Guelphs and Ghibellines: when that division ended, another took its place

The other day, in a snail-world (i.e., no Wikipedia available) conversation with a friend about Dante, I referred to the Ghibellines in medieval Italy as the pro-Papacy party, and the Guelphs, of whom Dante was a member, as the pro-Empire party. My friend corrected me and said that it was the opposite: the Ghibellines were pro-Empire, the Guelphs pro-Papacy. I said maybe I was mistaken, but that I had been under the impression that the Guelphs were pro-Empire.

Later, he sent the Wikipedia article about the Guelphs and Ghibellines, which begins thus:

The Guelphs and Ghibellines were factions supporting, respectively, the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor in central and northern Italy.

So I was wrong. Usefully, however, the article also provided information that explained to me how I had come under the wrong impression. The Guelphs were pro-Papacy, the Ghibellines were pro-Empire. But by Dante’s time, the Guelphs had won in Florence. However, the victorious Guelphs then split into a Black faction, which was pro-Papacy, and a White faction, which was anti-Papacy, more or less replicating the old Guelph-Ghibelline conflict under a new name. Dante was a member of the White faction. Since, as I was aware, Dante was a Guelph, and since he was of the anti-Papacy faction, I assumed that the Guelphs were anti-Papacy. But this was incorrect as a general proposition, because it was only the White Guelphs, who came into existence after the main Ghibelline-Guelph conflict had ended, who were anti-Papacy.

Here is the relevant passage in the article:

After the Guelphs finally defeated the Ghibellines in 1289 at Campaldino and Caprona, Guelphs began to fight among themselves. By 1300 Florence was divided into the Black Guelphs and the White Guelphs. The Blacks continued to support the Papacy, while the Whites were opposed to Papal influence, specifically the influence of Pope Boniface VIII. Dante was among the supporters of the White Guelphs, and in 1302 was exiled when the Black Guelphs took control of Florence. Those who were not connected to either side, or who had no connections to either Guelphs or Ghibellines, considered both factions unworthy of support but were still affected by the change of power in their respective cities. Emperor Henry VII was disgusted by supporters of both sides when he visited Italy in 1310, and in 1334 Pope Benedict XII threatened excommunication to anyone who used either name. In 1325, the city-states of Guelph Bologna and Ghibelline Modena fought over a civic bucket in the War of the Bucket, where the famous Battle of Zappolino was fought. The Ghibellines were the victors this time, and they made an impressive comeback.

The passage also serendipitously provides an answer to a question I raised in a subsequent conversation. Given the terrible civil war in Florence between the pro-Papacy and anti-Papacy factions at that time (that same civil war which resulted in the exile of Dante from Florence in 1302 until his death in 1321), and given that the development of high culture generally requires conditions of peace and security, how did the the early Florentine Renaissance, one of the highest cultural and spiritual manifestations in Western history, occur? I speculatively suggested a possible answer: that the factions (which I incorrectly named as Guelph and Ghibelline, when in reality they were the Black Guelphs and the White Guelphs) were like the opposed factions in the Wars of the Roses in 15th century England. The Yorks and Lancastrians fought each other and tore each other apart over a period of a couple of generations, but, fortunately, their terrible conflict only affected themselves and not the English people as a whole, whose life went on more or less peacefully and prosperously. If, I said, the conflict in northern Italy was something like that, then that would explain how the early Florentine Renaissance took place notwithstanding the terrible conflicts of that time. And in fact that’s exactly what the Wikipedia passage suggests happened: the main elements of the European and Italian society, including the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope, disapproved of both the Blacks and the Whites and stood apart from their mutual struggle. The Pope even outlawed them.

- end of initial entry -

Dean Ericson writes:

If ever our leftist party (we’ll call them the Ghibellines) were thoroughly defeated, then we remaining Guelphs would divide into warring Black and White parties too: traditionalists vs. right liberals/libertarians.

LA replies:

Right. That’s a huge problem that hasn’t been confronted yet, even in discussions at VFR. We’ve talked about conservatives seceding and forming a conservative, “red state” country. But among the people who call themselves conservatives, who oppose the statist society the left seeks to impose on us, there are two distinct groups, social conservatives and social liberals, and these two factions would have very different notions of what that new country should be like. And suppose the social conservatives won out over the social liberals. Among the victorious social conservatives, some would be racial conservatives, wanting the new country to remain white majority and Anglo-European, while others would be Glenn Beck-style racial liberals, eager to turn the new country into a hand-holding, Kumbaya-singing, Martin Luther King-worshipping, multiracial mirror of mankind.

LA writes:

Since Dean’s comment and my reply opened up a new topic, I’ve copied the exchange to a new entry, entitled, “Even if conservatives succeeded in seceding from Leftist America, which conservatism would the new America then follow?”

I also want to point out how the new topic opened up by Dean occurred because of a mistake. I misstated the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict; which led to my being corrected by the Wikipedia article; which led to my learning about the split between the Black Guelphs and the White Guelphs; which led to my understanding and writing how I had made the mistake in the first place; which led to Dean’s making his analogical leap from the Black Guelph / White Guelph split in Florence to the traditional conservative / liberal conservative split in contemporary America.

In conversation, when the conversation is pursued seriously (and a blog is is large part written conversation), mistakes are profitable. That is why I am not afraid of making mistakes at this site. So often, in the act of catching and correcting the mistake, useful new thoughts and insights come which would not have come otherwise.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 30, 2011 05:22 PM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):