We have now reached the period of history that the majority of people automatically think of when the hear or read the name, The Renaissance. The majority probably also think, when the hear the term, of a period in European art history, often called the Italian Renaissance, doing which the great artists Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael et al flourished. This is one aspect of the Renaissance that won’t be dealt with directly in this series but, of which some aspects do turn up on the fringes a couple of time. For a long time, the Renaissance was simply called the Renaissance, but because historians began to use the term for the other renaissances that we have already looked at–the Carolingian Renaissance, the Ottonian Renaissance and the Scientific Renaissance–it became common practice, at least amongst historians, to qualify the name as the Humanist Renaissance and it is here that we meet our first problem. Both the term Humanist and the term Renaissance were actually first coined in the nineteenth century. Somebody in the Early Modern period would not have recognised this name. So, what was it called then? It wasn’t. Although, as we will see the people, who kicked off the Renaissance distanced themselves from the Middle Ages, a term that they created, they gave their movement a name, but didn’t give their period one. Who were theses people, when were they active and what did they set out to do?
Before we examine the true origins of the Renaissance, we need to first dispel an oft repeated false statement. It is very common to read that the Renaissance started with the final collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire, when the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, with images of Greek scholars fleeing to Western Europe with bundles of Greek manuscript clutched under their arms. This is a myth. In fact, the Renaissance had its beginnings more than a hundred years earlier centred on Florence in Northern Italy.
The earliest phase of the Renaissance is attributed to the writers Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321), Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) and Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374), better known in English as Petrarch, who are considered to have launched a new wave of literature in the fourteenth century.
In its initial phase their Renaissance was a literary and linguistic movement. Led by Petrarch, the notary Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406) famous for his skills as a writer and orator, and the scholars Niccolò de’ Niccoli (1364–1437) and Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459), this literary movement turned to classical Rome, as its model in literature and oratory.
In particular these men praised and tried to emulate the works of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE) and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (c. 35–c. 100 CE), usually simple known as Cicero and Quintilian, both regarded as masters of oratory.
Their late medieval admirers regarded both the literary style and their classical Latin as exemplary and considered both style and language worthy of emulation. It is here that we witness the first rupture with the Middle Ages. The literary scholars of Northern Italy regarded the medieval Latin of the Church and universities as degenerate and barbaric and strove to replace it with, what they perceived to be, the pure uncorrupted classical Latin of Cicero. How successful they were can be seen in the fact that the Latin taught in schools and to archaeology and history undergraduates at universities in my youth in the 1970s was classical Latin and only classical Latin, medieval Latin still being regarded as somehow inferior, so that the medieval archaeologists and historians had to then subsequently learn medieval Latin. Of course, medieval Latin is not degenerate and corrupt, languages evolve and more than one thousand years separate Cicero and the twelfth century medieval university. Medieval Latin had evolved out of so-called Late Latin, the Latin that had developed between approximately the third and sixth centuries CE, influenced by both Christianity and the non-Latin languages spoken on the borders of the empire. Medieval Latin began to evolve around the seventh century heavily influenced by the Church and is also referred to as Ecclesiastical Latin. Compared to classical Latin, medieval Latin had a much larger vocabulary, because it needed terms not available in classical Latin, but also significant changes in grammar, syntax and orthography.
Having denigrated the medieval language those founders of the Renaissance, also dismissed the period itself, labelling it the Middle Ages, the period in-between the glory that was the classical period of Rome and their own almost as glorious revival of it. They didn’t actually label their own period but did refer to it in Italian, as rinascimento, a rebirth, which is of course the origin of the modern term Renaissance. They referred to their own activities as studia humanitatis, from the Latin humanitas meaning education befitting a cultivated man. Once again, the origin of the modern words: humanism, humanist, and the name, the humanities. These student of humanitas devoted themselves to searching out manuscripts in monastic libraries in Latin but also in Greek that fulfilled their concept of such an education, history, music, art, literature and poetry predominating. Poggio Bracciolini was particularly zealous finding many such manuscripts including Lucretius’ De rerum natura, Vitruvius’ De architectura and lost orations by Cicero and Quintilian.
These scholars also began to apply philological principles to the study of the manuscripts they recovered. The word itself is a fourteenth century coinage philologie meaning love of literature; personification of linguistics and literary knowledge. Aware that the oft copied manuscripts of ancient knowledge were corrupted by scribal errors and slips, they began to compare and analyse manuscripts, to discovery and irradicate those error and in so doing attempting to recreate the texts in their original state.
The initial impact of this movement on the medieval university was relatively small, although as we’ll see in later episode it did set other greater changes in motion. In this early phase the humanist scholars succeeded in reshaping the trivium removing logic so it was now grammar, rhetoric, history, moral philosophy and above all poetics. Impact of the latter can be clearly seen in later times. Georg von Peuerbach (1423–1461) a central figure in the history of astronomy, as a member of the First Viennese School of Mathematics, who was himself an accomplished poet, actually lectured on poetics at the university; his astronomy was, so to speak, an unofficial activity. Conrad Celtis (1459–1508), instrumental in introducing and spreading humanism north of the Alps and known in German as the Arch-Humanist, a crowned poet laureate and founder of the Second Viennese School of Mathematics, when called to the University of Vienna in 1497 founded a Collegium poetarum et mathematicorum, that is a college for poetry and mathematics.
A question remains open, is it correct to name an entire epoch or period of history after what was initially a small, rather local movement within a limited academic sphere? The answer is yes, because that movement created waves that spread through time and space outwards from Florence to encompass the whole of Europe and influence the intellectual and academic development over the next two hundred plus years. In later posts we shall be looking at those developments with regard to their impact on the evolution of the sciences. Another open question is when did the Renaissance end? This is hotly debated, and I shall, for my purposes, follow Francis Yates, who takes the end of the Thirty Years War as the end of the Renaissance, which I will explain, or justify in my next post. A closing important comment is that there is actually a very high level of continuity rather than disruption from the High Middle Ages through the Renaissance and one can regard the Renaissance both as a phase of the Middle Ages but also of the Early Modern Period; all historical periodisations are of course artificial and also to some extent arbitrary.