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Courtesy and spiritual guides

Portrait du Tasse

Building upon earlier chivalric traditions, the works of Machiavelli, Castiglione and Erasmus injected a vigour into the genre, motivated by the increasingly complex court system, changing political circumstances, and an ever-growing population of educated, ambitious as well as socially - and geographically - mobile readers. Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513), Castiglione’s The Boke of the Courtier (1528) and Erasmus’s De Civilitate (1530) all dealt with elements of court society; essentially how to survive and thrive within it. Beyond these well-known names a host of authors, a good number of them Italian, contributed their views and wisdom.

During the seventeenth century, French asserted its place as the dominant linguistic medium of the courtesy genre, influenced no doubt by the growing primacy of the French court in the wider European context. The extent of these works and their reach is borne out by their extensive record of translation. For example Della Casa’s Galateo appeared in English translation as The Refin’d Courtier (London, 1679). Reprints and new editions were also frequent, as well as citations by new authors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

While courtesy literature was enjoying a growing audience, spiritual literature was slowly but surely losing ground to the emerging genres. As one would expect, the spiritual guides were generally written by those who held ecclesiastical office while the courtesy guides usually traded on the expertise of their author as a man of the court. In keeping with the general trend in publishing during the seventeenth century, spiritual literature was increasingly published in the vernacular; whereas Latin titles accounted for the majority of works published in 1600, they held just 5% of the market in 1800.