Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The 11th Century: the First City-States

For most of this century, the vernacular seems to have disappeared from documents, though it continues to evolve as a spoken language. It is still fragmented in different regional languages (dialects), none of these actually prevailing upon the others.

If some poet had devoted part of their effort to writing in his own dialect , the Italian language would be marching toward a unified, however primitive, standard. But in the eyes of the intellectuals the new language is seen as a corruption, or worse a degeneration of Latin, the offpring of the moral decay that had brought about the fall of the Roman Empire.

With the fear that dialect may eventually erode what is left of Latin, every subject is taught in the old language. Rhetoric, the cornerstone of medieval learning is taught after the examples of Cicero and Seneca, therefore in their language although few would use it outside their classroom.

Because Italian states do not provide public education, only a few well-off can hire a private tutor to raise their sons as they please. The only schools are ecclesiastical, and here the vernacular is not only discouraged - but considered morally reprehensible. Latin is after all the language of theology, the language of the Fathers of the Church such as St. Augustin and the St. Gerome, the translator (and patron saint of translators) who produced the Vulgate Bible (in Latin) from the Greek.

The 11th century also sees the birth of the communes (it. comuni) or city-states in the center-north such as Florence, Lucca, Pisa, Milan. Cities and towns, the "città" are still listed with that name today: Comune di Lucca, Comune di Padova.

Unfortunately, the communes are more focused on consolidating their economic and military power than in refining their language. It appears that more practical interests are going to prevail for the next two centuries: Genoa, Pisa, Amalfi and Venice ("repubbliche marinare") vie for supremacy in the Mediterranean and even found colonies outside Italy, while Florence develops the new art of banking.

Without a unified language, Italians would be dependent on French literary models for a long time (La Chanson de Roland and the Arthurian legends on the one hand, the courtly love of Occitan poetry on the other, including the Roman de la Rose and the Fabliaux which enjoy an enormous success). Jokers use a repertoire in corrupt French or Occitan to entertain their patrons.

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