By Dame Deirdre O’Siodhachain
This article originally appeared in The Oak #13. It is has been edited and updated by the author.
“There are, of course, ambitions that are wholly selfish, but no one would contend that the poet’s desire for fame is necessarily of this nature. The laurel is a world-old symbol of victory, and, while it was awarded to kings and conquerors, it was no small thing that the conquerors of the kingdom of the soul should have been distinguished in like manner; it is the art, not the man, that is crowned, and in that lies the real triumph.” Jerrold, Francesco Petrarca, p. 64.
Figure 1 Francesco Petrarca and his purported muse Laura de Noves; period iconography shows poets wearing a laurel wreath
Of the four bestowed peerage orders in the SCA, two have documentable traditions from the medieval period and/or Renaissance; these were to initiate skilled persons into the highest ranks of the martial community. The practice of “dubbing to knighthood” has a long history. The London “Masters of Defence” has a system of playing prizes to recognize achievement of rank. But there is also an elite and nearly unique instance of a ceremony to recognize the status of masters of academic knowledge and poetic excellence.
While I have never found a model on which the Order of the Pelican might base their rite of passage, there are a few isolated instances in 1300s Italy of a notable person being publicly honored by bestowing a laurel wreath to mark distinguished scholarship and excellence in the art of poetry.
The most famous of these ceremonies occurred on Easter Day, April 8, 1341. The recipient was the Italian poet and scholar, Francesco Petrarca, better known to English speakers as Petrarch.
Petrarch was one of the preeminent scholars of his day, as well as a poet of great renown. Although technically a citizen of Florence, he was born in exile in Arezzo to Florentine parents. His education, work, and travel made him an international figure. By his early thirties he had established a reputation as an innovative poet and classical scholar in both Latin and Greek. He was among the first of the humanists and one of the major figures of the Italian Renaissance.
Having established himself as the correspondent and confidant of many influential people, as well as being generally acknowledged the foremost scholar of his time, Petrarch felt a need for some more concrete recognition than mere reputation. It is not clear who first came up with the suggestion for a public coronation with the symbolic laurel wreath, but Petrarch certainly approved the notion and let it be known discretely that he would favorably entertain an invitation from a suitable source.
As a humanist, Petrarch would be familiar with the laurel wreath and its association with Apollo in the role of god of poetry in Greek and Roman classical literature, and with the imagery of the Roman military triumph and its attendant public acclaim.
Apparently when word got out more than one place wished the honor of bestowing the laurel wreath. Petrarch received invitations from both the University of Paris and the Senate of Rome on September 1, 1340 at his isolated residence at Vaucluse outside Avignon in France. He decided, not surprisingly, in favor of the Roman invitation.
Biographies of Petrarch agree on the events that followed.
To lend legitimacy to the process, Petrarch first went to the court of Robert of Anjou, also known as Robert I, King of Naples (reign 1309-1343) was known as “The Wise”. He was justly renowned for his learning and so well-qualified to conduct what was essentially a pro forma examination to determine the poet’s worthiness. Petrarch sailed from Marseilles for Naples and arrived in late February for a month’s visit. During that time, he and King Robert spent three days in public discussion and dissertations. At the end, Robert pronounced the poet worthy and offered to present the laurel wreath himself. Petrarch declined on the basis of his prior commitment to the Senate in Rome and desire to receive the laurel in the city of the great poets of classical Rome.
King Robert acquiesced to this preference and only regretted his age prevented him from accompanying Petrarch on the journey. However, Robert gave Petrarch his own royal purple robe to wear at the ceremony as a mark of sponsorship and honor.
The coronation of Petrarch as Poet Laureate took place within days of his arrival in Rome. The ceremony was held in the Senatorial Palace on the Capitoline hill. It began with a procession of twelve 15-year-old boys (the sons of gentlemen and citizens) dressed in scarlet and followed by six noble gentlemen dressed in green, each carrying a garland of flowers. The Roman Senator Orso and others of the Senate then entered wearing laurel wreaths. Petrarch was summoned with trumpets and fifes and presented himself to the Senator, gave an oration, and concluded with crying out three times for the long life and liberty of the Romans and their Senators. He then knelt and the Senator said, “The crown is the reward of merit,” and placed the wreath upon Petrarch’s head. Petrarch recited a sonnet (now lost) on the valor of ancient Rome in honor of the occasion. The giving of the laurel was then confirmed by the reading of a declaration of eight points, chief among them confirming him a master of the arts and history and a citizen of Rome. Petrarch was then acclaimed by the crowd.
It is interesting to note the entirely secular nature of the ceremony. Some of this may have been due to the fraught nature of the Babylonian Captivity when the Papacy was moved to Avignon (1309 to 1376). The spiritual authority of the Avignon Papacy was not universally recognized and could be a political nightmare. However, Petrarch retired to St. Peter’s Basilica where he left the wreath as a devotional offering on the altar. Rome was recognized as the spiritual center of Western Christianity. Even the most secular poet would not ignore the role of faith in art.
Petrarch was initially pleased with this honor, although he later came to express – possibly insincere –regret that he had accepted it. He felt it had aroused only jealousy and condemnation of his vanity and pride. Nonetheless, it was done in a spirit linking the great poets of ancient Rome with their successors in a different age.
Based on what is known of the crowning of Petrarch with the laurel wreath, I suggest the following template as a possible adaptation for use in the SCA:
- The King and Queen summon the Order of the Laurel.
- The Order enters from the back of the hall two-by-two, perhaps carrying symbols of their respective arts. Members of the Order should be encouraged to wear green.
- A representative of the order announces that in keeping with tradition, after due thought and consultation with The Crown, they wish to name one as worthy to join their ranks.
- Their Majesties agree, and summon the candidate.
- The candidate enters, perhaps escorted by a sponsor and/or with examples of his/her/their art displayed in procession. He/she/they kneels before Their Majesties.
- Their Majesties request that representatives of the peerage bestowed orders attest to their examination of the worthiness of the candidate according to their understanding of the contributions made to the populace, kingdom, and the SCA.
- The Consort, as patroness of the arts and sciences, drapes a purple cloak around the shoulders of the candidate. The Consort instructs him/her/them that this is a symbol of the countenance conveyed by the Crown and bids him/her/them remember the weight of the responsibilities of a peer, especially in upholding the arts and sciences, even as he/she/they feels the weight of the cloak. If the cloak is not a gift, it is then removed.
- The King then asks for a token of the Order. The sponsor or another appropriate person presents a medallion and/or wreath. The King explains the Laurel is a symbol of connection with past and our triumph over ignorance through diligent study and effort, as well as being the symbol of our Society. The token is then placed on the candidate. He/she/they are instructed in accepting the token to be mindful to always maintain the quest for knowledge and conduct themselves in a manner worthy of a peer.
- The scroll is then read, and the candidate swears fealty, if he/she/they choose.
- The Crown dismisses the order to celebrate the elevation of a new member. The order exits, again two-by-two, escorting the new Laurel from court. They greet him/her/them at the back of the hall. The populace cheers and the children wave colorful banners.
Bergin, T. G. (1970) Petrarch, Twayne Publishers, New York.
Foster, K. (1984) Petrarch: Poet and Humanist. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
Hollway-Calthrop, H. C., & Petrarca, F. (1972). Petrarch ; His Life and Times. Copper Square Publishers, Inc. New York.
Jerrold, M. F. (1970). Francesco Petrarca, Poet and Humanist. Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press.
Wilkins, E. H. (1961). Life of Petrarch. University of Chicago Press.