A Fifteenth-Century Florentine Community of Readers and the Romances of Chivalry
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 15 (1998)
A persistent myth concerning the reception of chivalric romances in Italy claims that the Breton cycle was favored by the aristocratic reader while the Carolingian material was relegated to the lower class streetsingers and their listeners. One reads statements such as “Carolingian material met with great success especially among the popular sects, while the Arthurian material exercised its spell on the mercantile bourgeoisie and in the courts” ” or “the romances of Andrea da Barberino … met the needs of the humblest listeners, while the Arthurian stories answered the needs of the most elevated and refined classes.” Unsupported generalizations by influential literary critics like De Sanctis, Carducci, and Fòffano have had a negative impact on the study of this culturally significant genre. The insensitive and often misinformed critical opinion of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries–appearing just at the moment when many of these texts were beginning to receive modern editions–has led to misconceptions concerning their readership that persist to our own day. However, recent scholarship on the medieval reception of other texts suggests that the opposite position may obtain: for example, Roger Chartier found that, for French communities of readers after the invention of printing, “the same texts were appropriated by ‘popular’ readers and other readers more than has been thought.” The present paper will briefly examine readership, production, and use of manuscripts containing Carolingian cycle texts in Tuscany in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Owners’ notes and colophon evidence as well as contemporary inventories of private libraries argue that a transcendence of class boundaries holds for chivalric literature in Italy. Evidence from primary sources proves that the same epic romances crossed “class” lines and political divisions. They were read by Medici partisans and rivals, by guildsmen and tradesmen, and by Florence’s elite as well as by those she exiled.