Versions of a Feminine Voice: The Compiuta Donzella di Firenze

I have just had an article on the Compiuta Donzella di Firenze, the first woman to whom any poetry is ascribed in the Italian tradition, published with Italian Studies, the journal of the Society for Italian studies. Apart from the obvious researcher-joy of getting a piece through peer-review and out into the world (though I feel duty-bound to note that I have no horror stories of reviewer 2, all three of my readers were constructive and helpful in their comments), I’m particularly excited about this article for a few reasons.

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A ‘Donzella Compiuta’ (4th from left) in Francesco da Barberino’s Documenti d’Amore

First, this project marks the start of a new direction of travel in my research, in which I focus on representations of feminine voices and female characters (I get into the particularities of that terminology a bit in the article, though it’s something I’ll gladly admit that I’m still grappling with, from a theoretical standpoint). These two categories include texts written by women and men, though the distinction between these authors is not straightforwardly one of authenticity versus inauthenticity. If anything, part of this work is allow the possibility of ‘inauthentic’ feminine voices into the works of early female writers in Italy, which have (especially in the case of the Compiuta Donzella, the first named-albeit pseudonymously-female poet of the Italian tradition) been reduced to simplistic, anachronistically post-romantic expressions of biography or true feeling by much past scholarship (though not in recent work by Justin Steinberg and Katherine Travers and some others). Those reductive readings of the Compiuta Donzella’s poetry were fuelled by a veiled misogyny, which could not allow a female author the same freedom of rhetorical flourish and artifice as a male writer. Something I counter in this article.

My second cause for excitement is that the Compiuta Donzella’s work is truly intriguing, rhetorically deft, and incisively ironic, poking fun at masculine literary tropes of suffering a the whims of an unresponsive beloved, by contrasting them with the social depredations suffered by women at the time. The wry critiques of her poetic and social context are part of what made me so keen to write about the Compiuta Donzella, and I really enjoy her poetry, a pleasure I hope comes across in the article. (I’ll be putting up some translations of the sonnets on thie blog soon so that any non-Italian speakers can get more of a sense of how the Compiuta Donzella’s poetry plays out, even if I can’t hope to muster her rhetorical fluency in translation). To see the Compiuta Donzella’s poems in their original manuscript, go to the Vatican’s digitized manuscript collection and view them on folios 129v and 170r of the Vatican Canzoniere (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. Lat. 3793).

Last, but by no means least, Italian Studies has published a number of articles that have been really important to my research, so it’s really satisfying to see my work alongside that scholarship. And Here I want to repeat how positive the experience of publishing with them has been. The anonymous reviewers were constructive and helpful in their comments, even where critical, and the article is much stronger of their reviews, for which I’m really thankful (this has largely, if not entirely, been true of my experience of peer-reviewers over all, which speaks volumes of the kindness of (voluntary) academic strangers).

Here’s the abstract, so you know what you’re letting yourself in for, and I hope you enjoy reading it!

This article offers a detailed reading of the surviving sonnets of the poet known as the Compiuta Donzella di Firenze, paying particular attention to her performance of a feminine subject and critical engagement with common lyric tropes. A lack of biographical information about the Compiuta Donzella, the first woman to whom literary texts in the Italian vernacular are attributed, has led to speculation over her identity and ‘authenticity’, or to biographical readings of her texts. Acknowledging the same sorts of playful, ironic, and performative lyric subject and content in the Compiuta Donzella’s work that are commonly ascribed to other lyric voices allows us to appreciate the technical and thematic artifice in her sonnets. Comparative close readings of her surviving texts and some responses to them (by Guittone d’Arezzo, Maestro Rinuccino or Guido Guinizzelli, and an anonymous poet) provides a broader perspective on her work as engaged in active dialogue with the lyric context of thirteenth-century Italy.


St. Francis Manuscripts Headed to U.S., in First Trip Out of Italy in 700 Years –

This exhibition is definitely filed under ‘times I wish I lived in New York’…

Not only does it engage my general manuscript nerdery, but it also ticks the ‘birth of the Italian language’ and ‘roots of Italian poetry’ boxes to make a trifecta of medievalist joy.

St. Francis Manuscripts Headed to U.S., in First Trip Out of Italy in 700 Years –

In Dante’s Paradiso (XI, 55-57), Francis gets this glowing write-up:

‘Non era ancor molto lontan da l’orto, / ch’el cominciò a far sentir la terra / de la sua gran virtute alcun conforto.’

‘Not much time as yet had passed / when he first lent his comfort to the earth / by the greatness of his virtuous power.’

For Dante, Francis may have been a model of exile and of the humility of which Dante himself keenly felt the lack. In this episode in the Divine Comedy, Dante gives us a biography of Francis that hinges on the image of Francis in love with an oft-scorned lady, who is a symbol for poverty. The importance of the poverty of priests to Dante’s view of the ideal church is paramount and the cause of much ranting in both the Divine Comedy and in the Monarchia in particular.

To see the early manuscripts of such a significant figure as Francis would be truly exciting.

Oh well, here’s hoping they bring it on tour, or indeed, that I get the chance to visit the archives at some point! (If the Vatican Library let me in, I may have a shot!).



Text and translation, as ever, from the Princeton Dante Project.

Day to day Dante: BBC News – “US agents rescue 360 pitbulls in dog fight raid”

**First of all, a trigger warning, as I discuss the issue of child abuse in this post.**
This is slightly old news now, but this post has been languishing as a draft for quite some time and it’s part of an ongoing trend in day to day language, so I thought I’d polish it up and put it on display! This story (BBC News – US agents rescue 360 pitbulls in dog fight raid) caught my attention because the US Attorney overseeing the case said:

“I believe if Dante were alive today and rewriting the Inferno that the lowest places in hell would be reserved for those who commit cruelty to our animals and to our children.”

Initially, I want to say that I find the direct correlation of child abuse and cruelty to animals to be insensitive and wildly disproportionate. While I do believe that animal cruelty is a significant problem, and that animals should never be put through unnecessary suffering, such cruelty is of a very different order to the abuse of children. I also find it odd that anyone would believe that violence against children would not be punished in Dante’s Inferno, for reasons you’ll see below. I did find this statement to a press conference interesting, though, for a couple of other reasons: firstly for the fact that Dante’s concept of Hell is still such a touchstone for modern conceptions of how evil-doing should be punished (“There’s a special circle in hell reserved for x-offence” is a commonplace); and secondly because it got me wondering about how we would or could apply Dante’s categories for some contemporary crimes.

The Violent in the river Phlegethon (with Centaurs!), from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

The Violent in the river Phlegethon (with Centaurs!), from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

Of course, if we’re going to apply Dante’s categories in a modern world, the first challenge is whether we bring his sense of sin up to date too. And if we are updating them, to what? To broadly acceptable modern mores? To the contemporary pronouncements of the Catholic Church?

I think it’s safe to say that it wouldn’t be the latter. While developing his poetic identity as prophetic poet, a teller of divine truths, a decidedly Christian writer, Dante was not shy of kicking against the pricks of many ecclesiastical (and particularly papal) norms. A classic example of his nonconformity is his inclusion of excommunicated souls in Purgatory, souls whom the Church firmly declared were going to hell are granted passage to heaven by dint of personal repentance, despite the statements of the Church.

This isn’t to say that Dante would have been liberal minded. He condemned homosexuality, non-procreative sex and extra-marital sex, any non-Christian religion (or philosophical heresy), forgery, gluttony, un-managed anger, false prophesy, prostitution and pimping, the list goes on… He even put his own teacher in hell (but who hasn’t felt like doing that at least once during their school days?!).

He was innovative though (and might find some common ground with the current pope) as, in Dante’s version of Purgatory, heterosexual and homosexual lust are repented on the same terrace – repented, that is, on the way to heaven. This may not seem like a huge deal, and indeed, it is actively retrograde for a modern context, but in 13th Century Italy, it was kind of a big deal. ‘It doesn’t matter who you get overly steamy with’, Dante essentially tells us, ‘ as long as you repent and turn to God before you die, you’ll get to Heaven’. This isn’t a million miles away from Pope Francis’ statement that ‘If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?’ and, like Dante, this Pope seems liberal in some things and definitely conservative in others (e.g. recent papal pronouncements on abortion).

Anyway, to get back on track, would child and animal abusers find a place in Dante’s Inferno?

Before answering this question it’s worth remembering that, in the Inferno, motivation matters. The why can be as important as the what of a sin. A suicide (usually found in the 7th circle, among the violent against themselves) can be found among the lustful if they killed themselves for love/lust. This is what happens with Dido, who killed herself when her beloved Aeneas left her.

Now, as I mentioned before, it strikes me as odd that a speaker today would assume that violence against children is not covered by the Inferno. When it comes to animal cruelty I think the question make more sense, and while there are huge differences in the magnitude of these crimes, they would, arguably, be punished in the same place and there is already a circle set aside for the perpetrators of such offences. In fact, there might be three.

So, what are these three possible circles?

  1. The fifth circle, Anger: If you are violent towards a child or harm  an animal through uncontrolled anger then you could wind up here, mired in the Styx, where Dante saw the damned souls who ‘struck each other with their hands, / their heads, their chests and feet, / and tore each other with their teeth’. (VII, 112-114)*.
  2. The seventh circle, Violence: In the subsection of the first section of this circle, the sinners are submerged in Phlegethon,
    Dante and Virgil meet the Minotaur, from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

    Dante and Virgil meet the Minotaur, from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

    ‘the river of blood that scalds / those who by violence do injury to others’ (XII, 47-48). They’re also watched over by the Minotaur (who looked a little different for a medieval audience than he does for us, as you can seen from the picture on the right) and guarded by an army of centaurs. It contains a space for those who commit sexual violence, ‘violence against nature’, which I think should (and quite possibly would) be reclassified in modern context as sexual assault and child sexual abuse. With the previous caveats that I in no way consider the abuse of children and cruelty to animals to be similar orders of crime, I do think that today the idea of animals as others to whom gratuitous violence is wrongfully done has traction. Even for a medieval christian, the idea that all of creation was sacred could justify the placement of those who are cruel to animals in this particular circle.

  3. The ninth circle, Cocytus, treachery: This is the deepest circle, and while it may seem an odd choice for these 21st century sinners, it actually encompasses any breach of trust in a family or against a guest. Dante also explicitly considers violence against family members, specifically children, and guests as a manifestation of this kind of treachery. Count Ugolino is damned for killing and eating his own children when imprisoned with them and starved (XXXIII, 43-75), and Fra Alberigo ends up in the ninth circle for hiring assassins to kill his dinner guests (XXXIII, 118-120). It’s easy to see how other forms of child abuse would fall into this category, especially by family members, teachers, and others in positions of authority and care over children, in loco parentis, is after all in the place of a parent. Again, if we take the crime of cruelty animals, particularly pets,  there is certainly an argument to be made that they are either family or guests in our homes and thus cruelty towards them makes us traitors to the bonds of family or perverters of the role of host.

Dante often makes space for wildly varying levels of criminality (or sin, in his logic) within the same circle of hell and this is what I think we can do in this case. While taking issue with the Attorney’s blithe association of child abuse and animal cruelty, I do think it casts an interesting light on modern models of crime and ‘sin’ and a cultural memory of systematic punishment which seems to have become embodied in Dante’s Inferno.

* All quotations from Dante Alighieri, the Inferno, translated by Robert and Jean Hollander. Anchor Books, 2002.

Fragments (revisited)

(As promised, here are some thoughts about singing medieval music and new music inspired by it! It first appeared on the Fragments Project blog, over here.)

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I’ve been singing in choirs since I was about 6 and had my first experience of singing Gregorian chant in an abbey choir when I was 13. Fourteen years on and I hadn’t sung it since, so when Matthew first approached me about singing some plain song in the Scottish Borders I was interested. Now, when I’m not singing I study medieval literature, so when he explained that the music came from a 12th century manuscript fragment that had been found in an archive near Hawick my interest became excitement which in turn became a 6 hour train journey and a performance at the Heritage Hub in Hawick for the Fragments launch event.
That was my first visit to the Borders and I was lucky enough to be invited back, just over six months later, to sing Séan Doherty’s new piece, Et Clamabant, at the Fragments of Blue event in Jedburgh. It was a singular experience for a singer, being part of an audiovisual event that went beyond a typical performance, to be at once performer and spectator, to be enveloped in the music, the imagery and the architecture of the abbey and the fragment. It was also a heart-warming experience for a researcher of medieval culture because we were singing music from the world I study and taking part in the revival of that world, letting its words and melodies ring out again.
Even more exciting was that we were also witnessing the new creative work which has sprung from those ancient texts and tunes. To experience the Red Field’s audiovisual pieces during the performance and to see the new installation in the ruined abbey, complete with the atmospheric sound sculptures, was both fascinating and moving. And to perform to such a large audience and to witness the interest and enthusiasm of everyone present for that little medieval fragment and what it represents gave me a new faith in my own work, in the idea that my own studies don’t represent a dusty little niche, but rather a different fragment, waiting to be brought into the light.

On chanting from the Hawick Missal

one side of the Hawick Missal fragment

one side of the Hawick Missal fragment

A little context: not long ago a fragment of a 12th century manuscript missal (a book containing instructions for carrying out the mass) was found in an archive in the Scottish borders. It inspired a project which has involved performances, audio-visual art, installations and new compositions.


I’ve sung in two of these events, performing plainsong chants from the manuscript and a new composition by Seán Doherty responding to its contents. While practicing and performing for these events, I’ve been prodded by the experience to write poems, the first of which (written in November 2012 at an event in Hawick itself) is here:


You want to see a soul?

A near immortal something,

a life

that sings on in a resonance of ink

nibbed to each page

with extraordinary care;

words on skin in skin, fragmented,


now exhumed and rising

word on note on tongue

from lungs expelling songs of other times

and people

and geographies

and realms entirely;

so old they’re new,

so strange they hang in air

unbound, aloud, beyond