Tag Archives: Renaissance

  • 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

  • The Renaissance and Reformation in Northern Europe

    To mark the publication of The Renaissance and Reformation in Northern Europe, editor Margaret McGlynn provides some background on the Reformation, as well as the principles that guided the editing of this fantastic new collection. 

    The Reformation was not an event that happened in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, but a process. 1517 marked a pivotal moment in that process, but it was a moment that was possible because reformers had been calling for change in a number of different ways, because humanists had been altering the way that theologians and scholars and laymen could interact with the Bible, and because the printing press allowed new ideas to travel more quickly than ever before. There was no way of knowing what Luther’s revelation might lead to but it proved to be the opening blast in an astonishing eruption of new ideas: calls for change in church, state, and community which would set Europe ablaze in the century that followed.

    The Renaissance and Reformation in Northern EuropeThough we can study the Reformation primarily as a religious event, The Renaissance and Reformation in Northern Europe also encourages readers to consider its reverberations through European society. In his declaration of the importance of sola scriptura, Luther unwittingly laid the groundwork for questioning all other forms of authority and his followers quickly, and often to his frustration, pursued all the possible implications of his dictum. The Bible was used as justification for peasants to revolt against their masters, for lords to kill peasants, for new forms of church organization and social organization, for women to claim a new role in the church and for men to deny it to them. Those who found themselves living in the brave new world of a disunited Christendom faced many more choices than ever before as they sought to re-structure their societies.

    In the midst of new problems and new opportunities most people continued to grapple with age-old problems: the relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children; the desire for wealth and the fear of poverty; the sadness of death and the hope of salvation. Few, however, remained untouched by the vast and sweeping changes of the period, and the texts in The Renaissance and Reformation in Northern Europe allow the reader to see the various interconnections between the new approaches to learning and teaching expounded by the humanists, the new approaches to religious and social life propounded by the reformers, and the new societies imagined and created by men and women of all creeds and stations. Some big themes run through the entire collection, such as legitimate forms of authority and the nature of obedience, but there are lots of sub-themes to explore: the hierarchical structures of society, the role of history in understanding the present, the ways in which knowledge is transmitted and absorbed, the value of experience over book-learning, and the proper—and improper—relations between men and women, masters and servants. And all of these are in the voices of the people who lived through this process, who theorized and argued, recalled and explained, dreamed and imagined. Their views are not tidy or clear cut and certainly not consistent—they were figuring things out as they went along, just like we do today. But the views are authentic: each invites us to consider a slice of a real life and someone else’s experience, belief, hope, fear, or plan.

    The first half of our collection is laid out in roughly chronological order while the second half is more thematic. Some of the texts here will be familiar to instructors—a course on the Northern Renaissance and Reformation must have Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, and Loyola and will probably have Montaigne, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Rabelais, but beyond the core there are always options. We wanted a variety of geographical perspectives so we included Conrad Celtis and Juan Luis Vives, both of whom are clearly in the same tradition of Northern humanism as Erasmus but who bring very different perspectives on the reform of both the church and the state. When Celtis declares that Italians and Germans “would never have been restrained from mutual slaughter if provident nature had not separated us by the Alps and by cliffs raised up to the stars” he gives us a whole new perspective on both the transmission of Italian humanism to the north and the kinds of emotions that would feed into the Reformation.

    We wanted to explore the role of women in the early Reformation so we turned to Katherine Zell, Argula von Grumbach, and Anne Askew to see how women from different places and social contexts interpreted their own role in the Reformation and its implications for them. Zell declared herself “a church mother, a nurturer of the pulpit and school,” packaging a radical claim in a traditional female box, while Argula von Grumbach asked “Which doctor has made a greater vow in baptism than I have? Which pope, or emperor, or prince?” and Anne Askew affirmed that “those Scriptures that Christ has left here with us are sufficient for our learning and salvation so that I believe we need no unwritten truths to rule his church with.” Their views reflect the attitudes of the male Reformers but also raise questions about the role of women in the new church and how that might affect attitudes to and of women in other contexts, from Marguerite de Navarre to John Knox to Elizabeth I.

    We also wanted to explore the importance of economic turmoil and the numerous ways in which it appears in the sources all across Europe, from the articles of the Swabian peasants, which claimed that according to Scripture “we are and will be free” to Fish’s “Supplication” berating the clergy who divert alms from the needy whose “number is daily so sore increased that all the alms of all well-disposed people of this your realm is not half enough for to sustain them,” to the proposals for social assistance put forward by Vives, since “in the state the weak may not be neglected without danger to the strong” and the radical suggestions for the reform of criminal law voiced by More’s Raphael Hythloday. Even the explorers who went both east and west were looking for markets in which to sell the products of their workers as well as markets from which to buy the wonders of the East.

    Some of the texts were edited or modernized for this edition to provide voices that often are not heard. William Caxton, for example, lets us hear the musings of an early printer on what he can sell and to whom—not to a “rude uplandish man to labour therein nor to read it, but only for a clerk and a noble gentleman that experiences and understands feats of arms, love and noble chivalry”—taking us inside the business of printing at the very beginning. In contrast, Cervantes gives us a sense of a reading public—and one with clear expectations—in the early seventeenth century. The N-Town Mary and Joseph play gives us a vivid glimpse of what medieval people imagined had happened when the neighbours discovered that Mary “made a vow never to lie with a man, but to live a chaste and clean virgin. How ever it be, her womb does swell and is as great as yours or mine!” This unusual approach to the holy family interacts nicely with the sources on family, gender, and hierarchy as well as the concerns of both the reformers and the reformed. John Shute lets us see the early transmission of Italian ideas on architecture to England while Thomas Elyot helps us understand how, to a humanist, everything, even dance, could be humanism.

    Each text comes with a brief introduction, just enough to provide context rather than interpretation, and each text is short enough to be assigned in combination but long enough to give a real sense of the author and the issues it presents. We have taught with some of these sources for close to twenty years. Over that time we’ve re-worked the selections to interact in as many different ways as we could, not just to provide us with a variety of ways to present the culture and the cadence of the period but to also give our students as wide a range of jumping-off spots for their own interests as possible. We hope you’ll find that the sources are rich enough to be mixed and matched in whatever ways suit your style and interests and that you have as much fun teaching with them as we’ve had.

    Margaret McGlynn is Associate Professor of History at Western University in London, Ontario.

    Note: If you are an instructor and would like to consider The Renaissance and Reformation in Northern Europe for an upcoming course, please email requests@utphighereducation.com to request an examination copy.

  • UTP at Congress 2010

    Today, the second day of Congress 2010, dawned cloudy with a little rain following a sunny Friday at Concordia University in Montreal. After arriving on Thursday to set up the booth, the book fair for Congress 2010 opened its doors Friday morning, and despite the cloudy weather today, conference attendees are browsing the variety of books that the publishers have set out for display.

    Friday saw a lot of attendees and other interested people coming to the UTP booth to check out what new titles we have to offer. Several authors attending the conference dropped by to check out their, and other UTP titles. Medieval and Renaissance titles were popular yesterday, as well as David Adams Richards of the Miramichi by Tony Tremblay, who came for a visit at the UTP booth. And as always, Eleanor Harman's The Thesis and the Book draws many people's attention.

    University of Toronto Press is promoting the launch of our new website at Congress 2010. UTP now offers electronic examination copies to professors previewing books for course use. For more information, check out www.utppublishing.com, or if you're attending Congress, come by the booth.

    CTV Montreal is doing a feature on Congress 2010 on their local news program. Yesterday they interviewed Ronald Rudin, author of award-winning Remembering and Forgetting in Acadie, and the Academic Convenor for Congress 2010. Click this link to see the interview and check back to see their coverage all week long. You can also check out the UTP booth in the background.

    Last night was the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine's annual Champagne and Strawberry book launch. Featured at this event were Jacalyn Duffin's History of Medicine, Second Edition, and Cheryl Krasnick Warsh's Prescribed Norms. Jacalyn was very pleased to see the UTP booth, as well as UTP at the launch.

    UTP is at Congress until the book fair ends on Friday June 4th, 2010. If you're attending the conference, or in the Montreal area, come visit us at the EV Pavilion, Booths 22-25.

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