a collection of literature from poets, bards, songwriters, and skalds in the SCA

Period Laurel Non-Guild Equivalents

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Before Francesco Petrarca received his much-celebrated laurel wreath in Rome on April 8, 1341,1 several poets had already been recognized for their own efforts as masters of their art; some were celebrated within the universities and schools in which they taught while others were awarded their wreaths by the cities in which they made their homes. There was no single, unified system by which these figures were ranked or judged, but the criteria were roughly the same – and so their example may be one worth emulating by our Society’s Order of the Laurel.

The medieval studio in Padua (kind of a communal university, small in size against the University of Paris), re-established in 1259 after an initial golden age from 1220-1237,2 recognized its professors as masters of their perfected arts. Witt notes in particular one magister Rolandinus paduanus professor gramatice facultatis (Master Rolandino of Padua, professor of grammar studies).3 Another is named by Hyde as “magister Pantaleone di Marchabruni of S. Sofia … active from 1299 to 1328 and is referred to as ‘gramaticae professor’ in 1310.”4

Of the first group of Paduan professors recognized by such a title, in a 1262 document which records a public reading by Rolandino, six are noted for grammar and rhetoric, three for natural science, and one for logic – while the primary interest of the studio was to train civil lawyers.5

This was not necessarily an environment restricted to clergy; the thirteenth century saw a growing number of laymen as teachers of grammar and as notaries,6 who Witt argues are invaluable in spreading the trend of humanism (and sowing the seed for the later laurel-wreath poets).7 Hyde notes that notaries set up grammar schools where there were no local universities, such as in Florence.8 The only downside to the concept of the Master of the Laurel solely as notary is that this position was rarely taken up by someone from the ranks of nobility.9 What this does do, however, is place the rank of the notary magister more closely in line with the masters of the other Italian guilds.

The notary gains rank, however, when combining that skill with another (such as grammarian above). Hyde notes that “the two great Paduan historians, Rolandino and Mussato [on whom is more below], were both notaries, and among the lesser writers there was Andrea da Tribano, a vernacular poet, and Zambono d’Andrea, a member of the pre-humanist circle … the two great Paduan philosophers of the communal period also came from notarial stock.”10 Rolandino and Mussato were also university professors; whether this affects one’s potential view of the (medieval) social rank of Masters of the Laurel is up to individual interpretation.

We have the potential to recognize those whose arts do not mesh perfectly with a tangible “craft”-oriented guild system (such as a master goldsmith) as perhaps masters of their particular art as it may exist within the frame of the medieval university: the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy). The trivium in particular may allow for some leeway: Witt argues that at least in the Padua studio, medicine and liberal studies “probably were already combined in the same faculty.”11

It is in regards to performers – especially poets – upon whom I will now focus. While Petrarch has the most memorable and extravagant laurel coronation ceremony of the Middle Ages, his was not the first. Lovato de Lovati, arguably the first “proto-humanist,” studied ancient poetry in the Padua studio in the 1250s and was influenced heavily in his own writings by the troubadours of southern France and Lombardy. Petrarch praised him highly and “rated Lovato easily the first among the poets of his generation.”12 He had no formal ceremony to recognize himself as a master poet, but took part in a debate contest with another poet, Albertino Mussato, in order to determine who was more skilled (a tradition that had its roots in ancient Rome; of this, more is to come), decided by a third party. The winner received a dinner at the expense of the loser.13

Though Lovato was not awarded a wreath for his skill, he nonetheless recognized the rebirth of ancient traditions, even in the most symbolic of terms: on his deathbed, he gave a set of reed pipes to Mussato and said that “By these you will be muse-inspired. Ivy will circle your temples.”14

Mussato was recognized in December of 1315 in Padua as a master poet and historian for his efforts in aiding the revival of ancient tradition. As a result, he was given a crown of laurels in a public ceremony.15 Braden states that Mussato’s wreath was actually a mixture of laurel, ivy, and myrtle – all of which were classically equated with both poetry and victory, as well as bay leaves.16 It is noted that Mussato served as a notary and most likely taught at the Padua studio for some time before receiving this accolade.17 Mussato even referred to himself with the title artis poetice professor (professor of poetry).18 It should be also noted that Mussato was given the title of poet laureate for two works in particular: one was the Ecerinis and the Historia augusta, both of which were among the first excellent pieces of classical imitation of the time – but the latter was also a work of prose, not poetry.19 A similar accolade could then be given to a historian storyteller or songwriter within our Society, should such a connection be desired.

A would-be laurel ceremony that never took place was the anticipated crowning of Dante Aligheri by Giovanni de Virgilio in Bologna. In 1319, Giovanni asked Dante if he would come to Bologna to receive a crown of laurel leaves upon the completion of a work in Latin about a military endeavor.20 The idea apparently came from Mussato’s own coronation for his aforementioned works. It should also be noted that Dante requests of Apollo in Canto I of the Paradiso that he be worthy of the laurel for his efforts. In any case, Dante refused Giovanni’s offer in the hope that he would one day be able to return to Florence (he had been exiled under penalty of death) and receive such an accolade there. While Dante was invited to visit the university at Bologna anyway (so the students could bask in his greatness, to paraphrase Giovanni), Dante was afraid he would be killed if he left Ravenna and declined the offer.21 Wilkins argues that Dante was most likely given a posthumous laurel wreath at his funeral, an award that Petrarch also noted was given to his former teacher, Convenevole.22

Petrarch built up his own laurel coronation on the basis of the ancient Roman tradition that every five years on the Capitoline hill, there was held a number of contests (including one on poetry), in which the winner of each would be crowned with a wreath of oak leaves.23 Petrarch also believed the tradition involved laurel leaves, rather than oak, and that it was connected somehow “with the proclamation of a ‘master’ in the medieval universities.”24 While the Roman tradition may not have had any connection to the university system that sprang up later, the medieval tradition certainly did; if Mussato’s and Dante’s (would-be) ceremonies are any indication, the coronation is directly tied to a prominent university or college. Petrarch turned down an invitation to be laurelled at the University of Paris so that he could be crowned by the Roman Senate instead.25

The details of Petrarch’s ceremony are summarized excellently in Mistress Deirdre’s article, so I will only touch upon several points here. As part of the coronation, Petrarch gave an oration (not unlike a medieval sermon, as Wilkins notes)26 that resembles closest a defense of his skill, similar to a dissertation defense in the modern university system.27 In the most basic of summaries, Petrarch first outlines the difficulty in mastering the art of poetry, the connection of the laurel crown to antiquity, then of the nature of the office of a poet, then of the importance and qualities of the laurel itself (especially in regards to poetry).

Again, while Petrarch may have been confused about the connection between the university and ancient Roman practice, he did not stray far from contemporary university tradition, save in publicity; this is a point to consider in SCA laurel ceremonies that seek to imitate the university model. This becomes even clearer when examining the eight awards Petrarch received during the coronation ceremony: he was named “magnum poetam et historicum” (great poet and historian), titled “magister” (see Rolandino and Pantaleone for the university/notary connection in title), named a professor of “poetic art and of history” (again, recall Rolandino and also Mussato), all the “rights and privileges enjoyed by professors of the liberal and honorable arts,” Roman citizenship, the laurel crown itself, the right to crown others (not very applicable for us), and preemptive approval of his future writings.28 The connection with the titles and privileges of the university professors is far too close to be coincidental.

Also, since hardly any laurel ceremony seems to come about without some skepticism, I should point out that Petrarch received a letter in 1344 from Lancelletto Anguissola in which the latter attacked Petrarch for being an unknown poet, undeserving of his wreath, and that poetry was “puerile.”29 Petrarch himself complained about the coronation of Zanobi di Strada in May 1355 in Pisa at the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor, believing it to have cheapened his own laurel crown.30

Petrarch’s friend Cola di Rienzo was knighted and crowned Tribune of Rome in a ceremony that seems fairly similar to Petrarch’s laurel coronation. At the Capitoline on August 15, 1347, Cola was crowned with five wreaths in succession: oak (for his aid of Roman citizens), ivy (for his love of religion), myrtle (for his faithfulness to duty), laurel (for his love of knowledge and hatred of avarice), and olive (for his humility). He was then given a silver crown, scepter, and terrestrial globe.31 Save for the final three items, the crowns and (or at least) their symbolism could be utilized in a laurel ceremony; each of the types of wreaths is connected with classical poetry and art as much as it is with military victory, and so recognized by medieval poets.32

The question remains: what would a period laurel ceremony look like? We have Petrarch’s well-documented example, but his was much more an exception than a standard, though his was the ideal to imitate for those coming after. The simplest and most “medieval” ceremony may be the public defense (even as a formality, as it would certainly be within the Society) by the candidate’s peers, as it existed for the university professors, whose career was based around philosophic examination.

A small number of Masters may even be chosen to represent the arts of the trivium and quadrivium to weigh in on whether or not the candidate is appropriately skilled in that particular art (much as we often have representatives from the Orders of Chivalry and the Pelican to explain the candidate’s skills as they pertain to the other orders). This may, however, be a bit stressful for someone who is not used to such an environment.

Another alternative may be the public oration: a performance exhibition of the candidate’s art before the literal induction, since many people probably would not want to force anyone to sit through a half-hour lecture on the virtues of the laurel wreath and its connection to the candidate’s skills.

Both of these possibilities seem to require the candidate’s awareness of the ceremony before it occurs, but this is not necessarily the case. For a majority of performers and orators, the repertoire is memorized – provided the candidate isn’t struck dumb from surprise, he or she should be able to present some display of his or her skill in the arts.

If the idea of the candidate performing is unappealing, we can return to the notion of the Laurel trivium and quadrivium representatives speaking on the candidate’s behalf. A short explanation of each of the seven arts, connecting them to classical traditions (a must!), can be given as it pertains to the candidate’s efforts and skills. After presenting these evaluations and recommendations to Their Majesties, the candidate may be proclaimed as being worthy of the rank of Master of his or her art.

If this university professor idea is appealing enough, one may want to consider the replacement of a cloak (as is often used in these ceremonies) with the robe of a professor – a hooded garment (with either long or short sleeves) resembling somewhat the habit of a monk but not necessarily entirely so. The downside is that a robe is not quite as effortless to don as a cloak in the middle of a ceremony.

In any case, there are a number of directions that can be taken if the notion of the Master of the Laurel as a university professor is appealing enough; given the precedence among the early poets laureate to be professors and notaries, it may be worth serious consideration.


1 Mistress Deirdre O’Siodhachain has written an excellent article on Petrarch’s laurel ceremony in Atlantia’s arts and sciences journal The Oak 13 (1998) p.16-19.

2 Witt, Ronald. In the Footsteps of the Ancients: The Origins of Humanism from Lovato to Bruni. Boston: Brill, 2003. p. 87.

3 Ibid, 88.

4 Hyde, J.K. Padua in the Age of Dante. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966. p. 173.

5 Witt, 88.

6 Ibid, 90. “The role of notaries as professional teachers of rhetoric is well-known, but it has often been overlooked that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries they also taught grammar.”

7 Ibid, 92.

8 Hyde, 157.

9 Ibid, 158.

10 Ibid, 163.

11 Witt, 88. Footnote 19.

12 Hyde, 291.

13 Witt, 106.

14 Ibid, 117.

15 Wilkins, E.H. Life of Petrarch. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1961. p. 24.

16 Braden, Gordon. Petrarchan Love and the Continental Renaissance. New Haven, CT: Yale, 1999. p. 9. See also Boccaccio, Eclogues XII.123-130, in which Daphnis (poetic stereotype) refers to the myrtle, ivy, and laurel, while Stilbon (mercantile stereotype) embraces the vine. Boccaccio, Eclogues. Trans. Janet Levarie Smarr. New York: Garland, 1987. p. 151.

17 Witt, 119.

18 Ibid, 119. Footnote 9.

19 Ibid, 130.

20 Ibid, 222.

21 Howell, A.G. et al. A Translation of the Latin Works of Dante Aligheri. New York: Greenwood, 1969. p. 379.

22 Wilkins, Life. p. 25.

23 Ibid, 24.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid, 25.

26 Ibid.

27 This coronation was first (and perhaps for the only time) translated into English by E.H. Wilkins in his Studies in the Life and Works of Petrarch. Cambridge, MA: The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1955.

28 Wilkins, Life. p. 28.

29 Ibid, 46.

30 Ibid, 146.

31 Ibid, 68.

32 See Petrarch, Fam. IV.3, in which Petrarch notes that King Robert of Sicily wears “the twin laurel crown for military triumph and for letters.” Rerum Familiarum Libri I-VIII. Trans. Aldo Bernardo. Albany, NY: State U of New York, 1975. p. 185-7.