Medieval Metafiction

by Tracy Barrett, W&M contributor

In 1924, the linguist Luigi Schiapparelli discovered some lines in the margin of a religious text, scribbled in a Veronese hand in the late eighth or early ninth century, probably to test the scribe’s newly cut pen. They read:

Se pareba boves                           He led oxen
alba pratalia araba                    he plowed white fields
& albo versorio teneba               and he held a white plow
& negro semen seminaba          and sowed black seed

Linguists immediately declared this one of the earliest examples of written Italian—so early that some call it late Latin, and not Italian at all.

In 1924, Italy was at the height of its fascist era, when the peninsula’s glorious past was being held up as a model for the Italian people. Italian scholars rhapsodized about the hearty farmer who is eager to plow his field despite the frost covering it. (The white plow was glossed over.)

It wasn’t until a linguistics professor was discussing these lines in a class that a young student told him that the text wasn’t a poem about a virtuous farmer at all, but was a riddle that her grandmother had told her. The oxen are fingers, the white fields are paper (or parchment), the white plow is a white quill pen, and the seeds are the ink.

Lately, I’ve been pondering metafiction—that literary convention where an author reminds you that you’re reading a book. It’s usually considered a sophisticated postmodern technique, but it’s prevalent in children’s literature, for example in the recent It’s a Book and The Neverending Story. You might have noticed metafiction in Jane Eyre (“Reader, I married him”), Don Quixote (where the second part reflects on the first part), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, many books by Italo Calvino.

Isn’t it wonderful that at the dawn of Italian language, whose literature has always pushed the envelope of literary styling, a scribe testing his new pen left us this self-referential scribble?


  • Fabio De Vivo

    My compliments for writing about a very important moment in italian language history that few people know here in Italy too. It’s a shame but this is it. I had three university exams about linguistic and this is one of the topics I loved most. Thanks for spreading it.

    • Tracy Barrett

       Fabio, it’s always been one of my favorite early Italian texts–along with “Fili de le pute, traite” in the lower church of San Clemente in Rome!

      • Fabio De Vivo

        Well, San Clemente’s texts are very pioneering, they seem to anticipate comics! And it’s very funny that one of the earliest italian trace was a badword into a church. I see your love for italian literature and I really appreciate it. I’ll follow your posts!