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Petrarch's Conception of the 'Dark Ages'


Author(s): Theodore E. Mommsen
Source: Speculum, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Apr., 1942), pp. 226-242
Published by: Medieval Academy of America
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PETRARCH'S CONCEPTION OF THE 'DARK AGES'
BY THEODOR E. MOMMSEN
IN The AmericanCyclopaediaof 1883 we read: 'The Dark Ages is a termapplied
in its widest sense to that period of intellectualdepressionin the historyof
Europe fromthe establishmentof thebarbariansupremacyin the fifthcentury
to the revival of learningabout the beginningof the fifteenth, thus nearlycor-
respondingin extentwiththeMiddle Ages'.' This statementfroma popularwork
is merelya reflectionof opinionsheld at that time by quite a fewstudentsof
the Middle Ages, a fact proved,for instance,by the very title of Samuel R.
Maitland's book, TheDark Ages. In thiswork,whichappeared forthe firsttime
in 1889,theauthorpublisheda numberofessaysillustrating'the state ofreligion
and literaturein the ninth,tenth,eleventhand twelfthcenturies,'thus charac-
terizingas 'dark' centurieslike the eleventhand the twelfthwhich,fromthe
presentpoint of view, representthe climax of the mediaeval period. In the
scholarlyworldthis usage of the term'Dark Ages' was eitherto be abandoned
completelyor at least to be restrictedincreasinglyin its application.When in
1904 William Paton Ker publishedhis work The Dark Ages in the collection
Periodsof European Literature, he stated: 'The Dark Ages and the Middle Ages
... used to be the same; two names forthe same period.But theyhave come to
be distinguished, and the Dark Ages are now no morethan the firstpart of the
Middle Age, whilethe termmediaeval is oftenrestrictedto the later centuries,
about 1100 to 1500.'2 This restrictedconceptionof the termfoundexpressionin
a newerencyclopaedia,The Americana,in the 1909 editionof whichthe phrase
'The Dark Ages' is definedas 'a periodsupposed to extendfromthe fall of the
Roman Empire, 475 A.D., to the revival of literatureon the discoveryof the
Pandects at Amalfiin 1137.'"In a similarmannerthe eleventheditionof theEn-
cyclopaediaBritannica(1911) states that the periodfromthe fifthto the tenth
centuriesis called 'the dark Age,' and affirms that 'the dark Age was a reality.'4
It is importantto note,however,that in thelatest(thefourteenth) editionofthe
EncyclopaediaBritannicatheterm'Dark Ages' is no longerused. On thecontrary,
it is explicitlystatedthat 'the contrast,once so fashionable,betweenthe ages of
darknessand the ages of lighthas no more truthin it than have the idealistic
fancieswhichunderlieattemptsat mediaeval revivalism.'"
Therefore,ifwe use the popular encyclopaediaas a means of ascertainingthe
natureofopinionscommonlyheld,and the changesin such commonopinions,it
would seem that the notionof the mediaeval periodas the 'Dark Ages' is now

1 Op. cit.,i, 186.


2 Op. cit.,p. 1; cf.ibid.,p. 1 ff.,whereKer quotes a numberofpassages fromEnglishwritersofthe
seventeenthand eighteenthcenturies,illustratingtheirconceptionsof the 'dark ages.' Other quo-
tationsare foundin A New Dictionaryon HistoricalPrinciples,iII (Oxford,1897), 34.
3 TheAmericana,vi (New York, 1909/10),under'Dark Ages.' This definition is repeatedverbatim
in the latereditionsofthe same work.
4 Op. cit.,xviii, 411 and 412. 6 Op. cit.,xv, 449.

ac>6

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of 'The Dark Ages'
Petrarch'sConception 2927

destinedto pass away forgood. This idea, however,had a long and interesting
historyofits own,a historywhichhas been describedin a detailedmonographby
Lucie Varga.' Miss Varga has shownveryclearlythat theexpression'Dark Ages'
was neverprimarilya scientific term,but rathera battle-cry,'a denunciationof
themediaevalconceptionoftheworld,ofthemediaevalattitudetowardlife,and
ofthecultureoftheMiddle Ages.2The sloganattaineditsgreatestcurrencyin the
age of the Enlightenment,and the very name of that period was a manifest
declarationofwar againstthe era of 'darkness'and its scale ofvalues.3
But the conceptionoriginatedeven earlierwith the Italian humanistsof the
Renaissance.4In a recentessay on 'La Coscienzadella RinascitanegliUmanisti,'5
Franco Simoneemphasizesthe factthat 'the idea of renovationbroughtwithit,
in a supplementary way,the idea ofa periodofabsoluteignoranceofthe classical
culture,'and that 'the humanists,in orderto expressthis double conceptionof
theirs,used anothermetaphorwhichwas no less commonthan that of 'rebirth';
this otherformulawas that of lightand darkness.'6The metaphoras such was,
of course,not at all new, forthroughoutthe Middle Ages it had been used to
contrastthe light,whichChristhad broughtinto this world,withthe darkness
in whichthe heathenhad languishedbeforeHis time.7It was in this sense that
Petrarchused the old metaphorwhenhe pitiedCicerowhohad had to die shortly
before'the end ofthedarknessand thenightoferror'and before'the dawn ofthe
true light.'8
But the same Petrarchassertedthat 'amidstthe errorsthereshoneforthmen
of genius,and no less keen were theireyes, althoughtheywere surroundedby
darknessand densegloom;therefore theyoughtnot so muchto be hated fortheir
erringbut pitiedfortheirill fate.'9These wordsare a good illustrationoftheatti-
tudewhichPetrarchheldthroughout hislifetowardtheclassicalpoetsand think-
ersand oftheway in whichhe justifiedtheobject ofhislife'swork.But thesesen-
tenceshave an importancebeyondthis personalaspect. They mark,as Simone
says, 'the momentat whichthe metaphorof lightand darknesslost its original
religiousvalue and came to have a literaryconnotation."'IThis conceptwas soon

'L. Varga,Das Schlagwort vom'finsteren Mittelalter'(Vienna-Leipzig,1932).


2 Varga, op. cit.,p. 2; cf.ibid.,p. 138.

3Ibid., pp. 113 ff.


4 Ibid., pp. 36 ff.
6 Publishedin La Rinascita,ii (1989), 838-871; IIT (1940), 163-186.
6 F. Simone,op. cit.,iII, 169 f.
7 Cf. Varga,op. cit.,pp. 5 ff.;Simone,op. cit.,iII, 177 ff.
8 Petrarca,De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia,ed. M. Capelli (Paris, 1906), p. 45:'... paucis
enim ante Cristiortumobieratoculosque clauserat,heu! quibus e proximonoctis erraticeac tene-
brarumfiniset ueritatisinitium,uereque lucis aurora et iustitiesol instabat.' Compare Petrarch's
remarkson Aristotle,ibid., pp. 40 f.
9 'Nullo enimmodo diuinarumillis uerumueritasapparere illis poterat,quibus nondumuerussol
iustitiaeilluxerat.Elucebanttamenintererroresingenia,neque ideo minusuiuaces erantoculi quam-
uis tenebriset densa caligine circumsepti,ut eis non errantiodium, sed indignaesortismiseratio
deberetur';ApologiacontracuiusdamanonymiGalli calumnias(in Operaomnia,Basel, 1554,p. 1195);
quoted by Simone,op. cit.,iII, 182.
10Simone,op. cit.,iII, 182 f.

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228 of 'The Dark Ages'
Petrarch'sConception
to be developedfully.Men like Boccaccio, Filippo Villani,Ghibertiand others
contrastedthe 'rebirth'oftheartsand letterswhich,theyheld,had been effected
by Dante, Giotto,and Petrarch,withthe precedingperiodof culturaldarkness.'
With this changeof emphasisfromthingsreligiousto thingssecular,the signifi-
cance of the old metaphorbecame reversed:Antiquity,so longconsideredas the
'Dark Age,' now became the time of 'light' whichhad to be 'restored';the era
followingAntiquity,on the otherhand, was submergedin obscurity.
The use of the expression'the Dark Ages' was not, however,confinedto the
circlesof artistsand writersof the Renaissance.The termwas also used, and in
an even morecomprehensive sense,by the humanisthistorianswho,froma gen-
eral point of view,attemptedto assignto theirown timeits place in the course
ofhistory.This problemofperiodizationofhistory,as it appearedto the Renais-
sance scholarsthemselves,has recentlybeen studiedby Wallace K. Fergusonin
an articleon 'Humanistviewsofthe Renaissance.'2Fergusonconcludesthat 'the
Humanists. . . are in fairlygeneralagreementthattherewas a declineofancient
civilizationwiththe declineof Rome and that thisdeclineled to a periodof bar-
baric darkness.'3
In this connectionit is obviouslyimportantto findout whichhumanistfirst
used the expression'the Dark Ages' as a termofperiodization,sincethe figureof
speechin itselfimpliesa sharpchronologicaldemarcation.Scholarshave pointed
to Petrarchas the man whosewritingsseemedto suggestsuch a conception.4 But
thereis no definiteagreementon thisparticularpoint.'I think,however,thatsuf-
ficientmaterialcan be adduced to decide the disputed question.This problem
mustbe approachedwithan investigationof the developmentof the conception
whichPetrarchheld with regardto his main historicalwork,the De virisillus-
tribus.This investigationwilllead directlyto a discussionof Petrarch'shistorical
conceptionsin generaland the part whichthe term'Dark Ages' played in them.
In a letterwrittenfromParma in 1349,Petrarchrecalls the yearsfullof per-
sonal happinessand literaryproductivity whichhe once spentin the seclusionof
his belovedVaucluse.6In it he enumeratesthevariouspoemsand workswhichhe
began there;thenhe continues:'No place gave moreleisureor offeredstronger
stimulation.That solitudeencouragedme to bringtogetherthe illustriousmen

' Cf. Varga, op. cit., pp. 44 ff.;W. Goetz, 'Mittelalterund Renaissance,'HistorischeZeitschrift,
cii (1907), pp. 31, 53 f.
2 Published in The AmericanHistoricalReview,XLV (1939), pp. 1-28.
3 Ferguson,op. cit.,p. 28.
4 Cf. e.g.,W. Rehm,Der Untergang
Romsim abendldndischen
Denken(Leipzig,1930), p. 45; Simone,
op. cit.,ii, 842 f.; Ferguson,op. cit.,p. 7.
Cf. Varga, op. cit.,pp. 41 f.: 'Petrarca und ... Coluccio Salutati. . . bezeichnenim allgemeinen
noch-nicht das von ihnen abgelehnteJahrtausendmit der Metapher der Finsternis;wohl aber
sprechensie, trotzaller Verehrungftirdie Antike,vom 'finsteren Heidentum' . . . Bei Petrarca und
Salutati ist somitdie Verteilungvon Licht und Schattenauf die Gescbicbtefastausscbliesslichvom
christlichen Standpunktaus bestimmt.'
6 Fam., VIII, 3 (ed. V. Rossi, Le Familiari, ii, 158-161). - As to the frequentlycontroversialdates
ofPetrarch'sletters,I referonce and forall to the valuable bibliographygatheredby E. H. Wilkins,
ModerndiscussionsofthedatesofPetrarch'sproseletters(Chicago, 1929).

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of 'The Dark Ages'
Petrarch'sConception 9229

of all countriesand of all times." This compositionwhichPetrarchconceivedin


the solitudeof Vaucluse was to becomehis workDe virisillustribus.
It is possibleto fixthe approximatedate of the conceptionof this plan. The
earliestpossibledate is 1337, whenPetrarchtook up residencein Vaucluse. We
learnmoreoverfromanotherremarkofPetrarchthat the designofDe virisillus-
tribusformeditselfin his mindbeforethat of the Africa.2The date of thislatter
workis Good Friday 1338.3Thus we may concludethat the firstplan of De viris
illustribusdates from1337/38.
Accordingto his plan to writeon 'illustriousmen of all countriesand of all
times,'Petrarchwent to workimmediatelyand startedwriting'biographies'of
Jewishand oriental,Greek and Roman figures,belongingto the realm of both
mythand reality.This firstversionbegan withthe lifeof Adam and ended with
that of Caesar.4
A few years later, however,the originalprogramwas to undergoa decisive
change.In Petrarch'sSecretum, whichwas begun about 1342/43,5Saint Augus-
tine addressesthe poet in the followingwords: 'You have been dreamingof be-
comingrenownedto posterityand forthis reason ... you have venturedupon
writingthe historyfromKing Romulus to EmperorTitus, an immenseunder-
takingthatrequiresmuch time and work.'6This sentenceshowsthat in 1342/43
Petrarchno longerintended,as he had done fiveyears earlier,to writeon the
illustriousmenofall ages.' By thistimehe had restrictedhis themeto thehistory
of a verydefiniteperiod,stretchingfromRomulus,the firstking,down through
thecenturiesoftheRoman Republicto thefirsthundredyearsoftheEmpire.
How are we to accountforthis alterationof the originaldesign?Must we be-
lieve that Petrarchabandonedthe initialprojectbecause he had come to realize
1 Fam., viii, 3 (ed. Rossi, ii, 160): 'Nullus locus aut plus otii prebuitaut stimulosacriores:ex

omnibusterrisac seculisillustresvirosin unum contrahendiilla michisolitudodedit animum.'


2 De contemptu mundi,Dial. iII (in Opera omnia,Basel, 1554, p. 411). Cf. P. de Nolhae, 'Le "De
viris illustribus" de Petrarque,' Notices et extraitsdes Manuscritsde la BibliothequeNationale,
xxXIv, 1 (Paris, 1890), 61 f. -On Petrarch'shistoricalconceptionsin general cf. G. Koerting,
Petrarca'sLebenund Werke(Leipzig,1878), pp. 592-617; H. W. Eppelsheimer,Petrarca(Bonn, 1926),
pp. 77-96; L. Tonelli,Petrarea(Milan, 1930), pp. 253-266.
3 N. Festa, Saggio sull'Africadel Petrarca(Palermo-Rome,1926), p. 4 ff.
4 It was onlyat the end ofthe nineteenth centurythat thisfirsttextofDe virisillustribuswas dis-
coveredby P. de Nolhac,whopublishedextractsfromit,op. cit.,p. 110 ff.;cf.P. de Nolhac, Petrarque
etl'Humanisme,ii (2nd edit.,Paris, 1907), 1 ff.
5 Cf. L. Tonelli,op. cit.,pp. 122 f.
6 Opera omnia (Basel, 1554), p. 411: '... famam interposterosconcepisti,ideoque manum ad
maiora iam porrigens,librum bistoriaruma rege Romulo in Titum Caesarem, opus immensum
temporisqueet laboris capacissimumaggressuses.'
7 R. Tatham, FrancescoPetrarca,thefirstmodernman of letters;his life and letters, ii (London,
1926), p. 66, believesthat Petrarchstartedout withwriting'a seriesoflives ofRoman warriorsand
statesmenfromRomulus to Titus,' and that 'afterwards- at what date is not clear - he extended
hisdesignso as to includefamousmenofall ages and countries.'Tatham arguesas follows(ii, 66,n. 3):
'(Petrarch) alludes to the longerdesignin Fam., viii, 3, whichwas writtenin 1349; and since the
Secretwas writtenin 1342-1343,the changemusthave been betweenthesedates.' This argumentis
wrong:Tatham did not noticethat in Fam., viii, 3, Petrarchdoes not speak ofbooks he was working
on in 1349, but of plans whichhe had conceivedin a happy past when he was livingin Vaucluse.

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9230 Petrarch'sConceptionof 'The Dark Ages'
that the task was 'too vast and beyondhis power'?' Surelyno mereexternaldif-
ficultiescould offeran impulsestrongenoughto make Petrarchdiscontinuehis
originalplan and even discardall thelives ofbiblicaland Greekpersonageswhich
he had alreadywritten.It seemsmorelogicalto assumethat it was a newconcept
of historywhichnecessitatedthese alterations.A search forpossible causes of
thisdecisivechange,whichtookplace in Petrarch'smindbetweenthe years1337
and 1342/43,revealsthat one ofthe mostimportanteventsin the poet's lifefell
in this period: his coronationas poet laureate on the Capitol on April 8, 1341.
The question,then,ariseswhetherPetrarch'snew conceptof historyas Roman
historyis to be connectedwithhis Roman coronation?
To answerthis question we have to considerPetrarch'srelationto Rome.2
Ever since his childhoodhis thoughtshad centeredaround 'the city to which
thereis none like,nor ever will be.'3 But whenin 1337 he came to Rome forthe
firsttimeand actuallysaw the remainsof her ancientgrandeur,he was so over-
whelmedby the impressions he receivedthathe was unableto expresshis feelings
in words.4The factthat Petrarchsaw himselfreducedto an almostcompletesi-
lence in viewingthe city and wondersforwhichhe had longed throughouthis
life,seems the more remarkablewhen we remindourselvesthat under normal
circumstanceshe was very well able to describehis travellingexperiences;we
have onlyto think,forinstance,of the two journal-letters, whichhe wrotedur-
ing his journeyin Germanyin 1333, and the brilliantpicturewhichhe drewin
themofthe cityof Cologne.5The entirelydifferent reactionsof Petrarchtoward
his impressionsin Cologne and in Rome is, of course,easily explained.Whereas
in Germanyhe could and did take the attitudeof a 'tourist'interestedin new
sightsand in the observationof foreignpeople and strangecustoms,he wentto
Rome as to 'that queenlycity,of whichI have read, aye, and writtenso much,
and shall perhaps writemore,unlessdeath break offmy effortsprematurely.'6

1 Cf. P. de Nolhac, in Noticeset extraits.. . , xxxv, 1, p. 109, who says that Petrarch'a finipar
abandonnerun sujet trop vaste et trop au dessus de ses forces,pour se consacrerde preferenceA
l'histoireromaine.Sur ce terrain,pour lui, les sourcesabondaient,et il etait soutenudans son ceuvre
par le sentimentd'un hommagerendua des aleux directs,aux ancetreset aux modelesde la patrie
italiennequ'il revait.' Cf. P. de Nolhac, Petrarqueetl'Humanisme,ii, 2; E. C. (arrara), Petrarca,in
EnciclopediaItaliana, xxvii (Rome, 1935),-p. 13: 'Poi l'audace disegno giovanile gli si venne re-
stringendoai personaggiromanida Romolo a Tito.'
2 On thispointcompareTatham, op. cit.,i, 328-348; in his textTatham giveslarge extractsfrom
a numberofPetrarch'slettersdealingwithRome, viz. Fam., ii, 9, 12, 13, 14; vi, 2; viii, 1.
3 Fam., ii, 9 (ed. Rossi i, 96): ' ... de civitate. . . illa, cui nulla similisfuit,nulla futuraest';
translat.by Tatham, i, 331.
4 Thus Petrarchwrotein a letterof 1337, dated 'Rome, idibus Martii, in Capitolio,' to his great

patron,the Cardinal GiovanniColonna: 'Ab urbe Roma quid expectet,qui tam multa de montibus
acceperit?Putabas me grandealiquid scripturum,cum Romam pervenissem.Ingens michi forsan
in posterumscribendimateriaoblata est; in presensnichilest quod inchoareausim,miraculorerum
tantarumet stuporismole obrutus'; Fam-, ii, 14 (ed. Rossi, i, 103); translat.by Tatham I, 338.
Cf. Senil.,x, 2 (in Operaomnia,Basel, 1554,p. 963).
5 Fam., i, 4 and 5 (ed. Rossi, i, 24-31); comparethe notes-inP. Piur's editionoftheselettersin K.
Burdach,VomMittelalter zur Reformation, viI (Berlin,1933), 161-174.
6 Fam., ii, 9 (ed. Rossi, i, 96): ' . . . hec cursimattigi,ut intelligeres non parvipendereme regine

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Petrarch'sConceptionof 'The Dark Ages' 9.31

This firstvisitto Rome, therefore, evoked emotionsin Petrarchso deep that he


was unable immediatelyto expressthemin concisewordsbut had firstto ponder
overthemfora longtime.'
Quite different was the case when in 1341 Petrarchpaid his second visit to
Rome. On the actual ceremonyof his coronationas poet laureate,it is true,he
leftonly one - and that rathergeneral- descriptionto posterityin one of his
Epistles.2But this time he was able to rendera real account of the impression
whichRome had made upon him.Witnesstheletterwhichat the end ofthe same
year he addressedto his friend,the mendicantfriarGiovanniColonna.3Petrarch
had firstmetGiovanniin Avignonand had carriedon a correspondence withhim,
afterthisscionofthe greatColonna familyhad goneto Rome to concludehis life
as a monk.When Petrarchcame to Rome in 1341, Giovannioftenaccompanied
him on his promenadesaround the city. These commonwanderingsof theirs
Petrarchrecallsin that letterto Giovanniwhichbegins:'Deambulabamus Rome
soli.' Aftera digressionon the relativevalues of the various ancientschoolsof
philosophyPetrarcbcontinues:'We werewanderingtogetherin thatmightycity,
which,thoughfromits extentit seems empty,has an immensepopulation;we
werewanderingnot merelyin it but all aroundit; and at everystep we encoun-
teredfoodformusingand forconversation.'4 Therefollowsa long listofthelocali-
ties whichthe two friendsvisitedon theirwalksthroughRome. It is to be noted
thatforthe mostpart Petrarchrecallsspotswhichwereconnectedwiththe great
figuresand events of the historyof pagan Rome, especiallyof the time of the
Roman Republic,whereasonlya verysmallpartoftheenumerationis devotedto
scenesof ChristianRome: the proportionshowswherePetrarch'smain interest
lay.5This is the more noteworthy, sincein the beginningof the same letterPe-
trarchaffirms: 'We are to read philosophy,poetry,or historyin suchfashionthat
the echo of Christ'sgospel,by whichalone we are wise and happy,may ever be
soundingin our hearts,- that gospel,withoutwhichthe morewe have learnt,
the moreignorantand wretchedshall we be; to which,as the highestcitadel of

urbisaspectum,de qua infinitaperlegiet ipse multaiam scripsi,plurafortescripturus, nisiprimordia


mea precipitatadies mortisabrumpat'; translat.by Tatham, I, 331.
1 Cf. Tatham, op. cit.,I, 338 ff.
2 Epist. metr.,ii, 1, ed. D. Rossetti,F. Petrarchaepoemataminora,III (Milan, 1834), p. 1 ff.;see
also Fam., iv, 7, 8, 9, 13; Africa,ix, 237 ff.Cf. Tatham, op. cit.,ii, 104-156; A. Marpicati, 'L'in-
coronazionedel Petrarca in Campidoglio,' Annali della CattedraPetrarchesca, VII (Arezzo, 1937),
1-25.
3 Fam., vi, 2 (ed. Rossi, ii, 55-60); partlytranslatedby Tatham, op. cit.,I, 343-346. The date ofthe
letterwas controversialand it was doubtfulwhetherit referred to Petrarch'sfirstor secondvisitto
Rome. However,L. Foresti,Aneddotidella vita dil Petrarca(Brescia, 1928), pp. 81-84, has proved
beyond any doubt that 'la lettera fu invero scrittain camminoper la campagna di Parma il 30
Novembre1341' (op. cit.,p. 8e); F. E. H. Wilkins,A tentative chronology of Petrarch'sproseletters
(Chicago, 1999), p. 6 (underNovember30).
4 'Vagabamur pariterin illa urbe tam magna, que cum propterspatiumvacua videatur,populum

habet immensum;nec in urbe tautum sed circa urbemvagabamur,aderatque per singulospassus


quod linguamatque animum excitaret'(ed. Rossi, II, 56; translat.by Tatham, op. cit.,I, 344).
5 In Rossi's editionof the letterin Le Familiari, the ratio is about ten to one: lines 47 to 105 are

devotedto the descriptionofpagan Rome,lines106 to 111 to that ofChristianRome.

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232 Petrarch'sConception
of 'The Dark Ages'
truth,all thingsmustbe referred; on whichalone,as thefirmfoundationofsound
learning,all humantoil is built." Here a stronginconsistencyappears: on the one
hand Petrarchdeniesthe intrinsicvalue of secularknowledgeand declaresthat
everything mustbe referred to eternalreligioustruth;on the otherhe puts an al-
most exclusiveemphasison the historyof pagan Rome and neglectsthe Chris-
tian aspectsofthe eternalcity.2
Afterenumeratingthe historicalspots,Petrarchcomplainsbitterlythat the
contemporaryRomans know nothingabout Rome and thingsRoman. In his
opinionthis ignoranceis disastrous.For he asks: 'Who can doubt that Rome
would riseup again ifshe but began to knowherself?'3 Afterthis emotionalout-
burst, Petrarchcontinuesthe reminiscencesof his wanderingswith Giovanni
Colonna: 'Afterthe fatigueof walkingover the immensecircuitof the city,we
used oftento stop at the Baths of Diocletian; sometimeswe even climbed upon
the vaultedroofofthat once magnificent building,fornowhereis therea health-
ier air,a widerprospect,or moresilenceand desirablesolitude.Therewe did not
talk ofbusinessnorofprivateorpublicaffairson whichwe had shedtearsenough.
As we walked over the walls of the shatteredcityor sat there,the fragmentsof
the ruinswere under our veryeyes. Our conversationoftenturnedon history,
which we appeared to have divided up between us in such a fashionthat in
modernhistoryyou,in ancienthistoryI, seemedto be moreexpert;and ancient
were called those events whichtook place beforethe name of Christwas cele-
bratedin Rome and adoredby theRomanemperors, modern,however,the events
fromthattimeto thepresent.'4
What strikesthe modernreaderofthisletteris thefactthat the poet looked at
Rome and the Roman sceneprimarilyfroma historicaland notfroman aesthetic
1 'Sic philosophica,sic poetica,sic historiaslegamus,ut semperad auremcordisEvangeliumCristi
sonet: quo uno satis docti ac felices; sine quo quanto plura didicerimus,tanto indoctioresatque
miserioresfuturisumus; ad quod velut ad summamveri arcemreferendasunt omnia; cui, tanquam
uni literarumverarumimmobilifundamento,tuto superedificat humanuslabor.' (ed. Rossi, ii, 56);
translat.by Tatham, op. cit.,i, 344.
2 In thisconnectionit is interesting to contrastthisletterof 1341 witha passage in a letterwhich
Petrarchwroteto Barbato da Sulmonain 1352 (Fam., xii, 7; ed. Rossi, iII, 28): 'Id quidemquod non
in ultimisadversitatumnumeras,ut me Rome non inveneris,divinitusfactumreor,ne si congredi
licuisset,non templa Dei devotionecatholica sed Urbis ambitumlustraremuscuriositatepoetica,
non anime curamagentessed negotiumliterarum,quod licet sit iocundissimum pabulum intellectus,
nisi tamen ad unumverumfinemredigatur,infinitum quiddam et inane est.'
3 Fam., vi, 2 (ed. Rossi, ii, 58): 'Quis enim dubitare potest quin ilico surrecturasit, si ceperitse
Roma cognoscere?'
4 'Solebamusergo,post fatigationem quam nobisimmensaurbsambitapepererat,sepiusad Termas
Dioclitianas subsistere,nonnunquamvero supra testudinemimiusmagnificentissime olim domus
ascendere,quod et aer salutariset prospectusliber et silentiumac votiva solitudonusquam magis.
Ibi de negotiisnichilomnino,nichilde re familiarinichilquede publica,quam semelflevissesatis est.
Et euntibusper menia fracteurbis et illic sedentibus,ruinarumfragmentasub oculis erant. Quid
ergo?Multus de historiissermoerat,quas ita partitividebamur,ut in novistu, in antiquisego viderer
expertior,et dicanturantique quecunque ante celebratumRome et veneratumromanisprincipibus
Cristinomen,nove autem ex illo usque ad hanc etatem.' (ed. Rossi, II, 58); compareTatham's trans-
lation,op. cit.,i, 345.-The restof the letterdeals withthe problemof the beginningsof the liberal
and mechanicalarts.

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Petrarch'sConception
of 'The Dark Ages' 233
pointofview.And eventhishistoricalpointofviewis quite unique. This becomes
evidentin the climaxoftheletterwherePetrarchrecallsthe conversationswhich
he had withhis old friendon the roofofthe Baths ofDiocletian,the ruinsofthe
cityspreadbeneaththem.The readerofthesesentencesis immediatelyreminded
of the words with which in his MemoirsGibbon recordsthe conceptionof his
greathistory:'It was on thefifteenth ofOctober(1764), in the gloomofevening,
as I sat musingon the Capitol, whilethe barefootedfryarswere chantingtheir
litaniesin the templeofJupiter,that I conceivedthe firstthoughtofmyhistory.
My originalplan was confinedto the decay of the City; my readingand reflec-
tionpointedto that aim; but severalyearselapsed,and severalavocationsinter-
vened, beforeI grappledwith the decline and fall of the Roman Empire." To
Gibbon,trueson oftheage ofRuinen-Romantik,2 thoseRoman ruinsborewitness
to 'the greatest,perhaps,and mostawfulscene in the historyof mankind';3 and
thuswas he inspiredto inquireand to describethedecadenceofRome. Petrarch's
reactionas shownby his letterwas entirelydifferent. To him those ruins evi-
dentlyborewitnessto the timewhenRome and the Romans had been great: 'Of
minutethings,'he exclaims,'thereare no greatruins; . . . he neverwillfallfrom
a heightwhoalreadylies in theabyss';4 thusPetrarchshowshis maininterest,the
rise and greatnessof the RespublicaRomana. In Gibbon's opinion Rome had
fallenonce and forall; in Petrarch'sopiniontherewas a hope of resurrection,'if
Rome but began to knowherself.'
oftheletterof 1341revealsthat by thistimea new concept
This interpretation
ofhistoryexistedin Petrarch'smind.It wouldbe highlygratifying to oursenseof
the logical if we were able to prove conclusivelythat this gravitationtoward
ancient Rome originatedin and resulteddirectlyfromPetrarch's coronation
whichmade him a civisRomanusboth legallyand ideally.5The materialat our
disposal,however,is too scantyto show this with absolute certainty.6 But one
conclusionwe may safelydraw fromPetrarch'sletterto Giovanni Colonna in
1341: hereforthe firsttimehe venturedto state explicitlythathis primaryinter-
est was in the historyof pagan ratherthan of ChristianRome, thus drawinga
sharpboundary-line between'ancient' and 'modern'history.As in thisletterhe
spokealmostexclusivelyof theremainsofthe classicaltimein Rome,also shortly

'Quoted by D. M. Low, E. Gibbon(London, 1937), p. 184; cf.the similarwordsat the veryend of


TheDeclineand Fall oftheRomanEmpire.
2 Cf. W. Rehm,Der Untergang Romsim abendldndischen Denken(Leipzig. 1930), pp. 120 if.
3 E. Gibbon,TheDeclineand Fall oftheRomanEmpire,last page.
4 'Minutarumrerumruina magna esse non potest; proculabsunt ab hoc metu; nunquam cadet ex

alto, qui in imo iacet; Roma igiturex alto cecidit,non cadet Auinio'; Apologia contracuiusdam
anonymiGalli calumnias(in Operaomnia,Basel, 1554,p. 1180).
5 In the Apologia contracuiusdamanonymiGalli calumnias(in Operaomnia,Basel, 1554,p. 1185)
Petrarchproudlyproclaims:'Sum uero Italus nationeet Romanus ciuis esse glorior.'In a letterof
January5, 1342, i.e. shortlyafterhis coronation,Petrarchspeaks ofRome as the city,'in qua civis
(sum)'; Fam., iv, 12 (ed. Rossi, i, 185). Cola di Rienzo calls Petrarchhis 'concivis'in a letterofJuly
28, 1347 (ed. K. Burdach,Yom Mittelalter zurReformation, ii, 3 (Berlin,1912), p. 85.
6 There existsthe possibilitythat Petrarchhad conceivedof this idea beforehe went to Rome,

and that his laurel crownmerelyfortified his beliefin the focalimportanceof Roman history.

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234 Petrarch'sConception
of 'The Dark Ages'
afterwards he statedin his Secretum thathe had confinedhis workDe virisillustri-
busto thetime'fromRomulusto Titus.'
The same demarcationoftwo clearlyseperatedepochsof historyis foundin a
letterof 1359,whichPetrarchaddressesto anothermemberofthe Colonna fam-
ily,AgapitoColonna.' Petrarch'smain purposein writingthisletteris to defend
himselfagainstAgapito'sreproachofingratitudeand haughtinessand againstthe
accusation that he intendedto use Agapito as an example of vanity. Petrarch
repudiatesthese chargesand assures Agapito that he neverhad introducedhis
name in any of his works,'not because I lacked affectionbut because I lacked
occasion.'2Petrarchcontinues:'And yet bad I touchedupon illustriousmen of
ourtime,I willnot say that I shouldhave introducedyourname (lestin mypres-
ent angerI shouldseemto flatteryou, a thingwhichis not my habit even when
welldisposed),but mostassuredlyI shouldnot have passed overin silenceeither
youruncleor yourfather.I did notwishforthesake ofso fewfamousnames,how-
ever,to guidemypen so farand throughsuchdarkness.Thereforesparingmyself
the excessbothofsubject-matter and ofeffort,I have determinedto fixa limitto
myhistorylongbeforethiscentury.'3
In accordancewiththe passages quoted above fromthe letterof 1341 and from
the Secretum, Petrarchstates in this letterof1359 t-hathe had resolvedto set a
precisedate limitto his historicalstudies.At the same time,however,he qualifies
his judgmentof the epoch followingthe periodto whichhe was devotinghis at-
tention:thisepochwas to himan era of 'tenebrae,' of 'darkness.'
What did Petrarchmean to say by usingthis word 'tenebrae'?In his opinion
was thisperioddarksimplybecause thelack ofsourcespreventedthehistorianto
shedlighton it? Or was it darkbecause 'the lamps had gone out all overEurope'
fora timeofmorethana thousandyears?Withthisalternativewe cometo thecru-
cial point in the interpretation of Petrarch'sconceptionof history.For the ac-
ceptanceofthesecondassumptionwouldmeanthatby the use ofthe word'dark-
ness' Petrarchpassed a very definitejudgementof value upon the long era in
question.
To solve this problemwe turnto statementsmade by Petrarchelsewherein
his writings.In a famouspassage in the secondbook of the Africahe makes the
fatherofthe elderScipio Africanuspredictthe futureofRome to his son. Lucius
Scipio breaks offhis prophecywith the reignsof the EmperorsVespasian and
Titus. 'I cannot bear,' he exclaims,'to proceed; for strangersof Spanish and
Africanextractionwill steal the sceptreand the gloryof the Empirefoundedby
us withgreateffort. Who can endurethe thoughtof the seizureof supremecon-

1 Fam., xx, 8 (ed. J. Fracassetti,Epistolaede rebusfamiliaribus,iii, 98-34).


2
'Caeterumnusquamibi,nusquamalibi hactenustuumnomeninserui,destituentequidemmateria,
non affectu'(ed. Fracassettiiii, 30).
3 'Quamquam si illustres aevi nostrivirosattigissem,nondicamte, ne tibi,quod placatus nonsoleo,
iratus adulari videar, at certe nec patruumnec patrem tuum silentio oppressurusfuerim.Nolui
autem pro tam paucis nominibusclaris,tam procultantasque per tenebrasstilumferre:ideoque vel
materiaevel laboriparcens,lonlgeante hoc saeculumhistoriaelimitemstatui ac defixi.'(ed. Fracas-
setti,iII, 30 f.).

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of 'The Dark Ages'
Petrarch'sConception 235

trol by these dregsof the people, these contemptibleremnants,passed over by


oursword'?1
Similarideas Petrarchexpressesin a letterwhichhe directedto the German
King Charles IV in 1351.2The secondhalfof thisletteris a speechwhichRoma
herselfaddressesto Charles.She describesin detail the riseofthe Roman Repub-
lic up to the Augustanera: hundredsof years of effortand struggle,she says,
resultedin the foundationof the Empire and in the establishmentof eternal
peace. At this point Roma suddenlybreaks offher narration.She declaresem-
phaticallythat she does not wish to begin 'the lamentablestory'of the decline:
'wherethingshave retrograded,' Charleswillsee forhimself.3
In the historyof the later Roman emperorsof 'foreign'extractionPetrarchis
no moreinterestedthan he is in the historyof all thoserulersofnon-Romanna-
tions,'whose names,' as he says in the prefaceto the second versionof De viris
illustribus,'werealways obscureand are now entirelyobliteratedbecause of the
long lapse of time.4In this connectionit is noteworthythat in an early letter
(writtenin 1333) Petrarchcalls Charlemagnesimply'King Charleswhom,by the
cognomenof 'the Great,'barbarouspeoples dare to raise to the level of Pompey
and Alexander.'5If in this letterand elsewherePetrarchdeniesto Charlesboth
and his populartitles,6he deniesmorethanthe personalgreatnessof a
his official
singleindividual:he expresseshis disregardof thewholeinstitution- the first
and greatestrepresentativeof which Charlemagnehad been - the mediaeval
Empire,the self-proclaimed heirand successorofthe ImperiumRomanum.That
Petrarchdoes not contestthe imperialidea, accordingto whichthe Empirehad
been transferred fromthe Romans to the Byzantines,the Franksand eventually
the Germans,is shownbythe predictionwhichin theAfrTcahe puts in the mouth

Ulteriustransirepiget; nam sceptradecusque


Imperiitanto nobis fundatalabore
ExternirapientHispane stirpiset Afre.
Quis ferat'hashominumsordesnostriquepudendas
Relliquias gladii fastigiaprenderererum;Africa,ii, 274-278 (ed. N. Festa, p. 40); cf. AfricaII,
255 ff.
2 Fam., x, 1 (ed. Rossi, ii, 277-284); cf.P. Piur's editionof thisletterin K. Burdach, Yom Mittel-
alterzur Reformation, vii (Berlin,1933), pp. 1-11.
3 ' ... voti compos,omniasub pedibusmeis vidi. Inde sensimneseio quonammodo,nisi quia mor-
taliumopera decet esse mortalia,in labores meos irrepsitaliena segnities,ac ne lacrimabilemordiar
historiam,quorsumres redierint,vides' (ed. Rossi, ii, 282).
4 'Quis enim,queso, Parthorumaut Macedonum, quis Gothorumet Unnorumet Vuandalorum

atque aliarumgentiumregesab ultimisrepetitosin ordinemdigerat,quorumet obscurasemperet iam


seniodeleta suntnomina?'(ed. P. de Nolhac, in Noticesetextraitsde la Bibliotheque Nationale,xxxiv,
1 (Paris, 1890), p. 112.
5 ' ... Carolumregemquem magnicognomineequare Pompeio et Alexandroaudent'; Fam., i, 4
(ed.Rossi,I, 25).
6 See the canzone 'Il successordi Carlo' (in Le Rime sparse e i trionfi,
ed. E. Chi6rboli,Bari, 1930,
n. 27, p. 22), and the firstversionofthe 'Trionfodella Fama' (ed. Chi6rboli,op. cit.,p. 376,v. 163).-
On Charlemagne'scognomencompareP. Lehmann,'Das literarische Bild Karls des Grossenvornehm-
lich im lateinischenSchrifttumdes Mittelalters,'Sitzungsberichte der BayerischenAkademieder
Wissenschaften, philosoph.-histor.Klasse (Munich, 1934).

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236 Petrarch'sConception
of 'The Dark Ages'
ofLucius Scipio.' But in contradictionto the politicaltheoristsand historiansof
the Middle Ages,Petrarchlookswithscornat thiscontinuity.For in his opinion
the Roman Empire 'had been impaired,debilitated,and almostconsumedat the
bands ofthe barbarians.'2
Fromthesepassages it is clearthat Petrarchdiscardedthe wholehistoryofthe
Roman Empireduringlate Antiquityand the Middle Ages because withinthat
age, everywherein the westernworld,had come into power 'barbarous'nations
which broughteven Rome and the Romans under theirdomination.Because
Petrarchcould thinkof this whole developmentonly with a feelingof scornful
grief,he consciouslyand consistentlyconsignedit to oblivionin all his writings.
In his letterstime and again he conjuresup the great shades of Antiquity,but
scarcelyever does he referto a mediaeval name. In his Rerummemorandarum
libri quatuor,morethan half of the examples are drawn fromRoman history,
about two-fifthsfromancientGreekhistory,and onlythe restfrom'morerecent'
times,whichin this case meantalmostexclusivelyfromthe fourteenth century;
the Middle Ages properare passed overin completesilence.3Exactlythe same is
trueofhis Trionfi, wherenearlyall ofthehandfulofmediaevalfiguresmentioned
belongto the realmof legendor poetryor to the periodclose to Petrarch'sown
time.4To realizethepeculiarityofPetrarch'sstandpoint, we have onlyto thinkof
the entirelydifferent pictureof the past in the Divine Comedy,where Dante
usuallycouplesancientand mediaevalfiguresin his representation ofthe various
vices and virtuesofman.5
Petrarch'sconceptionof history,I think,cannot be betterexpressedthan by
Vivet honosLatius, semperquevocabituruno
NomineRomanumimperium;sed rectorhabenas
Non semperRomanus aget; quin Siria mollis
Porrigetipsa manum,mox Gallia dura,loquaxque
Grecia,et Illiricum:tandemcadet ista potestas
In Boream: sic res humanasfata rotabunt;Africa,Ii, 288-293 (ed. Festa, p. 40).
2 In the Apologiacontra cuiusdamanonymiGalli calumniasPetrarchsays of the Empire:'quod licet
inter manus barbaricas imminutumatque debilitatumet pene consumptumsit, Romanas inter
manustale fuit,ut omniamundiilliadmota puerilesludi fuissevideanturet inania nomina' (in Opera
omnia,Basel, 1554, p. 1187).
3 Compare Rerummemorandarum libri IY (in Opera omnia,Basel, 1554, pp. 442-550). The work
contains20 chapters,each ofwhichis arrangedin the threesectionsofthe historyofthe Romans,the
'externi,'and the'recentiores.'Thereare about 350 entriesin thework;ofthese,30 entriesare grouped
underthe headingof 'recentiores,'morethan 130 underthat of 'externi';the remainingmorethan
180 storiesare fromRoman history.- On the generalcharacterof this workcf.L. Tonelli,Petrarca
(Milan, 1930), pp. 261 ff.
4 Out of morethan 400 names mentionedin the Trionfi, I count only 14 mediaeval names: King
Arthur,Charlemagne,Godfreyof Bouillon, Saladin, AdmiralRuggero di Lauria, Duke Henry of
Lancaster,King RobertofSicily,StefanoColonna,Tristanand Iseult,Lancelotand Guenevere,Paolo
and Francesca Malatesta da Rimini; comparethe index of names in C. Calcaterra's editionof the
Trionfi(Turin,1923).
5 Cf. J.Burckhardt,The CivilizationoftheRenaissancein Italy,b. iII, ch. 4: 'In the Divine Comedy
(Dante) treatsthe ancientand the Christianworlds,not indeedas ofequal authority,but as parallel
to one another.Justas, at an earlierperiodof the Middle Ages typesand antitypeswere soughtin
the historyofthe Old and New Testaments,so does Dante constantlybringtogethera Christianand
a pagan illustrationof the same fact.'

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Petrarch'sConception
of 'The Dark Ages' 237
thewordswhichhe wroteintheApologiacontracuiusdamanonymiGallicalumnias:
'What else,then,is all history,ifnotthepraiseofRome?" This peculiarnotionof
history,very impressivein its Latin succinctness,was formulatedby Petrarch
only at the end of his life.But evidentlyhe conceivedof it much earlier,in the
beginningofthe 1940's,whenhe startedwork on the secondversionof De viris
illustribus.Whenin his historicalworkPetrarchemphasizedeverything that was
Roman and excludedeverything thatwas outsideRome,he was entirelyin accord
withall his otherwritings;bothin his lettersand in his poeticalworkshe confined
himselfto thesame topicas in De virisillustribus.
This consistentrestrictionto subjects taken fromRoman historymakes it
clear that Petrarchdid not narrowdown the scope of his historicalstudiesfor
mereexternalreasons,butthathe ratherlimitedhimselfon principle.This limita-
tion was based on a verydefinitejudgementof value: the praise of Rome cor-
respondedto the condemnationof the 'barbarous'countriesand peoples outside
Rome. This pointof view Petrarchexpressedwhenin 1341 he drewa line of de-
marcationbetween'ancient'and'modern'history,and whenlateron he called the
periodstretching fromthe fallofthe Roman Empiredownto his own age a time
of 'darkness.'In Petrarch'sopinionthat era was 'dark' because it was worthless,
not because it was little known. The sooner the period dropped fromman's
memory,the better.ThereforePetrarch,personallyat least,was resolvedto bury
it in oblivion.
This notion,however,has an importancebeyond its relationto the life and
worksof Petrarch.It offersnot only a key to the understandingof Petrarch's
personalstandardsof value, but it deservesattentionas well in connectionwith
the problemwith which our discussionstarted,the problemof the humanist
periodizationof history.
As we have seen,Petrarchdividedthe courseofhistoryintotwo sharplysepa-
rated periodsand set as a dividingpoint betweenthem eitherthe time when
Christianitybecame the state religionin the Roman Empire or the timewhen
the Roman Empirebegan to 'decline'underthe rule of 'barbarian,'that is non-
Roman emperors.Mediaeval historiography was based on essentiallydifferent
principles.2Whereasafterthemodification ofhis originalplan Petrarchconcerned
himselfexclusivelywiththe firstperiodand concentratedupon the secularhis-
toryof Rome 'fromRomulusto Titus,' the mediaevalhistoriansalmostwithout
exceptionwroteuniversalhistory,that is, in the words of Benedetto Croce, 'a
historyof the universal,of the universalby excellence,whichis historyin la-
bor with God and toward God.'3 Even the most meager monastic chroniclers

1 'Quid est enimaliud omnishistoriaquam Romana laus?' (in Opera omnia,Basel, 1554,p. 1187);

cf.H. W. Eppelsheimer,Petrarca(Bonn, 1926), p. 77.


2 CompareM. Ritter,Die Entwicklung an denfiihrenden
derGeschichtswissenschaft Werkenbetrachtet
(Munich-Berlin, 1919); B. Croce,Theoryand history translat.byD. Ainslie(London,
ofhistoriography,
1921), pp. 200-223; RI. von Eicken, Geschichte und Systemder mittelalterlichen
Weltanschauung (4th
edition,Stuttgart-Berlin, (Norman,
1923), pp. 641-671; H. E. Barnes,A Historyofhistoricalwriting
1937), pp. 41-98.
3 B. Croce,op. cit.,p. 206.

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238 of 'The Dark Ages'
Petrarch'sConception
and annalistsdealt usually withtheirparticularmonasterieswithinthe frame-
work of a historyof the world fromits creationto the present.In doing so
they followedvery definiteschemesaccordingto which universalhistorywas
divided up into the successioneitherof the fourworld-monarchies or of the six
ages.' These two patternswerefirstdrawnup by Jeromein his Commentaries on
Daniel's famousprophecyon the statuecomposedofdifferent metalsand on the
fourbeasts (Daniel, 2, 31 ff.and 7, 1 ff.);and by Augustinein the Cityof God
(xxii). Both schemeshad in commonthe conceptionofthe worldand its various
countriesand peoples as a unity,Which impliedthe notionboth ofuniversality
and of continuityin history.This idea originatedin Hellenistictimes,2and later
on was taken over by the greatestof the earlyChristianhistorians,Eusebius of
Caesarea. Because ofthe authorityof Jeromeand Augustinethe patternsof the
fourworld-monarchies and the six ages became the modelsof almostall the me-
diaeval universalhistories,those of Isidore of Seville, 1Bede,Otto of Freising,
VincentofBeauvais, to mentiononlythe greatestnames.As late as in the seven-
teenthcenturywe findhistoriesof the worldorganizedin accordancewiththe
interpretation of Daniel's prophecy.3In thesetwo schemesthe beginningsofthe
last periodcoincided,sincein the one it began withthe foundationofthe Roman
Empireby Caesar or Augustus,in the otherwiththe birthof Christ.'And thus,'
as Comparettisays,'historywas dividedintotwodistinctperiods- a longperiod
of errorand darkness,and thena periodofpurification and truth,whilemidway
betweenthetwostoodthe CrossofCalvary.'4
Againstthis backgroundwe may now place Petrarch'sdivisionof history:be
certainlydrewan entirelydifferent line of demarcation.Since he concernedhim-
selfexclusivelywithone particularstate,Rome,he was not interestedin the four
world-monarchies. He startedout fromthe verybeginningsofRome and showed
hergrowthunderthe leadershipofthe greatmenofthe republicanperiod,where-
as the mediaevalhistorianspaid verylittleattentionto the epoch precedingthe
foundationof the Empire.5'The lamentablestoryof how thingsretrograded,'
Petrarchdid not wantto recount(Fam., x, 1), and therefore he stoppedprecisely
at thepointwherein his opinionthe 'decline'oftheEmpirebegan.The mediaeval
historians,on theotherhand,continuedthehistoryoftheEmpirestraightthrough
to theirown time:in theiropinionthe ImperiumRomanumstillexistedalthough

1 On these two schemescf. H. F. Massmann,Der keiserund der kunigebuochoderdie sogenannte

Kaiserchronik (Quedlinburg-Berlin, 1854),iII, 353-364; M. Ritter,op. cit.,pp. 84 f.; B. Croce,op. cit.,


pp. 206, 213 f.; H. Spangenberg,'Die Perioden der Weltgeschichte,' HistorischeZeitschrift, Cxxvii
(1923), pp. 7 f.; G. Falco, La polemicasul medioevo(Turin,1933), pp. 1-6; W. K. Ferguson,'Humanist
viewsof the Renaissance,' The AmericanHistoricalReview,XLV (1939), pp. 5 f.
2 Cf. C. Trieber,'Die Idee der vierWeltreiche,' Hermes,xxvii (1892), pp. 311-342.
3 Cf. E. Fueter,Geschichte derneuerenHistoriographie (3rd edition,Munich-Berlin, 1936),pp. 187 f.,
288, 618,
4 D. Comparetti,Vergilin theMiddle Ages,translat.by E. F. M. Benecke (London, 1908), p. 174.
5 Cf. A. Graf,Roma nella memoriae nelleimmaginazioni del Medio Evo, i (Turin, 1882), 230 f.: 'I1
periododella storiaromana che piiAsta a cuore al medio evo e il periodo imperiale... L'interesse
per Roma repubblicanae, generalmenteparlando,un fruttodel Rinascimentoavanzato.' Cf. Com-
paretti,op. cit.,pp. 177 f.

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Petrarch'sConception
of 'The Dark Ages' 239
the rule over it had been 'transferred' from the Romans to other peoples.
By settingup the 'declineof the Empire' as a dividingpoint and by passing
overthe traditionalmarkseitherofthe foundationof the Empireor of the birth
of Christ,Petrarchintroduceda new chronologicaldemarcationin history.This
schemehas been distinguished fromthe oldermediaevalor 'Hellenistic'ones by
the name 'humanistic,"for it formedthe underlyingprincipleof most of the
historicalworkswrittenby Italian humanists.2Its most manifestexpressionis
foundin the titleofFlavio Biondo's workDecades historiarum ab inclinationeim-
perii,a historyof the periodstretching from410 to 1440. The originofthisnew
chronologicaldemarcation,therefore, has usually been dated hithertofromthe
middleof the fifteenth century.3But, sincePetrarchconsciouslyconfinedhis his-
toricalstudiesto the period 'usque ad declinationem imperii,'if we may say so,
we are justifiedin statingthat therebyhe implicitlyanticipatedideas of the
fifteenth-centuryItalian humanists.
This statementwithregardto Petrarch'sdemarcationof 'Antiquity'raisesan-
otherquestion.The humanistswereto replacethe olderpatternswitha division
of historyinto threeperiodswhich, under the names of 'ancient,' 'mediaeval,
and 'modern'times,live to the presentday.4Is it possibleto connectPetrarch
also withthe originofthisdivision?I thinkthat the questioncan be answeredin
theaffirmative. To be sure,thisthreefold divisionwe shallnowherefindexpressed
directlyby Petrarch.As we have seen,he speaks onlyof 'ancient' and 'modern'
history.5The use of the word 'modern'in this connectioncannotbe interpreted
otherwisethan that Petrarchthoughtofhis owntimeas stilla part ofthe period
whichhad begunwiththe 'decline' ofthe Empire.His was an age of decadence:
thisidea Petrarchhas expressedtimeand again in his letters.The feelingof pro-
found pessimismfindsperhaps its most impressivewordingin an early letter
wherePetrarchsays: 'As conditionsare, I foreseeworsethingsfromday to day;
but, althoughI can fearworsethings,I can scarcelyimaginethem.'6But like so
manymenofall ages,Petrarchwas a pessimistbecausehe was an idealistat heart.
In measuringthe actual conditionsof his time with the standardsof his lofty
idealshe could notescape despair,a despair,however,whichdid notalwaysmean
hopelessness.His 'Golden Age,' it is true,lay in thepast but,on occasionat least,
1 Cf. A. Dove, Der Streitum das Mittelalter,in HistorischeZeitschrift, cxvi (1916), p. 210.
2 On humanisthistoriography see P. Joachimsen,Geschichtsauffassung und Geschichtschreibung in
DeutschlandunterdemEinflussdes Humanismus(Leipzig-Berlin,1910), pp. 15-36; M. Ritter,Die
Entwicklung derGeschichtswissenschaft (Munich-Berlin, 1919),pp. 125-204; B. Croce,op. cit.,pp. 224-
242; H. Baron, 'Das Erwachen des historischenDenkens im Humanismus des Quattrocento,'
HistorischeZeitschrift,Cxxxvii (1933), pp. 5-20; E. Fueter,op. cit.,pp. 1-36 (cf. the bibliography,
pp. 607 f.); H. E. Barnes,op. cit.,pp. 99-111; W. K. Ferguson,'Humanistviewsof theRenaissance,'
The AmericanHistoricalReview,XLV (1939), pp. 1-28.
3 Cf. P. Joachimsen, op. cit.,pp. 92 ff.
4 On the questionof divisionof historycompareK. Heussi, Altertum, Mittelalterund Neuzeit;ein
BeitragzumProblemderhistorischen Periodisierung(Ttibingen,1921); H. Spangenberg,'Die Perioden
der Weltgeschichte,' HistorischeZeitschrift, cxxvii (1923), pp. 1-49.
Fam., vi, 2 (ed. Rossi, ii; 58).
6 Fam., ii, 10 (ed. Rossi, i, 98): 'Sed, ut res eunt,in dies peiora conicio; quamvis iam peiora vix
possimnedumtimere,sed fingere;cf.Tatham, Petrarca,ii, 72.

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240 Petrarch'sConception
of 'The Dark Ages'
he was able to visualizethe possibilityofitsreturnin thefuture.Thus, in a letter
to Pope Urban V, he expresseshis beliefthat Christdesiresthe re-establishment
of the papal courtin Rome 'pro aurei saeculi principio.'"In similar,thoughless
religiouslanguagePetrarchphraseshis passionateappeals to the Roman Tribune
of the People, Cola di Rienzo, and to the GermanEmperorCharles IV, urging
themto take overthe legacyof Antiquityand to followthe modelsof the great
menofancientRome: by so doingtheywereto revivethegrandeuroftimespast.
It was thissame convictionwhichimpelledPetrarchto pursuehistoricalstudies.2
Since he believedthat 'Rome would riseup again if she but began to knowher-
self,'he strovethroughouthis lifeand his workto make his contemporaries con-
scious of the great traditionsof the eternalcity. In spite of his oftenexpressed
pessimismPetrarchevidentlywas convincedthat thereexistedthe chance of a
spiritualrebirthwhichwouldput an endto theprocessofdecline,and bringabout
the beginningof a 'new time.' This ardenthope of his forthe futurePetrarch
voices nowheremoreimpressively than in the workwhichhe himselfconsidered
as his greatest:at the veryend of the Africahe addresseshis own poem as fol-
lows: 'My fateis to live amid variedand confusingstorms.But foryou perhaps,
if as I hope and wish you will live long afterme, therewill followa betterage.
This sleep offorgetfulness willnot last forever.When the darknesshas been dis-
persed,ourdescendantscan comeagain in theformerpureradiance.'3
These versesoftheAfricashowclearlyPetrarch'sviewson theperiodizationof
history.He holdsthat therewas an era of 'pure radiance'in the past,Arntiquity,
and that thereis an era of 'darkness'succeedingthisformerperiodand lastingto
the poet's own days. Thus, in Petrarch'sopinion,thereexists,forthe time be-
ing,only a twofolddivisionof history.But, sincehe hopes forthe comingof 'a
bettertime,'the conceptionof a thirdera is expressed,or at least implied,in his
thoughts.This is illustratedmostdistinctly in one of hisEpistles,in whichhe com-
plains againstFate forhavingdecreedhis birthin such sad times,and in which
he wishesthat he had been borneitherearlieror muchlater; forhe says, 'there
was a morefortunateage and probablytherewillbe one again; in the middle,in
ourtime,youseetheconfluence ofwretchesand ignominy.'4 In theselinesPetrarch

1 Senil., VII (in Opera omnia,Basel, 1554, p. 903): 'Incipit, credo, ChristusDeus nostersuorum
fideliummisereri,uult ut arbitror,finemmalisimponere,quae multaper hos annos uidimus,uult pro
aurei saeculi principioEcclesiam suam,quam uagari propterculpas hominumdiu sinit,ad antiquas
et propriassedes suas et priscaefideistatumreuocare.'
2 I shall give thisquestiondetailedtreatmentin a monographon Petrarch'shistorical and political
ideas.
3 Africa,ix, 451-457 (ed. Festa, p. 278): ... Michi degerevitam.
Impositumvaria rerumturbanteprocella.
At tibi fortassis,si - quod mens speratet optat-
Es post me victuradiu, meliorasupersunt
Secula: non omnesvenietLetheus in annos
Iste sopor! Poteruntdiscussisfortetenebris
Ad purumpriscumqueinbar remearenepotes.
4 Epist. metr.,
iII, 33 (ed. D. Rossetti,F. Petrarchae
poemataminora,ii (Milan, 1831), p. 262) begins
as follows:

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of 'The Dark Ages'
Petrarch'sConception 241

plainly distinguishesbetweenthree eras: the fortunateages of the past and,


possibly,of the future;betweenthemthereis a 'middle'timewhichhas not yet
come to an end. For the humanistsof the fifteenth centuryperiodizationof his-
torywas to be muchsimpler.In theiropinionthe 'new' era had actuallycome to
light,because oftheworkofthegreatartistsand poetsofthefourteenth century,
among them Petrarch himself.Thus, in theirminds, therewas no doubt about
the realityof threeperiods:a 'middle' periodseparatedthe Golden Age of An-
tiquityfroma 'modern'time of 'renascence."It would be asking too much to
expectPetrarchto proclaimhimselfexplicitlythe inauguratorof a new era, al-
thoughoccasionallyhe comes close to makingsuch a claim.2But implicitlyhe
certainlypaved theway to the idea whichwas to be setforthby thehumanistsof
following generations.In thissenise,then,ourmodernthreefold divisionofhistory
can be tracedback to Petrarch.
The strengthofPetrarch'shope fora revivalofthe GoldenAge variedthrough-
out his life,in accordancewith generalcircumstancesand his personalmoods.
But he never vacillatedin his firmconvictionthat the era followingthe decline
of the Roman Empire was a period of 'darkness.'The fact that we are able to
associatethisconceptionwithPetrarch,meansmorethanmerelythe fixationofa
date. For the wholeidea of the Italian 'rinascita,'is inseparablyconnectedwith
the notionof the precedingera as an age of obscurity.The people livingin that
'renascence'thoughtof it as a time of revolution.They wanted to break away
fromthe mediaevalpast and all its traditionsand theywereconvincedthat they
had effectedsuch a break. They believedthat in theirtime,to use the wordsof
Petrarch,'the darknesshad been dispersed,'and that theyhad 'come again in
the formerpureradiance.'Theirmodelwas Antiquity,'and the Middle Ages did
seemto be a ditchora declivity.'3
Fromourmodernpointofviewwe may findit impossibleto drawsuch a sharp
lineofdemarcationbetweenthe Renaissanceand the precedingperiod.We have,
however,to keep in mind one very essentialfact whichhas been expressedby

Vivo, sed indignans,quae nos in tristiafatum


Saecula dilatos peioribusintulitannis.
Aut prius,aut multodecuit post temporenasci;
Nam fuit,et fortassiserit,feliciusaevum.
In mediumsordes,in nostrumturpiatempus
Confluxissevides; graviumsentinamalorum
Nos habet; ingenium,virtuset gloriamundo
Cesserunt;regnumquetenentfortuna,voluptas;
Dedecus ingentivisu! nisi surgimusactum est.
I The firstwrittenproofsofthe expression'Middle Ages' used in tbe technicalsense,date fromthe
century;cf. P. Lehmann,Mittelalterund Ktichenlatein,in HistorischeZeit-
middleof the fifteenth
cxxxvii (1928),pp. 200-Q06.
schrift,
2 Cf. Rerummemorandarum, i, 2 (in Opera omnia,Basel, 1554, p. 448); 'Ego . . . uelut in confinio
duorumpopulorumconstitutus,ac simulante retroqueprospiciens... - - Cf. N. Sapegno,Petrarca
e l'Umanesimo,in Annali dellhz
CattedraPetrarchesca,VIII (Arezzo, 1938), pp. 77-119; F. Simone,op.
cit.,ii, 843f.
3 B. Croce,op. cit.,p. 201; cf. ibid.,p. 241.

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242 Petrarch'sConceptionof 'The Dark Ages'

Joachimsenas follows:'If thereis one thingthat unitesthe men of the Renais-


sance, it is the notionofbelongingto a new time."'It is preciselythisnotionofa
'new time' which distinguishesthe Italian Renaissance fromall the so-called
earlier 'Renaissances' in the Carolingianand Ottoniantimes or in the twelfth
century.These timesmay have experienceda certainrevivalof classical studies,
but the people livingin themdid not conceiveof or wish fora completebreak
withthetraditionsofthetimesimmediatelypreceding.2 This idea was peculiarto
the Italian Renaissance and it foundits expressionin the condemnationof the
mediaevalepochas an era of'darkness.'Petrarchstandsat theveryfountainhead
of Renaissance thought.It is logical that the 'Father of Humanism' is also the
fatherof the conceptor attitudewhichregardsthe Middle Ages as the 'Dark
Ages.'
YALE UNIVERSITY.

op. cit.,p. 24.


1 P. Joachimsen,
2 Renaissance;
On the problemof the earlier'Renaissances' compareE. Patzelt, Die karolingische
derKulturdesfriihenMittelalters
Beitragezur Geschichte (Vienna, 1924); H. Naumann,Karolingische
und Ottonische century
Renaissance(Frankfurt,1926); C. H. Haskins, The Renaissanceof thetwelfth
(Cambridge,1927). Cf. the remarksof F. Simone,op. cit.,ii, 867.

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