Ancient and contemporary consumption of propaganda

Manipulation of public opinion by employing unobjective words or speech has been a political tool since modern societies were born. If we could turn back time, we would be astonished by how much powerful, persuasive content used to hit unpaved roads and gain acceptance in distant lands. For example, the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII, King of France in 1494-1495, was accompanied by an explosion of propaganda texts written in France to justify the military enterprise -- by giving it a messianic slant. Italian authors spotted the propaganda trend and tried to counteract it by producing texts with an ‘Italian’ view of this historical event.

In ancient times, propaganda texts told people what they wanted to believe in or even spoke to their darkest fears. Perhaps they sometimes gave them hope too. No wonder prophecies were a major weapon of disinformation. In recent times, though, the unpaved roads where rumors once traveled have become high-speed freeways with instant global coverage, and prophecies have been replaced by fake news. The diffusion objectives seem to have remained quite similar. However, since fake stories aren’t a new type of political strategy, we should in fact be smarter and learn the tricks so as not to let ourselves be fooled.

But how do we know what types of prophecies were spread in ancient times and the importance they played in political events or in the daily lives of communities back then? As a result of research like mine. I have studied the networks of texts born around major political events in order to identify relationships between politics and written culture. What kind of texts are these, you may ask yourself? They could be philosophical treatises or sermons, poetry, official letters or even juridical texts. I match places, times, languages, genders and facts to draw a theory around the event. It is like solving a puzzle where the outcome isn’t an image, but a major historical happening or phenomenon.

Let me give an illustration. I studied three cases that influenced simultaneously two main European geographical areas: Italy and Germany or Italy and France. With the first two cases -- the descent of the Emperor Henry VII to Italy (1310-1313) and the march of the Emperor Louis the Bavarian to Rome -- I learned the causes of the turmoil that dominated the 14th century. The imperial authority tried to guide the Italian process of institutional experimentation and the cities defended their own autonomy. A strong peace rhetoric seemed to dominate the scene even in times of harsh conflicts. I came across several authors who talked about peace while living in a constant state of civil war. At least it was not the other way around…

My last case was the Italian campaign of Charles VIII, King of France and the first phase of the Italian wars (1494-1516). Between the 15th and 16h centuries, Europe changed profoundly. Italian, French and German people sought strong leaders and stability. The French propaganda for a king-messiah set up by Charles and his entourage crossed the borders and found a breeding ground in Italy. The power of the Ottoman empire pushed European forces to create a state rhetoric on both levels, diplomatic and historical. The Mediterranean space was the playground of the states, and the crusade was used as a diplomatic weapon. It marked the end of the Italian political balance and the beginning of modern political propaganda.

What are my next working tools? Facebook, Twitter and the like. In my next mission, I will be teaching a course focused on the medieval and Renaissance origins of current habits in writing and online communication at the Syracuse University in Florence in Italy. Lots of potential for precious learnings, don’t you agree?

I am Lorenza Tromboni, and I was Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellow at the University of Strasbourg in France. My project was entitled INSPIrE (GA 745584).


Digital art

Text by Fernanda Haffner

Illustration by Laurene Gattuso