De vulgari eloquentia
De vulgari eloquentia is the title of an essay by Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri
Durante degli Alighieri, mononymously referred to as Dante , was an Italian poet, prose writer, literary theorist, moral philosopher, and political thinker. He is best known for the monumental epic poem La commedia, later named La divina commedia ...

, written in Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 and initially meant to consist of four books, but abandoned in the middle of the second. It was probably composed shortly after Dante went into exile; internal evidence points to a date between 1302 and 1305. The first book deals with the relationship between Latin and vernacular
A vernacular is the native language or native dialect of a specific population, as opposed to a language of wider communication that is not native to the population, such as a national language or lingua franca.- Etymology :The term is not a recent one...

, and the search for an illustrious vernacular in the Italian
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

 area, while the second is an analysis of the structure of the "canto" or song
In music, a song is a composition for voice or voices, performed by singing.A song may be accompanied by musical instruments, or it may be unaccompanied, as in the case of a cappella songs...

 (also spelled "canzone
Literally "song" in Italian, a canzone is an Italian or Provençal song or ballad. It is also used to describe a type of lyric which resembles a madrigal...

" in Italian), a literary genre
Literary genre
A literary genre is a category of literary composition. Genres may be determined by literary technique, tone, content, or even length. Genre should not be confused with age category, by which literature may be classified as either adult, young-adult, or children's. They also must not be confused...


Latin essays were very popular in the Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

, but Dante made some innovations in his work: firstly the topic, which is the vernacular, was an uncommon choice at that time. Secondly, the way Dante approached this theme, that is giving to vernacular the same dignity that was only meant for Latin. Finally, Dante wrote this essay in order to analyse the origin and the philosophy
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

 of the vernacular, because, in his opinion, this language was not something static, but something that evolves
Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.Life on Earth...

 and needed a historical
History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented. Scholars who write about history are called historians...



Dante interrupted his work at the fourteenth chapter of the second book, and though historians have tried to find a reason for this, it is still not known why Dante so abruptly aborted his essay. Indeed it is an unfinished project, and so information about its intended structure is limited. Though at some point, Dante mentions a fourth book in which he planned to deal with the comic genre and the "mediocre" style, nothing at all is known about the third book. It is thought, however, that the first book was meant to be a sort of preface to the following three books, and so shorter than the others.


In the beginning, Dante tackles the historical evolution of language
Language may refer either to the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such a system of complex communication...

, which he thinks was born unitary and, at a later stage, was separated into different idioms because of the presumptuousness demonstrated by humankind at the time of the building of the Tower of Babel
Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel , according to the Book of Genesis, was an enormous tower built in the plain of Shinar .According to the biblical account, a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating from the east, came to the land of Shinar, where...

. He compiles a map
A map is a visual representation of an area—a symbolic depiction highlighting relationships between elements of that space such as objects, regions, and themes....

 of the geographical
Geography is the science that studies the lands, features, inhabitants, and phenomena of Earth. A literal translation would be "to describe or write about the Earth". The first person to use the word "geography" was Eratosthenes...

 position of the languages he knows, dividing the Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

an territory into three parts: one to the east, with the Greek language
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

s; one to the north, with the Germanic
Germanic languages
The Germanic languages constitute a sub-branch of the Indo-European language family. The common ancestor of all of the languages in this branch is called Proto-Germanic , which was spoken in approximately the mid-1st millennium BC in Iron Age northern Europe...

 languages; one to the south, separated into three Romance languages identified by the affirmation adverb: oc language, oïl language and sì language
Italian language
Italian is a Romance language spoken mainly in Europe: Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Vatican City, by minorities in Malta, Monaco, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia, and by immigrant communities in the Americas and Australia...

. He then discusses "gramatica" grammar
In linguistics, grammar is the set of structural rules that govern the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field includes morphology, syntax, and phonology, often complemented by phonetics, semantics,...

, which is a static language consisting of unchanging rules, needed to make up for the natural language
Natural language
In the philosophy of language, a natural language is any language which arises in an unpremeditated fashion as the result of the innate facility for language possessed by the human intellect. A natural language is typically used for communication, and may be spoken, signed, or written...

s. In chapters ten to fifteen of the first book, Dante writes about his search for the illustrious vernacular, among the fourteen varieties he claims to have found in the Italian region. In the second book, Dante deals with literary genres, specifying which are the ones that suit the vernacular.


Dante takes inspiration from rhetorical essays in Latin, Occitan, and Italian
Italian language
Italian is a Romance language spoken mainly in Europe: Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Vatican City, by minorities in Malta, Monaco, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia, and by immigrant communities in the Americas and Australia...

, and from philosophical readings. The main classical rhetorical texts from which he drew information were the Ars Poetica
Ars Poetica
Ars Poetica is a term meaning "The Art of Poetry" or "On the Nature of Poetry". Early examples of Ars Poetica by Aristotle and Horace have survived and have since spawned many other poems that bear the same name...

by Horace
Quintus Horatius Flaccus , known in the English-speaking world as Horace, was the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus.-Life:...

, the Rhetorica ad Herennium
Rhetorica ad Herennium
The Rhetorica ad Herennium, formerly attributed to Cicero but of unknown authorship, is the oldest surviving Latin book on rhetoric, dating from the 90s BC, and is still used today as a textbook on the structure and uses of rhetoric and persuasion....

by an anonymous author, and De Inventione
De Inventione
The De Inventione is a handbook for orators that M. Tullius Cicero composed when he was still a young man. Quintillian tells us that Cicero considered the work rendered obsolete by his later writings. Originally four books in all, only two have survived into modern times.-External links:* by C.D....

by Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero , was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and Roman constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the equestrian order, and is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.He introduced the Romans to the chief...

. About the philosophical works, it is important to know that Dante read not only first hand texts, but also summaries that sometimes were not of the original work, but of an intermediary one.

The major Occitan work that influenced Dante was probably Razos de trobar by the Catalan
Catalan people
The Catalans or Catalonians are the people from, or with origins in, Catalonia that form a historical nationality in Spain. The inhabitants of the adjacent portion of southern France are sometimes included in this definition...

A troubadour was a composer and performer of Old Occitan lyric poetry during the High Middle Ages . Since the word "troubadour" is etymologically masculine, a female troubadour is usually called a trobairitz....

 Raimon Vidal de Bezaudun
Raimon Vidal de Bezaudun
Raimon Vidal de Bezaudu was a Catalan troubadour from Besalù. He is famous for authoring the first poetical tract in a Romance language , the Razós de trobar...

 and the Vers e regles de trobar, an amplification of Vidal's manual, by Jofre de Foixà
Jofre de Foixà
Jofre de Foixà was a troubadour from Foixà in the Empordà, the second son of Bernard of Foixà.At a young age Jofre became a Franciscan and appears in that position when mentioned for the first time at Monzón in 1267...

. Both of these works were Occitan manuals of grammar for troubadour poetry. They implicitly and explicitly defended Occitan as the best vernacular for song and verse, prompting Dante to come to the defence of his beloved Tuscan tongue. The popularity of both singing and composing in Occitan by Italians prompted Dante to write: A perpetuale infamia e depressione delli malvagi uomini d'Italia, che commendando lo volgare altrui, e li loro proprio dispregiano, meaning "It is to the perpetual shame and sadness of the abominable Italians that they have taken command of another vernacular and despise their own."

Directly or indirectly, Dante came to read Saint Augustine
Augustine of Hippo
Augustine of Hippo , also known as Augustine, St. Augustine, St. Austin, St. Augoustinos, Blessed Augustine, or St. Augustine the Blessed, was Bishop of Hippo Regius . He was a Latin-speaking philosopher and theologian who lived in the Roman Africa Province...

's works, the De Consolatione Philosophiae
Consolation of Philosophy
Consolation of Philosophy is a philosophical work by Boethius, written around the year 524. It has been described as the single most important and influential work in the West on Medieval and early Renaissance Christianity, and is also the last great Western work that can be called Classical.-...

by Boëthius
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, commonly called Boethius was a philosopher of the early 6th century. He was born in Rome to an ancient and important family which included emperors Petronius Maximus and Olybrius and many consuls. His father, Flavius Manlius Boethius, was consul in 487 after...

, Saint Thomas Aquinas's works and some encyclopedic dictionaries
Encyclopedic dictionary
An encyclopedic dictionary typically includes a large number of short listings, arranged alphabetically, and discussing a wide range of topics. Encyclopedic dictionaries can be general, containing articles on topics in many different fields; or they can specialize in a particular field...

 like the Etymologiae
Etymologiae is an encyclopedia compiled by Isidore of Seville towards the end of his life. It forms a bridge between a condensed epitome of classical learning at the close of Late Antiquity and the inheritance received, in large part through Isidore's work, by the early Middle Ages...

by Isidore of Seville
Isidore of Seville
Saint Isidore of Seville served as Archbishop of Seville for more than three decades and is considered, as the historian Montalembert put it in an oft-quoted phrase, "le dernier savant du monde ancien"...

 and the Livre du Tresor by Brunetto Latini
Brunetto Latini
Brunetto Latini was an Italian philosopher, scholar and statesman.-Life:...

. He takes also inspiration from Aristotelian
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 philosophy, and in Dante's work are traceable some references to texts by representatives of what is sometimes referred to as Radical Aristotelianism.


  • Graham-Leigh, Elaine. The Southern French Nobility and the Albigensian Crusade. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2005. ISBN 1-84383-129-5
  • Ewert, A. "Dante's Theory of Language." The Modern Language Review, Vol. 35, No. 3. (Jul., 1940), pp 355–366.
  • Weiss, R. "Links between the "Convivio" and the 'De Vulgari Eloquentia'." The Modern Language Review, Vol. 37, No. 2. (Apr., 1942), pp 156–168.
  • Dante Alighieri, "De vulgari eloquentia," edited and translated by Steven Botterill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

External links

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