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The Revolution in Writing Styles during the Renaissance

Desiderius Erasmus in 1523 as depicted by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Desiderius Erasmus in 1523 as depicted by Hans Holbein the Younger. Just as we have our faces, we each should have own writing style – this was the lesson that two leading Renaissance thinkers, Erasmus and Montaigne, gave to their contemporaries in 16th century Europe.

The topic of faces and writing styles was expounded upon by Kathy Eden of Columbia University, who spoke yesterday at the University of Toronto. Her paper, ‘Facebook Avant la Lettre: Communicating Renaissance-Style’ focused on how two of the most famous 16th century scholars, Desiderius Erasmus and Michel de Montaigne, were the leaders of an “early modern communication revolution” as it related to the arts of rhetoric and style.

Throughout the Middle Ages and early parts of the Renaissance the dominant trend for writers was to try to imitate the way people wrote in Antiquity. Ancient writers such as Cicero were considered to be best examples of how to write well, and if you wanted to be a successful writer you needed to emulate his style. During the early 16th century there was a debate among intellectuals – known as the Ciceronian controversy – pitting those writers of Latin prose who favoured imitation of Cicero alone, against those who wanted to imitate the style of many different classical authors.

Erasmus was heavily critical of those who wanted to be exclusively following Cicero. In 1528 he wrote a work called The Ciceronian, in which he lays out his arguments for people using a wide range of writing styles. He explains that “those who try to impose a single form and style on this branch of writing are taking on a task that is both fruitless and absurd.”

He also makes the point that self-expression is a necessary element of good writing, and you cannot achieve this if you just try to imitate others. He points to how everyone has their own unique face, and that while you cannot make it look like others, you can learn from others to make yourself better:

If you should take it into your head to try to make your face look like someone who doesn’t resemble you at all, you will waste your time. But if you observe someone not at all that unlike yourself making his face hideous with a gaping guffaw of extravagant laughter, or spoiling his looks by frowning, wrinkling his brow, turning up his nose, drawing back his lips, rolling his eyes, and similar behavior, you can improve your own appearance by avoiding such tricks, and you will not then be borrowing another’s face, but getting your own under control…On the other hand, if you observe how attractive a person is made by an unassuming cheerfulness of expression, modesty of eye, a set of the whole face that expresses integrity, with no sign of ill temper or arrogance, frivolity or indiscipline, it will be no cheap deception to model your face on the pattern of his. For you yourself can ensure that your mind corresponds to the face.

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne by Dumonstier around 1578The Essays, written by Michel de Montaigne between 1570 and 1592, also notes the importance of individuality in writing. Montaigne commented that “could I have assumed unto my selfe any other fashion, than mine owne accustomed, or more honourable and better forme, I would not have done it: For, al I seeke to reape by my writings is, they will naturally represent and to the life pourtray me to your remembrance.”

Eden finds that both Erasmus and Montaigne were the 16th century posterboys for changes in how people wrote – a “revolutionary communication agenda” that would be more influential than they would have realized.

Kathy Eden is a Professor of English and Professor of Classics at Columbia University. She has written a number of books on the legacy of ancient rhetoric and philosophy in Renaissance humanism, most recently The Renaissance Rediscovery of Intimacy (Chicago, 2012). Click here to visit her faculty webpage.



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