19.08.15 Lluís Cabré et al. (eds.), The Classical Tradition in Medieval Catalan, 1300-1500

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Michael Vargas

The Medieval Review 19.08.15

Cabré, Lluís, Alejandro Coroleu Montserrat Ferrer, Albert Lloret , and Josep Pujol. The Classical Tradition in Medieval Catalan, 1300-1500: Translation, Imitation, and Literacy . Monografias A. Woodbridge: Tamesis, 2018. pp. xiv, 286. ISBN: 9781855663220 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Michael A. Vargas
State University of New York at New Paltz

Scholars interested in the admiration with which Humanist writers looked upon Ovid, Livy, Cicero and other greats of Classical antiquity will appreciate the insights offered in this compelling book. The Humanists' backward gaze was purposeful, set to the tasks of confirming political positions, enhancing reputations, or framing creative pursuits. Evidence comes as the book's team of researchers position their subjects in the dynastic and social contexts of the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance, establishing the place of those writers alongside the patrons, readers, copyists, and printers who attended to the written word and who sought to participate in a social valuation of the Greek and Roman ancients. The book has broad utility for historical and literary studies, for example, by suggesting opportunities for comparison of literary styles, patronage practices, and modes of production across Italy, Occitania, Castile, and Catalonia. But the book's focus is on the Catalan scene. Taken on its own, the intensity of attention given to the Catalan Humanists results in a successful verification of the richness and complexities of the subject. Each of the collaborating researchers is an expert in Catalan literary studies with an extensive record of publication. Together they have created a model of research and writing as a team. This is no collection of disparate and haphazardly assembled conference papers. Instead, The Classical Tradition in Medieval Catalan, 1300-1500, is a remarkable product of shared skills, combined resources, and complementary effort.

The structure of the book is a bit odd, but the slight frame supports a heavy harvest. Four chapters of unequal length, and not all equivalent in scope, proffer a sinuous narrative discovery of themes and trends.

Chapter 1, "Historical Background," tracks the development of a distinctive Catalan language and literary culture through a few pages on the emergence and expansion of the Crown of Aragon (the name customarily given to the assemblage of Catalan counties and the kingdoms attached to them by dynastic marriage and military conquest). I initially found the chapter superficial and tangential; but I was wrong. It plays an integral part in the whole by demonstrating the vigor of the Catalan language over many centuries and across lands eventually partitioned by Spain, France, and Italy.

The second chapter, "Literacy: Translation and Royal Patronage," is long and dense, a thicket of important assertions and arguments. Key among them are these: that the establishment of the Crown in the mid-twelfth century coincides with the earliest signs of royal investments in literacy and cultural amplification; that the first wave of translations of ancient texts into Catalan begins around 1300; that by early in the fourteenth century, Catalan count-kings had added a clear interest in Roman history to their previous pursuits, which included commemorating their own deeds, producing doctrinal texts, and writing and patronizing troubadour poetry; that ancient texts and writers provided models in each of these arenas; that the ancient writings about the deeds of Alexander the Great shaped the model of the medieval knight, conqueror, and leader; that scribes, legists, and especially Dominican writers produced exempla, commentaries, and other devices for bringing a critical analysis of the ancients' work to broader attention; that the impetus for translating and exploiting ancient texts often came to Catalonia through French and Italian intermediaries; that the application of classical texts to political and cultural life in Catalonia had undergone significant change over the two centuries studied. Ample detail solidly demonstrates each point.

The third chapter, "Imitation: The Classical Tradition in the Works of Five Major Authors," describes the influence of classical Latin literature upon five major medieval Catalan writers: Bernat Metge, Ausiàs March, the anonymous author of Curial and Guelfa, Joan Roís de Corella, and Joanot Martorell. The researchers link each to the thought, themes, or methods of a single predecessor, although this is largely a device for a larger exploration. Thus, Metge draws upon Petrarch's Secretum as a model for a dramatic dialogue on philosophical themes in the tradition of Cicero. March follows in the footsteps of Ovid. The Curial and Guelfa author takes Virgil as guide. Boccaccio becomes Roís de Corella guide for how to convert mythological stories into sentimental literature for a courtly readership, one Humanist serving the other as a model for borrowing of Latin lexicon, syntax, and versification. Tirant Lo Blanc, while drawing upon Martorell's own experience as a knight and upon the chivalric fictions of his time, shows Martorell working under the shadow of Livy, who offers war, love, and rhetoric as themes for emulation. The volume's collaborators have great respect for the Catalan authors, seeing their creativity and literary skills as more than mere imitation. Still, a fuller presentation of the literary contributions of Metge, March, et. al. may have made this more obvious to readers. It is perhaps because these writers are so well known to scholars of Catalan literature and among a wider Catalan readership that the chapter is somewhat lighter than readers who are neither Catalan nor specialists might like.

The final chapter, "Printing: Humanism and Renaissance," traces several important patterns in the dissemination of classical thought and writing into Catalonia as well as shifts in the positions of writers and writers' patrons during the period when the written word made the shift from manuscript to print. The royal court directed much of the early interest in the classics through to the end of the fourteenth century. Early in the fifteenth century notaries and lawyers took the lead in collecting classical authors and compiling references to their work. They also began to amass substantial libraries. By the middle of the century, urban ruling classes made direct cultural links with Italy and thus the new products of Italian Humanism got channeled through patrician families rather than through the court. Printing Presses, once they became operational in Valencia by 1473 and soon thereafter in Barcelona and Zaragoza, became the chief means of disseminating classical, devotional, and humanistic texts ranging from Aristotle's Ethics and Politics, printed in Latin and used in the schools, to vernacular translations of Italian Humanists. Into the sixteenth century the use of Catalan among elites decreased as its prestige waned relative to Castilian, which became the language favored by those seeking political and social promotion. The paths of reception of medieval Catalan literature thereafter appear thinner and irregular.

There are occasions when the reappearance of persons and themes in several chapters suggests disorder in the book's structure, but this is only superficially true. For example, Ausiàs March, a subject of chapter 3, has eight more pages devoted to him in chapter 4. The earlier chapter attended to his interest in the classical authors whereas the later pages focus on editions and translations of his work; distinguishing authorship from readership requires his return. An interesting outcome of the later discussion is the revelation that Renaissance printers typically altered March's work to make it fit even more directly into their perception of the mold established by Petrarch. Editors and printers, in their own discourse with the ancients, changed how Catalan authors would be read.

The munificence of those four chapters is merely Part One to a compendious second half. Part Two comprises a catalogue of translations up to 1500, including a list of authors and works. There is no need to offer detail about the contents since those who know how to mine for it will find plenty of gold there. One appendix lists all known editions of Italian Latin Humanist works printed in the Crown of Aragon from 1473 to 1535, and a second produces a diagram of the Rulers of the Crown of Aragon from 1137 to 1516. The extraordinarily thorough bibliography confirms the richness of the scholarship into which the collaborators have tapped. Beyond its application to studies touching directly upon medieval Catalan literature in its engagement with the classics, the bibliography will be an aid to any scholar investigating the medieval humanists.

A note about contemporary relevance: Many Catalans today are engaged in a political campaign sometimes referred to as Catalanism, which aims to defend the history and cultural inheritance of Catalonia as a nation. The authors--Lluís Cabré, Alejandro Coroleu, Montserrat Ferrer, Albert Lloret, and Josep Pujol--all are Catalan. They do not overtly advance a Catalanist agenda, although one may ask whether they intended to write a Catalanist book. On the one hand the author's acknowledge early efforts to establish a Catalan national history, although they do so simply by recognizing for what it is the medieval propaganda that moves peoples toward nationalisms. In the opening pages of the first chapter, making their first direct reference to a medieval source, Bernat Desclot's Chronicle, the authors acknowledge that this and the other great Catalan chronicles of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries "are as biased as the French ones" (4). On the other hand, one can read between the book's lines seductive hints about the contribution the authors wish to make about the relationship of Catalonia's past to its present. They recognize the potency of operations at nexus of historical events and today's political developments. Even the book's title, for example, offers one such clue. Unless one knows Catalanism well it may seem a curious omission that the book's title identifies the Medieval, up to 1500, but not the Renaissance since, in fact, much of chapter fourth chapter treats events after 1500. Only readers schooled in Catalan history and historiography will know that there is substance in the omission. From the Catalanist perspective, the subordination of Catalonia and the diminution of Catalan literature, as well as the eventual rupture of Catalan territorial integrity by Spain and France, began around 1500 under the Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabella. 1500 is the marker for the beginning of the gap that separates a modern Catalan resurgence from its medieval inheritance. Another clue is that the first chapter's historical background, a textbook summary of a national history, seems to serve no essential purpose in a book on literary developments except to illustrate that those literary developments participated in the shaping of a national identity.

I should admit that I am neither Catalan nor Spanish as a way of introducing a concluding remark that, after some self-reflection, stirs me to wonder. If this book is a labor of love of nation then its writing is a demonstration that, in the right hands, national histories, or histories of national literatures, can still be apropos. Moreover, perhaps a robust, poignant, disciplined, and productive study of Humanism such as this one can serve to defend freedom of expression in Catalonia against Posthumanist threats.

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