The Medieval Review 14.09.32

Berto, Luigi Andrea. The Political and Social Vocabulary of John the Deacon’s "Istoria Veneticorum". Cursor Mundi, 12. Antony Shugaar, trans. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. xv, 262. €70.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9782503531595 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Thomas Granier
Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier

This study follows Luigi Berto's critical edition of the source considered here; indeed, the edition is announced in this volume on in note 109 on p. 25. [1] The version reviewed here is an English translation of Il vocabolario politico e sociale della "Istoria Veneticorum" di Giovanni Diacono (Padova: Il Poligrafo, 2001). The bibliography has not been updated for this English edition, the latest titles being dated 2001; the sources section has been updated, though, in the few instances where new critical editions have been published since.

This study focuses on the History of the Venetians, the narrative of which spans from the Lombard conquest of Venetia in the late sixth century to the latest events recorded, dating from year 1008. The author can be identified with John, Deacon of Venice, chancellor of duke Peter II Orseolo (991-1008) and his ambassador to emperor Otto III; John is recorded in documents between 995 (maybe as early as 967) and 1018. This identification is made on the grounds that the narrative provides details of events of contemporary history--from the times of dukes Tribunus Menius (979-991) and maybe Peter IV Candiano (959-976)--of which only a firsthand, involved protagonist can be aware.

Eight manuscripts of the History exist, of which three date before 1500. The oldest one is the eleventh-century Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV), MS Urb. lat. 440 (= U), probably copied from John's notes, then partly corrected by himself, in which the first part of the text, I.1-II.18, is missing: it appears from the second earliest manuscript, thirteenth-century BAV MS Vat. lat. 5269 (= V). Luigi Berto therefore differentiates three parts in the text:

1) I.1-II.18, a later addition dealing with events from the late sixth to the late eighth century, is mainly an edit made by another author of excerpts from Paul the Deacon's History of the Lombards and Bede's De sex aetatibus mundi; its style and vocabulary set it clearly apart from the rest.

2) John's text begins at II.19 (the appointment of duke Mauritius Galbaio in 764); from there to the events of the 960s, and especially for ninth-century events, on which his information is consistent, the narrative is derived from previous sources, lost or at least unknown today; we are thus unable to measure to what extent John's narrative, vocabulary and interpretation of events is personal or influenced by this previous material.

3) The narrative for the latest five decades, however, is directly derived from John's personal testimony and involvement; his choices are fully personal; this last part of the text is the one most fruitfully used in Berto's analysis.

The book is made up of six chapters, each dedicated to one theme within the social and political vocabulary, with important discrepancies in volume: chapters 1 ("Dukes, Sovereigns and Holders of Other Offices") and 5 ("Space"), 81 and 66 pages respectively, are by far the longest ones, far ahead of chapter 6 ("The Peoples"), 36 pages, and of the three shorter ones: 4 ("Kinship and Classes of Age"), 23 pages, 3 ("The Verbs of Power"), 20 pages, and 2 ("Social Definitions"), 13 pages only. The "Conclusions" (243-244) are extremely short, hardly over one page in length.

The purpose of the book is clearly a study of John's vocabulary, with two aims: proving, on the basis of style, that John is the single author of the whole text from II.19; and precisely understanding his ideology and political agenda, since he has left no prologue to explain his aims and intents. Berto's analysis is detailed, thorough and frequently convincing. Two features greatly strengthen it: (a) good care for the contexts in which the words are used, Berto dealing not with artificially isolated words, but with significant, homogenous groups of tokens; and (b) frequent comparisons of John's vocabulary with that of other Early Medieval Italian historians: Andrea of Bergamo, Erchempert of Montecassino, John the Deacon of Naples, Paul the Deacon, the late-ninth-century Cassinese Cronicae and the late-tenth-century Chronicon Salernitanum.

The Venetian dukes' very actions are the core of John's narrative. He draws moral portraits of these central protagonists, some positive, some negative, few being entirely clear-cut: John does not issue wanton criticism and does not limit himself to abstract, sketchy, interchangeable characters within a typology: he gives balanced, personal portraits, genuinely drawn from his interpretation of available sources and of his own testimony for the last fifty years. Berto makes a very convincing analysis of the titles John gives them: the fact that he does not use in his narrative the official titles used in charters--with which he is thoroughly familiar (36-37)--proves he makes his own personal interpretation of the dukes' actions and politics. The very careful and meaningful use of the words domnus and princeps, for instance, is John's very personal way to appreciate and comment on these men's actions. One of the dukes, Peter I Orseolo (976-978), is explicitly made a saint (12-13, 118).

Such an insistence on the dukes' actions is linked to the fact that the duchy's sovereignty and independence are key issues in John's political view; they are grounded in the specific identity of the Venetici, clearly differentiated from the Longobardi of Italia, that is, the kingdom of Italy and its inhabitants, and from the areas and peoples subject to actual Byzantine rule. The Venetici are a populus, that is, a political body, a key instance in the dukes' appointment (208-220), even if this election remains fully informal in the eleventh century (221-224). So sovereignty in Venice is fully local, internal and autonomous. It lays the foundations for a full public authority, embodied in the dukes' palatium, the only building/institution in the duchy to be named as such, clearly differentiated from both the bishops' domus and the very domus of the duke's family itself. With such words and ideas, John accounts for Venice's society, politics and relationships with external powers during all its history from the point of view of his own time, that is the sea and trade leadership in the Adriatic acquired in the time of Peter II Orseolo, keeping quiet about the fact that Early Medieval Venice had to struggle hard to build and protect a precarious and threatened independence. It is thus worth stressing that the current beginning of the text, the later addition I.1-II.18, is crucial to the political meaning of the History precisely because it is a narrative of the origins: the Venetians being forced to flee from the mainland, Venice is founded on a virgin territory, the lagoon's uninhabited islands, this start from scratch laying the foundations of the city's and duchy's independence. Such a perspective is that of the texts in all manuscripts but the earliest (seven out of eight): John's History is thus mostly received in a view that is not exactly his own, yet takes it further.

Formally, a few grammar inconsistencies suggest that the final proofs of the book have not been checked with maximal care. As far as the contents are concerned, there are some minor weaknesses. For instance, although Berto's study is often based on detailed factual accounts of the episodes he analyses, he almost never gives dates for these events, which makes understanding them extremely difficult for readers not already very familiar with Venetian history: a clear account of the current state of knowledge about the chronology of the dukes would have been very useful to readers--as maps would also have been. Although Berto points out that we do not know to what extent John rewrote previous material for the facts before the 960s (yet he writes "without apparently making any major changes" [117]), he never attempts a thorough comparison of style and vocabulary in the second and third parts of the text, which would probably have strengthened both the conclusion that John is one single author, and the discussion as a whole.

In some cases, Berto could have taken his analyses further. Discussing John's words to describe power, he deals at length (71-81) with dignitas, honor, and a unique occurrence of prefectura; the analysis seems to conclude that a dignitas is higher than an honor, but there is no discussion of John's political conceptions behind these words (what makes a dignitas different from an honor, and both from a prefectura, to start with), of what these words evidence of John's ideas about distribution of power and the foundations of authority. A definition of the exact meaning of these words to John should at least have been attempted: it would have enabled the reader to grasp whether he acknowledges or interprets possible political transformations at the turn of the eleventh century--for instance, Berto only interprets milites as "professional soldiers" (88), without the merest reference to current discussions of aristocracy, war, and of concepts such as "Feudal turn" and "first Feudal Age." As a whole, Berto does not draw any conclusions about the political thought, or at least the ideas of power, in Venice and/or in Northern Italy around 1000. The whole book is conceived around the idea that John's vocabulary is entirely meaningful ("the extreme care that John the Deacon devoted to his choice of words" and "the chronicler's great skill in the use of words" [183-184]): Berto is keen on drawing meaning and ideas from John's words--it is worth repeating that he is mostly convincing--but also points out that John's text has not been completely or very carefully revised (122). Can we thus really be certain that repetitions or the absence of them are really meaningful? Can they not be, in some cases, the result of an incompletely revised text? All in all, can we really be certain that John uses his words as precisely and rigorously as the modern historian thinks he does or would like him to? Here, Berto's study reaches the methodological limits common to any detailed study of the source's vocabulary: its main interest is also its possible flaw.

Berto's book will doubtless prove very useful to those studying the connections between historiographical writing and political ideology in the Early and High Middle Ages. John's vocabulary being wholly consistent with that in the other sources used for comparisons, his thoughts about society and power seem to have no outstanding specificity; his originality as an historian lies elsewhere, mainly in his lack of stereotyping, and in his very personal accounts, interpretations and judgments, features most probably derived from his experience as a diplomat.



1. Giovanni Diacono, Istoria Veneticorum, ed. and trans. Luigi Andrea Berto. Fonti per la Storia dell'Italia medievale: Storici italiani dal cinquecento al millecinquecento ad uso delle scuole, 2. Bologna: Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medioevo/Zanichelli, 1999.

Copyright (c) 2014 Thomas Granier

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