The 10th century: early Italian
The closeness of Italian to Latin helped scholars enrich the new language by including many more Latin terms with relative ease. Earlier, we remarked that similarities between the languages can also be explained by the fact that Italian emerges later than its european counterparts and therefore preserves many of the archaisms even into today's conversation. The Placito Capuano, the first document extant in the Italian language bears witness to the later development of Italian, dating as it does in to the second half of the 10th century.
The Placito Capuano
The Placito Capuano or Placito di Capua is the first in a number of acts, called Placiti Cassinesi, written in early Italian between 960 and 963: they are court proceedings allowing the Benedectines from four abbacies to reclaim their lands from squatters that had occupied many of their lands after a Saracens invasions had dispersed the local chapter. Two such proceedings are from Teano and one from Sessa Aurunca (near Caserta), from three local chapters under the patronage of the Monastery of Montecassino and contain a legal formula similar to the Placito Capuano but the Placito is by far the most important in that it is the earliest of such papers.
The discovery of the Placiti is relatively recent: the Placito, or Carta Capuana (960 A.D.) was found by abbot Gattola in the archives of the Monastery of Montecassino in 1734. All the texts show linguistic features typical of the area around Capua and more generally the southern dialects, though many are also found in modern Italian as well:
Sao ko kelle terre, per kelle fini que ki contene, trenta anni le possette parte sancti Benedicti.
(I know that those lands, within the borders that enclose them, were owned for thirty years by the party of St. Benedict's) (Capua, March 960 - Placito Capuano)
Sao cco kelle terre, per kelle fini que tebe monstrai, Pergoaldi foro, que ki contene, et trenta anni le possette.
(I know that those lands, within the borders that I showed to you, were owned for thirty years by the party of Pergoaldus.) (Sessa Aurunca, March 963)
Kella terra, per kelle fini que bobe mostrai, sancte Marie è, et trenta anni la posset parte sancte Marie.
(The land within the borders that I showed to you, belongs to Santa Maria, and thirty years was owned by the party of Saint Mary.) (Teano, July 963)
Sao cco kelle terre, per kelle fini que tebe mostrai, trenta anni le possette parte sancte Marie.
(I know that those lands within the borders that I showed to you, were owned for for thirty years by the party of Saint Mary) (Teano, October 963)
These are the original sentences, let us now explore more about what went on in the Capua courtroom, who was there and what they said that prompted the judge to write the sencences that went down in the history of the Italian language.
Historical context of the Placito
One day, a small army of Saracens (883 A.D.) landed on the coasts of Southern Italy. They pillaged and destroyed everything and everyone in their path, finally heading for the mountains where a group of Benedectine monasteries were rumored to be full of gold and money. Most of the clergy were killed, the monasteries burned to the ground, anything valuable was carried away. What remained was a heap of smoking ruins surrounded by the deepest silence, a no man's land.
Those who survived to tell the story would never set foot on those lands until the next century. But when the monks returned to rebuild their property they found that many natives had occupied their lands in their absence. Winning back the smaller lots of lands was easily done, but they eventually met with the stubborn opposition of a local squire, Rodelgrimo d'Aquino.
He, not unlike others, had annexed to his estate two lots that aparently belonged to the Catholic Church. In response Don Aligerno, the abbot of Montecassino, sent his lawyer (Pietro) to plead the monks' case in court which would settle the dispute under judge Arechisi from Capua. In his defense, Rodelgrimo produced a detailed map of his lands, insisting that his annexation had been lawful.
On their part, the Benedectines insisted that those lots belonged to them since they had lived there for a long time when the Saracens had forced them to leave. The pleading was in Latin as this was still the language of the courts at the time.
When Judge Arechisi finally reached a verdict (the Placito), it stated that the lands held at the time by Rodelgrimo did actually belong to the monks, since they had been in their possession for at least 30 years (usucapione) prior to Rodelgrimo's occupation.
After his deliberation, Arechisi wrote down the Placito in Italian, its form based on similar formulas in use in Latin whose existence is documented at least since 882 A.D. (Lucca), in San Vincenzo al Volturno, not far from Capua (936, 954 and then 976 A.D. Latin will continue to be used in other courts in future times, in spite of the happy precedent set by the Placiti. )
As the judge entered the courtroom, he read the formula aloud in front of the public. Then, he asked three witnesses (Teomondo, Gariberto, two monks, and Mari, a notary) to repeat that same sentence in vernacular to make absolutely sure that everyone had understood it. In total, the same sentence was heard four times (judge and witnesses), and Mari the notary duly confirmed it by writing down emphatically "toti tres quasi ex uno ore; quasi uno ore". (all three [witnesses] did swear as if with one voice).
The witnesses had more than a passing knowledge of Latin and could have used it as easily as their local dialect but much of the listening audience in the courtroom were not that literate, hence the use of Italian. That they had to say the words in the new language was the telling sign that Latin, was no longer used or understood by the general public as a spoken language. Therefore this courtroom formula, marks the moment when Italian was officially recognized as a language.
The formulas from Sessa Aurunca (March 963) and Teano (October, 963) are similar in kind, only concerning different lands, though still within the Lombard duchy of Capua. If these documents are considered less important in that they occur later, they are invaluable since they confirm the correctness of the spelling of the formula contained in the Placito and that its language is that spoken around 960 A.D.
To have deserved such the status of official language in a court proceeding, however, it must be imagined that Italian had been spoken (though not written) for a while and that Latin had been unknown by the general public for at least one century. To sum it up, the importance of the Placito lies in that:
1. we know for certain that from 960 A.D. Italian is the language of government and
2. It is the proof it was spoken and understood by all classes of society, although a uniform standard was still a long way to come.
3. It proves that people felt it to be a language apart from Latin and no longer a 'vulgar', 'corrupted' form of it.
Apart from the formula 'Parte Sancti Benedicti', which may be considered law jargon, a stock phrase to be used ad hoc and a fossil genitive like 'Piazza San Marco' (St. Mark's Square) or Via Giuseppe Mazzini that appear in many Italian addresses today, most of the Placito is emancipated from the constraints of Latin grammar and even shows some traits we can find in modern Campanian (kelle, possette etc). Tebe and bobe in the last three formulas are the fossil datives of Lat. tibi and vobis.
While it is not difficult to explain such spelling variants as ko, cco (< Lat. quod - this was the only way to render velar sounds - co with one c would be read as 'cho'), que and ke (< Lat. que(m), but ke only can tell us about the medieval pronounciation of que, 'that'), the validity of 'sao' has been disputed.
'Sao', probably modeled on Campanian 'ao' (it. ho, "I have"), dao (it. do, "I give"), stao (it. sto, "I stay") on analogy with Lat. sapis (it. sai, "you know") and sapit (it. sa, old Campanian sae) poses a bigger problem.
Although we are pretty sure about the spelling (it is the same in all of the four documents and it was uttered twelve times), where it comes from is still a matter of dicussion since modern Capuan has "saccio" with palatal c (en. ch), and that 'sazzo' is the other southern variant. When we know that dialects are extremely conservative we are at pains to explain why there is no trace of 'sao' in today's Capuan.
Why did Arechisi not say "saccio ko..." but "sao..." ? The possible solutions appear to be these:
1. The variant 'sao' had occured in the local dialect but was short-lived and later overcome by the 'saccio' of nearby towns. (Migliorini)
2. 'Sao' was of Northern influence, since dialects like the Venetian, we have seen in the Indovinello Veronese, soon loses a consonant when placed in between vowels. (Bartoli)
By allowing for the latter possibility, however, we should concede there were frequent contacts between Capua and the North of Italy, which, if not entirely impossible, seems highly unlikely. However, it shall be noted here the structural similarity to formulas later noted in other Italian dialects.
Baldelli noting that the event took place in a Lombard duchy bordering with Bizantine (Greek) Campania, surmises that behind the use of Italian is the attempt by the Italian-speaking Lombard landlords to preserve their cultural and therefore political integrity.
The Lombards empire had long gone, and Constantinople was eager to extend its influence over these Lombard families that had almost lost their power and forgotten their native language. A political statement in which the Lombard dukes identify with the Latin and Italian heritage against any foreign cultures.
That the first document in the Italian language is
a verdict of a local judge and not a chart read or by a
king, is sadly peculiar to Italian history, doomed to remain divided by
interests and short-sightedness of its local princes for quite a long
time, something that further slowed down the coming of age of a national
standard. But the fact remain that an important precedent had been
For at least two centuries the use of Italian in official documents would remain sparse, being preferred to Latin which in Italy enjoyed a prestige unequalled in other European nations. But from now on there is no doubt about the kind of language spoken by the Italian people.