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Italian History. The Middle Ages

Italian History the Middle Ages

The term “Middle Ages” appeared in Italy in the circle of historians and writers, the leading men of the time, who tried to revive the culture of ancient Greece and Rome. This period lasted from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Age of Discovery (Cantor, 2015). However, the complete domination of the medieval type of culture in Europe was not associated with the whole era, but lasted mainly from the 5th to the 13th century (Curtius, 2013). In that period, the Church took control of politics, morality, science, education, literature, and art. The whole human world of the Middle Ages was theological. Throughout the medieval period and later, Latin was the language of the Catholic Church, law, science, university teaching, as well as the main subject at schools. One of the most important characteristics of this time is the fact that during it, national languages appeared. The Italian language evolved on the basis of Tuscan dialects due to the prevailing of Tuscan cities in Florence. Against the tradition, the new literary works appeared not in Latin but in the vernacular (Clarke, 2013). The Italian language acquires the right to be the language of science and literature instead of the old Latin. In this research paper, the main features of Italian culture, religion, and literature of the Middle Ages are described; the role of religion and its impact on people’s worldview is examined, and the influence of such writers as Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch on the establishment of the Italian language is analyzed.

The Role of Religion and the Church in the Medieval Society

The medieval Italian culture is characterized by the dominant role of religion and the Church. The actual content of the Christian faith gives the answer to this question. It emerged during the struggle and mutual influence of many philosophical and religious currents. One of the main ideas of Christianity is the concept of human equality. In early Christianity, there was a very strong belief in the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ, the Last Judgment, and the end of the sinful world. However, as time went by, nothing like this happened, so in the Middle Ages, the idea of reward or retribution for good or bad deeds, in other words, the idea of heaven and hell emerged. The fundamentals of official church ideology of the Middle Ages were formed during the 5th and 6th centuries in the works of Augustine, later canonized (Lawrence, 2015). He developed the doctrine of divine grace, according to which the Church is the mediator between God and humans. According to Augustine, people must humbly accept both wealth and poverty as they are the consequence of the original sin of Adam and Eve. A human being must seek support in faith; hence, the following tenet appears: “I believe in order to understand”, which proclaims the priority of faith over reason (Lawrence, 2015). People believed that only the institution of Church could give a person the redemption. First Christian communities were democratic; however, very fast, priests and clergy became a strict hierarchical organization. First of all, the bishops took the highest positions. The Bishop of Rome began to seek recognition of his primacy among all clergy of the Christian church. At the early 5th century, he appropriated the exclusive right to be called the Pope and gradually got power over all other bishops of the Roman Empire (Logan, 2012). The Christian church became known as Catholic, which meant universal. In the last centuries of the Roman Empire, Christianity turned from the religion of oppressed to the state religion.

The Italian Language and the Art of Translation in Italy in the Middle Ages

The Italian language as well as the art of translation in Italy has a long history. The fact, that there were no translations into Italian, as well as there was no concept of the Italian language before the 12th century, seems implausible. Around the 5th century, the inhabitants of Apennine peninsula spoke mostly Latin with local dialects (Maiden, 2014). A little later, dialects of German tribes were added. It was the basis for the creation of the Italian language, which was taking its initial shape until the middle of the 12th century (Maiden, 2014). Certainly, if there is no language, there are no translations. Naturally, the foreign-language texts reached the Italians, but they were mostly translated into Latin. The first mentions of the Italian language belong to the 10th century. A humorous poem, written in the mixture of vulgar Latin and Italian dialects, denotes the beginning of the transition from Latin to Italian. The general cultural level in the first centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire declined dramatically; education, as elsewhere in Europe, remained only in monasteries and in the heart of Rome at the papal court. In the 11-12th centuries, in the cultural life of Italy, substantial changes took place. Many schools were opened. Moreover, in Bologna, the first university in the medieval Europe was established (Duggan, 2014). At this time, an unprecedented number of Italian translations appeared. French chivalric romances of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round table were translated. A little later, Cicero’s Ethics and Rhetoric were translated into Italian (Cox & Ward, 2011). In the 13th century, translation of the Bible was made into Italian, and it was considered one of the first in Europe. The Italian society of the 13th century had a task to popularize science, distribute useful knowledge, and use the culture of the past (Duggan, 2014). Italian language was completely detached from Latin. Poets wrote on scientific themes; the works of Latin classics, moralists, and philosophers were translated from Latin.

Italian Medieval Literature

Learning sciences and ancient culture lasted for many centuries and had an enormous influence on the Italian literature. Medieval literature in Italy experiences a significant development in the 12th century, especially in Sicily and Naples (Van Den Bossche, 2013). It was specific literature, marked by the influence of Byzantine, Arab, Norman, and German cultures. In the first half of the 13th century, Sicilian poetry school was the greatest phenomenon of cultural life (Aquilecchia & Knowles, 1960). Sicilian poetry developed with the influence of the works of Provencal troubadours (Singer, 2011). The principal motives of the poems were unrequited love full of suffering, and other abstract concepts, such as death. Sicilian poetry is marked by great technical skill and musicality. Widely using the forms of Provencal poetry, Sicilians preferred the new form — a sonnet (Singer, 2011). A very talented poet Giacomo da Lentini was the first who turned to this form. These poems spread throughout Italy and significantly influenced the formation of the Italian language. Two languages existed in Italy at that time: Latin, which was the language of science and education, and conversational Italian, which existed in the form of different dialects. The Italian language of educated people was also the language of literature, although it did not have any established norms. The development of Sicilian poetry stopped in the middle of the 13th century, but its experience was mostly used in literature of Bologna and Florence, which became the centers of Italian culture (Marino, 2011). In those cities, the poetry of “sweet new style” appeared. It was characterized by developed symbolism of images, complicated and fine shape. The founder of a new school of poetry was Guido Guinizelli (Singer, 2011). The main theme of such poems is love addiction. Some pieces emphasize their ennobling effect on people, but particularly important motif is tragic love (Bestul, 2015). Poetry of “sweet new style” demonstrates the great sophistication of the Italian language in Tuscany. That is why, Tuscany spoken language is the basis of Italian.

The Works of Dante Alighieri as the Synthesis of Medieval Culture

The works of Dante are rightly called the synthesis of medieval culture. However, the name of Dante Alighieri is also associated with the beginning of a new culture and a new way of thinking. His moral and philosophical work called The Banquet as well as La Vita Nuova, combines verse and prose, medieval plot and the Renaissance era philosophy, thoughts, and aspirations (Hainsworth & Robey, 2012). Dante’s The Banquet is imbued with the values of the inquisitive mind of human as knowledge is the highest perfection of the soul. This work is written in Italian as the author consciously rejected the established medieval tradition of writing scientific works exclusively in Latin (Marino, 2011). The poet shows that Italian is able to express the most complex concepts; he defends the right of a poet to write in the native language not only about love but also about other great things. Dante predicted a great future to the Italian language.

Dante is not accidentally called “the father of the Italian language”. By both literary works, written in Italian, and theoretical protection of human, he laid the foundation of the literary language of Italy. The problem of language is highlighted in Dante’s treatise called On Eloquence in the Vernacular, written in Latin (Kay, 2016). The author speaks with respect and love about Italian language of common people, proves the need for targeted work on it, and conscious creation of literary language on its basis. According to Dante, the literary language is primarily the language of poetry, and by securing certain standards, it will become a common language for the whole Italy. The author makes political sense of his judgment, connecting it with the idea of the unity of the country. Lively and interesting, he describes fourteen Italian dialects. Dante understands the theoretical problems of language; his thoughts are connected with the medieval scholastic and theological ideas. His treatise is of a great interest in Europe as the first linguistic work and a study that includes useful material regarding the origin of the Italian language.

As it was mentioned earlier, Dante symbolizes the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. His The Divine Comedy is an outstanding work of art, which became a precursor of the Renaissance in the Middle Ages (Kay, 2016). In The Divine Comedy, which is rightly called the synthesis of medieval culture and step into the Renaissance culture, the complex and contradictory world of Dante is fully reflected. The idea of this work and its composition are defined by the system of knowledge of that time, mystical, and theological concepts, typical for the spiritual nature of medieval poetry. The Divine Comedy describes the universe, the picture of which Dante created using cosmological system of Greek scientist Ptolemy, and interpreted it in the spirit of medieval philosophy (Marino, 2011). The author followed the medieval literary tradition, inseparable from the theological outlook; that is why, his work is written in the form of visions, common in religious literature of the Middle Ages.

Petrarch, Boccaccio, and their Contribution to the Establishment of the Italian Language

In the cultural life, new consciousness and individualistic outlook, liberation of the human mind from dictatorship of the churches and medieval dogmatic thinking is observed. On this basis, new literature, based on antiquity and folk literary tradition, appears. The leading role in the culture and literature of that time played Petrarch and Boccaccio. Petrarch was one of the first who wrote the lyrics in Italian (Marino, 2011). Moreover, his Italian works were much more popular than Latin treatises; they had several hundred editions and translations as well as recognition as a world classics. His literary achievements are very impressive; not Latin works but his lyrical poems – sonnets, canzone, madrigals, and ballads, written in Italian, made him a classic. His collection of poems called The Song Book consists of poems that express the innermost thoughts and feelings of a great man; his outlook is most common among the poems Canzoniere.

As for Giovanni Boccaccio, in his works, the remains of the medieval outlook and the outlook of Renaissance coexisted for a long time. Fighting with the culture of the Middle Ages, the writer referred to antique images and motifs. He depicted not only an idyllic picture of happiness but also dishonesty and deeds worthy of condemnation. However, the pursuit of love and the human right to common happiness are his main themes. Without denying the religion or its regulations, Boccaccio was not afraid to write about dishonesty, corruption, and immorality in the ranks of priests. The issues are very diverse in the works of the writer. For example, in Decameron, there are hundreds of different stories and issues of the plot, which create a complete picture of life of that time (Eisner, 2013). Boccaccio applies humanistic pathos and personal reflection to any new or traditional theme.


To sum up, the decisive role of Christianity and the Church in all areas of social and cultural life was a fundamental feature of Italian medieval culture. In the Middle Ages, the Christian Church had absolute influence over the spiritual life of European society. It shaped the religious consciousness and contributed to the development of culture. Medieval people believed that the church officials could ensure every Christian and society the divine grace. Religion had a great impact on all spheres of life, especially on people’s worldview, reflected in literature. Italian literature also has a long and influential history. Almost all medieval literary works were written in Latin. In addition, these pieces were mostly practical as the authors studied in religious schools. However, such prominent writers and poets as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio started to write not only in Latin but in vernacular, making a valuable contribution to the development of the Italian language and its establishment as a literary language. The development of Italian greatly influenced the culture of the Renaissance, as the above writers went beyond the tradition of allegorical literature and philosophy of the Middle Ages; they were characterized by rich imagination, a keen sense of reality, and ardent passion.

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