Scribal Error

Poetry today is pretty much whatever you want it to be. There are different forms (sonnets, odes, ballads, free verse, found poetry) but generally, poetry has become something of a blanket term that can include nearly anything rhythmical or lyrical.

In Sicily in the 1200s , that wasn’t quite the case.

Thirteenth century southern Italy saw the incredible growth of a small community of poets that ended up shaping the history of Western poetry. The invention of the sonnet is credited to the Sicilian poet Giacomo da Lentini in the 1200s. Then the form was developed by the likes of Dante and his contemporaries, perfected by Petrarch, brought to England, and made its way into Shakespeare’s works. Think about all those Shakespeare sonnets you love that wouldn’t have been possible without the form’s inception during the game-changing poetic boom in the court of Frederick II.

The Sicilian school is responsible for the rise of poetry as something that is read, rather than sung with an instrumental accompaniment. Until then, poetry had been nearly inseparable from music, with the French troubadours and jongleurs using their musical talent in conjunction with repetitive lyrics to entertain their audience. The Sicilians didn’t really care about the music, or maybe they didn’t have that kind of talent. They cared more about the manipulation of the language, and the perfection of a lyrical way of posing a question and finding the answer at the end. The poems are really very stunning. They’re masterfully written and flawless.

Well, flawless except for one little thing aptly called Sicilian rhyme.

Sometimes, they’d do this thing where the rhyme would be imperfect. Like rhyming the word grudge with bridge instead of judge, for example. And it was incredibly common. So common that by the time the Sicilian school fell and the 14th century stilnovismo replaced it in importance up in Tuscany (where copies of the Sicilian poems were numerous due to their extreme popularity) people thought it was just something they did.

And it was fascinating. For years, people looked at rhymes like tutto / sotto and gire / gaudere and wondered at how a school so important in establishing the groundwork for contemporary poetry was able to stomach such graceless half-rhymes. The imperfections began to inspire awe in students all over Europe until this flaw became a misunderstood but thereby endlessly mysterious feature. Sicilian rhyme even began to creep its way into the works of greats like Dante, who’s notorious for never using a word without a motive:

Questi parea che contra me venisse
con la test’alta e con rabbiosa fame,
sì che parea che l’aere ne tremesse.
(Dante – Divina Commedia – Inf. I, vv. 48-50)

God, what depth! What thrilling poetic license! To think; you don’t have to be perfect! You can actually use a mistake to slam a point home! You can use flaws to bring out the beauty of your verse!

I mean, Sicilian imperfect rhyme is something invented by the experts. It was honed during the decades of the development of the modern wordsmith. No way it was actually something totally made up by people reading Tuscan copies of Sicilian poems riddled with scribal error.

Scribal error… The two most dreaded words of any paleographer, nay, historian, nay, lover of words of any kind.

Yes, my friends, Sicilian rhyme is a false construct. It was created by accident through copy blunders, something you may have even guessed if you kept the title of this article in mind while reading (spoiler alert, by the way). Why would the Sicilian school be so careless as to fill their poetry with imperfect rhyme? The real culprit was…


In the Middles Ages, Italian in Sicily and Italian in Tuscany were practically different languages. As their dialects developed, Latin vowel sounds morphed differently. The letters i and u in Sicily were more often e and o respectively in Tuscany, so that the words luci and cruci in Sicilian were luce and croce in Tuscan. So the example above, gire / gaudere was originally gire / gaudire. A perfect rhyme.

How close these vowels are linguistically meant that Tuscan scribes copying Sicilian manuscripts made mistakes. Poetry back then wasn’t written line by line; it was all one big block. You couldn’t compare line endings as easily as you can with how poetry is written now, so things slipped past them. That, coupled with the fact that original Sicilian manuscripts didn’t exist anymore (today we only have one full manuscript extant, and some fragments) meant that the Tuscan copies sucked as points of reference. Still, where scribes failed to notice the errors, any poet reading them immediately caught the differences, but the Sicilian reputation was so rock solid they were interpreted not as mistakes, but as genially unique twists the old masters refined in the court of Frederick II.

And we didn’t even realize until a century ago. It took us nearly 700 years to figure it out.

Sicilian rhyme is human error falsely mediated by imposed poetic license. History is truly created by historians, and poetry by its readers. It is the epitome of the anxieties revolving around the study of manuscripts.

But damn it all if it isn’t the most fascinating piece of linguistic trivia you’ve learned all week.


6 Responses to Scribal Error

  1. Maria Feb 28 2014 at 6:51 am #

    What a fascinating post! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Susan Dennard Feb 28 2014 at 8:25 am #

    WOW. Very cool post, Biljana. And something I definitely knew nothing about. Thanks for sharing!

    • Biljana Feb 28 2014 at 6:35 pm #

      Thanks! The entire times I was thinking about all the Latin stuff I looked into for you haha.

  3. Julie Feb 28 2014 at 11:01 am #

    Fantastic post, Biljana! I love to see how “happy accidents” shaped literary history. <3

    • Biljana Feb 28 2014 at 6:37 pm #

      Hah didn’t even think about it in terms of a happy accident, but I guess it could be! The greatest shame is that the original versions have been lost forever and even though we know through studying the dialects what the originals should have been, we’ll never know for sure.

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