The Green Knight

From the anonymous fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Fit I, lines 136-150, trans. Bernard O’Donoghue):

a monstrous apparition strode in the door,
one of the tallest creatures in the whole of the earth.
So square and powerful from neck to waist,
his thighs and his forearms so muscly and long
you’d think that he was some kind of half-giant.
But I think what he was was the hugest of men,
the most pleased with his size of anyone living.
For, though his back and his chest were incredibly big,
his stomach and waist were fashionable trim,
and all his features in proportion, given his size, exactly right.
They were shocked by his colour though,
apparent at first glance;
what was most uncanny was
he was green from head to toe!

Later on in the poem it is revealed that this Green Knight is in fact Lord Bertilak, Gawain’s host, transformed through the magic of Morgan le Fay.

Thus I believe that I have discovered the origins of Marvel’s Incredible Hulk. The Hulk is also entirely green, the monstrous alter ego of a regular human and, when transformed, has a much broader chest than waist (the Hulk’s shirts would always rip off, but never his pants).

Icons

The icon (from Greek εἰκών, meaning “image”) is a distinctive feature of Orthodox Christianity (Greek, Russian, Serbian, etc.). The classic icon is a frontal portrait of Jesus, Mary, or some other saint, although icons illustrating a scene are also common. You know them when you see them: the style is unmistakable. They tend to be flat and richly ornamented, giving a deliberately otherworldly appearance to their subjects. There are also many rules that one must follow in the making [sic – not “painting”] of an icon. Bishops hold a bible in their left hand and give a blessing with their right. Jesus wears a red tunic and a blue cloak, and his halo has a cross on it. And so on. Here are two examples from my collection:

George1

The original image of St. George, as a young, beardless man with tightly curled hair, in armor and carrying a shield and lance.

George2

St. George “the trophy-bearer” in action – riding a white horse and spearing the dragon through its mouth.

Why the particular style? Why are they so important to Orthodox worship? One must realize that these are not just pictures for the edification of the faithful, of the sort that might appear in The Bible Story, The Watchtower, or the Book of Mormon. Orthodox icons have power. You could pray to a saint near his image, and he would be much more likely to hear your petition. Particular icons are even thaumaturgic, such as the icons of the Virgin Mary on Mount Athos in Greece – one of which is formally appointed the abbot of a monastery, and has two feast days. In other words, in the east, icons function like saints’ relics. (I like the theory that it is on account of relics that icons acquired their special purpose. No one is going to keep the bone of a saint just lying around, but is going to house it in a nice reliquary. A picture of the saint on the top of the reliquary would tell you whose relic it was; as long as you made an accurate copy of the picture, the miraculous qualities of the relic would be transferred to the new image.)

But there’s a problem here, isn’t there? Christian practice evolves, of course, but seldom to the point where it is completely at odds with an important dictum from scripture, in this case the Second Commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.

Now, only the most eccentric Christians would interpret this to mean that all representational art, or even just religious art, should be forbidden (Martin Luther: “If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?”) And given that this rule is found in the Old Testament, has it not been trumped by the New, and to be cast aside like kashrut or the prohibition against sowing different crops in the same field? Perhaps – but surely of all that we find in the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments are still binding. And praying to (a saint through) an icon sure looks like “bowing down” and “worshiping” an image, doesn’t it, thereby violating the real spirit of this law?

Thus did Byzantine Emperor Leo III, in the 720s, order the removal and destruction of icons from the lands under his control. Was this spurred by a genuine religious feeling, prompted by recent natural disasters and military losses? Or was there something more political to it? (The theory I’ve heard is that the monasteries that produced icons were growing too powerful, and Leo wanted to undercut them – apparently there may have been a “class struggle” aspect to it as well). This iconoclastic movement survived Leo and did not fully end until 842, at which time Theodora, regent for the young Michael III, called it off. Ever since then the first Sunday in Lent is designated the Feast of Orthodoxy and celebrates the return of icons to their rightful place in Orthodox worship. At the time, though, all it succeeded in doing was driving the Greek and Roman Christianity further apart and may have had a role to play in the pope’s consecration of Charlemagne as Emperor of the West in AD 800. The Catholic Church did not venerate icons as such, but they were fully behind religious images and were appalled at how the Byzantines had apparently gone insane. As far as they were concerned, Jesus himself invalidated the Second Commandment – when he came to Earth, he became an “image” of something in heaven. Thus to reject images is to reject the Incarnation.

GMG @ KSU

Another awesome meeting of the Georgia Medievalists’ Group took place today at Kennesaw State University. Thanks to Brian Swain for volunteering the venue. This one was particularly stimulating, with lengthy discussion after each paper. These were:

Tom McMaster, Kennesaw State University: “The Virginal Slave? Honor, slavery, and sanctity in the early medieval world”

Wendy Turner, Augusta University: “Irish and English Law on Treatment of the Mentally Impaired”

Alice Klima, University of Georgia: “Statutes as Structure: The Bohemian Monastery at Roudnice on the Elbe”

Brian Swain, Kennesaw State University: “Coping as a Roman Goth During a Roman-Gothic War: The Case of Jordanes”

Some photos:

tombrian

Tom MacMaster and Brian Swain.

wendy

Wendy Turner, Andrew Kurt, Jamie MacCandless, and Christina Heckman.

Templars

Crusade historian Christopher Tyerman once wrote that:

The Templars occupy a prominent place in the pantheon of Alternative History of the ‘what they have tried to conceal from us’ genre, championed by obsessive, swivel-eyed anoraks and conspiracy theorists allied to cool money sharks bent on the commercial exploitation of public credulity.

Now I wouldn’t put it quite that way, but it’s true: like the Bermuda Triangle, the lost continent of Atlantis, and the Nazca Lines, the Templars do tend to attract a good deal of Speculation. The Templars, or more formally “The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon,” were founded as a religious order in 1119 in the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. Like the crusading movement itself, they represented “a fusion of Christian and military practice” – that is, the members took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but instead of praying eight times a day and copying out manuscripts like monks, they practiced horsemanship, guarded pilgrims to the Holy Land, and fought Muslims as they needed to, like knights. (This is definitely a novelty – prior to the late eleventh century the Church did not like knighthood much, but after numerous unsuccessful attempts at regulating it, the Church threw in the towel, and gave it their blessing – but only if the knights exercised their craft far from Europe, and against non-Christians. Thus were they allowed to organize themselves into religious orders.) What attracts everyone’s attention is the Templars’ sordid end: in 1312, King Philip IV of France accused them of heresy, tortured confessions out of the leadership, and prevailed on Pope Clement V to dissolve the order, after which many of them were burned at the stake. But some of the Templars, it is alleged, escaped and “went underground,” later to emerge as the Freemasons. Some of them even sailed to the New World before Columbus, which is why the fifteenth-century Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, built by supposed crypto-Templar William Sinclair, features carvings of new world corn. One author claims they buried treasure in the Oak Island Money Pit off Nova Scotia. A student of mine once lent me a book suggesting that the Shroud of Turin actually depicts an image, not of Jesus, but of the martyred Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay. A character in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code asserts that the Templars, while in the Holy Land, had uncovered evidence that the Papacy was a con job, and that the leadership of the true Church belonged to the descendants of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene – which is why the Pope was so keen to eradicate them.

And so on.

I tell my students that history is interesting enough without concocting such theories. The real history of the Templars touches on several late-medieval themes – among them the rising power of the king of France (at the expense of the papacy), and the desire to find a scapegoat for the loss of the Holy Land (Acre, the last Christian stronghold there, had fallen in 1291). But what it touches on the most is the money one could make as a result of the medieval commercial revolution – and the envy this provoked in others. The Templars were not just active in the Holy Land – they had chapters throughout Western Christendom (their churches were usually round, and you can visit one in London). Templars got into long-distance banking – and made a fortune, so much so that their formal title of “Poor Knights,” and their seal showing two knights riding a single horse, became ironic.

Seal_of_Templars

Wikipedia.

A BBC article, which my friend Chris Berard points me to, explores this history in greater detail. Author Tim Harford claims that they “invented modern banking.”

The Templars dedicated themselves to the defence of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. The city had been captured by the first crusade in 1099 and pilgrims began to stream in, travelling thousands of miles across Europe.

Those pilgrims needed to somehow fund months of food and transport and accommodation, yet avoid carrying huge sums of cash around, because that would have made them a target for robbers.

Fortunately, the Templars had that covered. A pilgrim could leave his cash at Temple Church in London, and withdraw it in Jerusalem. Instead of carrying money, he would carry a letter of credit. The Knights Templar were the Western Union of the crusades.

We don’t actually know how the Templars made this system work and protected themselves against fraud. Was there a secret code verifying the document and the traveller’s identity?

They did more than this, however:

Templars were much closer to a private bank – albeit one owned by the Pope, allied to kings and princes across Europe, and run by a partnership of monks sworn to poverty.

The Knights Templar did much more than transferring money across long distances.

As William Goetzmann describes in his book Money Changes Everything, they provided a range of recognisably modern financial services.

If you wanted to buy a nice island off the west coast of France – as King Henry III of England did in the 1200s with the island of Oleron, north-west of Bordeaux – the Templars could broker the deal.

Henry III paid £200 a year for five years to the Temple in London, then when his men took possession of the island, the Templars made sure that the seller got paid.

And in the 1200s, the Crown Jewels were kept at the Temple as security on a loan, the Templars operating as a very high-end pawn broker.

Harford goes on to say that Philip IV owed money to the Templars, and didn’t like how they operated beyond his control, and so contrived to dissolve them. But I can’t help but think there was even more at stake here. Lester Little’s Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (1983) talks about how money made people very anxious in the Middle Ages, especially the “money from nothing” that one could get from currency exchange, lending at interest, or taking advantage of scarcity to sell at a premium. Charging more money than the “just price” for something was uncharitable and un-Christian, and if you made any extra-normal profits at all the only way to expiate your sin would be to give it all to the Church. (This helps to explain all those elaborate late medieval “wool churches” in East Anglia, and it also helps to explain the increased anti-Semitism of the High Middle Ages – Jews were increasingly shut out of various professions, leaving them in the role of the hated money lender.) It’s true that the Templars were themselves a church organization, but I suspect that just made it worse.

As unfair as their end was, however, it happened. “Templar” groups today are somewhat disreputable – at least, they have no institutional continuity with their medieval namesake. If you’re interested in joining a crusading order, try the Hospitallers, the Templars’ main rivals in the Middle Ages, who do enjoy continuity and who are thus much classier.

Heraldry Before Heraldry

In addition to the post below on medieval heraldry, I have also collected numerous examples of “heraldry” before it came into existence. For your pleasure:

• Herodotus, The Histories, book I: “The Greeks are indebted to [the Carians] for three inventions: fitting crests on helmets, painting devices on shields, and making shields with handles.”

• Numbers 2:1-2: “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: ‘The Israelites are to camp around the tent of meeting some distance from it, each of them under their standard and holding the banners of their family.'”

• Vegetius, De Re Militari, II:18: “To prevent soldiers straying from their comrades at any time in the confusion of battle, they painted different signs for different cohorts on their shields, digmata, as they call them themselves, and it is customary to do this even now. Also the name of each soldier was inscribed in letters on the face of his shield, with a note of which cohort or century he was from.”

• Tacitus, Germania, ch. 6: “There is nothing ostentatious about [the Germans’] equipment: only their shields are picked out in the colours of their choice…. To throw away one’s shield is a supreme disgrace, and the man who has thus dishonoured himself is disbarred from attendance at sacrifice or assembly.”

• Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum: “Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter X, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of Christ.”

• Beowulf (lines 331-37). Beowulf arrives at Heorot:

A high-mannered chieftain
then inquired after the ancestry of the warriors.
“From whence do you bring these embellished shields,
grey mail-shirts, masked helmets,
this stack of spears? I am spokesman here,
herald to Hrothgar; I have not seen
a body of strangers bear themselves more proudly.”

• Homer, Iliad, bk. 18. Hephaestus makes a shield for Achilles:

First of all he forged a shield that was huge and heavy,
Elaborating it about, and threw around it a shining
triple rim that glittered, and the shield strap was cast of silver.
There were five folds composing the shield itself, and upon it
he elaborated many things in his skill and craftsmanship.

(This passage is followed by 124 lines describing all those things, including the earth, the sky, the sea, the sun and moon, two cities [one celebrating a wedding feast, the other at war], a field, a vineyard, a farmyard, and a dancing floor, making it the earliest recorded blazon, and surely the longest.)

Heraldry in Medieval Literature

Largely through the readings of my interdisciplinary course on medieval chivalry, which I am teaching again this semester, I have husbanded a number of passages dealing with a favorite subject of mine: heraldry. Like Melville’s librarian, I reprint them here.

• Gerald of Wales, De principis instructione (English, 12th cent.). It’s difficult to see how exactly this would work (interior of the shield, maybe…).

When King Arthur went out to fight, he had a full-length portrait of the Blessed Virgin painted on the front of his shield, so that in the heat of battle he could always gaze upon Her; and whenever he was about to make contact with the enemy he would kiss Her feet with great devoutness.

• Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (English, 12th cent.). This one’s a little better – and the shield has a name, to boot.

Arthur himself put on a leather jerkin worthy of so great a king. On his head he placed a golden helmet, with a crest carved in the shape of a dragon; and across his shoulders a circular shield called Pridwen, on which there was painted a likeness of the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, which forced him to be thinking perpetually of her.

• The Poem of the Cid (Spanish, 12th cent.). Don Jerome talks to the Cid, in terms not exactly in accord with his status as a cleric.

Wishing to honour myself and my order, I demand of you the privilege of striking the first blows. I carry a banner and a shield with emblem of roe deer emblazoned on them. I wish to essay my arms, as it may please God, to bring me joy and give you greater satisfaction.

• Chretien de Troyes, Lancelot (French, 13th cent.). The first herald to appear in literature does not seem to be a very competent one.

On this bed Lancelot was reclining, completely disarmed. As he lay there so uncomfortably, suddenly there appeared a fellow in his shirt-sleeves, a herald-at-arms, who had left his coat and shoes as a pledge at the tavern and came rushing in, barefoot and in a general state of undress. He found the shield in front of the door and inspected it, but was quite unable to recognize it or tell who owned it or was to bear it.

• Later in Lancelot. If you can’t impress the ladies with feats of arms, you can always do so with your knowledge of heraldry!

The queen was back in the stand with the ladies and maidens; and with them too were numerous knights without their arms who had been captured or who had taken the cross, and who interpreted for them the armorial bearings of their favourite knights. They say among themselves: “Do you see the one now with the golden band across the red shield? That’s Governal of Roberdic. And you can see that next one with an eagle and a dragon painted side by side on his shield? That’s the son of the King of Aragon, who has come to this country to win honour and renown. And can you se the one beside him who is spurring so hard and jousting so well, the one with part of his shield green with a leopard painted on it and the other half azure? That’s the much-loved Ignaures, the popular lover. That one bearing the shield with the pheasants painted beak to beak is Coguillant of Mautirec. And do you see, to his side, those two on dappled horses and with sable lions on their golden shields? One is called Semiramis and the other is his companion, which is why their shields have the same decoration. Do you see too the one whose shield is painted with a gate from which a stag seems to be emerging? I swear that’s King Yder.” Such were the explanations given in the stands.

• Chretien de Troyes, Perceval. You’ve got to get those measurements right.

While they were getting ready and arming in the hall, through the door enters Guigambresil bearing a golden shield, on which was an azure band. The band covered precisely a third of the shield, accurately measured. Guigambresil recognized the king and duly greeted him; but instead of greeting Gawain, he accused him of felony.

• Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, fit 27 (English, 14th cent.). Gawain gets his shield, and we get a different explanation for the symbolism of the pentangle than the neo-pagan one in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

Then they showed him the shield of shining gules,
With the Pentangle in pure gold depicted thereon.
He brandished it by the baldric, and about his neck
He slung it in a seemly way, and it suited him well.
And I intend to tell you, though I tarry therefore,
Why the Pentangle is proper to this prince of knights,
It is a symbol of Solomon conceived once
To betoken holy truth, by its intrinsic right,
For it is a figure which had five points,
And each line overlaps and is locked with another;
And it is endless everywhere, and the English call it,
In all the land, I hear, the Endless Knot.
Therefore it goes with Sir Gawain and his gleaming armour,
For, ever faithful in five things, each in fivefold manner,
Gawain was reported good and, like gold well refined,
He was devoid of all villainy, every virtue displaying…

• Jean Froissart, Chronicles (Netherlandish, 14th cent.). A dispute over an emblem during the Hundred Years War.

Just as Sir John Chandos had ridden round observing part of the French dispositions, so one of the French Marshals, Sir Jean de Clermont, had gone out reconnoitering the English. In doing this, it so happened that their paths crossed and that some strong words were exchanged. These knights, who were young and in love, were both wearing on their left arms the same emblem of a lady embroidered in a sunbeam. Sir Jean de Clermont was by no means pleased to see his emblem on Sir John Chandos and he pulled up in front of him and said: “I have been wanting to meet you, Chandos. Since when have you taken to wearing my emblem?” “And you mine?” said Sir John. It is as much mine as yours.” “I deny that,” said Sir Jean de Clermont, “and if there were not a truce between us, I would show you that you have no right to wear it.” “Ha,” replied Sir John, “tomorrow you will find me more than ready to prove by force that it belongs to me as much as to you.” With these words, they each turned away, but Sir Jean de Clermont shouted, as a further provocation: “That’s just the sort of boast you English make. You can never think of anything new yourselves, but whenever you see something good you just take it!”

Links

• From the BBC:

Secrets of French Diplomacy

Fake News

From the Atlantic:

Before ‘Fake News’ Came False Prophecy

From medieval Britain to the present, fantastic stories speaking to readers’ darkest fears have proven capable of altering reality.

The revelation that fake news deceived voters in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election generated real outrage in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s electoral victory. The top fake news stories garnered more clicks than the top real news stories on Facebook in the final three months of the campaign season. Fake news and other campaign fantasies led Oxford Dictionaries to select ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year for 2016.

But stories that gain popularity by presenting readers’ fantasies and nightmares as current events are hardly new. In medieval Britain, national and local political action was guided by prophecy. Prophecies were invoked by rebel leaders, appropriated by ruling elites, and, ultimately, censored by a government fearful of their disruptive potential. Prophecy’s effectiveness in shaping medieval politics offers a rejoinder to those who suggest that fake news and other political falsehoods can be ignored, or laughed off. Prophecy, like fake news, worked as persuasive writing because it told people what they wanted to believe or spoke to their darkest fears.

British politics provided ample opportunity to test the power of imagined worlds. When Owain Glyndŵr, Edmund Mortimer, and Henry Percy plotted against Henry IV at the turn of the 15th century, they used the popular “Prophecy of the Six Kings” to justify their actions. A later historical account has the three rebels committing to treason on the condition “that they are the people about whom the prophet speaks.” The fantasy that Glyndŵr, Mortimer, and Percy were prophesied saviors—a fantasy they themselves may have believed—had the very real effect of attracting popular support for their insurrection.

More at the link. Lesley Coote’s book Prophecy and Public Affairs in Later Medieval England (Boydell, 2000) will tell you more. Of course, in our current age, going after “fake news” has the very real potential to descend into “going after news that I don’t happen to agree with,” so such a movement would need to be exercised with care. And blaming “fake news” for Mrs. Clinton’s loss borders on blaming “false consciousness,” which is always psychologically satisfying to some people but isn’t very useful if you have to operate in free elections in a constitutional republic. People want to be convinced, not condescended to.

Renaissance

As a card-carrying member of the medievalists’ guild, I am contractually obliged to defend the Middle Ages whenever possible. Of course, after years of teaching the Western Civ. sequence, I have come to appreciate other historical eras as well – even the Renaissance, which originated the whole idea that we had a “Middle Ages” in the first place. But while praising what humanists did, I still dispute the notion that for them to succeed, others had to fail. You know the narrative: the Roman world, in particular the age right before the advent of the Principate, was pretty good, and if we try really hard, we can be as good as them – we can witness a “rebirth” of their ideals, or at least of their beautiful language. Everything between those two points – a period lasting over a thousand years – was designed a “Middle” Age. Aristotle might have favored the mean as particularly “golden,” and even the expression “middle of the road” suggests safety and inoffensiveness, but this middle was very bad indeed, a long slough of despond between two high points. It does not help that the adjective in English, “medieval” (from the Latin “medium aevum”), contains the word “evil.” It definitely has a negative connotation, as in Marsellus Wallace’s promise that his torturers would “get medieval” on the rapist Zed in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), or Aaronow’s line from Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) about how a win-or-you’re-fired sales incentive is “medieval… it’s wrong.”

With that in mind, allow me to comment on this excerpt from Leonardo Bruni’s History of the Florentine People (1442):

The Latin language, in all its perfection and greatness, flourished most vigorously in the time of Cicero, for its first state was not polished or refined or subtle, but, mounting little by little to perfection, it reached its highest summit in the time of Cicero. After his age it began to sink and to descend, as until that time it had risen, and many years had not passed before it experienced a great decline and diminution; and it can be said that letters and the studies of the language went hand in hand with the condition of the Roman Republic, which had also grown in power until the age of Cicero.

After the liberty of the Roman people had been lost through the rule of the emperors, who did not desist from killing and eliminating the men of excellence, the flourishing condition of studies and of letters perished, together with the welfare of the city of Rome. Augustus, who was the least evil of the emperors, had thousands of Roman citizens slain; Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero did not leave anyone alive who had the face of a man. There followed, then, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, who killed off each other within a few months. After them there were no more emperors of Roman blood, since the country had been so ruined by the preceding emperors that no one of any excellence remained… Why am I relating all this? Simply to demonstrate that as the city of Rome was destroyed by the emperors, who were perverse tyrants, so studies and Latin letters experienced a like ruin and decay, to such an extent that finally almost no one could be found who understood Latin literature with any refinement.

That literary and moral development go hand in hand is an interesting theory. I suppose this is true on some level – you do need some measure of prosperity and political stability before you can devote your time to cultivating your prose style. But what about the idea that all great art comes from crisis? Or that famous speech in The Third Man (1949):

Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Of course, this is visual art, and not literature… and I suppose that Bruni is right on some level: in totalitarian regimes, language is utterly debased, in that everyone must publicly consent to lies on a daily basis. In the Roman context, everyone of any influence had to pretend that Augustus actually restored the republic when he didn’t. But note that Bruni is not complaining about truth-telling, but about “style.” He claims that learned men were killed off by the emperors – and I suppose that many of them were. But what about the first century BC, when Rome was still a republic and still featured Romans merrily killing each other, including the great Cicero, who was assassinated by agents of Marc Anthony? What about the “Augustan age” of literature, including Ovid, Livy, Virgil, and other master stylists, some of them sponsored by Augustus himself? What about the eighty-year period of political stability in the second century AD, the so-called Golden Age of the Roman Empire – was this not long and prosperous enough for someone to cultivate a good style? Do Apuleius and Suetonius not count?

OK, so Bruni is generalizing, and exaggerating. The fall of the Western Empire doubtlessly did have an effect on letters:

Then Italy was invaded successively by the Goths and the Lombards, barbarian and foreign peoples, who almost completely extinguished all knowledge of letters, as appears in the documents drawn up in that time, than which nothing could be found more coarse and crude. From the time when the liberty of the Italian peoples was recovered, by the defeat of the Lombards who had occupied Italy for two hundred and four years, the cities of Tuscany and elsewhere began to revive, and to take up studies, and somewhat to refine the coarse style. So little by little these came to recover vigor, but very feebly, and without any true sense of refinement, paying more attention to writing in vernacular rhymes than to other forms. And so until the time of Dante few knew the cultivated style, and those few understood it rather badly, as we have said in the life of Dante. Francesco Petrarca was the first who had such grace of talent, and who recognized and restored to light the ancient elegance of style which was lost and dead, and although in him it was not perfect, nevertheless by himself he saw and opened the way to this perfection by recovering the works of Cicero, by enjoying them, by understanding them, and by adapting himself as much as he could, and he learned the way to that most elegant and perfect fluency.

The chronology here is a little fuzzy – Charlemagne defeated the Lombards in the eighth century, and Dante died in the early fourteenth, but I suppose that the long-term prosperity of the commercial revolution did invigorate Italian letters. I sure wish that Bruni would provide examples of what he means by “cultivated style” or “elegant and perfect fluency.” Because on one level it seems arbitrary: language changes over time, as the humanists noticed all too well; who is anyone to say what register is “better” than another? As long as language is efficient within its community at conveying meaning, there is no such thing as “good style.” As I like to tell my students, it would be as though we decided that our English was ugly, and that we need to revive the English of Shakespeare. This would be an exercise in pure affectation.

But we have all had the experience of reading beautiful prose, and trying to slog through bad prose, so I’m not prepared to dismiss aesthetic considerations completely. I just don’t believe that morality and “style” go hand in hand, and I especially dislike how the humanists ran down the “Middle” Ages because their style wasn’t as “good” as that of Cicero.