Gina Psaki

title.none: Allaire, Andrea da Barberino and the Language of Chivalry (Psaki)

identifier.other: baj9928.9901.005 99.01.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Gina Psaki, University of Oregon,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Allaire, Gloria. Andrea da Barberino and the Language of Chivalry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. Pp. xiv, 183. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-813-01528-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.01.05

Allaire, Gloria. Andrea da Barberino and the Language of Chivalry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. Pp. xiv, 183. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-813-01528-6.

Reviewed by:

Gina Psaki
University of Oregon

Chivalry, or the ideal of knightly behavior and ethics which informs medieval European chivalric romance, is a complex and problematic notion, particularly once we remove this code from its matrix in feudalism. The documentary evidence for the idea of chivalry is abundant and various, including literary fictions, conduct books, sermons and letters, but the wealth of testimony has produced no clarity. What chivalry was understood to mean, how influential it was as a model, and how it changed over time and distance are all objects of disagreement among scholars. For this reason Gloria Allaire's book, which meticulously examines the corpus of Andrea da Barberino -- "an author whose name is synonymous with chivalric literature in Italy" [[2)]] -- contributes to a project that is a vital prerequisite to understanding the evolution of the chivalric code.

Maurice Keen, in his wide-ranging book Chivalry, makes a claim for a virtually stable and static understanding of chivalry throughout the High Middle Ages: Men's conception of what was essential to chivalry remained [relatively] unchanged...from the end of the twelfth century or thereabouts to the end of the fifteenth. (16)The core of chivalric values, though articulated in France, was assimilable in other social, political, and economic structures because the themes of French literature reflected the aspirations of social groups in societies outside France, whose position was comparable with that of French knighthood, but whose history was different. (34) For Keen's purposes, then, knighthood entailed a virtually unchanging set of ethical and behavioral parameters which were "portable," i.e., applicable to circumstances and places far different from those which generated them as an ideal in the first place.

Michelangelo Picone offers another trajectory for the chivalric ethos, in which it degraded as the French chivalric material travelled into new countries, languages, and socio- economic and class strata. For Picone, the new bourgeois and lower-class audiences for romance in Italy understood little of the ethical and didactic purport of the French originals, and took over only the external forms of their literary models. If twelfth-century romance was "created to entertain, but above all to form and educate, the refined courts of Northern Europe," their degraded Italian offspring, the cantari, were meant to offer "a kind of collective escapism" and "automatic patents of nobility" (90-91). Picone describes the quotidian, literal- minded, and intellectually limited new consumers of romance as having "interests and aspirations...exactly the opposite [of] chivalric ideals" (90). In Picone's entropic model, the chivalric ideal declines once it is transplanted into Italy, away from its original context, producers and audience. Whereas for Keen chivalry is a stable concept applicable to various classes in various times and places, for Picone the ethos of chivalry is context-specific and vulnerable to degeneration when displaced.

Aldo Scaglione and John Larner have offered corrective perspectives on these competing narratives of the itinerary of chivalry, particularly with regard to Italy. Larner notes that Picone's conviction -- common among Italianists -- that chivalry was an artificial and incongruous construct in Italy springs from a common misconception about early capitalism: According to this stereotype northern and central Italy was the world of a triumphant bourgeoisie, of a popolo who had expropriated the nobility, of rich merchants who did not themselves fight but paid mercenaries to fight for them.......the great epic of Italian medieval commercial capitalism is quite wrongly interpreted as being primarily a bourgeois or middle-class phenomenon. Most of the great merchant families were noble by birth or became noble through achievement. ...The reality is that the first age of commercial capitalism was never created by... "bourgeois" virtues...It was rather chivalric ideas which lay behind the growth of long-distance commerce: reckless courage balanced by intelligence, a contempt for wealth as such which was willing to put all to the touch in search of greatness. (129) Indeed, he says, "chivalric culture, however neglected, is a major and essential element of this age" (126). Scaglione makes this point even more strongly in his book Knights at Court. Whatever political structures, economic activities, social pressures, and ethical influences -- in Italy or elsewhere -- might pull society away from the model of France, mentalities outlive their experiential matrices: ...a balanced reconstruction of behavioral patterns requires a full realization of the enduring impact of purely mental attitudes, often induced by literary models even when the material conditions have made them obsolete. (28) In our own time we can see how cultural models persist though their experiential bases have all but vanished; nonetheless these models still serve as sources of inspiration (or frustration) as we measure ourselves against them.

I have simplified the position of these scholars in order to sketch a spectrum of critical understanding of the chivalric ideal on the Italian peninsula (particularly the urban north), a spectrum within which to locate Allaire's work on the prose romances of Andrea da Barberino (b. by 1372, d. by 1433). With this book she intends to offer the first complete and informed evaluation of Andrea based on his actual corpus, which she presents as larger, more learned, and more influential than it has been understood to be. The book explores a vast set of documents to present an analysis as detailed and accurate as possible, and for that reason -- and also because its abundant quotations in Italian, medieval and modern, are not translated -- it may strike the non-specialist reader as too focussed to yield general insights about the "language of chivalry" to which its title refers. In fact, however, Allaire's analysis strikes this reader as precisely the right kind of work to allow us to reach such insights. This is, moreover, the work that urgently needs doing, on a corpus which has been more talked about than studied, more discounted than read, and considered more in light of what it tries to supersede than of what it actually aims to accomplish. Only after such work has been done on the entire romance corpus of Italy -- the matter of Britain and the fantastic material as well as the matter of France -- will we be able to reach global conclusions about the nature and transmutations of the chivalric ethos in Italy, conclusions based on a thorough knowledge of the corpus rather than a partial and aleatory one.

Allaire's book and its extensive critical apparatus offer a litany of manuscripts unedited, manuscripts unidentified, manuscript traditions incomplete, manuscripts recently discovered, editions now obsolete, texts misattributed, and other woeful gaps in the collective knowledge base on which all informed theorizing and generalizing must be done. Until the philological, codicological, paleographical, stylistic and historical work on the corpus is completed, and completed as conscientiously and exactingly as Allaire does in this book, the "language of chivalry" will remain a post-romantic Esperanto with very little real origin in either the literary or the material understanding of the concept in the medieval and early modern periods.

The "language of chivalry" mentioned in the book's title is for Allaire's purposes the actual language of Andrea da Barberino, the personal and patented language in which he tells his epic romances. Her first chapter sketches the very few certain facts about his life and production. Her second chapter aims to extrapolate, from the corpus securely attributed to Andrea, a rhetorical, stylistic, lexical and thematic profile of this author to help in determining other less certain attributions. This profile includes such features as "structural integrity" (6), "realistic elements" (22), a "historiographic style" (14), "elemental courtliness" (26), "authorial interjection" (27), clear ordering and division of his material (29), the interlace formula "torna la storia" (42), a specific lexicon, and many more. Allaire has not merely extracted features from Andrea's proven corpus and claimed them to be distinctively his, however. She has also compared them to other chivalric texts written in Tuscany both other authors, as well as to non-chivalric texts by Tuscan authors including Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. What lexical items and formulations were not found in this control group, she identifies with Andrea's stylistic "signature."

A major feature of Andrea's production is that "his several epic romances form a vast narrative cycle" (6), with "a sizable narrative gulf...between Aspramonte and Nerbonesi. This gap would logically be filled by narrations of the first and second wars of Charlemagne in Spain" (31). Allaire's third chapter makes a case for attributing to Andrea a text called the Prima Spagna. The unique manuscript of this text, containing also Aspramonte and La Seconda Spagna, was lost at sea in the early nineteenth century. The rubrics (descriptive chapter headings) of La Prima Spagna, however, had been copied before the manuscript was lost, and Allaire bases her attribution on a combination of narrative episodes and lexical choices preserved in these rubrics. Chapter 4 evaluates the much more contingent evidence for La Seconda Spagna, the only copy of which was lost at sea in the same manuscript as the Prima Spagna; its rubrics moreoever were never copied. Allaire believes however that this text corresponds to a surviving Storia di Ansuigi, re di Spagna preserved in BNCF II.I.15. Using narrative sequence and "motivic symmetries" (64) to claim that the texts are identical, Allaire uses the same thematic and lexical parallels with Andrea's known corpus to add Ansuigi to it.

Having filled, with the First and Second Spain, the gap in Andrea's narrative cycle of epic romances, Allaire turns to two other texts which have been attributed to Andrea. Le Storie di Rinaldo da Monte Albano features the "closest to an Italian national hero of all the knights and paladins in chivalric discourse" (65). Using the same minute comparative strategies described above, Allaire in Chapter 5 concludes that this text also was composed by Andrea, whereas Chapter 6 decides against Il Libro di Rambaldo, an unedited Florentine prose romance preserved in only one manuscript. Although whoever wrote the Rambaldo not only incorporated entire passages from Guerrino and Ugone, but consciously parrotted Andrea's terminology and phrasing, his imitation of Andrea's lexicon and phrasing is not sufficiently thorough or accurate. Allaire concludes that "in all probability, an anonymous fifteenth-century Florentine imitator compiled it after Andrea's death" (94).

The book leaves us with the following titles as constituting Andrea's corpus: I Reali di Francia, Aspramonte, Prima Spagna, Ansuigi ( Seconda Spagna), Storie Nerbonesi, La Storia di Aiolfo del Barbicone, Ugone d'Avernia, Guerrino il Meschino, Storie di Rinaldo da Montalbano. The reader may hesitate when Allaire seems to make her case too strongly, as when she compares her evaluation of the Seconda Spagna to that of previous scholars: Must the question of Andrea's authorship of a "Second Spain" be left to subjective speculation, often influenced by the ethnocentric viewpoints of earlier critics, or can we rigorously apply what data have come down to us to reach a philologically valid conclusion? (45) Here Allaire does justice neither to her interlocutors, whose criteria surely exceeded subjective speculation and ethnocentric partiality, nor to the superior grounding of her own work. By this I mean that the critics with whom she takes issue are constructing conscientious hypotheses, but based on infinitely less familiarity (sometimes even acquaintance) with the texts than she has. The merit of her work lies most spectacularly in the fact that she has seen and consulted all these texts (Andrea's alone appear in seventy extant manuscripts and fragments, only eleven of which she has not examined personally), ferreted out at least eight new manuscripts, and systematically compared the evidence, rather than relying on second-hand accounts and superseded editions, as some earlier scholars were forced, no doubt reluctantly, to do.

Despite these significant accomplishments, Allaire gives us tantalizing hints of what is missing from the book. She calls Andrea "a missing link between the early Italian reworkings of chansons de geste and the Renaissance epic masterpieces" (124); the book could profitably have concluded with at least a summary discussion of Andrea's real impact on these later texts. Allaire gives us, too, hints of an authorial ethos more rich than the simple linguistic fingerprint she has been emphasizing: Andrea absorbs entire chivalric texts into his own, for the most part fusing borrowed and original material seamlessly and coloring the whole with his personal brand of chivalry and morality. (100) But what was that brand of chivalry and morality, and how was it personal? The difficulty in identifying the precise notion of chivalry prevailing in any one time or place derives in part from the difficulty of extrapolating "real-world" beliefs or behaviors from any form of fiction, let alone the highly conventional and stylized medieval romance. What ultimately underlies the difficulty modern readers have in identifying chivalry as a set of mores for imaginary (and in some fashion for real) characters, however, is the fact that chivalry is itself constantly under scrutiny in the romances. The romances pursue, among other things, a working definition of chivalric virtue, and each text offers different answers. What answers did Andrea's offer?

Allaire's two-page conclusion does not do justice to these and other issues, and it would have been tremendously helpful to the reader had she panned back to a more evaluative and contextualized discussion of precisely what Andrea accomplished, contributed, and determined, in the long history of textual chivalry. But there is a limit to what can reasonably be included in any one book, and Andrea da Barberino and the Language of Chivalry offers the reader a wealth of linguistic, structural, and textual analysis that is literally unprecedented for this corpus. This book, and more books like it, will give comparative medieval scholars -- historians and literary historians alike -- the information they need to arrive at an informed understanding of chivalry as an ideal and a practice in different times and places in medieval and early modern Europe.


1. Maurice Keen, Chivalry. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

2. John Larner, "Chivalric Culture in the Age of Dante." Renaissance Studies, 2,2 (1988), 129.

3. Michelangelo Picone, "La 'mati^Êre de Bretagne,'" in I cantari: Struttura e tradizione. Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Montreal, 1981. Florence: Olschki, 1984.

4. Aldo Scaglione, Knights at Court: Courtliness, Chivalry and Courtesy from Ottonian Germany to the Italian Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.