Know thy 14th-century customer

Dante at his desk, presumably thinking whether he should write in Latin or Italian to best reach his intended audience, Paris, BnF, Italien 74 f.3r

One of the principles of ancient rhetoric was that of matching style to subject, an idea captured by what the ancients referred to in Latin as decorum. It’s the closest ancient writers came to understanding the importance of knowing one’s audience – in order to achieve the best communicative result.

Despite the prevalence of decorum, the ancients didn’t much reflect, as far as we know, on the make-up of an audience or readership to make sure the delivery, oral or written, reached the intended audience.

The first to ask such questions and to think long and hard about who the target audience might be is the Italian poet Dante Alighieri.

To indulge in modern parlance, we might say that Dante wished to know his customer.

By the late 13th century, when Dante started writing the works that would outlive him, European communication had become really messy. The recent rise of vernacular languages meant that writing was no longer the exclusive province of Latin. Since at least the 12th century, a lot had been written and published in French/Occitan, Italian, Spanish/Catalan, German, that is in the medieval/middle varieties of those languages.

The literate world which Dante moved in was very complicated. Latin was evidently the language of culture, church, administration and law, but it was learning to co-exist, in the Italian peninsula, with a mesh of Italian regional languages, as well as Provençal and French in the south. No vernacular enjoyed pre-eminence, no linguistic standards had been established.

Dante innovated in more ways that it may be possible to cover in this piece. But one important area where he broke new ground was in the way he thought about language – and the choices he made about which language to use for which readership.

Dante’s decision to write the Divine Comedy in Italian rather than Latin was a conscious one, driven by the author’s desire to bring the totality of European letters, science, philosophy and theology (and so much more) to non-Latin readers, the men and women (the latter decidedly so) in the street. There is plenty of evidence that the plan succeeded, and that by the 15th century, the Comedy was being read by the popular classes.

Quite defiantly, Dante wrote a defense of the vernacular, his not less famous De Vulgari Eloquentia (On the eloquence of the vernacular language), in Latin! But his Vita Nuova, which introduces his first love Beatrice to a mesmerised reader, was written in Italian, broadening its circulation and assuring its popular appeal. He wasn’t wrong. We’re still talking about it, and the most memorable musical piece from Ridley Scott’s film Hannibal, later re-used in Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, is Vide cor Meum, composed by Patrick Cassidy, whose lyrics were lifted directly from the sonnet A ciascun’alma presa in the third chapter of Vita Nuova. Speak of reception!

Dante also wrote the philosophical treatise Convivio (The Banquet) in Italian where he rehearsed concepts and ideas which he developed more fully in the Comedy. The Convivio begins with Dante justifying his decision for writing the treatise in Florentine Italian rather than Latin, which would’ve sounded to the Latinate litterati as a revolutionary gesture. Dante knew how to be provocative.

The decision to switch from Latin to Italian and back shows that Dante wanted to meet his target audience on their own turf. And in this, he was more modern than medieval.

2 thoughts on “Know thy 14th-century customer

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  1. I have a dear Sicilian friend who says Dante was responsible for Tuscan becoming the dominant Italian dialect rather than his own beloved Sicilian. He resents Dante for that.


    1. Your friend’s resentment is well-founded. Dante did contribute, albeit unintentially, to setting Florentine Italian as the literate vernacular in the peninsula. But Dante owes a lot to Sicilian language and poetry as well.


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