Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Lost in Time and Place

with 7 comments

Every once in a while something happens on this blog  that just makes my jaw drop–and that’s the kind of thing that happened when I checked the comments last night before going to bed.

AB provides a list of all the things he thinks were accomplishments of the Renaissance.

The problem is that very few of them actually occured in the Renaissance.

The Renaissance is generally dated from the early 1400s–the 15th Century.

The Magna Carta was signed in 1215–at the beginning of the High Middle Ages, NOT the Renaissance.

The House of Commons  first appears in the official records as called to meeting separately in 1341–in the high Middle Ages, NOT the Renaissance.

The “new universities” were almost all up and running before 1300.  Bologna was founded in, I think, 1189.  Oxford, Cambridge, Siena and Paris were already thriving institutions by 1250–again, in the high Middle Ages, NOT the Renaissance.

Scholasticism was first introduced into theology and philosophy in or around 1100, and was at its peak in the mid-1200s–in the high Middle Ages, NOT the Renaissance.

What’s more, the Renaissance was notable for a reaction against Scholastic philosophy.

The Swiss Confederacy dates to the Federal Charter of 1291–again, to the high Middle Ages, NOT the Renaissance.

The Hanseatic League arose from the Hansa societies, the first of which was founded before 1250.  The League was first formally established in by the Diet of 1260 and first recognized by a sovereign state (England, by Henry III)  in 1266–yet again, during the high Middle Ages, NOT the Renaissance.

And although there was lots of Christian Humanism in the Renaissance, the founder of Christian Humanism is generally accepted to be Petrarch, who died in 1274–making Christian Humanism an innovation of the high Middle Ages, NOT the Renaissance.

In other words, society in the Middle Ages was moving forward, in the Renaissance, it only did so in limited areas.

Renaissance philosophy had nothing to do with the Magna Carta or the House of Commons,  the Swiss Confederacy, or the Hanseatic League.  All of these occured or were decades–and in most cases centuries–before the Renaissance began.

I will give you Machiavelli, who is indeed a figure of the Renaissance.

But Machiavelli’s impact on politic philosophy was not as the champion of limited government, it was as the inventor of realpolitik.

Just one more thing–yes, I know all about Biblical literists in the creationist movement who say that God planted dinosaur fossils to test our faith.

I’ve mentionted that phenomenon on this blog during this conversation, in a post AB himself commented on.

It was a while back and it was an aside, so what the hell.

I have to go off and start my week.

Written by janeh

October 11th, 2011 at 9:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Lost in Time and Place'

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  1. There’s actually no fixed date for the start of the Renaissance, or of most other historical eras. Did the High Middle Ages come to a screeching halt in 1300 – or was it 1400, or 1200? But the liberal political trends of thirteenth century Europe had considerable persistence through the following centuries, at least in northern Europe, as you know perfectly well, and this was promoted by the rise of the Third Estate. I don’t doubt you’ve also read Machiavelli, so you know that he was so much an idealistic republican that he couldn’t shut his fucking mouth about how much better republics are than dictatorships, even when he was trying to suck up to a dictator.

    If you’re going to effectively paint the Renaissance as an era of stagnation compared to the Middle Ages, you’ll have to provide some examples. And not of progress that was made only at the end of the Middle Ages (as you wish to date them) and sustained throughout the Renaissance.

    If you’d rather just make claims, then of course you don’t have to provide anything.


    11 Oct 11 at 7:35 pm

  2. Certainly the boundaries between historical periods are a bit fuzzy. I’ve never heard anyone claim that the Renaissance began around 1200, though. You’re on stronger ground when you point out that ideas and their influences can be traced across the artificial boundaries we draw in our history. The greater the distance – chronological and geographical – between, say, the Magna Carta and Galileo, the harder it is to convincingly argue that a strong connection exists between them – or that they’re both part of the Renaissance.

    Well, that last bit isn’t quite true – it all depends on what you mean by ‘renaissance’. I just finished a book by Jacques Barzun, who says ‘..many of the achievements credited to the Renaissanvce had a root in the previous period, including certain scientific ideas. So if any renaissance ever did occur, it was in the 12C, leading to the high medieval civilization of the 13th,’ (p. 47, ‘From Dawn to Decadence’.). Not that the author seems particularly devoted to the idea of historical eras with specific dates. Quite the reverse.


    11 Oct 11 at 8:38 pm

  3. Cheryl, I remember my professors saying pretty much what Jane is saying – that the Dark Ages weren’t really Dark, and the Renaissance wasn’t what people tend to think it is today. It didn’t produce a great flowering of scientific knowledge or technology, as Jane pointed out. Art, yes. Music, yeah, I think so. But there’s more to the history of ideas and of cultural advance than art and music.

    Seems fairly similar to what you’re reading in Barzun – that the so-called Dark Ages weren’t dark, really, and the Renaissance was – well, that’s what Barzun was calling decadent, wasn’t it?


    12 Oct 11 at 10:55 am

  4. I think Barzun was arguing that the Renaissance was a decadent era, but I couldn’t find a quick quote showing that – it’s a long book and my life is rather hectic right now so I don’t have as much time as I’d like to type and read.

    His (Barzun’s) main argument seems to be that our current culture is also decadent, and I can’t find it in myself to disagree with him.

    I can’t remember when and where I got the idea that the ‘Dark Ages’, at the very most, applied to western Europe during the period of confusion when the Roman Empire collapsed leaving a power vacuum, and that the Middle Ages weren’t shrouded in darkness and ignorance. I didn’t get it in school – the MA were mostly dismissed as being unimportant and boring and backwards, with history becoming more important and interesting the more recent it was – but was definitely before I read anything by Barzun, and anything by Jane other than the novels. So the idea of the Middle Ages as a vibrant era filled with innovations and developments in all kinds of fields, including ideas, has been floating around a long time and in other places than this blog and a book I happened to just finish.


    12 Oct 11 at 12:07 pm

  5. Yes, that’s what I meant, Cheryl. There were a lot of technological advances in the Middle Ages. We tend to think of technology as involving electronics and polymers and so forth, but the advancements that led to those are things like windmills, the use of lenses to improve vision, clocks, building techniques and crop rotation.

    It may not be biopolymers, but it is technological advancements.


    12 Oct 11 at 12:42 pm

  6. ab, one line of incoherent argument at a time, if you please. I’ve heard the Machiavelli argument before. But to use Machiavelli in praise of the Renaissance is to use the customary dating–the Quatrocenco–and in that case you have to take responsibility for Borgias, de Medicis, Sforzas, corruption, massacre and tyranny to balance off the great artwork.

    To give the Renaissance credit for PRECEEDING events, as all part of one historical trend–especially when Jane made it quite clear she was distinguishing the Renaissance from the High Middle Ages–opens up a wealth of possibilities, all of them bad. The same logic makes Nazi Germany responsible for Bismarkian socialism, or the New Deal for the American Civil War.

    I find it helpful, when I haven’t studied the topic under discussion, to read more and assert less. You might consider such a policy.

    For those interested in learning, I think MEDIEVAL TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIAL CHANGE (Lynn?) is still the customary starting text. Just for fun, I’d also recommend Kipling’s “The Eyes of Allah.”


    12 Oct 11 at 4:19 pm

  7. “… the Dark Ages weren’t really dark,”

    It depends on what you mean by “dark” and which part of Europe you are talking about. In England there is a near-total hiatus in written records lasting some three centuries, a period which was probably chaotic, violent, and in some degree regressive. Byzantium during the same period was (internally) peaceful and prosperous, and even succeeded in briefly reuniting the Empire.

    Some Roman technology was lost (e.g. concrete), some was preserved (e.g. water power), and some was invented (e.g. the mouldboard plow). To the extent that technology declined in the Dark Ages, this was an adaptation to what was useful at the time. Concrete was a pointless frippery when there was no longer any need for large public buildings.

    What was lost was not technology, but large scale social organization.


    12 Oct 11 at 5:34 pm

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