A dictatorship of letters

Bernard de Meung was one of the theoreticians of the ars dictaminis. His work Summa dictaminis written in the 1190s, was hugely influential. Here, a leaf from a manuscript of his works, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius C VIII, f. 131r.

There were many dictators in late medieval Europe, but not the kind of dictators you’d expect. Not the autocratic rulers that the Renaissance and the early modern period would produce, but men and women in control of their pen, expert writers of letters, virtuosi of the epistolary game.

Known as dictatores, these people were responsible for the rebirth of rhetoric in Europe and a renewed sense of the power, beauty and grace of the written word. For most of the medieval period, the art of rhetoric, the skills of literate persuasion, were taught and practised obliquely, especially through the writing of historical prose. In particular, the art of speech writing, so important to the ancient Romans, had been nearly lost in the West, surviving only in the sermons delivered by prelates before an often-uncomprehending audience.

But the 13th century saw the rise of the dictatores, the practicians of the ars dictaminis, the art of letter-writing. Through a renewed focus on the rhetorical power of language and a reaffirmed interest in classical writers like Cicero and Seneca, the dictatores helped bring about the humanist ideals of the last centuries of the medieval period. Most dictatores came from the Italian city states, where an emerging civic culture helped foster a forceful written culture focused on persuading and dissuading, accusing and defending, praising and blaming. The humanism of the Renaissance was born out of the womb of rhetoric and owed its advent to the effort of countless public servants, lawyers, notaries, theologians, secretaries, whose relentless pen drove the light dictatorship of letters forward.

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