The 2nd Day of Christmas: Petrarch on the mercenary wars in Italy and the need for peace on earth (1344)

Francesco Petrarch

The Italian humanist poet Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) was appalled at the use of mercenaries by the warring city states of Italy which ravaged his country in the 14th century. He urged his fellow Italians “from strife and slaughter cease” and instead “gather joy and peace on earth”:

Look! rulers proud! The hours are pressing on, And life steals fast away. Behold pale Death above your shoulders stand! Tho’ now ye live, yet think of that last day When the soul, naked, trembling, and alone Shall come unto a dark and doubtful land; O, ere ye press the strand, Soften those furrowed brows of scorn and hate, (Those blasts that rage against the spirit’s peace) From strife and slaughter cease, From hatching grievous ills, and consecrate Your lives to a better fate, To deeds of generous worth, To gracious acts that cheer and bless mankind; Thus will you gather joy and peace on earth And heaven’s pathway opened wide will find.

Song, I admonish thee Thou speak thy speech with gentle courtesy, For thou among proud folk thy path must find. Steeped is the human mind In evil ways by old authority, Truth’s constant enemy. With the great-hearted few Thy fortune try. ‘Who bids my terrors cease?’ I ask, ‘and which of you Upholds my cry “Return! O heaven-born peace”?’

This quotation is part of a series for “The Twelve Days of Christmas” on the theme of “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will towards men.” [Luke 2:14]

In a long patriotic poem Petrarch bemoans the fate of Italy which had degenerated into endless civil wars fought often with mercenary troops. He calls upon “Italia mia” (my Italy) to end “this mad disgrace” where Italian fights against Italian thus indirectly serving the interests of the “Teutons” to the north who would like to see Italy politically weak and divided. He argues that the Italians have forgotten their noble Latin heritage and that their minds have been “steeped … in evil ways by old authority, truth’s constant enemy.” He urges them to cease “strife and slaughter” and to “consecrate your lives to a better fate, to deeds of generous worth, to gracious acts that cheer and bless mankind; thus will you gather joy and peace on earth.” It should be noted that this translation was published in 1915 when Europe was being torn apart by another continent-wide civil war which became known as the “Great War.”