Wings for Our Courage: Gender, Erudition, and Republican Thought

Wings for Our Courage: Gender, Erudition, and Republican Thought

by Stephanie H. Jed

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On January 6, 1537, Lorenzino de’ Medici murdered Alessandro de’ Medici, the duke of Florence. This episode is significant in literature and drama, in Florentine history, and in the history of republican thought, because Lorenzino, a classical scholar, fashioned himself after Brutus as a republican tyrant-slayer. Wings for Our Courage offers an


On January 6, 1537, Lorenzino de’ Medici murdered Alessandro de’ Medici, the duke of Florence. This episode is significant in literature and drama, in Florentine history, and in the history of republican thought, because Lorenzino, a classical scholar, fashioned himself after Brutus as a republican tyrant-slayer. Wings for Our Courage offers an epistemological critique of this republican politics, its invisible oppressions, and its power by reorganizing the meaning of Lorenzino’s assassination around issues of gender, the body, and political subjectivity. Stephanie H. Jed brings into brilliant conversation figures including the Venetian nun and political theorist Archangela Tarabotti, the French feminist writer Hortense Allart, and others in a study that closely examines the material bases—manuscripts, letters, books, archives, and bodies—of writing as generators of social relations that organize and conserve knowledge in particular political arrangements. In her highly original study Jed reorganizes republicanism in history, providing a new theoretical framework for understanding the work of the scholar and the social structures of archives, libraries, and erudition in which she is inscribed.

Editorial Reviews

Renaissance Qtly - Nicholas Scott Baker

“A thought provoking discussion about research practices . . . and the ways in which the organization and transmission of knowledge relate to social and political organizations and arrangements.”
Bibliotheque D'humanisme Et Renaissance

“Ingenious. . . . The whole book is deeply researched. It is extraordinarily well planned and executed. . . . [Jed] is to be warmly congratulated.”

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University of California Press
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Wings for Our Courage

Gender, Erudition, and Republican Thought

By Stephanie H. Jed


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-26769-5


Slaying the Tyrant, 1536–2011

This letter is only to inform Your Most Reverend Lordship how today at seven Messer Lorenzo de Medici, the nephew of Messer Ottaviano de Medici, passed by here in the mail coach. He was wounded, and it seems that he was fleeing from Florence and he left with the greatest fear, because yesterday at eight someone came to this city looking for said Messer Lorenzo, and I think I heard that said Messer Lorenzo, and I think I heard, as I said, that he has killed the Lord Duke of Florence, and so hearing this news that is of greatest importance to His Imperial Majesty, I thought of sending this letter to Your Most Reverend Lordship only for this news, so that you will be able to inform the Most Illustrious Lord Marquis of Guasto if you like.

And then I heard that the Most Reverend Cibo had entered the fortress in the company of a bastard son of the said lord duke, so I will say no more except that as news comes in [di mano in mano] I will inform Your Most Reverend Lordship, and I kiss your hands and I offer and commit myself to you in Bologna on the 9th day of January 1537.

The humble servant of Your Most Reverend and Illustrious Lordship Giovanni Antonio, known as "the Tailor"

[Questa mia esola per avisare vostra signoria Reverendissima cum alli 7 del presente passo per qui imposta messer Lorenzo de Medici nepotte di messer ottaviano de medici il quale era ferite e mi pare che se ne fugiva da fiorenza esene andava cum grandissima paura di sortte che alli otti che fu eri evenute uno in questa terra che va cercando ditto messer Lorenzo e me pare de intendere che ditto messer Lorenzo, E me pare de intendere como ho ditte che ha morto il signor ducha di fiorenza e cosi intendende tal nova, la quale e di grandissima importanza ala maesta Cesarea me parse de espedire questa posta solamente per tal nova a vostra signoria Reverendissima ne poterá avisare allo Illustrissimo signor Marges dil guasto, si a quela li pare.

E piu ho inteso como el Reverendissimo cibo e intrato ne la fortezza in compagnia di uno fiolo Bastardo di ditto signor ducha cosí non diro altro solum che di mano in mano daro aviso a vostra signoria Reverendissima e a quelo li basso le mane e mi offero et raccomando in bologna a di viiij di Gienaro MDxxxvij

Di Vostra Signoria Reverendissima et Illlustrissima umile servitore Giovanni Antonio ditto il sarto]

Instead of beginning with a published account of Lorenzino's murder of Alessandro de' Medici, the Duke of Florence, I begin with a letter written three days after the murder (on January 9, 1537) by Giovanni Antonio, nicknamed "the Tailor," a low-level bureaucrat in Charles V's imperial machinery. He was employed by Charles V's governor of Milan, Marino Caracciolo, to supervise the postal station of Bologna and to send any news of importance to imperial politics. His letters are conserved in the State Archive of Milan under the classifications "Chancery of the State of Milan" (Cancelleria dello Stato di Milano) and "The Postal Service" (Poste). When I arrived in Milan in 1983, the archivist Maria Pia Bortolotti had just finished reordering this correspondence chronologically. Earlier archivists, including such significant nineteenth-century cultural figures as Peroni, Osio, and Cantù, had also dismembered and reordered this correspondence according to topical and chronological criteria. Although sixteenth-century hands had produced these letters, many later hands had intervened to give these documents their twentieth-century configuration. As I examined and transcribed Giovanni Antonio's letter, I became a part of this archival story whose protagonists were imperial diplomats, military captains, and functionaries who generated and sent letters to Caracciolo and then secretaries in the Milanese chancery and archivists who conserved and organized this correspondence. This archival story differed from the historiographic narrative of how Lorenzino had assassinated the duke.

* * *

Historiographic accounts record that on the evening of January 6, 1537, Lorenzino de' Medici murdered his cousin Alessandro de' Medici, the Duke of Florence. Lorenzino had carefully devised the plot, following the examples of tyrannicide in ancient historiography. He knew, for example, from his reading of the classics, that there had to be a chaste noblewoman in the picture and that Alessandro, as proof of his tyranny, had to have designs on her, because the first tyrant-slayers, Harmodius and Aristogiton, were glorified for their slaying of Hipparchus after he had dishonored Harmodius's sister. And Lucius Junius Brutus was celebrated as the founder of Roman liberty because he expelled the Tarquin tyrants after Sextus Tarquinius had raped Lucretia. Some accounts even tell us that part of Marcus Brutus's motivation for murdering Caesar was his desire to vindicate his sister's and mother's honor, which had been stained by their adulterous affairs with Caesar. So Lorenzino followed suit: by promising to procure for Alessandro the sexual favors of a chaste noblewoman, he lured Alessandro into coming to his place without bodyguards. So blinded by his lust was Alessandro that he even removed his sword and dagger and let Lorenzino place these out of reach. Lorenzino went out, leaving Alessandro in bed unarmed and convinced that his lust would soon be satisfied. Lorenzino returned, not with the girl but with his point man Scoronconcolo, and together they attacked the duke. They finally slew him, but not without considerable struggle, during which the duke clamped his teeth down on Lorenzino's hand, causing him significant bleeding and pain. Because of this injury, Lorenzino was unable to apprise the Florentine people of the news and of their narrative obligation, according to the classical model, to rise up and take the government in their own hands. Instead, he fled to Venice, where he was, according to some reports, hailed as the "new Brutus"—a great Althusserian moment in history, a moment in which the force of interpellation persuaded many that Lorenzino was indeed a great champion of liberty and an authentic tyrant-slayer in the tradition of Brutus. This was the confirmation Lorenzino required to complete his historiographic fiction. Once represented as the "new Brutus," Lorenzino could justify his act of murder by citing each citizen's legal right and duty to slay a tyrant.

Several aspects of Lorenzino's assassination of the duke and its representation in humanist historiography are problematic for the modern reader interested in issues of social and political change. First is the monolithic fiction of "the people," who, undifferentiated by gender, "race," or class, should always be organized and waiting to rise up and concretize humanistic ideals of freedom that they had no hand in devising and from which they will receive no benefits. Second is the fiction that the narrative paradigm of tyrannicide is a universal and comprehensive one capable of representing every political struggle and every political subject in every age and place. This second fiction obscures, in particular, the social specificity of the narrative, made for and by humanists or scholars of the western classics in different historical moments and to serve different interests. Each example of tyrannicide appeals to an audience of humanists, who are always on the side of liberty and truth but who, in their obsequiousness to tradition, have never questioned the variety of invisible oppressions on which such liberty and truth are founded.

The final and most obvious problem of the humanistic tyrannicide narrative is its incorporation of the subjugation of women into its formula for freedom. Though women are absent from the actual physical struggle between tyrant and tyrant-slayer, the violated body of a woman is the foundation of this struggle, the ground upon which this struggle comes into being. Moreover, the very act of telling this story in its humanistic version reinforces and reproduces a transhistorical paradigm for the violation and subjugation of women in politics. Where are we in historical space and time when we reproduce this traditional humanistic paradigm? And how does this "location" relate to the concrete locations in which we conduct our research? Can the narrative paradigm of tyrannicide, transmitted by the humanistic tradition, provide any opportunities for reorganizing political theory and practice around issues of gender? One way to reorganize knowledge about Lorenzino is to tell the story differently.

* * *

The story of Giovanni Antonio is that he wrote a letter in great haste and excitement to Caracciolo in Milan, telling him that Lorenzino had just passed through Bologna. Giovanni's hand was large, hurried, and scrawling, and the informal margins were unjustified—all of this pointing to his informal graphic education as much as to the anxiety and fear he felt in response to his sighting of Lorenzino. Giovanni applied sand to the ink to help the ink dry, but he sent the news to Caracciolo in such a hurry that the sand remained embedded in the ink. Quick—write it, seal it, send it. No time to mention either a dishonored woman or the Brutus myth. The grains of sparkling sixteenth-century sand, embedded in the ink—the vehicle that conveyed Giovanni's haste—became, as well, a conveyor of memories that connected the historical, social dimensions of my research to my subjectivity as a scholar. For the sand was still there sparkling on the paper in December 1983 when I read this document for the first time.

It was the last day of my visit to the State Archive in Milan in 1983. Fixing intently on the sand sparkling in ink on that day, I became aware of Giovanni's Antonio's hand in relation to my own hand scribbling away on my note paper. As I wrote, my hand participated in a representation of the reported murder and in an assembly of knowledge about Lorenzino. The letter of Giovanni Antonio powerfully illustrated how, in our acts of requesting and finding historical materials, a fiction of our hands and our selves emerges as part of the historical record. The hand was important at the scene of the assault. The hand was and is still important at the scene of writing. Lorenzino's fear, his wounded hand, his flight, Giovanni's hasty and anxious hand, and my own transcribing hand all became part of the historicity of the archive in which I was doing research. In this letter of Giovanni Antonio (and my transcription of it), it was clear that the past was still passing.

* * *

As I transcribed this letter with the sparkling sand, my own hand became somewhat shaky. I had already been studying this episode of political violence for some time and was concerned about my fascination with Lorenzino's humanist self-fashioning as a classical tyrant-slayer. Lorenzino compared himself to the ancient tyrant-slayers who were willing to sacrifice themselves for liberty and eternal fame. And he cited those ancient tyrants who had raped noblewomen, murdered their own mothers, and cut down noble citizens. He read these stories from antiquity to create a blueprint for constructing his own murder plan. I always understood that I was a new reader in this chain. But now, for the first time, my reading eyes and transcribing hand were directly related to the thoughts, feelings, eyes, and hands of Giovanni Antonio, who wrote that he had seen Lorenzino pass through Bologna.

With my reading eyes and transcribing hand, I understood that Giovanni Antonio's letter provided evidence of a bureaucratic relation, of a relationship of power in Charles V's empire. It, along with hundreds of other letters documenting Lorenzino's murder of Alessandro from an imperial perspective, provided evidence that Florence was no longer an autonomous political entity but was dependent on imperial power managed from Milan. This evidence lifted the story of Lorenzino outside the bounds of Florentine (and ancient) history and into the field of "real" imperial politics. Although his humanistic aspirations to restore republican politics to Florence failed—the murdered duke Alessandro was immediately replaced by Cosimo de' Medici—Lorenzino's classical learning nonetheless had a significant impact on imperial politics and writing.

* * *

I begin with Giovanni Antonio's letter because it was historically situated in quotidian relations of writing and power. The collocation of this letter in a particular rhetorical and relational frame (which included me the reader) enabled me to put together the various stages of my research on Lorenzino. First, taking a linguistic-rhetorical approach, I had studied the sixteenth-century historiographic accounts of Lorenzino's murder of the duke in relation to ancient historiographic representations of tyrants and tyrant-slayers. I had been interested in how the transmission, translation, and exportation of elements from ancient historiographic texts to sixteenth-century historiography worked to construct a literary tradition or republic of letters that was perceived to be detached from politics. Letters like that of Giovanni Antonio, exhibiting the direct impact of literary motifs on imperial politics, provided a perspective for critiquing this perception, still common today, of a rupture between literature and politics. Moreover, Giovanni Antonio's letter showed that news of Lorenzino emanating both from the republic of letters and from the imperial network was passing "from hand to hand" ("di mano in mano") in two seemingly distinct circuits and converging in my archival notes. Indeed, Giovanni Antonio's letter pointed to an overlap between those two circuits that a scholar in her study was not positioned to see.

Second, letters like that of Giovanni Antonio enabled me to examine Lorenzino's murder of the duke in the context of an emerging world system of which Florence was a part. Archival representations of this event conserved in Charles V's chancery in Milan pointed both to the immediate contingencies made necessary by political disturbance in Florence and to imperial relations of ruling in sixteenth-century Europe. Those "facts" that were collected to represent Lorenzino's act of murder tell us much about the writing and power relations of those who collected them. And institutions of collecting and recording that took form around this event (and others) made their impact on practices of empire and state formation for centuries to come.

Finally, beginning with Giovanni Antonio's letter has allowed me to mark a space for myself as a (feminist) scholar in the western male transmission and tradition of understanding tyranny and liberty. The fact that "I" was "there," too, situated among the chancery documents, receiving the news that Lorenzino had passed by the post of Bologna (and making the connection between Giovanni Antonio's hand and my transcribing hand) enabled me to situate myself "here" as well, in my study, in particular relations of a humanistic past and imperial present, of an imperial past and humanistic present, reorganizing political knowledge and research around feminist subjectivity. As long as I had limited myself to telling the historiographic narrative of how Lorenzino had murdered the duke, I remained in the transhistorical time and space of the humanistic tradition that was implied and reinforced by the story. I was able neither to disassemble the components of this narrative nor to loosen the grip they had on me. Now, with this archival letter of Giovanni Antonio, I was able to reorganize this narrative, assembling knowledge around relations of research that included my own. What follows, then, is a sort of inventory that endeavors to theorize, construct, document, and inhabit a social intersection between a republic of letters, imperial knowledge (past and present), and my own active construction of knowledge about liberty and tyranny. Here, in this intersection, we become aware of the interdependence of classical learning and imperial knowledge—of the scholar in her study and the scholar in the "field" (of libraries, archives, everyday life), opening up new possibilities for political subjectivity and knowing.


Excerpted from Wings for Our Courage by Stephanie H. Jed. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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From the Publisher
"A thought provoking discussion about research practices . . . and the ways in which the organization and transmission of knowledge relate to social and political organizations and arrangements."—Renaissance Quarterly

"Ingenious. . . . The whole book is deeply researched. It is extraordinarily well planned and executed. . . . [Jed] is to be warmly congratulated."—Bibliotheque D'humanisme Et Renaissance

Meet the Author

Stephanie H. Jed is Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of Chaste Thinking: The Rape of Lucretia and the Birth of Humanism.

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