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For it is vain and foolish to talk of Knowing Greek, since in our ignorance we should be at the bottom of any class of schoolboys, since we do not know how the words sounded, or where precisely we ought to laugh … All the more strange, then, is it that we should wish to know Greek, try to know Greek, feel for ever drawn back to Greek, and be for ever making up some notion of the meaning of Greek.
Both Francesco Petrarca (1304–74) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–75) wished to know Greek and tried to know Greek. Of course, neither Boccaccio nor Petrarch – along with most of the learned elite of the medieval West – ever acquired the facility to read ancient Greek texts. By Petrarch's own account, he was nonetheless forever drawn back to Greek, or at least to a few ancient Greek authors, primarily to Homer as well as Euripides and Plato. His interest in these texts led him to undertake private instruction in the Greek language from a Calabrian monk named Barlaam (d. 1348), who offered Greek lessons in Avignon. For Boccaccio, the Greek language meant access to classical mythology and ancient history, to accounts of the Theban story or the narratives of the Trojan War – interests he had initially developed during his sojourn in Naples between 1326 and 1341 as a young merchant.
If Aristotle classified history as a branch of literature, it was the vernacular French cultures of the late Middle Ages that most fully develop what Hayden White calls the ‘narrativity’ of historical discourse. In his De vulgari eloquentia (c. 1305), Dante refers to the supple and pleasing features of French prose as the qualities that make the langue d'oïl the most appropriate language for the compilations of history (Book 1, chapter 10). From its emergence in the eleventh century, the literary tradition of Old French is dominated by narrative genres. When vernacular chronicles begin to appear in the twelfth century, they draw on this highly developed narrative tradition. As the lingua franca that enabled some form of linguistic and cultural exchange for a broad swathe of Western Europe from Norman England to the Frankish settlements of the Latin East, as well as francophone courts from Angevin Naples to Bohemia, French was the vernacular language in which the historia of Western Europe could be written. Since the narrative imperatives of historia require that a temporal awareness of the past be represented through emplotment, the historiographical traditions of medieval French rely on the narrative and rhetorical conventions of literary traditions. Nothing better illustrates this dynamic interplay between history and fiction – or historiography and narrativity – than the matter of Troy.
The plot of history requires an origin, and the medieval West located its origins in the city of Troy in Asia Minor.
The literary corpus of Christine de Pizan (c.1363-c.1431) enacts all aspects of authorship as a performance of gender: not only does Christine self-consciously construct a gendered voice within the rhetorical structures of late medieval literary cultures, but this construct changed and evolved during Christine’s long and prolific career as a writer. Over the course of almost four decades, Christine produced more than twenty texts in verse and prose in a variety of literary genres, including ballade cycles, debate poetry, allegory, epistolary treatises and political tracts, as well as texts such as the Epistre Othea that defy generic classification. Her oeuvre thus demonstrates not only her mastery but also her transformation of literary forms and traditions. In addition, Christine was extensively involved in the production of manuscripts of her texts, even to the extent of supervising the layout and visual programmes (illustration, decoration) of her work. In the course of such intensive textual activity, Christine frequently invokes her personal circumstances in order to situate her literary performances: in autobiographical vignettes and authorial intrusions inserted throughout her work, Christine connects her emergence as a poet in the 1390s to her widowhood. Such comments contextualize her performance as a writer in relation to her experiences as a woman. The Christine corpus is consequently animated by a discourse of life-writing that provides a link between her texts and through which she exposes the gendered structures of literary history. In addition, Christine’s narrators repeatedly refer to the activities of reading and writing that enable as well as authorize literary production. In several of her longer works, as we shall see, she emphasizes the rhetorical foundations of authorship in order to claim for herself, a late medieval woman, the identity of author.
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