Discover 25 Medieval Latin Phrases and Their Meanings

During the Middle Ages, Latin was the language for the educated and literate across Europe. It was the medium through which scholars wrote their treatises, clerics performed their rites, and rulers issued their decrees. During this time, many phrases were invented or became popular.

Below is a collection of 25 Latin phrases used during the Middle Ages.

Anno Domini – ‘In the year of the Lord’

“Anno Domini,” abbreviated as “AD,” is used to label years after the traditionally reckoned birth of Jesus Christ. Introduced in the sixth century by Dionysius Exiguus, this system became a standard for dating historical events in the Christian world.


Ars amatoria – ‘The art of love’

Originally the title of a classical book by Ovid, the work and the concept gained new popularity in the High Middle Ages. Andreas Capellanus’ twelfth-century Art of Courtly Love expands on ideas on how to attract the opposite sex.

Ars moriendi – “The art of dying”

Works of literature that provide guidance on how to die well according to Christian precepts. Originating in the early fifteenth century during the aftermath of the Black Death, these texts aimed to prepare the faithful for a holy death, emphasizing repentance, confession, and the strength of faith in Christ.


Ars scribendi artificialiter – “The art of writing artificially”

A phrase used by printers for their new craft of printing books.

Assisa panis et cervisiae – “Assize of bread and ale”

Related to medieval English laws that regulated the price and quality of bread and ale in accordance with the cost of grain. Those being staple foods of any medieval household, people would have been well aware of these regulations.

Caput mortuum – “Head of death”

Term used by alchemists for what was left after experiments mixing various compounds.

Contemptus mundi – “Contempt for the world”

According to Christopher Corèdon, this was “an attitude prevalent throughout monastic communities (13th–15th centuries), which went beyond mere disdain and contempt for the delights of physical existence. The passage of time itself was seen as a process of decline, and the process of ‘civilisation’ moving westwards, away from Jerusalem (the centre of the world) was both part of and sign of that decline.”

Credo ut intelligam – “I believe that I may understand”

Anselm depicted in a 12th-century manuscript – Stiftsbibliothek, Ms. 289, fol. 1v.

This theological maxim is most closely associated with St. Anselm of Canterbury, an eleventh-century philosopher and theologian. Anselm articulated this principle to express the idea that faith is the foundation for true understanding. He believed that one must first have faith in God and the truths of Christianity in order to achieve deeper intellectual insight and comprehension of divine mysteries.

Cestui que use – “He who has use”

A legal term from medieval English law, referring to a beneficiary of a trust. It refers to the person who enjoys the benefits of property ownership, even though the legal title is held by another party.


Dies irae – ‘The Day of Wrath”

First coined in the thirteenth century, this reference to the Biblical Judgment Day found popularity in funeral masses.

Index Librorum Prohibitorum – “List of Prohibited Books”

In 1559 the Papacy created a list of banned books – there were hundreds of authors banned for being heretical or immoral.

In hoc signo vinces – “In this sign, you will conquer”

The fourth-century Roman emperor Constantine the Great had a vision where he saw these words emblazoned in the sky. It would help him accept the Christian religion.


Locus amoenus – “Pleasant place”

A phrase to mean a beautiful garden, it became popular in medieval literature such as courtly romances.

Malleus Maleficarum – “Hammer of Witches”

The title of a fifteenth-century treatise by Heinrich Kramer, which focuses on detecting witches. It has since become associated with witchcraft and evil.

Mappa mundi – “Map of the world”

A common type of map created in medieval Europe which aimed to show the enture world.

Memento mori – “Remember that you must die”

Grave of James Bailie (died 1746) in St. Cuthbert’s Churchyard, Edinburgh. Photo by Daniel Naczk / Wikimedia Commons

A remembrance of death, gracing literature, art, and personal jewelry,” writes Christopher Corèdon. “For instance, a bracelet’s exquisitely carved ivory or boxwood skull, neither morbid nor lugubrious, was a reminder in midst of frivolity or pleasure that life’s higher purposes or temporal shortness must temper joy in earthly delights.”


Nudus nudum Christum sequi – “To follow naked Christ naked”

The phrase was used by many Catholics during the religious revival in the twelfth century who, wishing to emulate Jesus Christ, abjured wealth and its comforts.

Peregre iter arripuit – ‘He set off on a pilgrimage’

Pilgrimages were a popular religious activity in medieval Europe, and this phrase was common in Church documents to describe people who undertook these journeys.

Probatio pennae – “Testing of the pen”

A note that medieval scribes left to explain they were breaking in a new pen.

Quid pro quo – “Something for something”

It describes a mutual exchange where one thing is given or received in return for another. This concept is often used in legal, political, and business contexts to refer to an agreement or transaction where each party provides something of value to the other. Its earliest use dates to the sixteenth century.

Sapientia et fortitudo – “Wisdom and strength”

“The paired opposites in literature and in life ideally united in a single, heroic human being,” Corèdon notes. “While in the Song of Roland, Roland is preux (physically and martially powerful), and Oliver is sage (learned and wise), the Arthurian Romance hero Tristan displays simultaneous prowess of body and of mind.”

Sic et non – “Yes and no”

It is often associated with the medieval philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard, who used it as the title of one of his most famous works. It reflects his belief in the importance of dialectical inquiry and the pursuit of truth through questioning and debate.

Supplica stet credula – “Please do not tear down this advertisement”

A warning printed at the bottom of fifteenth-century advertisements such as the one that William Caxton created at Westminster for his edition of the Sarum Ordinal, a book prescribing the order of services, rules, and regulations of Salisbury Cathedral.

Tacuinum sanitatis – “Table of health”

Illustration of a pharmacy in the Italian Tacuinum sanitatis, 14th century.

If you were looking for a book about healthy living – how to eat right, maintain your hygiene and know a bit of medical knowledge, you would likely pick one with this title.

Vade retro satana – “Back off, Satan”

First recorded in a manuscript from 1415, this phrase is used to convey the idea of rejecting temptation.

You can learn more medieval phrases in A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases, by Christopher Corèdon with Ann Williams and Medieval wordbook: More than 4,000 terms and expressions from medieval culture by Madeleine Pelner Cosman.

See also: 12 Expressions that we got from the Middle Ages

Top Image: British Library MS Add. 33244, fol. 2