This is a photograph (taken by Helen!) of Mont Ventoux in Provence. It was the site of one of the most influential literary conversions in early modern Europe: that of the Tuscan poet Francesco Petrarca (known in English as Petrarch), whose poems in his native tongue were admired and imitated throughout Europe. In April 1366, along with his brother and two servants, Petrarch climbed the mountain — not a mean feat, since it stands at more than 6000 feet tall. In a letter to his friend and confessor, the Augustinian monk Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro, he claimed that he was driven by a desire to admire the view: ‘My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer’. Yet the letter, re-telling the event with the benefit of hindsight, makes it clear that this was a trip concerning religion as much as rambling.
Petrarch details his determination to choose the right companions to aid him on his voyage, and the interventions of a shepherd who tries to dissuade them from the difficult climb — both episodes which can be read allegorically as part of the duties and tribulations of a Christian. Even more obvious is the allegorical significance of Petrarch’s repeated determination to follow ‘an easier path’ than the direct but demanding route chosen by his brother. He remembers that ‘When I was called back, and the right road was shown me, I replied that I hoped to find a better way round on the other side, and that I did not mind going farther if the path were only less steep’. In many ways pre-figuring the route choices of Bunyan’s famous Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, Petrarch’s determination to avoid the difficult path is a metaphor for his inability to move directly towards God, and his physical laziness mirrors the reluctance of his soul to engage in strenuous metaphysical mountaineering.
Petrarch himself makes this clear, when he describes a moment of realisation:
After being frequently misled in this way, I finally sat down in a valley and transferred my winged thoughts from things corporeal to the immaterial, addressing myself as follows: – “What thou hast repeatedly experienced to-day in the ascent of this mountain, happens to thee, as to many, in the journey toward the blessed life … Yes, the life which we call blessed is to be sought for on a high eminence, and strait is the way that leads to it. Many, also, are the hills that lie between, and we must ascend, by a glorious stairway, from strength to strength. At the top is at once the end of our struggles and the goal for which we are bound. All wish to reach this goal, but, as Ovid says, ‘To wish is little; we must long with the utmost eagerness to gain our end.’ Thou certainly dost ardently desire, as well as simply wish, unless thou deceivest thyself in this matter, as in so many others. What, then, doth hold thee back? Nothing, assuredly, except that thou wouldst take a path which seems, at first thought, more easy, leading through low and worldly pleasures. But nevertheless in the end, after long wanderings, thou must perforce either climb the steeper path, under the burden of tasks foolishly deferred, to its blessed culmination, or lie down in the valley of thy sins, and (I shudder to think of it!), if the shadow of death overtake thee, spend an eternal night amid constant torments.
The group finally reached the top of the mountain and admired the magnificent views: ‘off to the right, the mountains of the region about Lyons, and to the left the bay of Marseilles and the waters that lash the shores of Aigues Mortes, altho’ all these places were so distant that it would require a journey of several days to reach them’.
Yet Petrarch realised it was not simply his feet which had ascended new heights, and that he was in the process of ‘raising my soul, as I had done my body, to higher planes’. Although the literal-mindedness of this conceit may seem odd today, the idea that climbing nearly two thousand metres might bring you to closer to God seems to have been relatively widespread in the period. One seventeenth-century English joke turned the idea on its head, telling the story of a moneylender (charging interest was condemned as a sin in the period) who had travelled to the Canary Islands.
One hearing a Usurer say he had been on the pike of Teneriff (which is supposed to be one of the highest hils in the world) asked him why he had not stayd there for he was perswaded hee would never come so neere heaven againe.
(Conceits, clinches, flashes, and whimzies (London, 1639), sig. B7v).
Petrarch decided that the best way to raise his soul was to open the copy of Augustine’s Confessions, a gift from Dionigi, that he always carried with him. In doing so, he was self-consciously mimicking Augustine’s own actions, since it was by opening a book (in his case the epistles of St Paul) that Augustine finally achieved his own longed-for conversion to a full and felt faith. In this, both Augustine and Petrarch followed in the tradition of the sortes virgilianae (Virgilian lottery) — the technique of opening a book at random to discover a prophecy or prediction.
The words that Petrarch read aloud at the summit of Mont Ventoux were peculiarly significant: ‘And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not’. For Petrarch, both the message and the parallel with Augustine’s conversion is obvious: ‘What I had there read I believed to be addressed to me and to no other, remembering that St. Augustine had once suspected the same thing in his own case’. Though physically Petrarch stepped out upon a seldom-trodden path, in his devotional life he was walking firmly in the footsteps of Augustine.
Petrarch’s letter is littered with references to other events and histories which he sees as paralleling his own (see, for instance, the invocation of Ovid in the long quotation above), and raises interesting questions about the force of analogy and imitation. Did Petrarch add all of these sources and parallels as he reflected upon and wrote about his conversion, or were they formative stories — ways of understanding the world which suggested the shape of Petrarch’s experience and directed his footsteps in the wilds of Provence? It seems unlikely that the parallel with Augustine only occured to Petrarch once the passage he had selected spoke so directly to his circumstances. Instead, we might suggest, Petrarch’s lottery was pre-determined by the example of his spiritual forefather, just as — in the Confessions — Augustine prefaces his own conversion with the accounts of other converts and other lucky readers.
To read Petrarch’s letter visit the Medieval Internet History Sourcebook.
Donald Beecher has a useful article on ‘Petrarch’s “Conversion” on Mont Ventoux and the Patterns of Religious Experience’ available online.
And one last (gratuitous) holiday photo, featuring the project mascot: