Acquaintance with the ancient art of invective reminds us just how hypersensitive today’s reading audience can be. We often hear tiresome complaints from some quarters about how some article or other on the internet “triggered” someone, or how some author is a “horrible person” for upsetting someone’s serenity. It was not always so. Invective and personal attack have a long and distinguished history.
In previous ages, the skins of readers were thicker, and the tongues of orators were more caustic. Some of this is cultural: the volatile Mediterranean temperament seems to relish the giving and receiving of strongly-worded sentiments, even of the most personal kind. Warm climates complement a hotter blood, and some allowances should be made for men in perpetual heat.
Even a passing acquaintance with the speeches of Cicero and Demosthenes demonstrates how quickly an oration could descend into the gutter once the speaker’s blood was aroused. Cicero’s orations against Catiline, against Verres, and the so-called “Philippics” are filled with the most scurrilous abuse against their targets: accusations of murder, incest, treason, theft, and nearly every other form of infamy were de rigeur. The practice was not only confined to the speech-makers, but also to the historians: Suetonius repeated nearly every slanderous accusation leveled against an emperor, while relishing every line of writing such innuendo.
The concept of separating the ad hominem attack from the in rem attack was not something that the ancient rhetors unduly concerned themselves about. In that era, an opponent’s family, upbringing, birthplace, and personal habits (even physical defects) were considered fair game for ridicule or attack. Even one of the early Church fathers, St. Jerome, did not hesitate to let the acid fly if he felt the urge. Some of his vituperations against Rufinus are models of indecorous and inappropriate fury.
The Renaissance scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) was himself not above the fray. Those who consider him a kindly bucolic poet may be shocked to find out just how furious his pen could be when aroused to ire. He did not hesitate to attack in the most personal way various figures of high social and political standing. He has left us a written record of his forays into these waters, in the form of several invectiva.
In his invectives, Petrarch not only likens his targets to fools and criminals, but even goes so far as to compare them to loathsome substances like urine, excrement, and vomit. One piece of writing (Invectiva contra medicum) directed against a physician of high standing who had rubbed Petrarch the wrong way, is illustrative. Petrarch bludgeons him with the phrases “fool”, “madman”, “dangerous viper”, “leaden brain”, and “ignoramus”; the speech of the doctor, he assures us, is little more than a “delirious raving.” He even goes so far as to compare the physician to a bird that feeds on dung (Contra medicum, 91). In other places, he compares his target to barnyard animals of varying levels of notoriety.
Perhaps the most amusing insult in Contra medicum is the attempt to ridicule the physician’s practice of examining a patient’s urine. Petrarch goes so far as to claim that frequent exposure to such substances has caused his target’s “pallid complexion” and that his life in general resembles nothing more than a “profound sewer.” One passage gives a whiff of the whole:
Yet you might have held a celebration in some sewer–which to you would be like a Capitol–among the rattle of bed-pans and the farting of the sick (for these would be your bugle or roaring army), to celebrate the denigration of the humanistic arts.
Against his target’s baseness and venality, Petrarch contrasts his own high-minded goals and pursuits. While his opponents remain vile, sniveling worms, he himself emerges as a paragon of humanistic learning. The contrast is effective, as well as amusing.
Another one of Petrarch’s invectives bears mention here. The title of the piece is Invectiva contra eum qui maledixit Italiae (Invective Against He Who Speaks Badly About Italy). The specific occasion for this tirade was the heated question regarding whether the papacy should be moved back to Rome, or should stay in France. In 1368, Petrarch had written a letter to pope Urban V, imploring him to move the Holy See back to Rome. An unfortunate Frenchman named Jean d’Heslin had the temerity to disagree with Petrarch, claiming that Rome was a seat of iniquity and corruption.
In a lengthy denunciation, Petrarch excoriates d’Heslin, attacking his reputation, manners, morals, personal character, even his writing style. He calls his target a “barbarian” who is “unable to control his bile” and is filled with “vomit.” In another place he accuses d’Heslin of being a “dog who returns to his own vomit.” (Sect. 23).
In another invective, called Invectiva contra quendam magni status hominem sed nullius scientiae aut virtutis (Invective Against A Man of High Standing With No Knowledge Or Virtue), Petrach has these choice words for his hapless target, a pompous man of high social standing and official power:
By now, the people are disgusted with you. And if you consider your age, the end of your days and of your games is quickly approaching. When you are stripped of your fine clothes, the circus ringmaster will toss you out naked. Then you will know what you were, and how people perceived you: others will laugh at you, and you yourself will find nothing but misery. [Sect. 2]
The Renaissance writers did not confine their invectives to court officials and clerics; they also attacked one another with a ferocity that is unlike anything in today’s academic circles. Lorenzo Valla’s Antidota directed against his rival Poggio Bracciolini are in a class of intemperate speech by themselves. How serious these attacks were has been some matter of dispute, but the point is that the audiences of the day were much less squeamish about “offensive language” than many audiences now.
Finally, it must be said–despite all efforts to avoid this truth–that Petrarch’s invectives succeeded in their goals. His targets were relegated to obscurity and mockery, while he himself increased in stature. His invectives had a wide circulation: abuse can be entertaining as well as effective.
Our modern hypersensitive, pampered internet audiences should remember this, the next time they find themselves “triggered” by something “offensive” that they read somewhere. To dish out invective, and to absorb it, are longstanding features of the literary scene.
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