost! I’m concealing God’s secrets.) That’s tin-foil-hat territory, but it’s also a sign of the times. You can see why people back then thought it was plausible.

Check it out! A second Galileo is on the rise!

You’ll find anagram poems printed at the front of most literary Latin books from the Baroque period. Sometimes they’re found below portraits, but more commonly whole poems were sent in to celebrate the new publication. They came from friends of the author, or from great men (always men) whose esteem an author hoped to win. In other words, these poems were the blurbs of the time period, but more fun than blurbs are today.

Source

Of course, with zillions of anything some stinkers are inevitable. The authors themselves admit it. For example, one of the most technically proficient of all poets, the German Joannes Burmeister (1576–1638), put together two for a man named Matthias Hövesch (c. 1569–1638). He first turns Matthias Hoevessch into Messias te vocat (“The Messiah is calling you”), then turns Matthias Urbanus into Tuba trahis sanum. Acknowledging they’re weak, he adds deproperabam (“Sorry! I was in a rush”). If you peek back at that manuscript anagram by Reusner above, you’ll see he adds the Greek word αὐτοσχεδίως (“quick and dirty”). Si vede, as Michelangelo quipped when he saw one of Giorgio Vasari’s frescoes. It shows.

But the same Burmeister is also responsible for one of my absolute favorite examples. It’s as good as any Latin poem ever written. Take a look:

An anagram poem for Johann Arndt by Joannes Burmeister (here)

The poem is dedicated to Johann Arndt (1555–1621), a Lutheran theologian Burmeister respected deeply. He rearranges him name to Insta ornande! (Carry on, o glorious one!) In another post I’ll circle back to to show in detail why this poem is so magnificent.

In the meantime, o Latinists, I call on you for more of these! Even if you can’t write elegiac couplets (yet…), you can do this. It’s an easy form of prose composition. Honor yourself or hero with an anagram for their next birthday, wedding, or promotion! For example:—

Out of the way! Let me change this, I’ll fix it. (Camerarius emended a lot of texts)
I’m getting to know Paideia.

Better yet, skewer your politicians!:—

Needing to be regulated for illicit sex.
A vampire’s laughing at us.

Devising anagrams will sharpen your Latin, fast, and challenge your creativity. It’ll also let you show off your ingenuity. So what are you waiting for? Eternal glory awaits. Get to work, create!

Animi causâ,

Full of hot air. (Who, me?)

If you liked this post, let me know in the comments and I’ll keep the series going. Next up are chronograms. After that come palindromes, echoes, figure poems, and more. Students love this stuff, especially Latinizing their name, and they’ll love you for showing it to them.

PS: If you’re inclined to leave a tip, why not give a little something to the Robert Germany scholarship fund? It honors a brilliant Latinist and it’ll send a worthy student off to Rome to change her life.