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Dante’s manly Latin for his womanly Italian

September 3, 2013

Dante, the man, allegedly penned the following in a letter to his patron Cangrande, another man. It’s that famous explanation of his (if he actually wrote it) of his Divine Commedy. Of course, he wrote the letter in prose, in Latin, to explain his epic poetry, in Italian.

And at one point, here’s what he writes to explain the language:

ad modum loquendi, remissus est modus et humilis, quia locutio vulgaris in qua et muliercule comunicant.

Some many years later, writing in Italian, in her own language, the woman Maria Adele Garavaglia translates his manly prosaic Latin for his womanly poetic Italian, as follows:

quanto all’espressione, viene impiegato un linguaggio misurato e umile, in quanto usa la lingua volgare in cui si esprimono le donnette.

And, likewise, perhaps as vulgaris and just as volgare and definitely vulgar, is the translation, ever womanly enough, in the English by Katharine Hilliard, which is humble and weak, as so:

If we consider its language, it is humble and weak, because it is the vulgar tongue, which women ever use.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. krwordgazer permalink
    September 4, 2013 8:16 pm

    And the reason women didn’t read or write Latin was because men refused to teach them. That’s what made Latin so “manly,” I guess. Aargh!

  2. September 5, 2013 1:34 pm

    Great comment, Kristen.

    Before Latin, and men using it to exclude women, there was Greek. And then there was “enlightened” French, and then there was German, further “enlightened.” In each case, men rationalize that these are not for women.

    For example, as philosopher Rae Langton suggests in her recent essay “The Disappearing Women,”

    Philosophy is often introduced through its history, beginning with Socrates, who banished the weeping women, as prelude to the real business of philosophizing. Other banishments followed, so it can be tempting to see an unbroken all-male succession, as course lists (including my own) still testify. That part too is misleading. Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, in her notable correspondence with Descartes, offered the most enduring objection to Descartes’ dualism: How can immaterial mind and material body interact? She is puzzlingly absent from standard editions that include his contemporary critics. Maria von Herbert provoked a deep question for Kant: is moral perfection compatible with utter apathy? She is puzzlingly absent from the latest Kant biography and her letters survive elsewhere for their gossip value (sex! suicide!). With omissions like these we let down philosophers of past, present and future. We feed the stereotype, and the biases Descartes despised.

    What do we remember of Beatrice Portinari?

    What do we recall of her (of her speaking Latin to Dante in real life or of her speaking Italian to Dante in his Paradiso after the man Virgil has guided him through his Inferno and Purgatorio)?

  3. September 5, 2013 7:04 pm

    But do muliercula and donnetta mean “woman”? There is certainly some other nuance there, missing in the English version. The dictionary defines donnetta as “pantywaist”, but I’m sure that’s an anachronism. Perhaps “common working girl” for muliercula” gives the meaning better.

  4. September 5, 2013 7:22 pm

    Good question! And thank you for the dictionary definitions and added commentary. (There’s an OED reference making the Latin “women and children.”) Have you checked how various translators, attending to the discourse context, have rendered the Latin noun?

  5. September 6, 2013 8:09 am

    The Oxford English Dictionary editors have this unattributed note (of etymology) for comedy; we cannot be sure who the translator is or even if the quotations within are actually to be understood as from the letter to Cangrande:

    compare the Divine Comedy, the great tripartite poem of Dante, called by its author La Commedia, because ‘in the conclusion, it is prosperous, pleasant, and desirable’, and in its style ‘lax and unpretending’, being ‘written in the vulgar tongue, in which women and children speak’

    So we might “nuance” the meanings by looking at how dictionary editors compile and aggregate them from various contexts.

    women and children
    little woman
    common working girl

    Are these any less sexist?


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