Skip to main content
Making sense of old handwriting

Latin Influence

History of the Use of Latin in German Records

Latin has been used in official documents for centuries, either in notarial or church records. Because Latin has been the official language of the Catholic Church since its beginning, and because priests were used to reading and writing in Latin, it is common to see the influence of Latin in their writings in different languages.

Latin was used in official documents in the Holy Roman Empire until the middle of the 14th century. The German language was used on official court documents beginning with the reign of Louis IV, in 1314 AD. By the early 1500s, German was considered the written language of the educated classes. After the Luther Bible was published, the High German written language became the written standard throughout most of the German-speaking principalities and duchies. Latin was still being used by Catholic priests for most of their documents as well as a German and Latin mix in some Protestant records.

Catholic Records

Because of the historical importance of the Latin language in the Catholic church, it is likely you will encounter Latin in Catholic documents. Before the Reformation, most documents found will be in Latin. After this Protestant parishes mostly used German written language, but may use some Latin as well. The historically Catholic regions in Germany is where you will likely encounter Latin documents. The Catholic influence in these regions continues today, although the written Latin decreased over time. Catholic congregations in the United States also continued to use Latin.

Catholic Regions in Germany:

Catholic population in Germany by percentage in each dioceses. Map created in 2012

The Catholic church in Germany
Alexander Altenhof, 17 May 2014, via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Attribution 3.0 Unported license

If you know your ancestor was Catholic, use the Gazetteers page to find the your hometown. Once you've located the hometown, Catholic congregations can be found by using and looking at the nearest churches with the 'Ecclesiastical' tab.

Catholic Naming Patterns: 

In Catholic congregations, and for many years after the Reformation, German children were required to use the name of a saint, and were commonly named after whichever Saint's day they were born on (see the feast days page for these dates). Even today Germans are still required to choose names that are approved.

    Documents examples

    Here is a common Catholic records from the Wuslack Parish, in Königsberg, East Prussia. Notice how the author mixes German and Latin. Also as the records get closer to the 20th Century, most of the Latin is getting phased out.

    1. Birth: This record is completely in Latin from 1802.
    2. Marriage: Notice that the document heading is in German, but the names and sacraments are in Latin even in 1913. 
    3. Death: Only some of the name are in Latin in this record from 1842. 

    Other Resources