The dangerous letter of Poggio Bracciolini

Posted by | October 25, 2016 | Our past, present and future | No Comments

The Reformation

UNE’s Professor Thomas A. Fudge is a leading international scholar on medieval heresy, particularly the movement that formed around the Czech heretic, Jan Hus. It was during the course of this research that Professor Fudge came across the dangerous letter of the Florentine humanist, Poggio Bracciolini.

… Poggio’s letter straddles the boundary between history and panegyric, and should be interrogated as an example of superb humanist writing.

Professor Thomas A. Fudge

Professor Thomas A. Fudge,
School of Humanities, UNE

On 30 May 1416, the Council of Constance condemned to death Jerome of Prague for his alleged support of Jan Hus, who had been executed in Konstanz on July 6 1415. Like Hus before him, Jerome was burned alive, becoming the first official martyr of the Hussite reform movement. Watching Jerome burn that day was Poggio Bracciolini, who then wrote what Professor Fudge calls his ‘dangerous letter’. Unlike the court Acta and the brief accounts by hostile witnesses who reported what happened, the Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini engaged in the deliberate construction of an ideal philosopher predicated upon motifs from the classical Greek and Latin world. In this exercise, Poggio produced an arresting interpretation of Jerome. While Jerome’s detractors accused him of perpetrating ‘matters still more controversial’ and being the ‘athlete of Antichrist’, it was left to Poggio to declare that the ‘wandering scholar’ (with the big, black, bushy, beard) was ‘a man to remember’.

So what exactly was dangerous about Poggio’s letter? In 1403 the well-educated, talented scholar joined the court of Pope Boniface IX, commencing a distinguished career in papal service. In 1416, when he wrote his letter, Poggio was suffering a period of unemployment, the result of the papal office falling vacant for two years after the ‘Antipope’ John XXIII was deposed, and Pope Gregory XII abdicated. This gives us Poggio Bracciolini, unemployed papal bureaucrat, presumably hoping to be employed in the Pope’s service again, writing a letter in praise of an executed heretic. Why he would choose such a subject, at such a time, is something of a mystery. And this mystery is further compounded by the fact that Poggio would remain employed by the papal court in a career that spanned fifty years. His dangerous letter, apparently, providing no obstacle to his career.

For Professor Fudge, Poggio’s letter straddles the boundary between history and panegyric, and should be interrogated as an example of superb humanist writing, as well as an example of a ‘text of perpetual truth’. Jerome of Prague was a heretic because he questioned authority, and challenged established categories of thinking. He dissented from accepted tradition, practised intellectual honesty, engaged in critical thinking, and exhibited unwillingness to simply accept what the medieval church demanded. Perhaps Poggio Bracciolini, a brilliant and prolific scholar, renowned for his perfect script that survives today as Roman type, servant to popes, the inveterate European traveler, man of Renaissance affairs, valued those characteristics, and so he wrote his dangerous letter because Jerome of Prague was a man worthy of being remembered forever.

Professor Fudge’s interest in this dangerous letter is part of a larger research project aimed at elaborating the nature and significance of the Hussite movement in rethinking the origins of the European Reformations.

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