Epistolographic Communication and Political Rhetoric - The Dynamics of Ars dictaminis in Comparative Perspective (XIth-XVth)

Benoît GRÉVIN

Ars dictaminis (literally: the art of composing) is the name of a new discipline that was invented during the High Middle Ages in Italy, primarily in order to provide clearer rhetorical rules for the composition of private and official Latin letters. The discipline expanded at a quick pace throughout Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and became fashionable among ecclesiastical and royal chanceries. Its eventual decline was caused by changes in taste (humanist Latin) and the growing use of vernacular languages in written political communication during the late Middle Ages. At its apogee, ars dictaminis offered a vast range of textual tools to redact every kind of correspondence, ranging from pure theoretical treatises (the artes dictandi) to a vast array of theoretical-practical or purely practical collections of fictional or real letters (the summae dictaminis). Historical and philological research has long focused on the theoretical rules from a literary perspective. Nowadays, it tends to examine the combined impact of these rules and the pragmatic use of letter collections in order to determine the extent to which this art of writing was conditioned by formulaic patterns. Research on rhythmical and metaphorical patterns is particularly crucial for the identification of such a half-formulaic culture, whose reconstruction could change our view of the emergence of pre-modern political and administrative writing.

Is it possible to envision the ars dictaminis in a comparative perspective? Timid attempts have been made so far in Islamic studies (‘ilm al-inšā). The importance of letter-collections and letter-treatises in the Chinese textual tradition (shuyi 書儀) suggests that a Latin-Chinese comparative history based on structural formulas (e.g. rhythm) as well as typological criteria (the classification of collections according to genre, public/personal characteristics, etc.) might be possible provided that some methodological precautions are taken. Scholars will probably face similar problems in the two fields including the vast amount of sources at our disposal and the difficulty of establishing clear rules in order to study letter-models (or letters considered as models) and their reuse in regular and irregular political communication at the same time.

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