Every semester it is one of my favorite assignments. In asking students to start to recognize the vocabulary that can help them place a Vita (translation: Life–as in an early form of biography that often focused less on accuracy and more on example or political commentary) in the appropriate era, I have them select an era and then draw up a list of words, Mad Libs style, that would be appropriate for a Vita from that era.
Below, are examples from this semester with my commentary:
The virile man was cunning. He conquered other nations.
He always delegated to Jupiter in the morning earning
the admiration of Alexander. When combat happened
in the noon he was the first to struck his Caesar.
This group included key figures/deities that would indicate a Roman text, as well as focusing on the admirable traits of a Roman leader: virile, cunning, conquering, striking–in other words, strong, clever, and militant.
The literate man was educated. He copied other nations.
He always converting to Charles in the morning earning
the admiration of Missi. When the crowned emperor happened
in the death of Charlemagne he was the first to defend his Carolingians.
This group selected the Carolingian era, for which they read an excerpt of Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne. This is rather different from the Late Antique-era Vitae which focused more on holy men and women with a special emphasis on martyrdom, conversions and miracles, or withdrawal from the world. The Carolingian Vita–and especially Einhard’s–is deliberately copying the Roman tradition of Vitae. This group, however, chose to focus on the particular marks of Charlmagne’s reign: education and literacy, copying of texts (though in the Mad Libs, this meaning was changed considerably), conversion and defense of the Church and empire. It also included important Carolingian features and events, such as the Missi who were the messengers of the king, distributing his capitularies (laws) and charters, and the crowning of Charlemagne as the new emperor by the pope.
The hearty of service man was master of good will. He overpowered other nations.
He always surpassed to Caesar in the morning earning
the admiration of soldiers. When assault happened
in the nighttime he was the first to die his orator.
Here, again, is a Roman example. This one also focuses on virtues of a leader including a permissible goodness, strong military career–including the admiration of soldiers–and a touch of the Hellenistic or possibly a nod to the typical career-building of the Roman elite (or both) in identifying him also as an orator.
The blessed man was arrogant. He granted other nations.
He always relinquished to Jesus in the morning earning
the admiration of martyrs. When persecution happened
in the Easter he was the first to overthrow his bishop.
This one is a little confused merging historical interests of the Late Antique writers, such as Gregory of Tours, and the holy-man/martyr-Vita. If one discounts the use of “arrogant” and “overthrow” in this sample, one can see the clear use of Late Antique preoccupations in their Vitae: blessed men (and occasionally women), relinquishing worldly possessions and goals, devotion to Jesus, willing martyrs in the face of persecution, the importance of Easter, and the significance of stable church offices, such as the bishops, in the face of great change and threat of violence in a post-Roman Empire world. Historians of the era, on the other hand, often discussed the violence of the newly arrived peoples–particularly that of fratricide among Frankish princes in order to secure a larger cut of the kingdoms they inherited. This may explain the incongruous additions of “arrogant” and “overthrow”–unless their Vita was a conversion story, of course.
The strong man was controlling. He reinstated other nations.
He always sent to the Merovingians in the morning earning
the admiration of missis. When the Battle of Tours happened
in the Treaty of Verdun he was the first to convert his Carolingians.
And, finally, another Carolingian mock Vita. This group focused less on Charlemagne’s renovatio (the word the Carolingians used to describe their own program–what many scholars today call the Carolingian Renaissance) and more on the type of leader Charlemagne was: strong and controlling, trying to convert the Saxons. They still include the renovatio in the verb “reinstated” as many Roman and Church traditions, in addition to the education programs, were attempted. This group references the Carolingians fellow-Frankish dynastic predecessors: the Merovingians, including (I think) their glorious campaign by Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles “the Hammer” Martel, the Battle of Tours (they mean Poitiers, though, unless this is just a convenient place name to describe a battle which could have taken place) which drove the Muslim advance out of Gaul (modern day France) and back into Spain. They leap forward then to the later Treaty of Verdun signed to attempt an amicable division of territory between Charlemagne’s grandchildren–it would not last.