8

The phrase "NIL VIRTUS GENEROSA TIMET", sometimes also found as "Nihil virtus generosa timet", was, supposedly, the divise or motto of Bertrand du Guesclin, French knight during the Hundred Years' War.

I have not found any English translation of this, only contradictory French translations that don't seem to be quite right (Virtue doesn't learn anything, Generosity doesn't fear anything...)

What does this mean exactly? What would be the correct translation in English?

  • 2
    As implied by Hugh’s comment, the French translations you’ve found likely do not say “Virtue doesn’t learn anything”, but “Virtue doesn’t fear anything”. Certainly in your link I see a few that translate it as la vertu n’appréhende rien, in which the verb is appréhendre ‘fear’ (cf. apprehensive in English), not apprendre ‘learn’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 30 '17 at 0:21
9

Let's analyze the sentence word-by-word first:

  • Nil/nihil translates mainly as nothing (either noun or adverb). It is indeclinable (hence it gives no clue about its grammatical function in the sentence.)
  • virtus is a feminine noun meaning either strength or virtue. The ending tells us it is either the subject of the sentence (nominative case) or it is being addressed by the speaker (vocative case, which seems unlikely.)
  • generosa is a form of an adjective meaning generous but also noble or dignified (especially when referred to things.) The ending implies it is either a plural, neuter in gender (unlikely,) or a feminine (agreeing with virtus, and thus part of the subject.)
  • timet is basically the verb to fear, in present tense, 3rd person singular: he/she/it fears.

Since virtus generosa is likely to be the subject, nil is fit to be the object. Piecing the words together leads to the translation Generous virtue fears nothing, which is close to (but not exactly) what you have found so far. It might alternatively be translated as noble strength fears nothing (depending on the context, or what the creator of the motto meant.)

For it to mean generosity (i.e. the noun, the specific virtue of generosity) instead of generous (as an attribute of something else), it needs to use a form of generositas or something else.

As for the verb to learn I can't recall any Latin verb close in meaning that resembles timeo. The most common way of saying it is probably disco, which would make the sentence nihil virtus generosa discit. As Hugh points out, the confusion comes most probably from French (in which there must be more information about him,) where apprendre means to learn, while appréhendre means to fear.

| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    Apprendre disco. Appréhendre timeo. – Hugh Apr 29 '17 at 20:46
  • 1
    @Hugh nice! I didn't know that. Do you mind me adding that into the answer? – Rafael Apr 29 '17 at 22:52
  • 2
    @Rafael Comments on StackExchange are meant to be suggestions for how to improve the answer. – Ben Kovitz Apr 30 '17 at 0:21
  • 1
    (It's appréhender, not appréhendre.) – Mat Apr 30 '17 at 21:24
10

The motto calls upon connotations and associations in Latin that are hard to evoke in an analogous way in English. So here is a clumsy translation followed by some exposition of generosus and virtus so you can follow for yourself how they combine in the motto:

High-born manliness fears nothing.


generosus

The adjective generosus = genus + -osus. Genus is your birth, your origin, your kind—like gens, your clan. If you are genere Anglus, then you are an Englishman by birth, that is, originally, not as an immigrant. Genus is the root of a great many words in English, like "generate", "general", and "generic". These all grow out of a metaphor with begetting: things reproduce after their own kind. Most English words from this root emphasize only having something in common, but the notion of begetting is still there, just a little below the surface: a generation, as in "the 1960s generation", is all the people born around the same time, seen as part of a sequence of generations each giving birth to the next. The word genus can also mean any sort of group or kind with something in common, but in Latin the metaphor with birth and family is still clear.

The suffix -osus makes an adjective indicating having an abundance of the noun it's based on, similar to the Anglo-Saxon suffix -ful. For example, dolor is pain or sadness; dolorosus means painful or sorrowful. (In English, -osus appears as -ous; e.g. "cavern" and "cavernous", "luxury" and "luxurious".) When added to some nouns, like genus, it brings a positive connotation: if you are generosus, then you come from good stock, you are well-bred. As in English, the Latin word is also used to mean giving freely, since a noble family properly shows largesse, but in Latin this is an extended sense; the primary meaning is being born to noble ancestry—"genetic" superiority, you could say.

It should come as no surprise, then, that generosus is a common word in heraldic mottos, where it is an adjective for "gentleman". The exact meaning of this varied a lot over the centuries, as the criteria for what entitled you to the rank of gentleman shifted, but the basic connotation remained the same. Putting generosus onto your coat of arms asserts that you come from a long line of respectable ancestors even if you don't have a title of nobility. Here's a dictionary of heraldry from 1828 that says some more about this. And notice the sentence in the middle of the bottom row of the picture below: Generoso germine gemmo: "From an excellent bud I sprout." Well, "excellent" doesn't carry the precise meaning, of course, but you get the idea.

The English Gentleman, by Richard Braithwait (1630)

Source: The English Gentleman by Richard Braithwait (1630).


virtus

The noun virtus = vir + -tus. This one is easier to explain. Vir means man, and -tūs forms a noun meaning the essential quality of the first part of the word, as iuvenis, "a young person", and iuventus, "youth". The path from Latin virtus to contemporary English "virtue" is a long one, involving trips through Christianity and supernaturalism, described a little more in the answers to this question. The main thing to know is that in Latin, virtus means manliness, especially strength, courage, honor.


virtus generosa

In the Tusculan Disputations 2.15–16 someone tells Cicero that pain is the worst evil. Cicero asks "Worse than dishonor?" The other person immediately concedes that he was wrong, embarrassed to have been refuted so quickly. A little later Cicero says:

Ergo id quod natura ipsa et quaedam generosa virtus statim respuit, ne scilicet dolorem summum malum diceres oppositoque dedecore sententia depellerere, in eo magistra vitae philosophia tot saecula permanet?

So, what nature itself, and a certain [worthy, innate uprightness?], immediately spat back out—your saying that pain is the worst evil, a sentiment you were driven away from when it was contrasted with dishonor—the mistress of life, philosophy, is going to maintain that for so many ages?

I'm not sure that any English words can satisfactorily translate Cicero's use of the phrase, but hopefully the meaning is starting to become clear.


A smoother translation

So finally here is a less clumsy translation of the motto:

Gentlemanly courage fears nothing.

I think this conveys less of the spirit of the motto than the clumsy version did, but it's certainly less jarring if you need a translation that you can use in English prose. I'm avoiding the word "noble" because, in the context of coats of arms, this suggests having a peerage—that is, being a peer of the royalty. A peerage might be hereditary, but originally it is earned: it is conferred by a monarch in honor of a great deed or service. Hence fit nobilis, nascitur generosus: nobility is made, gentility is born (more here). Thus the two are quite distinct, at least in the feudal worldview that gave rise to coats of arms and heraldic mottos.


Note that I am not an expert on heraldry. A while back, I happened to get curious about generosus, since it wasn't being used in Latin the way I expected—whence the explanation above. And yesterday, your question triggered me to google a bunch about the word's use in coats of arms.

| improve this answer | |
  • Great answer! I might replace "gentlemanly" with "noble". Tangentially, I wonder if the phrase nil virtus generosa timet is a part of a hexameter verse; I have trouble scanning it as prose. – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 30 '17 at 1:11
  • 1
    @JoonasIlmavirta Wouldn't 'noble' promote the gallant French Knight to a peerage. – Hugh Apr 30 '17 at 1:27
  • @Hugh Hmm... That wasn't my intention. I meant "noble" in the sense of fine, unselfish, high-minded, well-behaved, or something in that direction rather than in the sense of peerage. But I'll leave native English speakers judge whether it makes sense. – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 30 '17 at 4:53
  • @JoonasIlmavirta Line 496 of this 5th-century poem has the phrase inside a hexameter. It's part of a verse retelling of the birth of Samson in the Book of Judges. – Ben Kovitz Apr 30 '17 at 5:05
  • @BenKovitz Are you sure the link is right? It reads Nam uirtus generosa fiet, nullique licebit, which is similar but different. And weirdly, the fiet has a short i; I thought it was always supposed to be long. – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 30 '17 at 5:58
6

Here is a footnote to the other answers, which are excellent. I have a question about broader meaning. Did the writer or adapter of the motto, Nil virtus generosa timet, envision a personification of Virtus or were these simply abstract words to describe the fearlessness of noble valor?

It seems clear to me that Aristotle's ethics would have been congenial to a knight who followed the code of chivalry and that Christian values incorporated selected pagan values. Both ancient Greeks and Romans personified virtues as deities. Christians continued the ancient Greek and Roman habit of personifying virtues. How did people in the middle ages think of these virtues? I realize this is a broad question and may be beyond the scope of Latin stack exchange. If so, please let me know.

This is not my area of expertise, but anecdotally, I can attest there are numerous Christian depictions of both virtue and vice in Christian art and in morality plays. Here in the United States Liberty is still personified as a woman, for example, in a kind of secular deification. Similarly, blindfolded Justice is a goddess-like figure. Boethius personified philosophy as Philosophia.

For those, like me, who delight in considering such questions and knowing more about Roman thought, here's some information for your delectation. Perhaps, I want all of you to be as charmed, and yet puzzled, as I am by the depiction of manly virtue as a female deity.

In Rome Virtus and Honos were named deities with a double temple dedicated to them in Rome. See entry in Plattner's Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome: Virtus et Honos, aedes. Cf. **ναὸς Δόξης καὶ Ἀρετῆς, the Greek goddess, Arete, mentioned in Plutarch.

See also entries in Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (accessed on Perseus)about the Roman goddess, Virtus, and the god, Honos or Honor, frequently mentioned and depicted together.

Virtus. The Roman personification of manly valour. She was represented with a short tunic, her right breast uncovered, a helmet on her head, a spear in her left hand, a sword in the right, and standing with her right foot on a helmet. A temple of Virtus was built by Marcellus close to the one of Honor. See Honor.

Honor or Honos. The personification of honour at Rome, to whom temples were built both by Marcellus (B.C. 212) and by Marius (B.C. 101), close to the temples of Virtus. Marcellus also built one to Virtus; and the two deities are frequently mentioned together. Honor and Virtus are represented on coins as youthful figures—Honor wearing a bay-leaf chaplet, and Virtus a helmet. See Virtus.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Virtus Virginiensis? – Ben Kovitz May 1 '17 at 19:20
  • 1
    @BenKovitz, euge! You made me laugh. And yet, despite having written that post, until just now I had never thought about whether "virgo" derives from "vir". As the Italians say, figurati! – user1466 May 2 '17 at 1:51
  • I hadn't thought there might be an etymological connection, either, until you just pointed it out! Might be worth posting a question. – Ben Kovitz May 2 '17 at 3:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.