Djuna Barnes, Nightwood, & 1468

A “Notes & Queries”-type post.

While researching Djuna Barnes’s sources for Nightwood‘s description of Guido Volkbein’s “racial memory” of abuse, I kept running into problems with one of Barnes’s historical details. She refers to the “ordinance of 1468 issued by one Pietro Barbo, demanding that, with a rope about its neck, Guido’s race should run in the Corso for the amusement of the Christian populace . . . .” (Barnes 4). We do know that Pope Paul II issued a similar edict in 1466, forcing Roman Jews to race for Christian observers, but was this the same ordinance? Did Barnes misread her history, and does it even matter?

1) I am fairly certain that Barnes is referring to the 1466 ordinance. Several publications that Barnes might have been acquainted with, specifically a text by W. B. Story, states 1468 as the year of the Pope’s edict.

2) I think it matters because it strengthens suggestions that Barnes actively researched the treatment of European Jews in preparation for a work on a proposed work of historical fiction,  specifically, “for a book in progress whose chief figure is an Austrian Jew” (qtd. in Trubowitz 311). In other words, Barnes did not invent the date, nor did she misread it.

In 1887, Story published a text presenting a portrait of Rome that includes a significant amount of historical detail. Enough similarities exist between Story’s and Barnes’s descriptions of the Corso races to suggest that Barnes used Story as a source.

I found Story’s work by accident. As noted above, I’d been researching the races, and I was getting nowhere. One day, I just sat down on a stepstool in Knight Library’s stacks in front of the “Roman history” section and started going through books. I’d been there a while before I pulled Story’s small volume off of the shelf and began to go through its pages. As much as I enjoy and appreciate digital research, digging in at the library has its payoffs.

You can see additional details on the Barnes/Story links from a work in progress here.

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