Book Review: The Two Latin Cultures and the Foundation of Renaissance Humanism in Medieval Italy

Ronald G. Witt, The Two Latin Cultures and the Foundation of Renaissance Humanism in Medieval Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 616 pp (HB, e-book available) ₤75.00.

In The Two Latin Cultures, Ronald Witt responds to one of the most contentious questions in modern scholarship regarding Italian humanism: “What was Italian exceptionalism and how did it come about?” (1). A prequel to his earlier work, In the Footsteps of the Ancients (2000), Witt’s new book examines the trajectory of Latin culture in the northern Italian kingdom, the regnum Italiae, from the time of the Carolingian defeat of the Lombards in 773 through the mid-thirteenth century. He considers why and how the majority of northern Italian intellectuals were laymen by the thirteenth century, while elsewhere in medieval Western Europe the majority of intellectuals were drawn from the clergy. Witt’s argument is convincing and well corroborated by a diverse array of primary sources, including letters, Latin and vernacular literature, vitae, histories, theology, legal texts, and philosophical treatises. He suggests that the early medieval regnum was unique in its possession of two Latin cultures, which became increasingly more defined from the tenth century. The first was the traditional book culture, which consisted of the study of grammar and Latin literature. The second being the legal culture, which comprised mostly notaries. The unique interaction between these two cultures engendered circumstances in which laymen could, and often did, gain prominence over the clergy in the production of literary works. The geographical scope of the book is sensibly narrowed to the regnum, suggesting that the northern Italian region was singular in its development of this twofold distinction, but woven elegantly throughout his analysis are discussions of political and intellectual exchanges between that region and the transalpine realms, the papal territories, and the Kingdom of Naples, demonstrating that the development of the intellectual culture of the regnum was not an insular process.

Witt suggests that at the time of the Carolingian invasion, book culture in the regnum consisted of Latin-literate clerics teaching primarily at cathedral schools, providing instruction in liturgical practice and religious texts, often in addition to the works of pagan authors and Church Fathers. But beginning in the eleventh century, this book culture began to undergo significant changes. The influence of cathedral education began to wane largely as a result of the Gregorian Reform, which increasingly dislodged clerics from their notarial offices in its attempt to distinguish the clergy from the laity. The decline of the cathedral schools was compounded by the proliferation of lay  private schools, which were intended to train the emerging body of lay notaries.

The notariate, a body which comprised both clerics and laymen until the ecclesiastical reforms of the eleventh century, was the mainstay of legal culture in the regnum. Witt points out that this legal culture was extant at the time of the Carolingian conquest, and it later evolved to incorporate the ars dictaminis in the eleventh century and the discipline of canon law in the twelfth. With the rise of lay private schools in the eleventh century, the growing corps of lay notaries became the most educated men in the region. Educated laymen, unlike their clerical contemporaries, were more enabled to take intellectual risks, so beginning in the twelfth century the large majority of Latin translations of medical and scientific writings from the ancient Greek and medieval Arabic worlds were undertaken by laymen. Continuing into the  thirteenth century, the expansion of lay private schools was cultivated by the growth of communal bureaucracies. Witt argues that the continual prosperity of these schools contributed to a growth in literacy in both Latin and in the vernacular, laying the basis for a steep rise in literary productivity, evident in the growth of Latin poetry and vernacular literature.

Witt’s argument spans twelve chapters and is divided into five parts. Following a chronological course, the first part begins with the Carolingian conquest and then proceeds through the Ottonian Renaissance to end with the monastic and papal reforms up to 1075. The second part is arguably the core of the book, focusing on the shift in intellectual prominence from the book culture to the legal culture during the last quarter of the eleventh century. A highlight of this chapter is Witt’s comprehensive discussion of the development of the ars dictaminis, which will enlighten any scholar interested in the battle of words which was waged between Pope Gregory VII, Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire, and the polemical supporters of each. Witt’s discussion of what he calls “the propaganda war and the new style” is exemplary of the way in which he adeptly juxtaposes analysis of a body of primary sources and then places the works within a broader historical framework (191). Here, he uses twelve treatises of the Investiture Conflict written in the regnum between 1085 to 1112 to illustrate the increasingly legalistic treatment of issues surrounding the papal-imperial conflict, arguing that the treatises demonstrated a significant change in the presentation or defense of legal arguments: namely, the gradual replacement of the use of litterae et mores (an Ottonian pedagogical ethos which intended to engender men of high moral character more than men of letters) in favor of solid principles of canon law. Referring to this emphatic shift toward canon law, Witt writes:

The outstanding methodological achievement of the polemical literature was Placido of Nonantola’s Liber de honore ecclesiae [...] The author broke down his discussion into one hundred and seventy logically sequential chapters [...] Many of the rubrics began with a statement based ‘on reason’ that the author then followed with authoritative texts to support the claim. There was always one citation or more from sacred sources to support each proposition. With its emphasis on clarity of expression, the Liber stylistically resembled a legal treatise. (199)

This microscopic analysis, like many others, is adeptly incorporated into Witt’s greater argument. The broader point he makes is that the cathedral schools had been gradually suppressed by the religious divisions of the Investiture Conflict, while at the same time private schools of Roman law were flourishing. While the cathedral schools were identified with the old imperial church by propapal reformers, the emerging private law schools in the regnum were becoming increasingly popular centers for the growing study of canon law. That subject, together with the study of ancient Roman law and of the ars dictaminis, formed a powerful legal-rhetorical synthesis which would prevail in the regnum into the fourteenth century.

The Investiture Conflict is the subject of one among many of Witt’s chapters which could easily stand alone as brilliant monographs. That chapter is followed by the third section, which covers the ascension of legal culture. Witt argues that this phenomenon was largely due to the post-Gregorian reconstruction of political institutions and the continual expansion of the Italian economy, which resulted in the need for competent legal-rhetorical minds. The fourth part tracks the development of the twelfth-century French renaissance, including discussions on the influence of French rhetoric, vernacular poetry, and Latin literature. The fifth and final part deals with the influence of the twelfth-century literary renaissance in the context of important contemporaneous developments in the regnum: the proliferation of popular communal bureaucracies after the Peace of Constance in 1183, and the growth of secondary and advanced education and the resulting rise of Latin literacy among laymen. Witt claims here that the destabilization of the elite caused that class to becoming increasingly drawn to the noble ethos espoused by the Provençal troubadours, and that the expansion of communal bureaucracies resulted in both an increase in notarial employment opportunities for the Latin-literate and an increase in opportunities for political and social advancement. He further suggests that the growing interest in Provençal vernacular lyric seems to have awakened a desire for Latin literary production, and because Latin had gained prominence and respectability as the language of written law in an age of proliferating communal bureaucracies, a significant number of new Latin poems, authored primarily by laymen, began to appear in the late 1240s.

Witt’s analysis challenges existing historiography on medieval humanism, particularly Robert Black’s Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy (2001), by arguing against the insistence on a period of intense study of pagan authors in the twelfth century followed by a century of decline in classical interests. Departing from Robert Black’s argument, Witt suggests that while it is likely that relatively few literary works were produced in the regnum in comparison to transalpine Europe, current scholars’ perception of the paucity of literary production in the regnum is likely skewed by the loss of manuscripts at a rate which is disproportionate to other regions. His discussion of the evidence he uses to corroborate his argument sometimes points to a dearth of archival sources, but this problem is common particularly in relation to research on the cathedral schools (the same issue is revealed by C. Stephen Jaeger in his book on that topic). In Witt’s discussion of cathedral schools in the regnum during the Carolingian period, he relates that there is little hard evidence of cathedral schools in the region other than those of Verona and Ravenna. However, in cases such as this he is forthcoming about the gaps in evidence, and that transparency only serves to add integrity to his argument and to point toward the need for more archival work. Nevertheless, aside from the forgivable paucity of documents on cathedral schools, the magnitude of primary texts he uses is impressive, and the quality of his analysis of these texts is extraordinary; his nuanced textual criticisms of a document or group of documents are often situated between a rich introduction and a cogent summary. Scholars of myriad fields will find this book both useful and engaging, particularly advanced undergraduate students, graduate students, and specialists in medieval canon law, Italian intellectual culture of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, education in the High Middle Ages, and the Gregorian Reform. The book can be used as a comprehensive introduction to intellectual life in the regnum from the Carolingian invasion until the mid-thirteenth century, or as a way for one with advanced knowledge to engage with innovative arguments related to medieval Italian intellectual culture.

Charles Carroll


Charles Carroll received his B.A. in history and religious studies from Saint Michael’s College and is currently a second-year M.A. student in the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is beginning to work on his thesis, which will focus on the effect of the Gregorian Reform on clerical gender discourse.

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Book Review: The Two Latin Cultures and the Foundation of Renaissance Humanism in Medieval Italy by Charles Carroll is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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