On the materiality of learning

For some reason, I have spent the last couple of weeks studying Petrarch.

Petrarch was of course one of the first humanists. He was one of the first of them to seek out old manuscripts of Greek and Latin authors, to translate them. and to prepare improved editions by comparing multiple sources.

Trying to find materials to study Petrarch nowadays is a different business. As I have access, via King’s, to most academic journals, I started with Google Scholar. This offers quite a lot of material, mostly as journal articles. (You can’t download whole books, usually.)

Journal articles vary widely in quality. They include:
– stodgy scholarship (eg Baron’s (1963) attempt to date the sections of (and the revisions of the ‘Secretum’)
– interesting specialist views, such as Benedek (1967) on Petrarch’s medical history, of Cachey (2005) on his fear of sea travel
– attempts to impose modern theory on Petrarch’s works – eg James (2014) who sees him as “a deracinated intellectual caught between two different but contemporaneous ontological formations: the traditional and the modern…. Here, the concept of ‘the traditional’ is not treated as being the same as ‘the pre-modern.’ Rather the essay works with a postbinary method of ontological valences or orientations. The colliding valences of Petrarch’s evocations are used to illustrate the ways we can open up alternative lines of inquiry into a crucial period in the life of Italy.” (I don’t know if the whole essay actually makes sense: I did not bother to read it. Post-binary ontological valences are not my thing.)
– sensible literary criticsm, eg attempting to suggest shapes and provide approaches to Petrarch’s large body of work, such as Dutschke (1981) who looks at the ‘anniversary’ poems in the Rime, or Barolini’s (2009) attempt to find order and method in the Rime.

Apart from my growing suspicion that I am subconsciously trying to download enough material from journals to show a profit on my academic fees, I draw several conclusions from this.

Firstly, I am officially studying Digital Culture and Society at King’s, a rapidly changing field. (Petrarch is a hobby.) In Petrarch scholarship, an essay from the 1960s is still useful. In DCS, it is a historical curiosity.

Secondly, one tends to assume that everything is available over the internet. There is indeed an invaluable web site devoted to Petrarch, which includes many texts and translations: not only the ‘Rime’ but also, for example, the ‘Trionfi’. This appears to be a piece of private enterprise done by a dedicated individual. But it is by no means complete. For instance, translations of the letters are thin on the ground. And while you can often download essays, you can’t download books.

Thirdly, there is an academic ‘Petrarch Industry’, but it seems to be small. I can only find one conference coming up (RSA – The Renaissance Society of America, New Orleans, 22-24 March 2018 Petrarch Commentary and Exegesis in Renaissance Italy, c. 1350-c.1650 p see the cfp.)

Fourthly, there are some books available, but most of them are out of print. For instance, the Thompson (1971) translation of excerpts from the letters, or the Kirkham/ Maggi 2012 volume, ‘Petrarch, a critical guide to the complete works.’ Thanks to Google and Amazon it has been possible to buy copies of these, either new or slightly second-hand, cheaply, as well as the Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism. Buying these I feel almost like Petrarch stopping off at Liege in 1333 and discovering a neglected manuscript of Cicero’s ‘Pro Archia’ in a monastery library.

Admittedly it’s a lot easier to buy books online than to walk to Liege, but the fact remains that I am building up a small collection of material in both digital and physical format. There’s the same sense of excitement at finding ‘new’ things, reading them and enhancing the picture in my mind, that Petrarch must have felt extending his knowledge of the Classical world.

The point of this posting? Really just that academic study has not changed quite as much as I thought. I usually find myself reading my tablet on the tube, rather than books, but is that really different?

The internet has not replaced everything. Hunting down and collecting rare books or texts is still necessary. The main change is that there is now so much more material the need to scan and select is much greater. However the data comes in, you still have to triage, absorb and master it – and then think about it.

But the academic world is still as odd as the schoolmen Petrarch knew, full of ambitions, jealousies, competition for funds, gouging, kicking, biting, silliness and ‘orthodoxies’ with their supporters and detractors. (Any resemblance to anyone at King’s is purely coincidental.)

Looking at a ‘historical’ subject allows me to rise above the day to day clamour of DCS scholarship. The latter is too shrill and too evanescent, and too full of people trying to make a name and a career by pushing an angle or a theory. (Where is Ramus today?)

Genuine contributions to knowledge, however small, are few and far between. As an example, the best academic work I’ve discovered recently is the application by Prof Donald Mackenzie to financial markets of Actor Network Theory.


Barolini, T (2009): ‘The self in the labyrinth of time’, in ‘Petrarch, A critical Guide to the Complete Works’, eg Kirkham V and Maggi A, pages 33-62, UNivesrity of Chicagoe Press, 2009 (paperback edition 2012)

Baron, H (1963): PETRARCH’S SECRETUM: WAS IT REVISED—AND WHY? The draft of 1342-43 and the later changes. Source: Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance, T. 25, No. 3 (1963), pp. 489-530 Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20674531. Accessed 9 August 2017

Benedek, T (1967): The Medical Autobiography of Petrarch Benedek. Bulletin of the History of Medicine; Jul 1, 1967; 41, 4; Periodicals Archive Online pg. 325

Cachey, T (2005) From Shipwreck to Port: Rvf 189 and the Making of the Canzoniere. MLN, Volume 120, Number 1, January 2005 (Italian Issue), pp.
30-49 (Article)

Dutschke, D: The Anniversary Poems in Petrarch’s Canzoniere, in Italica, Vol. 58, No. 2 (Summer, 1981), pp. 83-101 Published by: American Association of Teachers of Italian. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/478562

James, P (2014): Emotional Ambivalence across Times and Spaces: Mapping Petrarch’s Intersecting Worlds. Exemplaria, Vol. 26 No. 1, Spring 2014, 81–104

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