Why the Renaissance Matters

To mark the publication of the new edition of her classic textbook, A Short History of the Renaissance in Europe, Margaret L. King discusses why this time period holds so much interest and why studying it is important.

Short History of the Renaissance in EuropeThe Renaissance—which means “rebirth,” “renewal,” or “revival,” and comes very close as well to “enlightenment,” “illumination,” and even “transfiguration”—still matters because its opposite is death. As the term “renaissance” has most often been applied to human civilization, its absence means the stagnation, decay, diminution, and finally the death of civilization. We cannot live as human beings—for humans alone create culture, which broadly shared and aggregated constitutes civilization—if we do not periodically experience a “renaissance,” which is to say, if we are not periodically reborn.

In this we are like and unlike trees and flowers and all vegetation. They die and are reborn each spring. The trees whose lives flamed forth and died the previous autumn leaf out again in vivid green in the spring. Flowers die and bloom again on the same shrub, or from seeds or bulbs generated by living plants in which are stored the ingredients for their later rebirth.

But while plants die and are reborn annually, human civilizations follow no such regular pattern. They flourish and grow for centuries, building on past achievements, until at some point—because of political failure or natural disaster or some internal inadequacy—they falter and weaken, perhaps continuing for centuries more, until they either undergo a renaissance, or die.

Western civilization has undergone such deaths of civilization, or near-deaths. Two great “dark ages” come to mind. The first prevailed following a time of troubles in the eastern Mediterranean region around 1200 BCE, when the Mycenaean civilization that had taken root in Greece languished. Reading and writing were lost, artistic creativity atrophied, and political and economic systems failed. The second, not quite so bleak, occurred as the Roman Empire in western Europe withered away, leaving in its wake a deracinated rural warrior elite, an impoverished peasantry, massive economic deflation, broken communications, and chronic crime and disorder, amid which the not-yet-mature institutions of the new Christian churches supplied the main principle of organization.

Equally, Western civilization has experienced many episodes of “renaissance”: the Carolingian Renaissance of the ninth century, the Ottonian Renaissance of the tenth, the Macedonian (Byzantine) Renaissance of the tenth to eleventh; and before these, the uniquely creative Athenian civilization of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE and that of Rome of the last republican and first imperial centuries (first century BCE–first century CE); and such later, localized occurrences could be added as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.

But the Renaissance of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries is unsurpassed. It recovered nearly the whole corpus of ancient Greek and Latin thought by editing, translating, commenting upon, and in some cases discovering previously unknown texts. It developed the genres of the oration, the dialogue, the letter, the treatise, and more, in which scholars expert in the classical tradition brought their learning to bear on contemporary culture and society. It refined techniques of book production and put them to work as soon as print technology was sufficiently developed to publish, first, the works of antiquity in their original languages and in modern translations, and second, in due course, the original works of contemporaries on a vast array of issues. It developed an educational system grounded in classical learning that was adopted throughout Europe and prevailed through the nineteenth century. It developed the main genres and themes of modern Western literature, including the forms of lyric poetry, drama, epic, and romance. It experimented with new techniques and themes in the visual arts, filling churches, palaces, and the homes of the well-off with splendid works of art that today, mostly removed to museums, attract visitors in multitudes from all over the globe. It created the theater, dance, and music that would flourish in centuries to come, stepping out of courts, cathedrals, and public squares to fill the concert halls and opera houses of the modern world.

Interestingly, a matter that has confused and irritated many historians, the Renaissance did not drive political, economic, and social change, but was, instead, its consequence. The era of dynamic change was earlier: the twelfth through early fourteenth centuries, when it was cut short by the terrible Black Death, a mass epidemic that struck Europe in 1347-1352 and then recurred sporadically over the next three hundred years and more. Those changes laid the ground for the arrival of the Renaissance. And on the foundation of the same political and economic dynamism, its surge of intellectual and artistic culture further powered, nearly two centuries after it began, religious change and reformation, a new cosmology that reshaped the boundaries of consciousness, and imperial expansion westward across the Atlantic and eastward to the ancient civilizations of Asia. These were the foundations of the modern world system. Every one of them was rooted in Renaissance innovations in thought, religion, and political and economic systems.

Those innovations, ironically, while they powerfully shaped the modern era that lay ahead, were all rooted in cultural achievements long since left behind. To create them required looking backward, energetically and profoundly, to understand and appropriate Greek and Roman civilization that had dwindled and fallen long before, and to integrate once again those ancient perspectives with the Christian thought of the intervening millennium. All human creation involves imitation—the study, replication, and further development of inherited texts and artifacts. To move forward necessitates looking backward. New generations must recapture the intellectual, moral, literary, philosophical, and artistic legacy of the past, enhance it, and then transmit it to generations to come.

Are we in a Renaissance now? Do the enormous progress in electronic communications, the development of alternate energy technologies, and recent gains in the exploration of space point to a new surge of human creativity? Or to the rebound from the horrors of twentieth-century wars and the dismantling of colonial empires? These are all impressive achievements. But there are grounds for skepticism. The Internet, while it offers great opportunities, also encourages the illusion that knowledge—let alone wisdom—can be acquired instantly, as so much is available at the click of a mouse, though often unvetted, anonymous, and error-laden. Our college curricula, outside of the fields of economics, science, and technology, have been disastrously diminished and our elementary and secondary systems of education, in the US, are a shambles. We shall see; we shall not know for sure for many years, perhaps for centuries. The outlines of large movements in the development of civilizations are not reliably apparent to those who live within them.

Certainly a new integration is needed, for this generation, of what we now know and our cultural legacy. Renaissances matter. And we could use another one, right now.

-Margaret L. King, Brooklyn College, City University of New York

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