Kate Bucknell, the novelist, was curious about the origin of Sedbergh School’s Latin motto Dura Virum Nutrix – ‘harsh nurse of men’ . She wrote to me: ‘I am working out a preoccupation of Auden’s, 1927ish, with the Latin motto, the harsh life at the school, and Auden’s announced love of barren landscapes or what he called “lean country”. At Sedbergh, they have no idea where their school motto came from. I guess not from Herodotus if in Greek and if ironic?’
The ancient Greek historian Herodotus writes of the way particular climates and environments influence the character of peoples; at the end of his Histories he has the Persian king Cyrus observe ‘soft lands breed soft men’. The fertile but rugged land of Greece was considered by some ancient thinkers to offer the perfect conditions to produce a hardy, intelligent race. Herodotus implies that the Persians too had once been ‘hard’ but had been softened by their luxurious barbaric excesses and lost to the Greeks as a result. He ends his narrative, however, with the story of an atrocity perpetrated by a Greek commander Xanthippus, suggesting that Greeks could be no less barbaric.
The germ of the idea goes back well before Herodotus: Peter Kruschwitz of Reading University notes that the idea goes back to the eighth century BC. In Homer’s Odyssey Book 9 (v. 27) Odysseus describes his homeland Ithaca as τρηχεῖ’, ἀλλ’ ἀγαθὴ κουροτρόφος – ‘rugged, but a good nurse of young men’. This could have generated the Latin translation (though the thought is slightly abridged) dūra virum nūtrīx. (Latinist Edward Zarrow notes that a 1572 Latin translation of the Odyssey by Hubert van Giffen translates the line very differently from the motto: aspera, sed bona iuvenum altrix. The thought is there, but the words used to render it are quite different).
The trope of hard lands producing hard men (or the opposite) was developed by Greek medical theorists of the fifth century BC, e.g. the Hippocratic treatise Airs, Waters, Places. Aristotle (384-322) elaborated it in his Politics (book 7.7, 1327b23-33):
Those who live in a cold climate and in Europe are full of energy, but lacking in intelligence and skill; and therefore they retain comparative freedom, but have no political organization, and are incapable of ruling over others. The natives of Asia are intelligent and inventive, but they are wanting in energy, and therefore they are always in a state of subjection and slavery. But the Hellenic race, which is situated between them, is likewise intermediate in character, being energetic and also intelligent. Hence it continues free, and is the best-governed of any nation. If it could be formed into one state, it would be able to rule the world.
In due course the notion of ‘climate determinism’ was transferred by the Romans to glorify themselves in exactly this way. Tom Holland drew my attention to Vitruvius (1st cent. BC), who writes (Book 6 Ch.11):
The people of Italy excel in both qualities, strength of body and vigour of mind. For as the planet Jupiter moves through a temperate region between the fiery Mars and icy Saturn, so Italy enjoys a temperate and unequalled climate between the north on one side, and the south on the other. Hence it is that by stratagem she is enabled to repress the attacks of the barbarians, and by her strength to overcome the intelligence of southern nations. Divine providence has so ordered it that the metropolis of the Roman people is placed in an excellent and temperate climate, whereby they have become the masters of the world.
The words Dura virum nutrix are couched in the metre of the opening of a hexameter line, but no such line is found in any classical poem. In Book 2 of Virgil’s Georgics, the poet hymns the land of Italy for its bounty: but the land is praised for its fertility, the opposite of dura. However, the phrase has a resonance with the Greek mythical account of men being born from stones (a myth perhaps based on the quasi-etymological conflation of Greek laos ‘people’ with laas ‘stone’) after the Flood. Thus we read (Georgics 1.60-66):
Continuo has leges aeternaque foedera certis
inposuit natura locis, quo tempore primum
Deucalion vacuum lapides iactavit in orbem,
unde homines nati, durum genus. Ergo age, terrae
pingue solum primis extemplo a mensibus anni
fortes invertant tauri glaebasque iacentis
pulverulenta coquat maturis solibus aestas…
Nature has necessarily imposed these rules and eternal laws
on particular places, since ancient times when first
Deucalion hurled out, into the vacant world, rocks
from which men were born, a tough race. Come then,
let the earth’s rich soil be turned, right from the first months of the year
by strong oxen, and let the clods lie
for dusty summer to bake them in full sun…
Llewelyn Morgan reminds me that Horace (in Odes 1.22.16) described the sweltering deserts of Mauretania (‘land of King Juba’) as leonum arida nutrix – ‘parched nurse of lions’ – a clear verbal parallel. Andrew Maynard, an Eton Classics master, notes two further parallels from Virgil: Georgics 2.167 genus acre virum (‘a sharp race of men’) and (even more tellingly) 174-5 salve, magna parens frugum, Saturnia tellus, / magna virum (‘hail, great producer of crops and of men, land of Saturn’). Both are directly recalled by the form virum in the motto, and the latter passage expresses a very similar sentiment.
My initial assumption was that the founder of Sedbergh, Roger Lupton, had composed the motto with these ideas in mind, to propose that the rugged countryside and climate of Britain had long produced (and would continue to produce) men of endurance, fit to rule the world. I suggested that he might have composed something like the following hexameter line, from which the motto was excerpted:
Dura virum nutrix duros alit Anglia natos
England, rugged nurse of men, produces sturdy sons
However, Andrew Maynard researched the origins of the motto when he taught Classics at Sedbergh in 1982-92, and found that it was the work Henry Hart, Head Master of the school 1880-1900. Hart had come from Rugby School, and turned Sedbergh into a school of sporting excellence. Whether he had a full hexameter in mind when composing the motto is a matter of pure speculation.
The only mystery that remains, given Andrew’s comprehensive research, is why (as Kate indicated) Sedbergh School allegedly has no idea where their school motto came from!