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Sari Kivisto. Creating Anti-eloquence: Epistolae obscurorum virorum and the Humanist Polemics on Style.

(Commentationes Humanarum Litterarum, 118.) Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 2002. Pbk. 256 pp. index, bibl. $23.30. ISBN: 951-653-315-9.

This book on stylistic virtues and--especially--stylistic vices focuses on the Letters of Obscure Men (Epistolae obscurorum virorum), an anonymously published work in two parts (1515-17) that contains more than 100 letters. Almost all of them were addressed to Ortvinus Gratius, a Cologne teacher. More importantly, however, they were written by humanists, who derided the scholastic mode of writing by imitating their "bad" style. Sari Kivisto, who previously wrote an unpublished licentiate thesis at the University of Helsinko on the Letters of Obscure Men in 1998, mainly in the present study limits herself to speech, language, and style. As it concerns letters, special attention is given to this genre (e.g., by way of the epistolary theory of Celtis, Despauterius, Erasmus, Vives, and Lipsius), and to textbooks of rhetoric. Vices such as barbarism, obscurity, obscenity, and loquacity, but also the names given the writers in ridicule (e.g., Padormannus Fornacificis) and the abundant salutations, are scrutinized in the light of the rhetorical system and the late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century polemical context. Kivisto's aim is to demonstrate how the breaking of grammatical and rhetorical rules forms the basis for the poetics of this text, and how it participates in the contemporary humanist-scholastic debate. As a result, this study is, primarily, an analysis of linguistic and stylistic incorrectness and defectiveness. Information on the nature and character of the letters, their presumable authorship, and the polemical context (conflict between humanism and scholasticism) is summarized in the introductory chapter. The most important vices in the Letters of Obscure Men, resulting in all kinds of defects, elementary grammatical mistakes, and stylistic clumsiness, are barbarism and obscurity. Kivisto introduces the intentional misuse of the traditional virtutes dicendi (Latinitas, perspicuity, decorum, and ornatus) by looking to their past in the Isocratean-Ciceronian, late Roman, and medieval tradition. Interesting in this case is the contrast between classical humanism and German barbarism, which points to a considerable amount of prejudice against the German nation. This prejudice is frequently mentioned in the letters, for example by way of a receptive use of foreign expressions or of German words with Latin suffixes (e.g., ab omnibus kauffmannis--by all Kaufleute/merchants, 68). Obscurity is explained in its many senses: as a counterconcept to clarity (in individual words, word groups, and complete books), as caused by difficulty of subject matter, referring to the darkness at night-time when writers seem to be most active, but also in metaphors of darkness. In this section it might be confusing that Kivisto illustrates the various ideas on this concept on the basis of an indifferent number of classical and contemporary theorists and treatises. Vives' De ratione dicendi is as a rhetoric not comparable with Agricola's De inventione dialectica (93), Demetrius' On style is from a completely different age than Lipsius' Epistolica institutio (95), and so on.

Next to the purely stylistic elements, a few vices with regard to content are discussed, such as obscenity (obscene words and scientific terms with a sexual meaning), forms of repetition, and lack of content. Comparable to puns, these elements are related to the proportion between res and verba, indicating a contrast between content and form, e.g., by reducing the semantic import of the content. The phenomenon of loquacity is discussed: the Letters of Obscure Men are extremely prolix in matters which would hardly deserve any detailed attention. Whether this misuse of words may be compared with the "monastic rules" that "emphasized the value of silence" (134) is questionable. The book lacks a section on emphasis (efficiency with words), on which Christian Mouchel has written an interesting study (Ciceron et Seneque dans let rhetorique de la Renaissance).

Although abundant quotations of the Letters of Obscure Men are incorporated in this study to illustrate the various vices, they never become more than illustrations. The reader does not get a proper idea of the character of these letters as a whole. They are characterized as belonging to the familiar type, but if it were the intention of the obscure men to satirize the scholastic style, one could ask oneself whether this use of spontaneity, quasi-naturalness, and the ex improviso character is made up for a higher ideal only (the ironical and satirical situation is mentioned several times, but real conclusions are lacking). Kivisto takes no or hardly any notice of the relation between the anti-eloquence of the obscure men and their intentions in the light of the central humanistic polemical idea. Some parts of this study do not seem to be sufficiently balanced yet. Confusing, for example, is the remark on p. 206 that "the humanists indeed attacked ... the superficial nature of reference books, where the authorial sentences were separated from their original context and shortened to mere phrases," as it is followed by a section on the customary collecting of phrases from different authors and the use of commonplace books. Nevertheless, Kivisto has written an interesting book on the remarkable use of corrupted and monstrous medieval Latin by satirical humanists.


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Author:Jansen, Jeroen
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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