Language & Literature: Glossary

Alighieri, Dante (1265-1321)
A Florentine much involved in politics, Dante was sent into exile in 1302 when his party (the Bianchi Guelphs) fell out of favour. He never returned to Florence, spending the rest of his life travelling throughout Italy and writing poems, political works and most notably the Divine Comedy. Written in the Italian vernacular, this epic poem is based on Virgil's Aeneid, a Roman work. It is expressive of medieval theology, Renaissance humanist interests and Dante's own views on human psychology and the contemporary political scene in Italy. Considered a literary masterpiece immediately, the language of the Comedy became the basis of a common Italian language that gave Tuscan a claim to primacy among the numerous spoken dialects.

Dante met Beatrice in 1274 and, following her death, he collected a series of sonnets and verses that chronicled his love for her in La vita nuova (The New Life). Beatrice also appears in La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy). Many scholars believe that Beatrice was a Florentine noblewoman named Beatrice Portinari.

Boccaccio, Giovanni (1313-1375)
A Florentine writer and humanist, Boccacio was introduced to the study of Roman and Greek literature by Petrarch. He wrote a number of scholarly critical works that were widely read during the Renaissance. He is most noted for his work the Decameron, a collection of stories, written in the vernacular, that Boccaccio himseld did not consider particularly worthy. The introduction to the Decameron contains a description of how the Black Death affected the cities of Italy. The stories themselves are entertaining and give a vivid picture of contemporary life.

Also referred to as "Petrarch's Sonnets," the collection of Italian verses written by Petrarch. Inspired by Laura, the original Italian title is Rime in vita e morta di Madonna Laura.

Chaucer, Geoffrey
(1343?-1400) A diplomat and poet sponsored by the English court, Chaucer was the founding figure of England's literary tradition. He wrote in the vernacular, in a style influenced by Dante, Petrarch, and Boccacio. His most famous work, the Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories written in verse, describes the lives and activities of a group of pilgrims thrown together on their way to Canterbury. The Canterbury Tales, has survived as a highly readable work, written with great literary skill, that provides a humourous and vivid depiction of medieval life.

The Decameron
Boccaccio's most important literary effort, Il Decamerone (Ten Day's Work) is a collection of 100 novellas, or short stories, told by a group of ten Florentine aristocrats during their ten-day stay at a country estate during the plague.

Dialectics is the study of logic and the use of logic to win arguments and prove theories. Disputation and debate were najor components of the medieval education and dialectics was necessary to both these disciplines.

The source of Boccaccio's romantic inspiration. Possibly Maria de Conti d'Aquino, the illegitimate daughter of Robert d'Anjou, the king of Naples, who is said to have been Boccaccio's mistress.

The study of grammar in medieval education included not only the study of the main elements of language but also a study of modes of expression. A student of grammar in the Middle Ages would expect to study prose and poetry, critical theory and literary criticism.

The writing of the lives of saints, frequently idealized and embellished to present moral lessons and extremely popular throughout the Middle Ages. Although the biographies of the saints themselves are often suspect, background details of hagiographies often reveal aspects of everyday life to modern scholars.

Langland, William
Little is known about William Langland (c.1332-c.1400) and even the authorship of works attributed to him is questioned. His major work, The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman, takes the form of a dream or vision and reveals much about the life of the late medieval peasant's life.

Possibly Laure de Noves, 'Laura' was a Frenchwoman Petrarch met on Good Friday 1327 and who was the inspiration for Petrarch's romantic odes and sonnets. When Laura died from the plague, Petrarch wrote an intensely passionate lamentation for her.

The writings of the early Church Fathers were called "patristic" writings from the Latin "pater" for father. The Church Fathers are those extremely influential in the formation and direction of the Christian Church. Jerome, Augustine and Tertullian are but a few of the early Church Fathers.

Petrarch, Francesco (1304-1374)
An Italian poet and generally considered to be the first humanist, Petrarch was the most noted scholar of his time. He grew up in the papal city of Avignon and trained as a civil lawyer. He then found that his real interests were in study and writing. His Italian sonnets, written to a woman he called Laura, are his most famous works. His other writings have not achieved a similar distinction though they were much admired during the Renaissance. Petrarch collected and studied Roman works, particularly those of Virgil and Cicero. He thought that the Latin of antiquity and the sentiments it expressed deserved wider recognition. Through his wide circle of acquaintances, he became responsible for generating the Renaissance interest in the writers of the classical world that had such a formative influence on Renaissance thought and ideals.

Philology is the study of language, especially in relation to its historical and contextual setting. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the recovery of many texts from the Near East created contradictions with known sources and led scholars to search for the original versions of documents. Numerous forgeries were discovered, most notably the Donation of Constantine, which supposedly granted rule of Western Christendom to the pope, and the Hermetic Writings, which had given rise to an entire system of thought.

poet laureate
A poet honoured by the State and designated to write poetry for State occasions.

Rhetoric is the art of effective and persuasive speaking. In a time when few people had access to written literature, rhetoric was especially important. As the printing press made books more available to more people and the written word became more pervasive, the importance of rhetoric declined.

Syntax is the study of the arrangement of words and those arrangements affects their meaning and relation. This was especially important in a language such as Latin that is case-dependent.

Villon, François
François Villon (c.1431- after 1463) is considered by many to be France' s leading Medieval poet. He led a rollicking life while a student pursuing bachelors and masters degress and was banished from Paris in 1456 after having killed a priest in 1455 and stolen money from a church in 1456. Villon wandered about France, constantly in and out of prison. Having been pardoned in 1461, he returned to Paris in 1462 but promptly got himself into more trouble and was once again exiled from Paris, after which time there is no further trace of him. His poetry is open and honest, revealing the trials of life.

Vulgate Bible
Written in the late fourth century by Saint Jerome, an early Latin Church Father, the Vulgate Bible was a direct translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Latin. This translation made Old Testament scriptures widely available to Latin-speaking western Europeans and became the sole Latin authority of the Church. The term "Vulgate" comes from the Latin word "vulgare", meaning common or colloquial speech.

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The End of Europe's Middle Ages / Applied History Research Group / University of Calgary
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