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.