THE SECULAR ASPECT OF THE CROATIAN VERNACULAR IN THE PERIOD OF LATE MEDIEVAL HUMANISM*
The introduction of vernaculars into neo-Latin literatures was a product of late medieval humanism, the Renaissance, and the Reformation periods. An important instance occurred among the Slavic nations: the Croatians created their vernacular in the late Middle Ages, when Roman-Latin humanism found its distinct expression in the Italian peninsula and its neighboring Adriatic coastal belt. The cradle of Croatian vernacular literature and culture was on the Adriatic coast where the Slavic tribes settled down next to the preserved Roman population in the seventh century, creating a Roman-Slavic symbiosis in subsequent centuries. Thus, the Roman-Slavic inhabitants of the eastern Adriatic coast came to belong to the narrowest common area of Roman-Italian civilization, that is, Italian peninsula. Both the Italians and the Dalmatians, as well as the other inhabitants of the eastern Adriatic regions, had similar backgrounds in Roman Christianity, in the Latin language, scholasticism, and feudal and bourgeois societies; they shared the motivations of humanism, the Renaissance, eloquentia vulgaris, and vernacular literature. Both societies had the same goals and effects. They both wanted to establish a national language and a secular literature as a cultural medium of communication. Our concern here is to explain how secularism became the dominant feature of Dalmatian-Dubrovnik culture at the dawn of the Renaissance and how, by assimilating new secular aspects of culture as one of its essential characteristics, what we call the Croatian vernacular gradually assumed the role and function of a common national language in most regions of Croatia in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
The independent city-states, villages, and islands of the eastern Adriatic coast (Dalmatia, the Croatian Littoral, Istria, at the head of which was the Republic of Dubrovnik) displayed a social and economical structure similar to that of Italy, where after centuries of economic stagnation in early Middle Ages there was a boom in manufacture and trade. (One finds a similar process at work in later periods of the Middle Ages, in the urban centers of Italy and those of the eastern Adriatic coast). As their Italian contemporaries, the Dalmatians were engaged in the same task of reconciling the classical culture with the new Christian one. For both groups ancient Rome was an inescapable model. The political institutions of the Roman Republic, the privileged status of her leading citizens, their characteristic virtues, the atmosphere of a society in which liberty and eloquence dominated, the rational temper of the Roman spirit, the wealth and the prudent moneymaking: all these aspects had manifest attractions for the progressive merchants of Italy and Dalmatia, and those on the other parts of the eastern Adriatic coast. All of these inhabitants of numerous Italian and Dalmatian city-states could see their prototypes in Roman citizens and their political and social activities. Their prime goal became to adapt and apply to their own culture Roman politics, law, administration, learning, philosophy, and business, as well as the values of justice and freedom. These medieval successors of the Roman Empire were eager to imitate all the virtues of ancient Rome. They were aware that in the Roman tradition they could find solutions for their everyday life, as well as aspirations to reshape earthly conditions and to create a profoundly humanistic respect for human life.
The Roman Republic represented the most attractive corpus of ancient models and patterns to be imitated in both Italy and the eastern Adriatic coast; the best proof of this lies in the existence of an autonomous parliamentary system both in the medieval Dalmatian cities and in the Republic of Dubrovnik. In the eleventh century one finds already in all Dalmatian cities the "priors" (heads of the autonomous city administrations) and the "tribunes" (military leaders). The prior was elected from among the city noblemen or patricians. He was the head of a city council consisting of judges, tribunes, and notaries, acting as a steering committee or originating body for the enactment of laws and decrees, which in due course were submitted for approval to the Municipal Assembly by way of Conlaudation populi. The parliamentary system enabled the citizens (common people and nobility) to take an active part in politics and social life, because municipal assemblies were attended by the bishop, clergy, nobility, and other citizens. This body of people's representatives, which in most city-states consisted of about 300 members, gradually evolved into a Senate. The Republic of Dubrovnik best displays this development (Gelcich 1884; Foretić 1980:52-4).
In these Italian-Dalmatian city-communes the essential antinomy was between public and private commitment; the commune or the republic was cherished as providing an opportunity for the exploiting of human potential to the full. Similarly, individualism is not at all characteristic of the Italian and Dalmatian humanists who adopted the classical Roman ideal of freedom. For them the vital core of liberty is not found within the individual, but only within society; history is the history of communes, not of individuals and their connection with "publicity" (Baron 1966:414). As already noted, the population of the Dalmatian cities and Dubrovnik was a relatively important factor, because of the part played by popular assemblies in making policy decisions. Especially during the earliest period of city-communes, internal relations within the city tended to be democratic, and documents speak of the people, resolutions made by "all citizens”, or made "with the prior, the clergy, and the entire population”. However, it must be borne in mind that by the age of Thomas the Archdeacon (1201-68) the author of the Historia Salonitana (first half of the thirteenth century), the difference between the nobility and the plebeians was already established (Klaić 1976:154-77).
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Journal of Croatian Studies, XXVIII-XXIX, 1987-88 – Annual Review of the Croatian Academy of America, Inc. New York, N.Y., Electronic edition by Studia Croatica, by permission. All rights reserved by the Croatian Academy of America.
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