Insulting with Style: A Short History of Violent Language

Andrea Rizzi   ARC Future Fellow, University of Melbourne

Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459)Almost 600 years ago Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) stung his fellow-scholar and bitter enemy Francesco Filelfo (1398-1481) with the following venom:

You stinking billy-goat, you horned monster, you malevolent vituperator, father of lies and author of chaos… May Divine vengeance destroy you as an enemy of virtue, a parricide who tries to ruin wives and decency by mendacity, slanders, and most foul, false imputations. If you must be so scornfully arrogant, write your satires against those who debauch your wife. Vomit the putrescence of your stomach

This is one of the many vitriolic invectives hurled by Italian humanists at their competitors well before Martin Luther, Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More penned their theological and protestant vituperations.[1] Intellectuals and leaders used violent words, enacted on minds and with the intent of damaging the reputation of their opponents. Their extremely crude attacks and ‘robust’ language have confounded scholars who have generally shied away from these texts…..

The humanists who penned these viperous words have been accused of arrogance, lack of ethical stance, and absolute vulgarity. Fortunately, modern editions of a small but significative sample of these Latin texts reveal that behind strong words were important intellectual disputes garnished with eloquent references to classical texts. PT_AC_C_136One of the most influential texts on humanist culture is Lorenzo Valla’s Elegantiae (1435-44), which came out of a bitter exchange with Bracciolini. However, these few editions of invectives have focused on the content of the dispute and context, while their scurrilous and emotional language remains largely uncharted. And yet it is the violent language and emotions that were meant to stir strong reactions in the victims and audiences. As cultural constructs, written texts from the distant past¾such as these elaborate Neo-Latin rewritings of the ancient Roman vituperations and satire¾reveal socially and culturally fabricated emotions, through which lived emotions are filtered.

The questions I am addressing in my current research on humanistic invectives include the following: Did these invectives really hurt their victims and were they intended to entertain their audiences? Were these texts really violent?

It is practically impossible for us today to tell what personal and lived feelings were stirred by these early modern literary invectives: embarrassment or anger, sadness or elation. In these Latin texts (as in ancient Roman invectives), a victim is subjected to blind, realistic, or hyperbolic accusations such as incest, homosexual prostitution and consorting with whores. Similarly, it is also difficult to assess whether the language used in these literary texts was effectively seen as violent as it appears to be today. It is however possible to understand the emotional qualities of a message delivered through a written text by studying the social and cultural system of insult. Literary texts convey affective resonances that are ‘independent of content and meaning’.[2] The study of humanist invectives beyond their literary system can therefore shed light on the texts’ ability to evoke lived emotions and involve a broader spectrum of society that understood and participated in the social performance of insult.

It also represents an exciting, albeit foul-mouthed, opportunity to write a new history of violent language. No offense, please.

[1] On fifteenth-century Italian humanism there is a vast literature. Most scholars agree that humanist authors were the most proficient Latin scholars who used their knowledge of classical culture to obtain distinguished political and cultural roles. Recently, this interpretation has been expanded to include non-professional, semi-Latinate readers of Latin. See Brian Maxson, The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 11-25.

[2] Eric Shouse, ‘Feeling, Emotion, Affect,’ M/C Journal 8 (2005); quote taken from Ruth Leys, ‘The Turn to Affect: A Critique‘, Critical Inquiry 37 (2011) 3, p. 435, fn.6.

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