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Full text of "The Renaissance Medieval Or Modern"




or Modern? 


The renaissance 


1148 00448 5710 

rj A. i c, u u -, 





Medieval or Modern? 




Library of Congress Catalog Card number 59-8438 


No part o^ the material covered by this copyright may he reproduced 
in any form without written permission of the publisher. (6 B 2) 


Table of Contents 


The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy i 

C. H . Mel L W Al N 

Mediaeval Institutions in the Modern World 29 


Toward a More Positive Evaluation of the Fifteenth -Century 
Renaissance: Parti 35 


Sociology of the Renaissance 39 


Hard Times and Investment in Culture 50 


Communications to the Editor of the American Historical Review 62 


Toward a More Positive Evaluation of the Fifteenth-Century 
Renaissance: Part II 64 


The Place of Classical Humanism in Renaissance Thought 75 

w -i f\ rLH.V i- % - 

S^C* b^l'JllO " v 



Renaissance or Prenaissance? 79 


The Renaissance and English Humanism: Modern Theories 

of the Renaissance 86 


The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century 91 


The Waning of the Middle Ages 96 


The Interpretation of the Renaissance: Suggestions for a 

Synthesis 101 


Moot Problems of Renaissance Interpretation: An Answer to 
Wallace K. Ferguson no 

Suggestions for Additional Reading 113 


IN 1860 in the introduction to his work 
on The Civilization of the Renaissance 
in Italy, Jacob Burckhardt predicted the 
present "Problem of the Renaissance" when 
he wrote "To each eye, perhaps, the out- 
lines of a great civilization present a differ- 
ent picture. ... In the wide ocean upon 
which we venture, the possible ways and 
directions are many; and the same studies 
which have served for this work might 
easily, in other hands, not only receive a 
wholly different treatment and application, 
but lead to essentially different conclu- 

To the writers of the Italian Renaissance 
itself, there was no serious problem. Their 
views of the age in which they were living 
furnished the basis for a long-held concept, 
namely, that after a period of about a thou- 
sand years of cultural darkness and igno- 

i i 

ranee, there arose a new age with a great 

revival in classical literature, learning, and 
the arts. 

The humanists of the Northern Renais- 
sance continued this concept. "Out of the 
thick Gothic night our eyes are opened to 
the glorious torch of the sun," wrote Rabe- 
lais. Moreover, there was also now intro- 
duced a reforming religious element, fur- 
ther emphasizing the medieval barbariza- 
tion of religion and culture. Protestant 
writers joined in this condemnation of the 
dark medieval period, an attack little cir- 
cumscribed by the defense of the medieval 
Church by Catholic apologists. 

The system of classical education and 
the standards of classical art employed in 
the subsequent centuries meant a continua- 
tion of the concept established by the hu- 
manists. Indeed, the historical philosophy 
current in the Age of Reason, for purposes 
of its own, supported the earlier view. Ra- 
tionalists like Voltaire, Condorcet, Boling- 

broke, and Hume saw nothing but barbar- 
ism, ignorance, superstition, violence, irra- 
tionality, and priestly tyranny in the period 
of Western history between the fall of 
Rome and the beginning of the modern 
era, the Renaissance. They also gave cur- 
rency to the concept of the Italian Renais- 
sance as a period of brilliant culture and 

It was only in the late eighteenth and 
early nineteenth century, with the develop- 
ment of the intellectual revolution known 
as Romanticism, that a reaction took place. 
A new spirit led the Romanticists to see 
much in the past to understand and admire. 
There was a lively interest in historical 
growth and evolution, including that which 
took place in the Middle Ages. Human 
history was enthusiastically approached, the 
folk origins of art, language, literature, and 
music were patriotically idealized, and the 
irrational, the simple, and the emotional 
sympathetically sought out. The Age of 
Faith was discovered and peopled with 
chivalrous knights, beautiful ladies, pious 
clergy, and industrious peasants. The unity 
of medieval Christianity and the corpora- 
tism of medieval society was admired. Res- 
cuing the Middle Ages from the oblivion 
to which the classicists and rationalists had 
relegated it, the Romantic writers found 
the Renaissance pagan, sensuous, villain- 
ous, and shocking yet attractive. 

The astonishing growth of historical re- 
search in the nineteenth century produced 
a great number of works influenced by such 
varying movements as nationalism, liberal- 
ism, Romanticism, neo-classicism, and 
Hegelian philosophy. The spirit expressed 
in the art and humanism of the Renais- 
sance received especial consideration. A 
tendency toward periodization is also char- 
acteristic. In the seventh volume (1855) 




of his History of France (1833-62), Jules 
Michelet, the liberal historian, examined 
the Renaissance of the sixteenth century in 
his own country. He saw in medieval civili- 
zation the destruction of freedom and the 
debasement of the human spirit while in 
the Renaissance came "the discovery of the 
world and the discovery of man" and the 
spontaneous rebirth of art and antiquity. 
Michelet applied the term "Renaissance" 
to the entire heroic period and not just to 
art and the classical revival as had been 
customary. His Renaissance was a distinct 
epoch, sharply contrasting in spirit with the 
preceding age. 

Five years after Michelet's analysis Jacob 
Burckhardt formulated the modern tradi- 
tional interpretation of the Italian Renais- 
sance. Burckhardt's claim to fame is not 
due to the originality of his ideas and terms, 
for most of these had been current for 
centuries. Rather, the greatness of this 
Swiss historian lay in his ability to make 
use of the best elements at hand in pro- 
ducing a coherent masterpiece of synthesis 
in his Civilization of the Renaissance in 
Italy (I860). In his essay, drawn with the 
masterful hand of a literary artist, Burck- 
hardt sought to lay bare the modern and 
inner spirit of the Italian Renaissance, ap- 
proaching the period in a series of topical 
discussions centering around the civiliza- 
tion as a whole. 

Burckhardt's concept of the Italian Ren- 
aissance was widely accepted. However, 
the intellectual, social, and economic 
phases, which he had neglected, received 
considerable attention, alteration, or expan- 
sion by historians. Renaissance art, also not 
a part of Burckhardt's essay, was now ex- 
amined as a product of the spirit and cul- 
ture of the age. Non-Italian writers related 
the Renaissance within their own nation 
to that described by Burckhardt. 

While many of the writers of the late 
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries 
echo the decisive Burckhardtian synthesis, 
others began to feel that his harmonious 
picture of the Italian Renaissance was just 
too perfect and static. As specialized stud- 
ies contributed greatly to the knowledge of 

other periods, especially that of the Middle 
Ages, questions began to arise in the minds 
of historians. Was the contrast between the 
Renaissance and the medieval period so 
great? What really brought on the Renais- 
sance in Italy? Were the elements of indi- 
vidualism and modernity unknown before 
the Renaissance? Was the picture Burck- 
hardt presented true in its delimitations, 
simplicity, harmony, and construction? 
Was the Renaissance as pagan and irreli- 
gious as depicted? Can science be used as 
a criterion for the modernity of the Renais- 
sance? A variety of viewpoints on these 
and other questions are given in the se- 
lections which follow. 

The marked growth of medieval studies 
in the twentieth century has been mostly 
responsible for attacks on Burckhardt's out- 
line and for the creation of the "Problem 
of the Renaissance." The selected readings 
which follow present a representative sam- 
ple of the conflict of opinion on several of 
the most important aspects of this broad 
and complex problem. 

The two selections following the one 
from Burckhardt are concerned with its 
political aspects. The first one, an article 
by the leading authority on medieval polit- 
ical theory, C. H. Mcllwain, stresses the 
medieval elements in our modern political 
heritage. He feels that the medieval period 
was not "one long, dreary epoch of stagna- 
tion, of insecurity, of lawless violence." 
Rather the Middle Ages saw the rise of 
the very important modern concepts of con- 
stitutionalism and the limitation of public 
authority by private right. In the next ex- 
cerpt, however, the prominent Renaissance 
scholar, Hans Baron, reaffirms the Burck- 
hardtian view that the rise of modern polit- 
ical ideas and institutions was one of the 
distinguishing marks of the Italian Renais- 
sance. He emphasizes the role of the struc- 
ture and activities of the Italian city-state 
in producing modern political theory and 
the pattern of modern government. 

In his essay Burckhardt did not give 
much attention to economic factors or to 
their effect on the civilization of the Italian 
Renaissance. In the twentieth century, the 



relatively new methodologies of psychol- 
ogy, sociology, and economics opened up 
new approaches for an examination of the 
civilization of the Renaissance. Prominent 
among those who used the new methods 
was Alfred von Martin. Much influenced 
by the socio-economic writings of Mann- 
heim, Weber, and other German scholars, 
he sought to analyze the civilization of the 
Renaissance, "laying bare its roots." Von 
Martin accepted as essential Burckhardt's 
pcriodization, the stress on individualism, 
and the significance of the Italian Renais- 
sance as the period of transition from the 
medieval to the modern world. The ex- 
cerpt from his book, The Sociology of the 
Renaissance, included on page 39, makes 
evident his conviction that there was a 
causal relationship between what he de- 
scribes as "the new dynamic" of capitalism 
and the characteristics of the Renaissance 
which Burckhardt had delineated. 

While von Martin and others saw the 
flowering of the Italian Renaissance as the 
result of vast socio-economic changes, fur- 
ther research and specialized studies in the 
economic conditions of the Middle Ages 
and the Renaissance led to qualifications 
about the brilliant results of economic 
changes and to some questions about the 
economic conditions themselves. In the se- 
lection by R. S. Lopez which follows Von 
Martin's the prevailing view of the Italian 
Renaissance as a brilliant period of dy- 
namic economic expansion is criticized. 
Professor Lopez feels that the Renaissance 
in Italy was founded on an earlier medieval 
economic expansion. In fact, the period of 
the Renaissance was marked by economic 
depression, stagnation of population, and 
excessive taxation. In order to suggest the 
continuing conflict of opinion on the eco- 
nomic conditions and background of the 
Renaissance, there has been included in 
this section dealing with the economic side 
of the Renaissance problem, an exchange 
of letters between Lopez and Baron which 
was originally published in the July, 1956, 
issue of the American Historical Review. 
They point out the need for more research 
by economic historians and also the diffi- 

culties involved in formulating generaliza- 
tions about such a complex period as the 

Burckhardt had not included very much 
on science in his outline, but the emphasis 
which the twentieth century places on the 
importance of science as one of the most 
distinctive elements of modern civilization 
has led later scholars to attempt to evaluate 
the originality of the Renaissance in this 
field. In the Renaissance session of the 
American Historical Association meeting 
in December, 1941, Professor Dana B. 
Durand of Mount Holyoke College pre- 
sented a paper entitled "Tradition and In- 
novation in Fifteenth-Century Italy." Be- 
cause of the length and technical complex- 
ity of Professor Durand's paper it is not 
included in the selections which follow, 
but basing his argument on the lack of evi- 
dence of advance in certain technical fields 
such as map-making and astronomy, he 
concluded that as far as science and scien- 
tific thought are concerned, "the balance 
of tradition and innovation in fifteenth- 
century Italy was not so decisively favor- 
able as to distinguish that century radically 
from those that preceded it, nor to consti- 
tute the Quattrocento a unique and unriv- 
aled moment in the history of Western 
thought." 1 In this same session, however, 
Dr. Baron presented a paper entitled "To- 
ward a More Positive Evaluation of the 
Fifteenth-Century Renaissance" which fol- 
lows as the seventh selection. After a dis- 
cussion of certain political aspects of the 
problem (given in an earlier selection of 
this collection), Dr. Baron turned to the 
scientific contributions of the Quattrocento. 
He pointed out that the Burckhardtian 
thesis of a "Fundamental change in man's 
outlook on life and the world" included the 
new scientific approach which has since 
marked modern civilization. 

Professor P. O. Kristeller in remarks also 
made at this same session examined in some 
detail the contributions of the humanists 
to the development of science. He assigned 
to the Italian humanists an important, if 
indirect, part in the development of scien- 
tific thought, in that they recovered, edited 


and made more available the body of an- 
cient scientific literature and learning. 
These remarks, as later published along 
with the other papers given at this session 
in the Journal of the History of Ideas, ap- 
pear here as the eighth selection. Another 
participant, Professor Lynn Thorndike, in 
contrast to both Baron and Kristeller set 
forth with great vigor his antipathy toward 
the whole concept of the "so-called Renais- 
sance." He stressed the unbroken continu- 
ity of medieval forms and interests and at- 
tacked the originality of the Renaissance in 
science as well as in other fields. His con- 
tribution concludes the group of selections 
dealing with the problem of science in the 

Medieval historians have always been 
in the forefront of the attack on the Burck- 
hardtian conception of the Renaissance and 
in the next group of excerpts three promi- 
nent medieval scholars present a variety 
of arguments and evidence in support of 
this assault. 

In his review of "Modern Theories of the 
Renaissance/' Douglas Bush, a professor 
of literature, evidences a wide-ranging 
knowledge and keen understanding of the 
problem of the Renaissance and concludes 
by placing himself among those who con- 
sider that period to be essentially an exten- 
sion of the Middle Ages. Also in direct 
opposition to Burckhardt he feels that Ital- 
ian humanism was strongly Christian in 
character and not irreligious and pagan. 

An even stronger plea for the originality 
and the primacy of the medieval contribu- 
tion to modern culture is to be found in 
the next selection in this group, taken from 
one of the best known works of the man 
who was for many years the dean of Amer- 
ican medieval historians, Charles Homer 
Haskins. In this excerpt Professor Haskins 
points out that many of the elements usu- 
ally thought of as distinguishing the cul- 
ture of the Renaissance, such as the revival 
of the Latin classics, Latin literature, and 
Greek science and philosophy, are to be 
found in the twelfth century. In the con- 
cluding piece in this group another medi- 
i Journal of the History of Ideas, IV (1943), p. 20. 

evalist, the famous Dutch scholar, Johan 
Huizinga, while ready to accept the term 
"Renaissance" as a convenient chronologi- 
cal designation, nevertheless sees the period 
of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as 
terminating the Middle Ages. His views 
are presented here in an extract from his 
celebrated study of the cultural history of 
France and the Netherlands during these 
two centuries. 

Considering the fact that Burckhardt's 
interpretation of the Renaissance has been 
challenged by scholars at so many different 
points, it may seem strange that no one has 
attempted a new synthetic interpretation of 
the period. With the appearance of so 
many specialized studies of various aspects 
of both the Renaissance and the Middle 
Ages in the nearly one hundred years since 
the publication of Burckhardt's essay, it 
might seem that the groundwork for a new 
synthesis has been laid. In the next to last 
selection in this collection, Wallace K. Fer- 
guson draws on his vast knowledge of the 
literature on the Renaissance to suggest a 
possible basis for such a work. However, 
as this collection of readings indicates, 
Burckhardt has always been supported by 
able defenders. In the final brief excerpt 
in this collection, Hans Baron presents his 
views on the problem of a new synthesis. 
Taken from a paper delivered by Baron at 
a session of the convention of the Ameri- 
can Historical Association in 1956 which 
was devoted to a review of Baron's contri- 
butions to the study of the Renaissance, it 
shows sympathy for Ferguson's appeal for 
a new synthesis but ends by reaffirming 
Baron's belief in the validity of Burck- 
hardt's thesis that Renaissance Italy was the 
prototype of the modern world. 

Any student who examines the period of 
the Renaissance is confronted with the 
necessity of formulating his own answer to 
the vexing "Problem of the Renaissance." 
The study of the following selections 
should assist in this respect. It should also 
bring the student to the realization of the 
necessary caution which must be exercised 
in approaching the interpretations of any 
historical era or civilization. 

The Conflict of Opinion 

"We must insist upon it as one of the chief propositions of this book, that it 
was not the revival of antiquity alone, but its union with the genius of the 
Italian people, which achieved the conquest of the Western World. . . . 

In the character of these states, whether republics or despotism, lies, not the 
only, but the chief reason for the early development of the Italian. To this 
it is due that he was the first-born among the sons of Modern Europe. . . . 

Since, again, the Italians were the first modern people of Europe who gave 
themselves boldly to speculation on freedom and necessity, and since they did 
so under violent and lawless political circumstances, in which evil seemed 
often to win a splendid and lasting victory, their belief in God began to 
waver, and their view of the government of the world became fatalistic." 


1. Did Renaissance Italy produce the first modern political state? 

"In the field of political institutions and ideas I venture to think that what 
Professor Haskins has termed the Renaissance of the twelfth century marks 
a more fundamental change than the later developments to which we usually 
attach the word 'Renaissance'; that the constitutionalism of the modern world 
owes as much, if not even more, to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries than 
to any later period of comparable length before the seventeenth." _ Q j.j MC!LWAIN 

"It is because of this survival of civic initiative in geographic proximity to 
bureaucratic-unifying absolutism that the whole range of modern political 
experience was traversed in the fifteenth century, and this so rapidly that by 
the end of the century many of the basic tenets of modern political science 
had matured, and had been set forth in works of European scope by Machia- 
velli and Guicciardini." _ HANS BARON 

2. Is there an economic basis for the Renaissance in Italy? 

"The centre of gravity of medieval society was the land, was the soil. With 
the Renaissance the economic and thus the social emphasis moves into the 
town; from the conservative to the liberal, for the town is a changeable and 
changing element. . . . What was fundamentally new was the rational man- 
agement of money and the investment of capital. Capital had a creative effect 
and put a premium on ingenuity and enterprise." _ ALFRED VON MARTIN 

". . . we have to take stock of the now prevalent theory that the Renaissance 
witnessed a deep economic crisis though not a total catastrophe (are there any 
total catastrophes in history?), and that in spite of many local, partial, or tem- 
porary gains it represented an anticlimax or at least a phase of slower develop- 
ment after the quicker progress of the medieval commercial revolution." _ ^ g L OPEZ 


xii Conflict of Opinion 

3. Did the Italian Renaissance make original contributions to science? 

". . . the balance of tradition and innovation in fifteenth -century Italy was 
not so decisively favorable as to distinguish that century radically from those 
that preceded it, not to constitute the Quattrocento a unique and unrivaled 
moment in the history of western thought." _ DANA B DuRAND 

"The influence of humanism on science as well as on philosophy was indirect, 
but powerful. The actual performance of the humanists in these fields was 
rather poor. But they popularized the entire body of ancient Greek learning 
and literature and thus made available new source materials of which the 
professional scientists and philosophers could not fail to take advantage." 


"Not only has it been demonstrated that the thirteenth and fourteenth cen- 
turies were more active and penetrating in natural science than was the Quat- 
trocento, but the notion that 'appreciation of natural beauty' was 'introduced 
into modern Europe by the Italian Renaissance' must also be abandoned." 


4. Can we still retain the periodic concept of the Renaissance? 

"The Middle Ages exhibit life and color and change, much eager search after 
knowledge and beauty, much creative accomplishment in art, in literature, 
in institutions. The Italian Renaissance was preceded by similar, if less wide- 
reaching movements; indeed it came out of the Middle Ages so gradually that 
historians are not agreed when it began, and some would go so far as to abolish 
the name, and perhaps even the fact, of a renaissance in the Quattrocento." 


"Viewing the Renaissance as an age in the history of Western Europe, then, 
I would define it as the age of transition from medieval to modern civiliza- 
tion, a period characterized primarily by the gradual shift from one fairly 
well co-ordinated and clearly defined type of civilization to another, yet, at 
the same time, possessing in its own right certain distinctive traits and a high 
degree of cultural vitality. And on the basis of this concept or hypothesis, 
I would set the arbitrary dates 1300 to 1600 as its chronological 
boundaries." _ WALLACE K . FERGUSON 

"Today, a hundred years after Burckhardt so I would argue culture, as 
well as opinions as to the value of Humanism for our world, have so pro- 
foundly changed that for the first time the limitations of the Burckhardtian 
pattern of reference can be fully grasped, although his fundamental discovery, 
that Renaissance Italy somehow was a prototype of the modern world, has 
preserved its truth." _ HANS BARON 






This work bears the title of an essay in 
the strictest sense of the word. No one is 
more conscious than the writer with what 
limited means and strength he has ad- 
dressed himself to a task so arduous. And 
even if he could look with greater confi- 
dence upon his own researches he would 
hardly thereby feel more assured of the ap- 
proval of competent judges. To each eye, 
perhaps, the outlines of a given civilization 
present a different picture; and in treating 
of a civilization which is the mother of our 
own, and whose influence is still at work 
among us, it is unavoidable that individual 
judgment and feeling should tell every mo- 
ment both on the writer and on the reader. 
In the wide ocean upon which we venture, 
the possible ways and directions arc many; 
and the same studies which have served for 
this work might easily, in other hands, not 
only receive a wholly different treatment 
and application, but lead also to essentially 
different conclusions. Such indeed is the 
importance of the subject, that it calls for 
fresh investigation, and may be studied 
with advantage from the most varied points 
of view. Meanwhile we are content if a 
patient hearing is granted us, and if this 
book be taken and judged as a whole. It is 
the most serious difficulty of the history of 
civilization that a great intellectual process 
must be broken up into single, and often 

into what seem arbitrary categories, in order 
to be in any way intelligible. It was for- 
merly our intention to fill up the gaps in 
this book by a special work on the "Art of 
the Renaissance" an intention, however, 
which we have been able only to fulfill in 
part. The struggle between the Popes and 
the Hohenstaufen left Italy in a political 
condition which differed essentially from 
that of other countries of the West. While 
in France, Spain, and England the feudal 
system was so organized that, at the close 
of its existence, it was naturally transformed 
into a unified monarchy, and while in Ger- 
many it helped to maintain, at least out- 
wardly, the unity of the empire, Italy had 
shaken it off almost entirely. The Emperors 
of the fourteenth century, even in the most 
favorable case, were no longer received and 
respected as feudal lords, but as possible 
leaders and supporters of powers already in 
existence; while the Papacy, with its crea- 
tures and allies, was strong enough to hin- 
der national unity in the future, not strong 
enough itself to bring about that unity. Be- 
tween the two lay a multitude of political 
units republics and despots in part of 
long standing, in part of recent origin, 
whose existence was founded simply on 
their power to maintain it. In them for the 
first time we detect the modern political 
spirit of Europe, surrendered freely to its 
own instincts, often displaying the worst 
features of an unbridled egotism, outraging 
every right, and killing every germ of a 

From Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Period of the Renaissance in Italy, Trans, by S. G. C. 
Middlemore (London, 1878), Vol. I, pp. 3-17, 85-86, 103-120, 181-190, 191-197, 239-242, 245- 
246, 283-285; Vol. II, pp. 3-20, 35-37, 42-^3, 46, 109-116, 246-247, 297-301, 305, 309-317, 318- 


healthier culture. But, wherever this vicious 
tendency is overcome or in any way com- 
pensated, a new fact appears in history 
the state as the outcome of reflection and 
calculation, the state as a work of art. This 
new life displays itself in a hundred forms, 
both in the republican and in the despotic 
states, and determines their inward consti- 
tution, no less than their foreign policy. We 
shall limit ourselves to the consideration of 
the completer and more clearly defined 
type, which is offered by the despotic states. 
The internal condition of the despoti- 
cally governed states had a memorable 
counterpart in the Norman Empire of 
Lower Italy and Sicily, after its transforma- 
tion by the Emperor Frederick II. Bred 
amid treason and peril in the neighborhood 
of the Saracens, Frederick, the first ruler 
of the modern type who sat upon a throne, 
had early accustomed himself, both in criti- 
cism and action, to a thoroughly objective 
treatment of affairs. His acquaintance with 
the internal condition and administration 
of the Saracenic states was close and inti- 
mate; and the mortal struggle in which he 
was engaged with the Papacy compelled 
him, no less than his adversaries, to bring 
into the field all the resources at his com- 
mand. Frederick's measures (especially 
after the year 1231) are aimed at the com- 
plete destruction of the feudal state, at the 
transformation of the people into a multi- 
tude destitute of will and of the means of 
resistance, but profitable in the utmost de- 
gree to the exchequer. He centralized, in 
a manner hitherto unknown in the West, 
the whole judicial and political administra- 
tion by establishing the right of appeal from 
the feudal courts, which he did not, how- 
ever, abolish, to the imperial judges. No 
office was henceforth to be filled by popular 
election, under penalty of the devastation 
of the offending district and of the enslave- 
ment of its inhabitants. Excise duties were 
introduced; the taxes, based on a compre- 
hensive assessment, and distributed in ac- 
cordance with Mohammedan usages, were 
collected by those cruel and vexatious meth- 
ods without which, it is true, it is impossible 

to obtain any money from Orientals. Here, 
in short, we find, not a people, but simply 
a disciplined multitude of subjects; who 
were forbidden, for example, to marry out 
of the country without special permission, 
, and under no circumstances were allowed 
^to study abroad. The University of Naples 
was the first we know of to restrict the free- 
dom of study, while the East, in these re- 
spects at all events, left its youth unfettered. 
It was after the example of Mohammedan 
rulers that Frederick traded on his own ac- 
count in all parts of the Mediterranean, 
reserving to himself.the monopoly of many 
commodities, and ( restricting in various 
ways the commerce of his subjects. J The 
Fatimitc Caliphs, with all their esoteric un- 
belief, were, at least in their earlier history, 
tolerant of all the differences in the reli- 
gious faith of their people; Frederick, on 
the other hand, crowned his system of gov- 
ernment by a religious inquisition, which 
will seem the more reprehensible when we 
remember thafin the persons of the heretics 
he was persecuting the representatives of a 
free municipal lifc.J) Lastly, the internal 
police, and the kernel of the army for for- 
eign service, was composed of Saracens who 
had been brought over from Sicily to 
Nocera and Luceria men who were deaf 
to the cry of misery and careless of the ban 
of the Church. At a later period the sub- 
jects, by whom the use of weapons had long 
been forgotten, were passive witnesses of 
the fall of Manfred and of the seizure of 
the government by Charles of Anjou; the 
latter continued to use the system which 
he found already at work. 

At the side of the centralizing Emperor 
appeared an usurper of the most peculiar 
kind: his vicar and son-in-law, Ezzelino de 
Romano. He stands as the representative of 
no system of government or administration, 
for all his activity was wasted in struggles 
for supremacy in the eastern part of Upper 
Italy; but as a political type he was a figure 
of no less importance for the future than 
his imperial protector Frederick. The con- 
quests and usurpations which had hitherto 
taken place in the Middle Ages rested on 

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy 

real or pretended inheritance and other 
such claims, or else were effected against 
unbelievers and excommunicated persons. 
Here for the first time the attempt was 
openly made to found a throne by whole- 
sale murder and endless barbarities, by the 
adoption, in short, of any means with a 
view to nothing but the end pursuecy None 
of his successors, not even Cesar Borgia, 
rivalled the colossal guilt of Ezzelino; but 
the example once set was not forgotten, and 
his fall led to no return of justice among the 
nations, and served as no warning to future 

It was in vain at such a time that St. 
Thomas Aquinas, a born subject of Fred- 
erick, set up the theory of a constitutional 
monarchy, in which the prince was to be 
supported by an upper house named by 
himself, and a representative body elected 
by the people; in vain did he concede to the 
people the right of revolution. Such theories 
found no echo outside the lecture-room, 
and Frederick and Ezzelino were and re- 
main for Italy the great political phenom- 
ena of the thirteenth century. Their per- 
sonality, already half legendary, forms the 
most important subject of "The Hundred 
Old Tales" whose original composition falls 
certainly within this century. In them 
Frederick is already represented as pos- 
sessing the right to do as he pleased with 
the property of his subjects, and exercises 
on all, even on criminals, a profound influ- 
ence by the force of his personality; Ezze- 
lino is spoken of with the awe which all 
mighty impressions leave behind them. His 
person became the centre of a whole litera- 
ture, from the chronicle of eye-witnesses to 
the half-mythical tragedy of later poets. 

The Tyranny of the Fourteenth Century 

The tyrannies, great and small, of the 
fourteenth century afford constant proof 
that examples such as these were not 
thrown away. Their crimes, which were 
fearful, have been fully told by historians. 
As states depending for existence on them- 
selves alone, and scientifically organized 
with a view to this object, they present to 

us a higher interest than that of mere 

The deliberate adaptation of means to 
ends, of which no prince out of Italy had at 
that time a conception, joined to almost 
absolute power within the limits of the 
state, produced among the despots both 
men and modes of life of a peculiar char- 
acter. The chief secret of government in the 
hands of the prudent ruler lay in leaving 
the incidence of taxation so far as possible 
where he found it, or as he had first ar- 
ranged it. The chief sources of income 
were: a land tax, based on a valuation; defi- 
nite taxes on articles of consumption and 
duties on exported and imported goods; 
together with the private fortune of the 
ruling house. The only possible increase 
was derived from the growth of business 
and of general prosperity. Loans, such as 
we find in the free cities, were here un- 
known; a well-planned confiscation was 
held a preferable means of raising money, 
provided only that it left public credit un- 
shaken an end attained, for example, by 
the truly Oriental practice of deposing and 
plundering the director of the finances. 

Out of this income the expenses of the 
little court, of the body-guard, of the mer- 
cenary troops, and of the public buildings 
were met, as well as of the buffoons and 
men of talent who belonged to the personal 
attendants of the prince. The illegitimacy 
of his rule isolated the tyrant and sur- 
rounded him with constant danger; the 
most honorable alliance which he could 
form was with intellectual merit, without 
regard to its origin. The liberality of the 
northern princes of the thirteenth century 
was confined to the knights, to the nobility 
which served and sang. It was otherwise 
with the Italian despot. With his thirst for 
fame and his passion for monumental 
works, it was talent, not birth, which he 
needed. In the company of the poet and 
the scholar he felt himself in a new posi- 
tion, almost, indeed, in possession of a new 

No prince was more famous in this re- 
spect than the ruler of Verona, Can Grande 


della Scala, who numbered among the illus- 
trious exiles whom he entertained at his 
court representatives of the whole of Italy. 
The men of letters were not ungrateful. 
Petrarch, whose visits at the courts of such 
men have been so severely censured, 
sketched an ideal picture of a prince of the 
fourteenth century. He demands great 
things from his patron, the lord of Padua, 
but in a manner which shows that he holds 
him capable of them. "Thou must not be 
the master but the father of thy subjects, 
and must love them as thy children; yea, 
as members of thy body. Weapons, guards, 
and soldiers thou maycst employ against the 
enemy with thy subjects goodwill is suffi- 
cient. By citizens, of course, I mean those 
who love the existing order; for those who 
daily desire change are rebels and traitors, 
and against such a stern justice may take its 

Here follows, worked out in detail, the 
purely modern fiction of the omnipotence 
of the State. The prince is to be independ- 
ent of his courtiers, but at the same time 
to govern with simplicity and modesty; he 
is to take everything into his charge, to 
maintain and restore churches and public 
buildings, to keep up the municipal police, 
to drain the marshes, to look after the sup- 
ply of wine and corn; he is to exercise a 
strict justice, so to distribute the taxes that 
the people can recognize their necessity and 
the regret of the ruler to put his hands into 
the pockets of others; he is to support the 
sick and the helpless, and to give his 
protection and society to distinguished 
scholars, on whom his fame in after ages 
will depend. 

But whatever might be the brighter sides 
of the system, and the merits of individual 
rulers, yetythe men of the fourteenth cen- 
tury were not without a more or less dis- 
tinct consciousness of the brief and uncer- 
tain tenure of most of these despotismsj) In- 
asmuch as political institutions like these 
are naturally secure in proportion to the 
size of the territory in which they exist, the 
larger principalities were constantly tempted 
to swallow up the smaller. Whole heca- 

tombs of petty rulers were sacrificed at this 
time to the Visconti alone. (As a result of 
this outward danger an inward ferment was 
in ceaseless activity; and the effect of the 
situation on the character of the ruler was 
generally of the most sinister kind. Absolute 
power, with its temptations to luxury and 
unbridled selfishness, and the perils to 
which he was exposed from enemies and 
conspirators, turned him almost inevitably 
into a tyrant in the worst sense of the word) 
Well for him if he could trust his nearest 
relations! But where all was illegitimate, 
there could be no regular law of inherit- 
ance, either with regard to the succession 
or to the division of the ruler's property; 
and consequently the heir, if incompetent 
or a minor, was liable in the interest of the 
family itself to be supplanted by an uncle 
or cousin of more resolute character. The 
acknowledgement or exclusion of the bas- 
tards was a fruitful source of contest; and 
most of these families in consequence were 
plagued with a crowd of discontented and 
vindictive kinsmen. This circumstance gave 
rise to continual outbreaks of treason and 
to frightful scenes of domestic bloodshed. 
Sometimes the pretenders lived abroad in 
exile, and like the Visconti, who practised 
the fisherman's craft on the Lake of Garda, 
viewed the situation with patient indiffer- 
ence. When asked by a messenger of his 
rival when and how he thought of return- 
ing to Milan, he gave the reply, "By the 
same means as those by which I was ex- 
pelled, but not till his crimes have out- 
weighed my own." Sometimes, too, the des- 
pot was sacrificed by his relations, with the 
view of saving the family, to the public 
conscience which he had too grossly out- 
raged. In a few cases the government was 
in the hands of the whole family, or at least 
the ruler was bound to take their advice; 
and here, too, the distribution of property 
and influence led to bitter disputes. 

The whole of this system excited the 
deep and persistent hatred of the Floren- 
tine writers of that epoch. Even the pomp 
and display with which the despot was per- 
haps less anxious to gratify his own vanity 

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy 

than to impress the popular imagination, 
awakened their keenest sarcasm. Woe to an 
adventurer if he fell into their hands, like 
the upstart Doge Aguello of Pisa (1364), 
who used to ride out with a golden sceptre, 
and show himself at the window of his 
house, "as relics are shown," reclining on 
embroidered drapery and cushions, served 
like a pope or emperor, by kneeling attend- 
ants. More often, however, the old Floren- 
tines speak on this subject in a tone of lofty 
seriousness. Dante saw and characterized 
well the vulgarity and commonplace which 
mark the ambition of the new princes. 
"What mean their trumpets and their bells, 
their horns and their flutes; but come, hang- 
mancome, vultures?" The castle of the 
tyrant, as pictured by the popular mind, is 
a lofty and solitary building, full of dun- 
geons and listening-tubes, the home of 
cruelty and misery. Misfortune is foretold 
to all who enter the service of the despot, 
who even becomes at last himself an object 
of pity: he must needs be the enemy of all 
good and honest men; he can trust no one, 
and can read in the faces of his subjects the 
expectation of his fall. "As despotisms rise, 
grow, and are consolidated, so grows in 
their midst the hidden element which must 
produce their dissolution and ruin." But 
the deepest ground of dislike has not been 
stated; Florence was then the scene of the 
richest development of human individual- 
ity, while for the despots no other individ- 
uality could be suffered to live and thrive 
but their own and that of their nearest de- 
pendents. fThe control of the individual was 
rigorously carried out, even down to the 
establishment of a system of passports. 

The astrological superstitions and the 
religious unbelief of many of the tyrants 
gave, in the minds of their contemporaries, 
a peculiar color to this awful and God- 
forsaken existence. When the last Carrara 
could no longer defend the walls and gates 
of the plague-stricken Padua, hemmed in 
on all sides by the Venetians (1405), the 
soldiers of the guard heard him cry to the 
devil "to come and kill him.". . . 

The Republics: Venice and Florence 

The Italian municipalities had, in earlier 
days, given signal proof of that force which 
transforms the city into the state. It re- 
mained only that these cities should com- 
bine in a great confederation; and this idea 
was constantly recurring to Italian states- 
men, whatever differences of form it might 
from time to time display. In fact, during 
the struggles of the twelfth and thirteenth 
centuries, great and formidable leagues ac- 
tually were formed by the cities; and Sis- 
mondi is of opinion that the time of the 
final armaments of the Lombard confedera- 
tion against Barbarossa [from 1168 on] was 
the moment when a universal Italian league 
was possible. But the more powerful states 
had already developed characteristic fea- 
tures which made any such scheme imprac- 
ticable. In their commercial dealings they 
shrank from no measures, however extreme, 
which might damage their competitors; they 
held their weaker neighbours in a condition 
of helpless dependence in short, they 
each fancied they could get on by them- 
selves without the assistance of the rest, and 
thus paved the way for future usurpation. 
The usurper was forthcoming when long 
conflicts between the nobility and the 
people, and between the different factions 
of the nobility, had awakened the desire for 
a strong government, and when bands of 
mercenaries ready and willing to sell their 
aid to the highest bidder had superseded 
the general levy of the citizens which party 
leaders now found unsuited to their pur- 
poses. The tyrants destroyed the freedom of 
most of the cities; here and there they were 
expelled, but not thoroughly, or only for a 
short time; and they were always restored, 
since the inward conditions were favorable 
to them, and the opposing forces were 

Among the cities which maintained their 
independence are two of deep significance 
for the history of the human race: Florence, 
the city of incessant movement, which has 
left us a record of the thoughts and aspir- 
ants of each and all who, for three cen- 
turies, took part in this movement, and 


Venice, the city of apparent stagnation and 
political secrecy. No contrast can be imag- 
ined stronger than that which is offered us 
by these two, and neither can be compared 
to anything else which the world has 
hitherto produced. . . . 

fThe most elevated political thought and 
the most varied forms of human develop 
ment are found united in the history of 
Florence, which in this sense deserves the 
name of the first modern state in the world^ 
Here the whole people are busied witn 
what in the despotic cities is the affair of a 
single family. That wondrous Florentine 
spirit, at once keenly critical and artistically 
creative, was incessantly transforming the 
social and political condition of the state, 
and as incessantly describing and judging 
the change. Florence thus became the home 
of political doctrines and theories, of experi- 
ments and sudden changes, but also, like 
Venice, the home of statistical science, and 
alone and above all other states in the 
world, the home of historical representation 
in the modern sense of the phrase. The 
spectacle of ancient Rome and a familiarity 
with its leading writers were not without 
influence; Giovanni Villani confesses that 
he received the first impulse to his great 
work at the jubilee of the year 1300, and 
began it immediately on his return home. 
Yet how many among the 200,000 pilgrims 
of that year may have been like him in 
gifts and tendencies, and still did not write 
the history of their native cities! For not 
all of them could encourage themselves 
with the thought: "Rome is sinking; my 
native city is rising, and ready to achieve 
great things and therefore I wish to relate 
its past history, and hope to continue the 
story of the present time, and as long as 
my life shall last." And besides the witness 
to its past, Florence obtained through its 
historians something further a greater 
fame than fell to the lot of any other city 
of Italy. 

Our present task is not to write the his- 
tory of this remarkable state, but merely to 
give a few indications of the intellectual 
freedom and independence for which the 

Florentines were indebted to this history. 

In no other city of Italy were the strug- 
gles of political parties so bitter, of such 
early origin, and so permanent. The de- 
scriptions of them, which belong, it is true, 
to a somewhat later period, give clear 
evidence of the superiority of Florentine 

And what a politician is the great victim 
of these crises, Dante Alighieri, matured 
alike by home and by exile! He uttered his 
scorn of the incessant changes and experi- 
ments in the constitution of his native city 
in verses of adamant, which will remain 
proverbial so long as political events of the 
same kind recur; he addressed his home in 
words of defiance and yearning which must 
have stirred the hearts of his countrymen. 
But his thoughts ranged over Italy and the 
whole world; and if his passion for the 
Empire, as he conceived it, was no more 
than an illusion, it must yet be admitted 
that the youthful dreams of a new-born 
political speculation are in his case not 
without a poetical grandeur. He is proud 
to be the first who trod this path, certainly 
in the footsteps of Aristotle, but in his own 
way independently. His ideal emperor is a 
just and humane judge, dependent on God 
only, the heir of the universal sway of 
Rome to which belonged the sanction of 
nature, of right and of the will of God. The 
conquest of the world was, according to this 
view, rightful, resting on a divine judgment 
between Rome and the other nations of the 
earth, and God gave his approval to this 
empire, since under it he became Man, sub- 
mitting at his birth to the census of the 
Emperor Augustus, and at his death to the 
judgment of Pontius Pilate. We may find 
it hard to appreciate these and other argu- 
ments of the same kind, but Dante's passion 
never fails to carry us with him. In his 
letters he appears as one of the earliest pub- 
licists, and is perhaps the first layman to 
publish political tracts in this form. He be- 
gan early. Soon after the death of Beatrice 
he addressed a pamphlet on the state of 
Florence "to the Great ones of the Earth," 
and the public utterances of his later years, 

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy 

dating from the time of his banishment, are 
all directed to emperors, princes, and cardi- 
nals. In these letters and in his book "De 
Vulgari Eloquio" the feeling, bought with 
such bitter pains, is constantly recurring 
that the exile may find elsewhere than in 
his native place an intellectual home in 
language and culture, which cannot be 
taken from him. On this point we shall 
have more to say in the sequel. 

To the two Villani, Giovanni as well as 
Matteo, we owe not so much deep political 
reflexion as fresh and practical observa- 
tions, together with the elements of Floren- 
tine statistics and important notices of other 
states. Here too trade and commerce had 
given the impulse to economical as well as 
political science. /Nowhere else in the world 
was such accurate information to be had 
on financial affairs. The wealth of the 
Papal court at Avignon, which at the death 
of John XXII amounted to twenty-five mil- 
lions of gold florins, would be incredible on 
any less trustworthy authority. Here only, 
at Florence, do we meet with colossal loans 
like that which the King of Engbnd con- 
tracted from the Florentine houses of Bardi 
and Peruzzi, who lost to his Majesty the 
sum of 1,365,000 gold florins (1338)- 
their own money and that of their partners 
and nevertheless recovered from the 
shock. Most important facts are here re- 
corded as to the condition of Florence at 
this time; the public income (over 300,000 
gold florins) and expenditure; the popula- 
tion of the city, here only roughly esti- 
mated, according to the consumption of 
bread, in "bocche," i.e. mouths, put at 
90,000, and the population of the whole 
territory; the excess of 300 to 500 male 
children among the 5,800 to 6,000 annu- 
ally baptised; the school-children, of whom 
8,000 to 10,000 learned reading, 1,000 to 
1,200 in six schools arithmetic; and besides 
these, 600 scholars who were taught Latin 
grammar and logic in four schools. Then 
follow the statistics of the churches and 
monasteries; of the hospitals, which held 
more than a thousand beds; of the wool- 
trade, with most valuable details; of the 

mint, the provisioning of the city, the pub- 
lic officials, and so on. Incidentally we learn 
many curious facts; how, for instance, when 
the public funds ("monte") were first 
established, in the year 1353, the Francis- 
cans spoke from the pulpit in favour of the 
measure, the Dominicans and Augustin- 
ians against it. The economical results of 
the black death were and could be observed 
and described nowhere else in all Europe 
as in this city. Only a Florentine could have 
left it on record how it was expected that 
the scanty population would have made 
everything cheap, and how instead of that 
labor and commodities doubled in price; 
how the common people at first would do 
no work at all, but simply give themselves 
up to enjoyment; how in the city itself 
servants and maids were not to be had ex- 
cept at extravagant wages; how the peasants 
would only till the best lands, and left the 
rest uncultivated; and how the enormous 
legacies bequeathed to the poor at the time 
of the plague seemed afterwards useless, 
since the poor had either died or had ceased 
to be poor. Lastly, on the occasion of a 
great bequest, by which a childless philan- 
thropist left six "danari" to every beggar in 
the city, the attempt is made to give a com- 
prehensive statistical account of Florentine 

This statistical view of things was at a 
later time still more highly cultivated at 
Florence. The noteworthy point about it is 
that, as a rule, we can perceive its connec- 
tion with the higher aspects of history, with 
art, and with culture in general. An in- 
ventory of the year 1422 mentions, within 
the compass of the same document, the 
seventy-two exchange offices which sur- 
rounded the "Mercato Nuovo"; the amount 
of coined money in circulation (two mil- 
lion golden florins); the then new industry 
of gold spinning; the silk wares, Filippo 
Brunellesco, then busy in digging classical 
architecture from its grave; and Lionardo 
Aretino, secretary of the republic, at work 
at the revival of ancient literature and elo- 
quence; lastly, it speaks of the general pros- 
perity of the city, then free from political 



conflicts, and of the good fortune of Italy, 
which had rid itself of foreign mercenaries. 
The Venetian statistics quoted above which 
date from about the same year, certainly 
give evidence of larger property and profits 
and of a more extensive scene of action; 
Venice had long been mistress of the seas 
before Florence sent out its first galleys 
(1422) to Alexandria. But no reader can 
fail to recognize the higher spirit of the 
Florentine documents. These and similar 
lists recur at intervals of ten years, sys- 
tematically arranged and tabulated, while 
elsewhere we find at best occasional notices. 
We can form an approximate estimate of 
the property and the business of the first 
Medici; they paid for charities, public 
buildings, and taxes from 1434 to 1471 no 
less than 663,755 gold florins, of which 
more than 400,000 fell on Cosimo alone, 
and Lorenzo Magnifico was delighted that 
the money had been so well spent. In 1 472 
we have again a most important and in its 
way complete view of the commerce and 
trades of this city, some of which may be 
wholly or partly reckoned among the fine 
arts such as those which had to do with 
damasks and gold or silver embroidery, 
with wood-carving and "intarsia," with the 
sculpture of arabesques in marble and sand- 
stone, with portraits in wax, and with 
jewellery and work in gold. The inborn 
talent of the Florentines for the systematiza- 
tion of outward life is shown by their books 
on agriculture, business, and domestic econ- 
omy, which are markedly superior to those 
of other European people in the fifteenth 
century. It has been rightly decided to pub- 
lish selections of these works, although no 
little study will be needed to extract clear 
and definite results from them. At all 
events, we have no difficulty in recognizing 
the city, where dying parents begged the 
government in their wills to fine their sons 
1,000 florins if they declined to practise a 
regular profession. 

For the first half of the sixteenth century 
probably no state in the world possesses a 
document like the magnificent description 
of Florence by Varchi. In descriptive statis- 

tics, as in so many things besides, yet an- 
other model is left to us, before the freedom 
and greatness of the city sank into the 

This statistical estimate of outward life 
is, however, uniformly accompanied by the 
narrative of political events to which we 
have already referred. 

Florence not only existed under political 
forms more varied than those of the free 
states of Italy and of Europe generally, but 
it reflected upon them far more deeply. It 
is a faithful mirror of the relations of indi- 
viduals and classes to a variable whole. The 
pictures of the great civic democracies in 
France and in Flanders, as they are deline- 
ated in Froissart, and the narratives of the 
German chroniclers of the fourteenth cen- 
tury, are in truth of high importance; but 
in comprehensiveness of thought and in the 
rational development of the story, none will 
bear comparison with the Florentines. The 
rule of the nobility, the tyrannies, the strug- 
gles of the middle class with the prole- 
tariat, limited and unlimited democracy, 
pseudo-democracy, the primacy of a single 
house, the theocracy of Savonarola, and the 
mixed forms of government which prepared 
the way for the Medicean despotism all 
are so described that the inmost motives of 
the actors arc laid bare to the light. At 
length Machiavelli in his Florentine history 
(down to 1492) represents his native city 
as a living organism and its development 
as a natural and individual process; he is 
the first of the moderns who has risen to 
such a conception. It lies without our prov- 
ince to determine whether and in what 
points Machiavelli may have done violence 
to history, as is notoriously the case in his 
life of Castruccio Castracani a fancy pic- 
ture of the typical despot. We might find 
something to say against every line of the 
"Istorie Fiorentine," and yet the great and 
unique value of the whole would remain 
unaffected. And his contemporaries and 
successors, Jacopo Pitti, Guicciardini, Segni, 
Varchi, Vettori, what a circle of illustrious 
names! And what a story it is which these 
masters tell us! The great and memorable 

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy 

drama of the last decades of the Florentine 
republic is here unfolded. The voluminous 
record of the collapse of the highest and 
most original life which the world could 
then show may appear to one but as a col- 
lection of curiosities, may awaken in an- 
other a devilish delight at the shipwreck 
of so much nobility and grandeur, to a third 
may seem like a great historical assize; for 
all it will be an object of thought and study 
to the end of time. The evil, which was for 
ever troubling the peace of the city, was its 
rule over once powerful and now con- 
quered rivals like Pisa a rule of which the 
necessary consequence was a chronic state 
of violence. The only remedy, certainly an 
extreme one and which none but Savonarola 
could have persuaded Florence to accept, 
and that only with the help of favorable 
chances, would have been the well-timed 
resolution of Tuscany into a federal union 
of free cities. At a later period this scheme, 
then no more than the dream of a past age, 
brought (1548) a patriotic citizen of Lucca 
to the scaffold. From this evil and from the 
ill-starred Guelph sympathies of% Florence 
for a foreign prince, which familiarized it 
with foreign intervention, came all the dis- 
asters which followed. But who docs not 
admire the people, which was wrought up 
by its venerated preacher to a mood of such 
sustained loftiness, that for the first time in 
Italy it set the example of sparing a con- 
quered foe, while the whole history of its 
past taught nothing but vengeance and ex- 
termination? The glow which melted patri- 
otism into one with moral regeneration may 
seem, when looked at from a distance, to 
have soon passed away; but its best results 
shine forth again in the memorable siege of 
1529-30. They were "fools/' as Guicciardini 
then wrote, who drew down this storm 
upon Florence, but he confesses himself 
'hat they achieved things which seemed in- 
credible; and when he declares that sensible 
people would have got out of the way of 
the danger, he means no more than that 
Florence ought to have yielded itself silently 
and ingloriously into the hands of its ene- 
mies. It would no doubt have preserved its 

splendid suburbs and gardens, and the lives 
and prosperity of countless citizens; but it 
would have been the poorer by one of its 
greatest and most ennobling memories. 

In many of their chief merits the Floren- 
tines are the pattern and the earliest type 
of Italians and modern Europeans gener- 
ally; they are so also in many of their de- 
fects. When Dante compares the city which 
was always mending its constitution with 
the sick man who is continually changing 
his posture to escape from pain, he touches 
with the comparison a permanent feature 
of the political life of Florence. The great 
modern fallacy that a constitution can be 
made, can be manufactured by a combina- 
tion of existing forces and tendencies, was 
constantly cropping up in stormy times; 
even Machiavelli is not wholly free from it. 
Constitutional artists were never wanting 
who by an ingenious distribution and divi- 
sion of political power, by indirect elections 
of the most complicated kind, by the estab- 
lishment of nominal offices, sought to found 
a lasting order of things, and to satisfy or 
to deceive the rich and the poor alike. They 
naively fetch their examples from classical 
antiquity, and borrow the party names 
"ottimati," "aristocrazia," as a matter of 
course. The world since then has become 
used to these expressions and given them a 
conventional European sense, whereas all 
former party names were purely national, 
and either characterized the cause at issue 
or sprang from the caprice of accident. But 
how a name colors or discolors a political 

But of all who thought it possible to 
construct a state, the greatest beyond all 
comparison was Machiavelli. He treats ex- 
isting forces as living and active, takes a 
large and an accurate view of alternative 
possibilities, and seeks to mislead neither 
himself nor others. No man could be freer 
from vanity or ostentation; indeed, he does 
not write for the public but either for 
princes and administrators or for personal 
friends. The danger for him does not lie in 
an affectation of genius or in a false order 
of ideas, but rather in a powerful imagina- 



tion which he evidently controls with diffi- 
culty. The objectivity of his political judg- 
ment is sometimes appalling in its sincerity; 
but it is the sign of a time of no ordinary 
need and peril, when it was a hard matter 
to believe in right, or to credit others with 
just dealing. Virtuous indignation at his 
expense is thrown away upon us who have 
seen in what sense political morality is 
understood by the statesmen of our own 
century. Machiavelli was at all events able 
to forget himself in his cause. In truth, 
although his writings, with the exception of 
very few words, are altogether destitute of 
enthusiasm, and although the Florentines 
themselves treated him at last as a criminal, 
he was a patriot in the fullest meaning of 
the word. But free as he was, like most of 
his contemporaries, in speech and morals, 
the welfare of the state was yet his first and 
last thought. 

His most complete programme for the 
construction of a new political system at 
Florence is set forth in the memorial to 
Leo X, composed after the death of the 
younger Lorenzo Medici, Duke of Urbino 
(d. 1519), to whom he had dedicated his 
"Prince." The State was by that time in 
extremities and utterly corrupt, and the 
remedies proposed are not always morally 
justifiable; but it is most interesting to see 
how he hopes to set up the republic in the 
form of a moderate democracy, as heiress 
to the Medici. A more ingenious scheme 
of concessions to the Pope, to the Pope's 
various adherents, and to the different 
Florentine interests, cannot be imagined; 
we might fancy ourselves looking into the 
works of a clock. Principles, observations, 
comparisons, political forecasts, and the like 
are to be found in numbers in the "Dis- 
corsi," among them flashes of wonderful in- 
sight. He recognizes, for example, the law 
of a continuous though not uniform devel- 
opment in republican institutions, and re- 
quires the constitution to be flexible and 
capable of change, as the only means of 
dispensing with bloodshed and banish- 
ments. For a like reason, in order to guard 
against private violence and foreign inter- 

ference "the death of all freedom" he 
wishes to see introduced a judicial proce- 
dure ("accusa") against hated citizens, in 
place of which Florence had hitherto had 
nothing but the court of scandal. With a 
masterly hand the tardy and involuntary 
decisions are characterized, which at critical 
moments play so important a part in repub- 
lican states. Once, it is true, he is misled 
by his imagination and the pressure of 
events into unqualified praise of the people, 
which chooses its officers, he says, better 
than any prince, and which can be cured 
of its errors by "good advice." With regard 
to the Government of Tuscany, he has no 
doubt that it belongs to his native city, and 
maintains, in a special "Discorso" that the 
reconquest of Pisa is a question of life or 
death; he deplores that Arezzo, after the 
rebellion of 1502, was not razed to the 
ground; he admits in general that Italian 
republics must be allowed to expand freely 
and add to their territory in order to enjoy 
peace at home, and not to be themselves 
attacked by others, but declares that Flor- 
ence had always begun at the wrong end, 
and from the first made deadly enemies of 
Pisa, Lucca, and Siena, while Pistoja, 
"treated like a brother," had voluntarily 
submitted to her. . . . 


The Italian State and the Individual 

In the character of these states, whether 
republics or despotisms, lies, not the only, 
but the chief reason for the early develop- 
ment of the Italian. To this it is due that 
he was the first-born among the sons of 
modern Europe. 

In the Middle Ages both sides of human 
consciousness that which was turned 
within as that which was turned without 
lay dreaming or half-awake beneath a com- 
mon veil. The veil was woven of faith, illu- 
sion, and childish prepossession, through 
which the world and history were seen clad 
in strange hues. Man was conscious of him- 
self only as a member of a race, people, 
party, family, or corporation only through 

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy 


some general category. In Italy this veil 
first melted into air; an objective treatment 
and consideration of the State and of all the 
things of this world became possible. The 
subjective side at the same time asserted it- 
self with corresponding emphasis; man be- 
came a spiritual individual, and recognized 
himself as such. In the same way the Greek 
had once distinguished himself from the 
barbarian, and the Arabian had felt himself 
an individual at a time when other Asiatics 
knew themselves only as members of a race. 
It will not be difficult to show that this 
result was owing above all to the political 
circumstances of Italy. 

In far earlier times we can here and there 
detect a development of free personality 
which in Northern Europe either did not 
occur at all, or could not display itself in 
the same manner. The band of audacious 
wrongdoers in the sixteenth century de- 
scribed to us by Luidprand, some of the 
contemporaries of Gregory VII, and a few 
of the opponents of the first Hohenstaufen, 
show us characters of this kind, but (at the 
close of the thirteenth century Ifely began 
to swarm with individuality; the charm laid 
upon human personality was dissolved; and 
a thousand figures mee{: us each in its own 
special shape and dress.ytDante's great poem 
would have been impossible in any other 
country of Europe, if only for the reason 
that they all still lay under the spell of race. 
For Italy the august poet, through the 
wealth of individuality which he set forth, 
was the most national herald of his time. 
But this unfolding of the treasures of hu- 
man nature in literature and art this 
many-sided representation and criticism 
will be discussed in separate chapters; here 
we have to deal only with the psychological 
fact itself. This fact appears in the most 
decisive and unmistakable form. The 
Italians of the fourteenth century knew 
little of false modesty or of hypocrisy in 
any shape; not one of them was afraid of 
singularity, of being and seeming unlike his 

Despotism, as we have already seen, fos- 
tered in the highest degree the individuality 

not only of the tyrant or Condottiere him- 
self, but also of the men whom he protected 
or used as his tools the secretary, minister, 
poet, and companion. These people were 
forced to know all the inward resources of 
their own nature, passing or permanent; 
and their enjoyment of life was enhanced 
and concentrated by the desire to obtain 
the greatest satisfaction from a possibly 
very brief period of power and influence. 

But even the subjects whom they ruled 
over were not free from the same impulse. 
Leaving out of account those who wasted 
their lives in secret opposition and conspira- 
cies, we speak of the majority who were 
content with a strictly private station, like 
most of the urban population of the Byzan- 
tine empire and the Mohammedan states. 
No doubt it was often hard for the subjects 
of a Visconti to maintain the dignity of 
their persons and families, and multitudes 
must have lost in moral character through 
the servitude they lived under. But this 
was not the case with regard to individual- 
ity; for political impotence does not hinder 
the different tendencies and manifestations 
of private life from thriving in the fullest 
vigor and variety. Wealth and culture, so 
far as display and rivalry were not forbid- 
den to them, a municipal freedom which 
did not cease to be considerable, and a 
Church which, unlike that of the Byzan- 
tine or of the Mohammedan world, was not 
identical with the State all these condi- 
tions undoubtedly favored the growth of 
individual thought, for which the necessary 
leisure was furnished by the cessation of 
party conflicts. The private man, indifferent 
to politics, and busied partly with serious 
pursuits, partly with the interests of a dilet- 
tante, seems to have been first fully formed 
in these despotisms of the fourteenth cen- 
tury. Documentary evidence cannot, of 
course, be required on such a point. The 
novelists, from whom we might expect in- 
formation, describe to us oddities in plenty, 
but only from one point of view and in so 
far as the needs of the story demand. Their 
scene, too, lies chiefly in the republican 



In the latter, circumstances were also, 
but in another way, favorable to the growth 
of individual character. The more fre- 
quently the governing party was changed, 
the more the individual was led to make 
the utmost of the exercise and enjoyment 
of power. The statesmen and popular lead- 
ers, especially in Florentine history, ac- 
quired so marked a personal character, that 
we can scarcely find, even exceptionally, a 
parallel to them in contemporary history, 
hardly even in Jacob von Arteveldt. 

The members of the defeated parties, on 
the other hand, often came into a position 
like that of the subjects of the despotic 
States, with the difference that the freedom 
or power already enjoyed, and in some cases 
the hope of recovering them, gave a higher 
energy to their individuality. Among these 
men of involuntary leisure we find, for in- 
stance, an Agnolo Pandolfini (d. 1446), 
whose work on domestic economy is the 
first complete program of a developed pri- 
vate life. His estimate of the duties of the 
individual as against the dangers and 
thanklessness of public life is in its way a 
true monument of the age. 

Banishment, too, has this effect above all, 
that it either wears the exile out or de- 
velops whatever is greatest in him. "In all 
our more populous cities," says Gioviano 
Pontano, "we see a crowd of people who 
have left their homes of their own free 
will; but a man takes his virtues with him 
wherever he goes." And, in fact, they were 
by no means only men who had been actu- 
ally exiled, but thousands left their native 
place voluntarily, because they found its 
political or economical condition intolera- 
ble. The Florentine emigrants at Ferrara 
and the Lucchese in Venice formed whole 
colonies by themselves. 

The cosmopolitanism which grew up in 
the most gifted circles is in itself a high 
stage of individualism. Dante, as we have 
already said, finds a new home in the lan- 
guage and culture of Italy, but goes beyond 
even this in the words, "My country is the 
whole world." And when his recall to 
Florence was offered him on unworthy con- 

ditions, he wrote back: "Can I not every- 
where behold the light of the sun and the 
stars; everywhere meditate on the noblest 
truths, without appearing ingloriously and 
shamefully before the city and the people. 
Even my bread will not fail me." The artists 
exult no less defiantly in their freedom 
from the constraints of fixed residence. 
"Only he who has learned everything," 
says Ghiberti, "is nowhere a stranger; 
robbed of his fortune and without friends, 
he is yet the citizen of every country, and 
can fearlessly despise the changes of for- 
tune." In the same strain an exiled human- 
ist writes: "Wherever a learned man fixes 
his seat, there is home." 

The Perfecting of the Individual 

An acute and practised eye might be able 
to trace, step by step, the increase in the 
number of complete men during the fif- 
teenth century. Whether they had before 
them as a conscious object the harmonious 
development of their spiritual and material 
existence, is hard to say; but several of them 
attained it, so far as is consistent with the 
imperfection of all that is earthly. It may 
be better to renounce the attempt at an esti- 
mate of the share which fortune, character, 
and talent had in the life of Lorenzo Mag- 
nifico. But look at a personality like that 
of Ariosto, especially as shown in his satires. 
In what harmony are there expressed the 
pride of the man and the poet, the irony 
with which he treats his own enjoyments, 
the most delicate satire, and the deepest 

(When this impulse to the highest indi- 
vidual development was combined with a 
powerful and varied nature, which had 
mastered all the elements of the culture of 
the age, then arose the "all-sided man" 
Tuomo universale" who belonged to 
Italy alone.) Men there were of encyclo- 
paedic knowledge in many countries during 
the Middle Ages, for this knowledge was 
confined within narrow limits; and even in 
the twelfth century there were universal 
artists, but the problems of architecture 
were comparatively simple and uniform, 

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy 


and in sculpture and painting the matter 
was of more importance than the form. But 
in Italy at the time of the Renaissance, we 
find artists who in every branch created 
new and perfect works, and who also made 
the greatest impression as men^Others, out- 
side the arts they practised, were masters 
of a vast circle of spiritual interests. . . . 

The fifteenth century is, above all, that 
of the many-sided men. There is no biogra- 
phy which does not, besides the chief work 
of its hero, speak of other pursuits all pass- 
ing beyond the limits of dilettantism. The 
Florentine merchant and statesman was 
often learned in both the classical lan- 
guages; the most famous humanists read 
the ethics and politics of Aristotle to him 
and his sons; even the daughters of the 
house were highly educated. It is in these 
circles that private education was first 
treated seriously. The humanist, on his 
side, was compelled to the most varied 
attainments, since his philological learning 
was not limited, as it now is, to the theoreti- 
cal knowledge of classical antiquity, but 
had to serve the practical needs* of daily 
life. While studying Pliny, he made collec- 
tions of natural history; the geography of 
the ancients was his guide in treating of 
modern geography, their history was his 
pattern in writing contemporary chronicles, 
even when composed in Italian; he not only 
translated the comedies of Plautus, but 
acted as manager when they were put on 
the stage; every effective form of ancient 
literature down to the dialogues of Lucian 
he did his best to imitate; and besides 
all this, he acted as magistrate, secretary, 
and diplomatist not always to his own 

But among these many-sided men, some 
who may truly be called all-sided, tower 
above the rest. Before analyzing the gen- 
eral phases of life and culture of this period, 
we may here, on the threshold of the fif- 
teenth century, consider for a moment the 
figure of one of these giants Leon Battista 
Alberti (b. 1404? d. 1472). His biography, 
which is only a fragment, speaks of him but 
little as an artist, and makes no mention at 

all of his great significance in the history 
of architecture. We shall now see what he 
was, apart from these special claims to 

In all by which praise is won, Leon Bat- 
tista was from his childhood the first. Of 
his various gymnastic feats and exercises we 
read with astonishment how, with his feet 
together, he could spring over a man's head; 
how, in the cathedral, he threw a coin in 
the air till it was heard to ring against the 
distant roof; how the wildest horses trem- 
bled under him. In three things he desired 
to appear faultless to others, in walking, in 
riding, and in speaking. He learned music 
without a master, and yet his compositions 
were admired by professional judges. 
Under the pressure of poverty, he studied 
both civil and canonical law for many years, 
till exhaustion brought on a severe illness. 
In his twenty-fourth year, finding his mem- 
ory for words weakened, but his sense of 
facts unimpaired, he set to work at physics 
and mathematics. And all the while he ac- 
quired every sort of accomplishment and 
dexterity, cross-examining artists, scholars, 
and artisans of all descriptions, down to the 
cobblers, about the secrets and peculiarities 
of their craft. Painting and modelling he 
practised by the way, and especially ex- 
celled in admirable likenesses from memory. 
Great admiration was excited by his mys- 
terious "camera obscura," in which he 
showed at one time the stars and the moon 
rising over rocky hills, at another wide land- 
scapes with mountains and gulfs receding 
into dim perspective, and with fleets advanc- 
ing on the waters in shade or sunshine. And 
that which others created he welcomed joy- 
fully, and held every human achievement 
which followed the laws of beauty for some- 
thing almost divine. To all this must be 
added his literary works, first of all those 
on art, which are landmarks and authorities 
of the first order for the Renaissance of 
Form, especially in architecture; then his 
Latin prose writings novels and other 
works of which some have been taken 
for productions of antiquity; his elegies, 
eclogues, and humorous dinner-speeches. 



He also wrote an Italian treatise on domes- 
tic life in four books; various moral, philo- 
sophical, and historical works; and many 
speeches and poems, including a funeral 

oration on his dog His serious and witty 

sayings were thought worth collecting, and 
specimens of them, many columns long, are 
quoted in his biography. And all that he 
had and knew he imparted, as rich natures 
always do, without the least reserve, giving 
away his chief discoveries for nothing. But 
the deepest spring of his nature has yet to 
be spoken of the sympathetic intensity 
with which he entered into the whole life 
around him. At the sight of noble trees and 
waving corn-fields he shed tears; handsome 
and dignified old men he honored as "a 
delight of nature," and could never look at 
them enough. Perfectly-formed animals 
won his goodwill as being specially favored 
by nature; and more than once, when he 
was ill, the sight of a beautiful landscape 
cured him. No wonder that those who saw 
him in this close and mysterious com- 
munion with the world ascribed to him the 
gift of prophecy. He was said to have fore- 
told a bloody catastrophe in the family of 
Este, the fate of Florence, and the death of 
the Popes years before they happened, and 
to be able to read into the countenances and 
the hearts of men. It need not be added 
that an iron will pervaded and sustained 
his whole personality; like all the great men 
of the Renaissance, he said, "Men can do 
all things if they will." 

And Leonardo da Vinci was to Alberti as 
the finisher to the beginner, as the master 
to the dilettante. Would only that Vasari's 
work were here supplemented by a descrip- 
tion like that of Alberti! The colossal out- 
lines of Leonardo's nature can never be 
more than dimly and distantly conceived. 

The Modern Idea of Fame 

To this inward development of the indi- 
vidual corresponds a new sort of outward 
distinction the modern form of glory. 

In other countries of Europe the differ- 
ent classes of society lived apart, each with 
its own mediaeval caste sense of honor. The 

poetical fame of the Troubadours and Min- 
nesanger was peculiar to the knightly order. 
But^in Italy social equality had appeared 
before the time of the tyrannies or the de- 
mocracies. We there find early traces of a 
general society, , ! having, as will be shown 
more fully later on, a common ground in 
Latin and Italian literature; and such a 
ground was needed for this new element in 
life to grow in. To this must be added that 
the Roman authors, who were now zeal- 
ously studied, and especially Cicero, the 
most read and admired of all, are filled and 
saturated with the conception of fame, and 
that their subject itself the universal em- 
pire of Rome stood as a permanent ideal 
before the minds of Italians. From hence- 
forth all the aspirations and achievements 
of the people were governed by a moral 
postulate, which was still unknown else- 
where in Europe. . . . 


Introducing Remarks 

Now that this point in our historical 
view of Italian civilization has been 
reached, it is time to speak of the influence 
of antiquity, the "new birth" of which has 
been one-sidedly chosen as the name to 
sum up the whole period. The conditions 
which have been hitherto described would 
have sufficed, apart from antiquity, to up- 
turn and to mature the national mind; and 
most of the intellectual tendencies which 
yet remain to be noticed would be conceiv- 
able without it. But both what has gone 
before and what we have still to discuss are 
colored in a thousand ways by the influ- 
ence of the ancient world; and though the 
essence of the phenomena might still have 
been the same without the classical revival, 
it is only with and through this revival that 
they are actually manifested to us. The 
Renaissance would not have been the proc- 
ess of world- wide significance which it is, 
if its elements could be so easily separated 
from one another. We must insist upon it, 
as one^of the chief propositions of this book, 
that it was not the revival of antiquity 

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy 


alone, but its union with the genius of the 
Italian people, which achieved the conquest 
of the Western world./The amount of inde- 
pendence which the national spirit main- 
tained in this union varied according to 
circumstances. In the modern Latin litera- 
ture of the period, it is very small, while in 
plastic art, as well as in other spheres, it is 
remarkably great; and hence the alliance 
between two distant epochs in the civiliza- 
tion of the same people, because concluded 
on equal terms, proved justifiable and fruit- 
ful. The rest of Europe was free either to 
repel or else partly or wholly to accept the 
mighty impulse which came forth from 
Italy. Where the latter was the case we may 
as well be spared the complaints over the 
early decay of mediaeval faith and civiliza- 
tion. Had these been strong enough to hold 
their ground, they would be alive to this 
day. If those elegiac natures which long to 
see them return could pass but one hour in 
the midst of them, they would gasp to be 
back in the modern air. That in a great his- 
torical process of this kind flowers of ex- 
quisite beauty may perish, without being 
made immortal in poetry or tradition, is un- 
doubtedly true; nevertheless, we cannot 
wish the process undone. The general re- 
sult of it consists in this that by the side 
of the Church which had hitherto held the 
countries of the West together (though it 
was unable to do so much longer) there 
arose a new spiritual influence which, 
spreading itself abroad from Italy, became 
the breath of life for all the more instructed 
minds in Europe. The worst that can be 
said of the movement is, that it was anti- 
popular, that through it Europe became for 
the first time sharply divided into the culti- 
vated and uncultivated classes. The re- 
S roach will appear groundless when we re- 
ect that even now the fact, though clearly 
recognized, cannot be altered. The separa- 
tion, too, is by no means so cruel and abso- 
lute in Italy as elsewhere. The most artistic 
of her poets, Tasso, is in the hands of even 
the poorest. 

The civilization of Greece and Rome, 
which, ever since the fourteenth century, 

obtained so powerful a hold on Italian life, 
as the source and basis of culture, as the 
object and ideal of existence, partly also as 
an avowed reaction against preceding tend- 
enciesthis civilization had long been 
exerting a partial influence on mediaeval 
Europe, even beyond the boundaries of 
Italy. The culture of which Charles the 
Great was a representative was, in the face 
of the barbarism of the seventh and eighth 
centuries, essentially a Renaissance, and 
could appear under no other form. Just as 
in the Romanesque architecture of the 
North, beside the general outlines inherited 
from antiquity, remarkable direct imitations 
of the antique also occur, so too monastic 
scholarship had not only gradually ab- 
sorbed an immense mass of materials from 
Roman writers, but the style of it, from the 
days of Eginhard onwards, shows traces of 
conscious imitations. 

But the resuscitation of antiquity took a 
different form in Italy from that which it 
assumed in the North. The wave of barbar- 
ism had scarcely gone by before the people, 
in whom the former life was but half 
effaced, showed a consciousness of its past 
and a wish to reproduce it. Elsewhere in 
Europe men deliberately and with reflec- 
tion borrowed this or the other element of 
classical civilization; in Italy the sympathies 
both of the learned and of the people were 
naturally engaged on the side of antiquity 
as a whole, which stood to them as a sym- 
bol of past greatness. The Latin language, 
too, was easy to an Italian, and the numer- 
ous monuments and documents in which 
the country abounded facilitated a return 
to the past. With this tendency other ele- 
ments the popular character which time 
had now greatly modified, the political in- 
stitutions imported by the Lombards from 
Germany, chivalry and other northern 
forms of civilization, and the influence of 
religion and the Church combined to pro- 
duce the modern Italian spirit, which was 
destined to serve as the model and ideal for 
the whole western world. . . . 

But the great and general enthusiasm of 
the Italians for classical antiquity did not 



display itself before the fourteenth century. 
For this a development of civic life was re- 
quired, which took place only in Italy, and 
there not till then. It was needful that 
noble and burger should first learn to dwell 
together on equal terms, and that a social 
world should arise which felt the want of 
culture, and had the leisure and the means 
to obtain it. But culture, as soon as it freed 
itself from the fantastic bonds of the Mid- 
dle Ages, could not at once and without 
help find its way to the understanding of 
the physical and intellectual world. It 
needed a guide, and found one in the an- 
cient civilization, with its wealth of truth 
and knowledge in every spiritual interest. 
Both the form and the substance of this 
civilization were adopted with admiring 
gratitude; it became the chief part of the 
culture of the age. The general condition 
of the country was favorable to this trans- 
formation. The mediaeval empire, since the 
fall of the Hohenstaufen, had either re- 
nounced, or was unable to make good, its 
claims on Italy. The Popes had migrated 
to Avignon. Most of the political powers 
actually in existence owed their origin to 
violent and illegitimate means. The spirit 
of the people, now awakened to self-con- 
sciousness, sought for some new and stable 
ideal on which to rest. And thus the vision 
of the world-wide empire of Italy and Rome 
so possessed the popular mind, that Cola di 
Rienzi could actually attempt to put it in 
practice. The conception he formed of his 
task, particularly when tribune for the first 
time, could only end in some extravagant 
comedy; nevertheless, the memory of an- 
cient Rome was no slight support to the 
national sentiment. Armed afresh with its 
culture, the Italian soon felt himself in 
truth citizen of the most advanced nation 
in the world. . . . 

Humanism in the Fourteenth Century 

Who now were those who acted as medi- 
ators between their own age and a vener- 
ated antiquity, and made the latter a chief 
element in the culture of the former? 
They were a crowd of the most miscel- 

laneous sort, wearing one face today and 
another tomorrow; but they clearly felt 
themselves, and it was fully recognized by 
their time, that they formed a wholly new 
element in society. The "clerici vagantes" 
of the twelfth century, whose poetry we 
have already referred to, may perhaps be 
taken as their forerunners the same un- 
stable existence, the same free and more 
than free views of life, and the germs at all 
events of the same pagan tendencies in 
their poetry. But now, as competitor with 
the whole culture of the Middle Ages, 
which was essentially clerical and was fos- 
tered by the Church, there appeared a new 
civilization, founding itself on that which 
lay on the other side of the Middle Ages. 
Its active representatives became influential 
because they knew what the ancients knew, 
because they tried to write as the ancients 
wrote, because they began to think, and 
soon to feel, as the ancients thought and 
felt. The traditions to which they devoted 
themselves passed at a thousand points into 
genuine reproduction. 

Some modern writers deplore the fact 
that the germs of a far more independent 
and essentially national culture, such as ap- 
peared in Florence [about the year 1300, 
were afterwards so completely swamped by 
the humanists. There was then, we are told, 
nobody in Florence who could not read; 
even the donkey-men sang the verses of 
Dante; the best Italian manuscripts which 
we possess belonged originally to Florentine 
artisans; the publication of a popular en- 
cyclopaedia, like the "Tesoro" of Brunetto 
Latini, was then possible; and all this was 
founded on a strength and soundness of 
character due to the universal participation 
in public affairs, to commerce and travel, 
and to the systematic reprobation of idle- 
nessy The Florentines, it is urged, were at 
that time respected and influential through- 
out the whole world, and were called in 
that year, not without reason, by Pope 
Boniface VIII, "the fifth element." The 
rapid progress of humanism after the year 
1400 paralyzed native impulses. Hence- 
forth men looked to antiquity only for the 

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy 


solution of every problem, and consequently 
allowed literature to sink into mere quota- 
tion. Nay, the very fall of civil freedom is 
partly to be ascribed to all this, since the 
new learning rested on obedience to author- 
ity, sacrificed municipal rights to Roman 
law, and thereby both sought and found 
the favor of the despots. 

These charges will occupy us now and 
then at a later stage of our inquiry, when 
we shall attempt to reduce them to their 
true value, and to weigh the losses against 
the gains of this movement. For the present 
we must confine ourselves to showing how 
the civilization even of the vigorous four- 
teenth century necessarily prepared the 
way for the complete victory of humanism, 
and how precisely the greatest representa- 
tives of the national Italian spirit were 
themselves the men who opened wide the 
gate for the measureless devotion to an- 
tiquity in the fifteenth century. . . . 


Journeys of the Italians % 

Freed from the countless bonds which 
elsewhere in Europe checked progress, hav- 
ing reached a high degree of individual 
development and been schooled by the 
teachings of antiquity, the Italian mind 
now turned to the discovery of the outward 
universe, and to the representation of it in 
speech and in form. 

On the journeys of the Italians to distant 
parts of the world, we can here make but 
a few general observations. The crusades 
had opened unknown distances to the Euro- 
pean mind, and awakened in all the passion 
for travel and adventure. It may be hard 
to indicate precisely the point where this 
passion allied itself with, or became the serv- 
ant of, the thirst for knowledge; but it was 
in Italy that this was first and most com- 
pletely the case. Even in the crusades the 
interest of the Italians was wider than that 
of other nations, since they already were a 
naval power and had commercial relations 
with the East. From time immemorial the 
Mediterranean sea had given to the nations 

that dwelt on its shores mental impulses 
different from those which governed the 
peoples of the North; and never, from the 
very structure of their character, could 
the Italians be adventurers in the sense 
which the word bore among the Teutons. 
After they were once at home in all the east- 
ern harbours of the Mediterranean, it was 
natural that the most enterprising among 
them should be led to join that vast interna- 
tional movement of the Mohammedans 
which there found its outlet. A new half of 
the world lay, as it were, freshly discovered 
before them. Or, like Polo of Venice, they 
were caught in the current of the Mon- 
golian peoples, and carried on to the steps 
of the throne of the Great Khan. At an 
early period, we find Italians sharing in the 
discoveries made in the Atlantic ocean; it 
was the Genoese who, in the thirteenth cen- 
tury, found the Canary Islands. In the same 
year, 1291, when Ptolemais, the last rem- 
nant of the Christian East, was lost, it was 
again the Genoese who made the first known 
attempt to find a sea-passage to the East 
Indies. Columbus himself is but the great- 
est of a long list of Italians who, in the 
service of the western nations, sailed into 
distant seas. The true discoverer, however, 
is not the man who first chances to stumble 
upon anything, but the man who finds what 
he has sought. Such a one alone stands in 
a link with the thoughts and interests of his 
predecessors, and this relationship will also 
determine the account he gives of his 
search. For which reason the Italians, al- 
though their claim to be the first comers on 
this or that shore may be disputed, will yet 
retain their title to be pre-eminently the 
nation of discoverers for the whole latter 
part of the Middle Ages. The fuller proof 
of this assertion belongs to the special his- 
tory of discoveries. Yet ever and again we 
turn with admiration to the august figure 
of the great Genoese, by whom a new con- 
tinent beyond the ocean was demanded, 
sought, and found; and who was the first 
to be able to say: "il mondo e poco" the 
world is not so large as men have thought. 
At the time when Spain gave Alexander VI 



to the Italians, Italy gave Columbus to the 
Spaniards. Only a few weeks before the 
death of that pope (July 7th, 1503), Co- 
lumbus wrote from Jamaica his noble letter 
to the thankless Catholic kings, which the 
ages to come can never read without pro- 
found emotion. In a codicil to his will, 
dated Valladolid, May 4th, 1506, he be- 
queathed to "his beloved home, the Repub- 
lic of Genoa, the prayer-book which Pope 
Alexander had given him, and which in 
prison, in conflict, and in every kind of 
adversity had been to him the greatest of 
comforts." It seems as if these words cast 
upon the abhorred name of Borgia one last 
gleam of grace and mercy. 

The development of geographical and 
the allied sciences among the Italians must, 
like the history of their voyages, be touched 
upon but very briefly. A superficial com- 
parison of their achievements with those of 
other nations shows an early and striking 
superiority on their part. Where, in the 
middle of the fifteenth century, could be 
found, anywhere but in Italy, such a union 
of geographical, statistical, and historical 
knowledge as was found in Aeneas Sylvius? 
Not only in his great geographical work, 
but in his letters and commentaries, he 
describes with equal mastery landscapes, 
cities, manners, industries and products, 
political conditions and constitutions, wher- 
ever he can use his own observation or the 
evidence of eye-witnesses. What he takes 
from books is naturally of less moment. 
Even the short sketch of that valley in the 
Tyrolese Alps, where Frederick III had 
given him a benefice, and still more his 
description of Scotland, leaves untouched 
none of the relations of human life, and 
displays a power and method of unbiased 
observation and comparison impossible in 
any but a countryman of Columbus, trained 
in the school of the ancients. Thousands 
saw and, in part, knew what he did, but 
they felt no impulse to draw a picture of 
it, and were unconscious that the world 
desired such pictures. 

In geography as in other matters, it is 

vain to attempt to distinguish how much 
is to be attributed to the study of the an- 
cients, and how much to the special genius 
of the Italians. They saw and treated the 
things of this world from an objective point 
of view, even before they were familiar 
with the ancient literature, partly because 
they were themselves a half-ancient people, 
and partly because their political circum- 
stances predisposed them to it; but they 
would not so rapidly have attained to such 
perfection had not the old geographers 
showed them the way. The influence of the 
existing Italian geographies on the spirit 
and tendencies of the travellers and discov- 
erers was also inestimable. Even the simple 
"dilettante" of a science if in the present 
case we should assign to Aeneas Sylvius so 
low a rank can diffuse just that sort of 
general interest in the subject which pre- 
pares for new pioneers the indispensable 
groundwork of a favorable predisposition in 
the public mind. True discoverers in any 
science know well what they owe to such 

Natural Science in Italy 

For the position of the Italians in the 
sphere of the natural sciences, we must 
refer the reader to the special treatises on 
the subject, of which the only one with 
which we are familiar is the superficial and 
depreciatory work of Libri. The dispute as 
to the priority of particular discoveries con- 
cerns us all the less, since we hold that, at 
any time, and among any civilized people, 
a man may appear who, starting with very 
scanty preparation, is driven by an irresisti- 
ble impulse into the path of scientific in- 
vestigation, and through his native gifts 
achieves the most astonishing success. Such 
men were Gerbert of Rheims and Roger 
Bacon. That they were masters of the whole 
knowledge of the age in their several de- 
partments was a natural consequence of the 
spirit in which they worked. When once 
the veil of illusion was torn asunder, when 
once the dread of nature and the slavery to 
books and tradition were overcome, count- 

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy 


less problems lay before them for solution. 
It is another matter when a whole people 
takes a natural delight in the study and 
investigation of nature, at a time when 
other nations are indifferent, that is to say, 
when the discoverer is not threatened or 
wholly ignored, but can count on the 
friendly support of congenial spirits. That 
this was the case in Italy, is unquestionable. 
The Italian students of nature trace with 
pride in the "Divine Comedy" the hints 
and proofs of Dante's scientific interest in 
nature. On his claim to priority in this or 
that discovery or reference, we must leave 
the men of science to decide; but every lay- 
man must be struck by the wealth of his 
observations on the external world, shown 
merely in his pictures and comparisons. He, 
more than any other modern poet, takes 
them from reality, whether in nature or 
human life, and uses them, never as mere 
ornament, but in order to give the reader 
the fullest and most adequate sense of his 
meaning. It is in astronomy that he ap- 
pears chiefly as a scientific specialist, though 
it must not be forgotten that mgny astro- 
nomical allusions in his great poem, which 
now appear to us learned, must then have 
been intelligible to the general reader. 
Dante, learning apart, appeals to a popular 
knowledge of the heavens, which the Ital- 
ians of his day, from the mere fact that they 
were nautical people, had in common with 
the ancients. This knowledge of the rising 
and setting of the constellations has been 
rendered superfluous to the modern world 
by calendars and clocks, and with it has gone 
whatever interest in astronomy the people 
may once have had. Nowadays, with our 
schools and handbooks, every child knows 
what Dante did not know that the 
earth moves round the sun; but the interest 
once taken in the subject itself has given 
place, except in the case of astronomical 
specialists, to the most absolute indifference. 
The pseudo-science, which also dealt 
with the stars, proves nothing against the 
inductive spirit of the Italians of that day. 
That spirit was but crossed, and at times 

overcome, by the passionate desire to pene- 
trate the future. We shall recur to the sub- 
ject of astrology when we come to speak of 
the moral and religious character of the 

The Church treated this and other 
pseudo-sciences nearly always with tolera- 
tion; and showed itself actually hostile even 
to genuine science only when a charge of 
heresy together with necromancy was also 
in question which certainly was often the 
case. A point which it would be interesting 
to decide is this: whether, and in what 
cases, the Dominican (and also the Francis- 
can) Inquisitors in Italy were conscious of 
the falsehood of the charges, and yet con- 
demned the accused, either to oblige some 
enemy of the prisoner or from hatred to 
natural science, and particularly to experi- 
ments. The latter doubtless occurred, but it 
is not easy to prove the fact. What helped 
to cause such persecutions in the North, 
namely, the opposition made to the innova- 
tors by the upholders of the received official, 
scholastic system of nature, was of little or 
no weight in Italy. Pietro of Albano, at the 
beginning of the fourteenth century, is well 
known to have fallen a victim to the envy 
of another physician, who accused him be- 
fore the Inquisition of heresy and magic; 
and something of the same kind may have 
happened in the case of his Paduan con- 
temporary, Giovannino Sanguinacci, who 
was known as an innovator in medical prac- 
tice. He escaped, however, with banish- 
ment. Nor must it be forgotten that the 
inquisitorial power of the Dominicans was 
exercised less uniformly in Italy than in 
the North. Tyrants and free cities in the 
fourteenth century treated the clergy at 
times with such sovereign contempt, that 
very different matters from natural science 
went unpunished. But when, with the fif- 
teenth century, antiquity became the lead- 
ing power in Italy, the breach it made in 
the old system was turned to account by 
every branch of secular science. Humanism, 
nevertheless, attracted to itself the best 
strength of the nation, and thereby, no 



doubt, did injury, to the inductive investi- 
gation of nature.,' Here and there the In- 
quisition suddenly started into life, and 
punished or burned physicians as blasphem- 
ers or magicians. In such cases it is hard to 
discover what was the true motive under- 
lying the condemnation. And after all, 
Italy, at the close of the fifteenth century, 
with Paolo Toscanelli, Luca Pacciolo and 
Leonardo da Vinci, held incomparably the 
highest place among European nations in 
mathematics and the natural sciences, and 
the learned men of every country, even 
Regiomontanus and Copernicus, confessed 
themselves its pupils. 

A significant proof of the wide-spread 
interest in natural history is found in the 
zeal which showed itself at an early period 
for the collection and comparative study of 
plants and animals. Italy claims to be the 
first creator of botanical gardens, though 
possibly they may have served a chiefly 
practical end, and the claim to priority may 
be itself disputed. It is of far greater impor- 
tance that princes and wealthy men in lay- 
ing out their pleasure-gardens, instinctively 
made a point of collecting the greatest pos- 
sible number of different plants in all their 
species and varieties. Thus in the fifteenth 
century the noble grounds of the Medicean 
Villa Careggi appear from the descriptions 
we have of them to have been almost a 
botanical garden, with countless specimens 
of different trees and shrubs. Of the same 
kind was a villa of the Cardinal Trivulzio, 
at the beginning of the sixteenth century, 
in the Roman Campagna towards Tivoli, 
with hedges made up of various species of 
roses, with trees of every description the 
fruit-trees especially showing an astonish- 
ing variety with twenty different sorts of 
vines and a large kitchen-garden. This is 
evidently something very different from the 
score or two of familiar medicinal plants, 
which were to be found in the garden of 
any castle or monastery in Western Europe. 
Along with a careful cultivation of fruit for 
the purposes of the table, we find an inter- 
est in the plant for its own sake, on account 
of the pleasure it gives to the eye. We learn 

from the history of art at how late a period 
this passion for botanical collections was 
laid aside, and gave place to what was con- 
sidered the picturesque style of landscape- 

The collections, too, of foreign animals 
not only gratified curiosity, but served also 
the higher purposes of observation. The fa- 
cility of transport from the southern and 
eastern harbours of the Mediterranean, and 
the mildness of the Italian climate, made it 
practicable to buy the largest animals of the 
south, or to accept them as presents from 
the Sultans. The cities and princes were 
especially anxious to keep live lions, even 
when the lion was not, as in Florence, the 
emblem of the State. The lions' den was 
generally in or near the government palace, 
as in Perugia and Florence; in Rome, it lay 
on the slope of the Capitol. The beasts 
sometimes served as executioners of politi- 
cal judgments, and no doubt, apart from 
this, they kept alive a certain terror in the 
popular mind. Their condition was also 
held to be ominous of good or evil. Their 
fertility, especially, was considered a sign 
of public prosperity, and no less a man than 
Giovanni Villani thought it worth record- 
ing that he was present at the delivery of 
a lioness. The cubs were often given to 
allied states and princes, or to Condottieri, 
as a reward of valor. In addition to the 
lions, the Florentines began very early to 
keep leopards, for which a special keeper 
was appointed. Borso of Ferrara used to set 
his lions to fight with bulls, bears, and wild 

By the end of the fifteenth century, how- 
ever, true menageries (serragli), now reck- 
oned part of the suitable appointments of 
a court, were kept by many of the princes. 
"It belongs to the position of the great," 
says Matarazzo, "to keep horses, dogs, 
mules, falcons, and other birds, court- 
jesters, singers, and foreign animals." The 
menagerie at Naples, in the time of Fer- 
rante and others, contained a giraffe and a 
zebra, presented, it seems, by the ruler of 
Baghdad. Filippo Maria Visconti possessed 
not only horses which cost him each 500 or 

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy 


1,000 pieces of gold, and valuable English 
dogs, but a number of leopards brought 
from all parts of the East; the expense of 
his hunting-birds which were collected 
from the countries of Northern Europe, 
amounted to 3,000 pieces of gold a month. 
"The Cremonese say that the Emperor Fred- 
erick II brought an elephant into their city, 
sent him from India by Prester John/' we 
read in Brunette Latini; Petrarch records 
the dying out of the elephants in Italy. 
King Emanuel the Great of Portugal knew 
well what he was about when he presented 
Leo X with an elephant and a rhinoceros. 
It was under such circumstances that the 
foundations of a scientific zoology and 
botany were laid. 

A practical fruit of these zoological 
studies was the establishment of studs, of 
which the Mantuan, under Francesco Gon- 
zaga, was esteemed the first in Europe. An 
interest in, and knowledge of the different 
breeds of horses is as old, no doubt, as 
riding itself, and the crossing of the Euro- 
pean with the Asiatic must have been com- 
mon from the time of the crusades. In Italy, 
a special inducement to perfect the breed 
was offered by the prizes at the horse-races 
held in every considerable town in the 
peninsula. In the Mantuan stables were 
found the infallible winners in these con- 
tests, as well as the best military chargers, 
and the horses best suited by their stately 
appearance for presents to great people. 
Gonzaga kept stallions and mares from 
Spain, Ireland, Africa, Thrace, and Cilicia, 
and for the sake of the last he cultivated 
the friendship of the Sultan. All possible 
experiments were here tried, in order to 
produce the most perfect animals. 

Even human menageries were not want- 
ing. The famous Cardinal Ippolito Medici, 
bastard of Giuliano, Duke of Nemours, 
kept at his strange court a troop of bar- 
barians who talked no less than twenty 
different languages, and who were all of 
them perfect specimens of their races. 
Among them were incomparable voltigeurs 
of the best blood of the North African 
Moors, Tartar bowmen, Negro wrestlers, 

Indian divers, and Turks, who generally 
accompanied the Cardinal on his hunting 
expeditions. When he was overtaken by 
an early death (1535), this motley band 
carried the corpse on their shoulders from 
Itri to Rome, and mingled with the general 
mourning for the open-handed Cardinal 
their medley of tongues and violent 

These scattered notices of the relations 
of the Italians to natural science, and their 
interest in the wealth and variety of the 
products of nature, are only fragments of 
a great subject. No one is more conscious 
than the author of the defects in his knowl- 
edge on this point. Of the multitude of 
special works in which the subject is ade- 
quately treated, even the names are but 
imperfectly known to him. . . . 

The Discovery of Man 

To the discovery of the outward world 
the Renaissance added a still greater 
achievement, by first discerning and bring- 
ing to light the full, whole nature of man. 

This period, as we have seen, first gave 
the highest development to individuality, 
and then led the individual to the most 
zealous and thorough study of himself in 
all forms and under all conditions.^ Indeed, 
the development of personality is essentially 
involved in the recognition of it in oneself 
and in others.* Between these two great 
processes our narrative has placed the influ- 
ence of ancient literature, because the mode 
of conceiving and representing both the in- 
dividual and human nature in general was 
defined and colored by that influence. But 
the power of conception and representation 
lay in the age and in the people. 

The facts which we shall quote in evi- 
dence of our thesis will be few in number. 
Here, if anywhere in the course of this dis- 
cussion, the author is conscious that he is 
treading on the perilous ground of conjec- 
ture, and that what seems to him a clear, 
if delicate and gradual, transition in the 
intellectual movement of the fourteenth 
and fifteenth centuries, may not be equally 
plain to others. The gradual awakening of 



the souls of a people is a phenomenon 
which may produce a different impression 
on each spectator. Time will judge which 
impression is the most faithful. 

Happily the study of the intellectual side 
of human nature began, not with the search 
after a theoretical psychology for that, 
Aristotle still sufficed but with the en- 
deavor to observe and to describe. The in- 
dispensable ballast of theory was limited to 
the popular doctrine of the four tempera- 
ments, in its then habitual union with the 
belief in the influence of the planets. Such 
conceptions may remain ineradicable in the 
minds of individuals, without hindering the 
general progress of the age. It certainly 
makes on us a singular impression, when 
we meet them at a time when human na- 
ture in its deepest essence and in all its 
characteristic expressions was not only 
known by exact observation, but repre- 
sented by an immortal poetry and art. It 
sounds almost ludicrous when an otherwise 
competent observer considers Clement VII 
to be of a melancholy temperament, but 
defers his judgment to that of the physi- 
cians, who declare the Pope of a sanguine- 
choleric nature; or when we read that the 
same Gaston de Foix, the victor of Ravenna, 
whom Giorgione painted and Bambaia 
carved, and whom all the historians de- 
scribe, had the saturnine temperament. No 
doubt those who use these expressions 
mean something by them; but the terms in 
which they tell us their meaning are 
strangely out of date in the Italy of the 
sixteenth century. . . . 

Even apart from the "Divine Comedy," 
Dante would have marked by these youth- 
ful poems the boundary between mediae- 
valism and modern times. The human spirit 
had taken a mighty step towards the con- 
sciousness of its own secret life. 

The revelations in this matter which are 
contained in the "Divine Comedy" itself 
are simply immeasurable; and it would be 
necessary to go through the whole poem, 
one canto after another, in order to do 
justice to its value from this point of view. 
Happily we have no need to do this, as it 

has long been a daily food of all the coun- 
tries of the West. Its plan, and the ideas 
on which it is based, belong to the Middle 
Ages, and appeal to our interest only his- 
torically; but it is nevertheless the begin- 
ning of all modern poetry, through the 
power and richness shown in the descrip- 
tion of human nature in every shape and 

From this time forwards poetry may have 
experienced unequal fortunes, and may 
show, for half a century together, a so- 
called relapse. But its nobler and more vital 
principle was saved for ever; and whenever 
in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and in the be- 
ginning of the sixteenth centuries, an orig- 
inal mind devotes himself to it, he represents 
a more advanced stage than any poet out of 
Italy, given what is certainly not always 
easy to settle satisfactorily an equality of 
natural gifts to start with. 

Here, as in other things ! in Italy, culture 
to which poetry belongs precedes the 
plastic arts and, in fact, gives them their 
chief impulse.^ More than a century 
elapsed before the spiritual element in 
painting and sculpture attained a power of 
expression in any way analogous to that of 
the "Divine Comedy." How far the same 
rule holds good for the artistic development 
of other nations, and of what importance 
the whole question may be, does not con- 
cern us here. For Italian civilization it is 
of decisive weight. . . . 

That the ancient poets, particularly the 
elegists, and Virgil, in the fourth book of 
the Aeneid, were not without influence on 
the Italians of this and the following gen- 
eration is beyond a doubt; but the spring of 
sentiment within the latter was neverthe- 
less powerful and original. If we compare 
them in this respect with their contempo- 
raries in other countries, we shall find in 
them the earliest complete expression of 
modern European feeling. The question, 
be it remembered, is not to know whether 
eminent men of other nations did not feel 
as deeply and as nobly, but who first gave 
documentary proof of the widest knowledge 
of the movements of the human heart. . . . 

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy 



The Equalization of Classes 

Every period of civilization which forms 
a complete and consistent whole, manifests 
itself not only in political life, in religion, 
art, and science, but also sets its character- 
istic stamp on social life. Thus the Middle 
Ages had their courtly and aristocratic man- 
ners and etiquette, differing but little in 
the various countries of Europe, as well as 
their peculiar forms of middle-class life. 

Italian customs at the time of the Renais- 
sance offer in these respects the sharpest 
contrast to mediaevalism. The foundation 
on which they rest is wholly different. 
Social intercourse in its highest and most 
perfect form now ignored all distinctions 
of caste, and was based simply on the exist- 
ence of an educated class as we now under- 
stand the word. Birth and origin were with- 
out influence, unless combined with leisure 
and inherited wealth. Yet this assertion 
must not be taken in an absolute and un- 
qualified sense, since mediaeval distinctions 
still sometimes made themselves felt to a 
greater or less degree, if only as a means of 
maintaining equality with the aristocratic 
pretensions of the less advanced countries 
of Europe. But the main current of the 
time went steadily towards the fusion of 
classes in the modern sense of the phrase. 
The fact was of vital importance that, 
from certainly the twelfth century onwards, 
the nobles and the burghers dwelt together 
within the walls of the cities. The interests 
and pleasures of both classes were thus 
identified, and the feudal lord learned to 
look at society from another point of view 
than that of his mountain castle. The 
Church, too, in Italy never suffered itself, 
as in northern countries, to be used as a 
means of providing for the younger sons of 
noble families. Bishoprics, abbacies, and 
canonries were often given from the most 
unworthy motives, but still not according 
to the pedigrees of the applicants; and if 
the bishops in Italy were more numerous, 
poorer, and, as a rule, destitute of all sov- 
ereign rights, they still lived in the cities 

where their cathedrals stood, and formed, 
together with their chapters, an important 
element in the cultivated society of the 
place. In the age of despots and absolute 
princes which followed, the nobility in 
most of the cities had the motives and the 
leisure to give themselves up to a private 
life free from the political danger and 
adorned with all that was elegant and en- 
joyable, but at the same time hardly distin- 
guishable from that of the wealthy burgher. 
And after the time of Dante, when the new 
poetry and literature were in the hands of 
all Italy, when to this was added the revival 
of ancient culture and the new interest in 
man as such, when the successful Condot- 
tiere became a prince, and not only good 
birth, but legitimate birth, ceased to be in- 
dispensable for a throne, it might well seem 
that the age of equality had dawned, and 
the belief in nobility vanished for ever. 

From a theoretical point of view, when 
the appeal was made to antiquity, the con- 
ception of nobility could be both justified 
and condemned from Aristotle alone. 
Dante, for example, adapts from Aristote- 
lian definition, "Nobility rests on excellence 
and inherited wealth," his own saying, 
"Nobility rests on personal excellence or on 
that of predecessors." But elsewhere he is 
not satisfied with this conclusion. He 
blames himself, because even in Paradise, 
while talking with his ancestor Cacciaguida, 
he made mention of his noble origin, which 
is but a mantle from which time is ever 
cutting something away, unless we our- 
selves add daily fresh worth to it. And in 
the "Convito" he disconnects "nobile' and 
"nobilta" from every condition of birth, 
and identifies the idea with the capacity for 
moral and intellectual eminence, laying a 
special stress on high culture by calling 
"nobilta" the sister of "filosofia." 

And as time went on, the greater the 
influence of humanism on the Italian mind, 
the firmer and more widespread became the 
conviction that birth decides nothing as to 
the goodness or badness of a man. In the 
fifteenth century this was the prevailing 
opinion. Poggio, in his dialogue "On nobil- 



ity," agrees with his interlocutors Niccol6 
Niccoli, and Lorenzo Medici, brother of 
the great Cosimo that there is no other 
nobility than that of personal merit. The 
keenest shafts of his ridicule are directed 
against much of what vulgar prejudice 
thinks indispensable to an aristocratic life. 
"A man is all the farther removed from 
true nobility, the longer his forefathers have 
plied the trade of brigands. The taste for 
hawking and hunting savors no more of 
nobility than the nests and lairs of the 
hunted creatures of spikenard. The cultiva- 
tion of the soil, as practised by the ancients, 
would be much nobler than this senseless 
wandering through the hills and woods, by 
which men make themselves liker to the 
brutes than to the reasonable creatures. It 
may serve well enough as a recreation, but 
not as the business of a lifetime." The life 
of the English and French chivalry in the 
country or in the woody fastnesses seems 
to him thoroughly ignoble, and worst of all 
the doings of the robber-knights of Ger- 
many. Lorenzo here begins to take the part 
of the nobility, but not which is charac- 
teristicappealing to any natural senti- 
ment in its favor, but because Aristotle in 
the fifth book of the "Politics" recognizes 
the nobility as existent, and defines it as 
resting on excellence and inherited wealth. 
To this Niccoli retorts that Aristotle gives 
this not as his own conviction, but as the 
popular impression; in his "Ethics," where 
he speaks as he thinks, he calls him noble 
who strives after that which is truly good. 
Lorenzo urges upon him vainly that the 
Greek word for nobility means good birth; 
Niccoli thinks the Roman word "nobilis" 
(i.e. remarkable) a better one, since it makes 
nobility depend on a man's deeds. Together 
with these discussions, we find a sketch of 
the conditions of the nobles in various parts 
of Italy. In Naples they will not work, and 
busy themselves neither with their own 
estates nor with trade and commerce, which 
they hold to be discreditable; they either 
loiter at home or ride about on horseback. 
The Roman nobility also despise trade, but 
farm their own property; the cultivation of 

the land even opens the way to a title; "it 
is a respectable but boorish nobility." In 
Lombardy the nobles live upon the rent of 
their inherited estates; descent and the ab- 
stinence from any regular calling constitute 
nobility. In Venice, the "nobili," the ruling 
caste, were all merchants. Similarly in 
Genoa the nobles and non-nobles were alike 
merchants and sailors, and only separated 
by their birth; some few of the former, it is 
true, still lurked as brigands in their moun- 
tain-castles. In Florence a part of the old 
nobility had devoted themselves to trade; 
another, and certainly by far the smaller 
part, enjoyed the satisfaction of their titles, 
and spent their time, either in nothing at 
all, or else in hunting and hawking. 

The decisive fact was, that nearly every- 
where in Italy, even those who might be 
disposed to pride themselves on their birth 
could not make good the claims against the 
power of culture and of wealth, and that 
their privileges in politics and at court were 
not sufficient to encourage any strong feel- 
ing of caste. Venice offers only an apparent 
exception to this rule, for there the "nobili" 
led the same life as their fellow-citizens, 
and were distinguished by few honorary 
privileges. The case was certainly different 
at Naples, where the strict isolation and the 
ostentatious vanity of its nobility excluded, 
above all other causes, from the spiritual 
movement of the Renaissance. The tradi- 
tions of mediaeval Lombardy and Nor- 
mandy, and the French aristocratic influ- 
ences which followed, all tended in this 
direction; and the Aragonese government, 
which was established by the middle of the 
fifteenth century, completed the work, and 
accomplished in Naples what followed a 
hundred years later in the rest of Italy a 
social transformation in obedience to Span- 
ish ideas, of which the chief features were 
the contempt for work and the passion for 
titles. The effect of this new influence was 
evident, even in the smaller towns, before 
the year 1 500. We hear complaints from La 
Cava that the place had been proverbially 
rich, as long as it was filled with masons 
and weavers; whilst now, since instead of 

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy 


looms and trowels nothing but spurs, stir- 
rups and gilded belts was to be seen, since 
everybody was trying to become Doctor of 
Laws or of Medicine, Notary, Officer or 
Knight, the most intolerable poverty pre- 
vailed. In Florence an analogous change 
appears to have taken place by the time of 
Cosimo, the first Grand Duke; he is 
thanked for adopting the young people, 
who now despise trade and commerce, as 
knights of his order of St. Stephen. This 
goes straight in the teeth of the good old 
Florentine custom, by which fathers left 
property to their children on the condition 
that they should have some occupation. 
But a mania for titles of a curious and ludi- 
crous sort sometimes crossed and thwarted, 
especially among the Florentines, the level- 
ling influence of art and culture. This was 
the passion for knighthood, which became 
one of the most striking follies of the day, 
at a time when the dignity itself had lost 
every shadow of significance. 



... If we now attempt to sum up the 
principal features in the Italian character 
of that time, as we know it from a study of 
the life of the upper classes, we shall obtain 
something like the following result. The 
fundamental vice of this character was at 
the same time a condition of its greatness, 
namely, excessive individualism. The indi- 
vidual first inwardly casts off the authority 
of a state which, as a fact, is in most cases 
tyrannical and illegitimate, and what he 
thinks and does is, rightly or wrongly, now 
called treason. The sight of victorious ego- 
tism in others drives him to defend his own 
right by his own arm. And, while thinking 
to restore his inward equilibrium, he falls, 
through the vengeance which he executes, 
into the hands of the powers of darkness. 
His love, too, turns mostly for satisfaction 
to another individuality equally developed, 
namely, to his neighbor's wife. In face of 
all objective facts, of laws and restraints of 
whatever kind, he retains the feeling of his 

own sovereignty, and in each single instance 
forms his decision independently, accord- 
ing as honor or interest, passion or calcula- 
tion, revenge or renunciation, gain the 
upper hand in his own mind. 

If therefore egotism in its wider as well 
as narrower sense is the root and fountain 
of all evil, the more highly developed 
Italian was for this reason more inclined to 
wickedness than the members of other na- 
tions of that time. 

But this individual development did not 
come upon him through any fault of his 
own, but rather through an historical neces- 
sity. It did not come upon him alone, but 
also, and chiefly, by means of Italian cul- 
ture, upon the other nations of Europe, and 
has constituted since then the higher atmos- 
phere which they breathe. In itself it is 
neither good nor bad, but necessary; within 
it has grown up a modern standard of good 
and evil a sense of moral responsibility 
which is essentially different from that 
which was familiar to the Middle Ages. 

But the Italian of the Renaissance had to 
bear the first mighty surging of a new age. 
Through his gifts and his passions, he has 
become the most characteristic representa- 
tive of all the heights and all the depths of 
his time. By the side of profound corrup- 
tion appeared human personalities of the 
noblest harmony, and an artistic splendor 
which shed upon the life of man a lustre 
which neither antiquity nor mediaevalism 
either could or would bestow upon it. ... 

Religion and the Spirit of the Renaissance 

But in order to reach a definite conclu- 
sion with regard to the religious sense of the 
men of this period, we must adopt a differ- 
ent method. From their intellectual atti- 
tude in general, we can infer their relation 
both to the Divine idea and to the existing 
religion of their age. 

These modern men, the representatives 
of the culture of Italy, were born with the 
same religious instincts as other mediaeval 
Europeans. But their powerful individual- 
ity made them in religion, as in other mat- 
ters, altogether subjective, and the intense 



charm which the discovery of the inner and 
outer universe exercised upon them ren- 
dered them markedly worldly. In the rest 
of Europe religion remained, till a much 
later period, something given from without, 
and in practical life egotism and sensuality 
alternated with devotion and repentance. 
The latter had no spiritual competitors, as 
in Italy, or only to a far smaller extent. 

Further, the close and frequent relations 
of Italy with Byzantium and the Moham- 
medan peoples, had produced a dispassion- 
ate tolerance which weakened the ethno- 
graphical conception of a privileged Chris- 
tendom. And when classical antiquity with 
its men and institutions became an ideal of 
life, as well as the greatest of historical 
memories, ancient speculation and scepti- 
cism obtained in many cases a complete 
mastery over the minds of Italians. 

Since, again, the Italians were the first 
modern people of Europe who gave them- 
selves boldly to speculations on freedom 
and necessity, and since they did so under 
violent and lawless political circumstances, 
in which evil seemed often to win a splen- 
did and lasting victory, their belief in God 
began to waver, and their view of the gov- 
ernment of the world became fatalistic. 
And when their passionate natures refused 
to rest in the sense of uncertainty, they 
made a shift to help themselves out with 
ancient, oriental, or mediaeval superstition. 
They took to astrology and magic. 

Finally, these intellectual giants, these 
representatives of the Renaissance, show, in 
respect to religion, a quality which is com- 
mon in youthful natures. Distinguishing 
keenly between good and evil, they yet are 
conscious of no sin. Every disturbance of 
their inward harmony they feel themselves 
able to make good out of the plastic re- 
sources of their own nature, and therefore 
they feel no repentance. The need of salva- 
tion thus becomes felt more and more 
dimly, while the ambitions and the intel- 
lectual activity of the present either shut 
out altogether every thought of a world to 
come, or else caused it to assume a poetic 
instead of a dogmatic form. 

When we look on all this as pervaded 
and often perverted by the all-powerful 
Italian imagination, we obtain a picture of 
that time which is certainly more in accord- 
ance with truth than are vague declama- 
tions against modern paganism. And closer 
investigation often reveals to us that under- 
neath this outward shell much genuine 
religion could still survive. . . . 

That religion should again become an 
affair of the individual and of his own per- 
sonal feeling was inevitable when the 
Church became corrupt in doctrine and 
tyrannous in practice, and is a proof that 
the European mind was still alive. It is true 
that this showed itself in many different 
ways. While the mystical and ascetical sects 
of the North lost no time in creating new 
outward forms for their new modes of 
thought and feeling, each individual in 
Italy went his own way, and thousands 
wandered on the sea of life without any 
religious guidance whatever. All the more 
must we admire those who attained and 
held fast to a personal religion. They were 
not to blame for being unable to have any 
part or lot in the old Church, as she then 
was; nor would it be reasonable to expect 
that they should all of them go through that 
mighty spiritual labor which was appointed 
to the German reformers. The form and 
aim of this personal faith, as it showed it- 
self in the better minds, will be set forth at 
the close of our work. 

The worldliness, through which the 
Renaissance seems to offer so striking a 
contrast to the Middle Ages, owed its first 
origin to the flood of new thoughts, pur- 
poses, and views, which transformed the 
mediaeval conception of nature and man. 
The spirit is not in itself more hostile to 
religion than that "culture" which now 
holds its place, but which can give us only 
a feeble notion of the universal ferment 
which the discovery of a new world of 
greatness then called forth. This worldli- 
ness was not frivolous, but earnest, and was 
ennobled by art and poetry. It is a lofty 
necessity of the modern spirit that this atti- 
tude, once gained, can never again be lost, 

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy 


that an irresistible impulse forces us to the 
investigation of men and things, and that 
we must hold this inquiry to be our proper 
end and work. How soon and by what 
paths this search will lead us back to God, 
and in what ways the religious temper of 
the individual will be affected by it, are 
questions which cannot be met by any 
general answer. The Middle Ages, which 
spared themselves the trouble of induction 
and free enquiry, can have no right to im- 
pose upon us their dogmatical verdict in a 
matter of such vast importance. . . . 

Antiquity exercised an influence of an- 
other kind than that of Islam, and this not 
through its religion, which was but too 
much like the Catholicism of this period, 
but through its philosophy. Ancient litera- 
ture now worshipped as something incom- 
parable, is full of the victory of philosophy 
over religious tradition. An endless num- 
ber of systems and fragments of systems 
were suddenly presented to the Italian 
mind, not as curiosities or even as heresies, 
but almost with the authority of dogmas, 
which had now to be reconciled rather than 
discriminated. In nearly all these various 
opinions and doctrines a certain kind of 
belief in God was implied; but taken alto- 
gether they formed a marked contrast to the 
Christian faith in a Divine government of 
the world. . . . 

The fourteenth century was chiefly stim- 
ulated by the writings of Cicero, who, 
though in fact an eclectic, yet, by his habit 
of setting forth the opinions of different 
schools, without coming to a decision be- 
tween them, exercised the influence of a 
sceptic. Next in importance came Seneca, 
and the few works of Aristotle which had 
been translated into Latin. The immediate 
fruit of these studies was the capacity to re- 
flect on great subjects, if not in direct 
opposition to the authority of the Church, 
at all events independently of it. 

In the course of the fifteenth century the 
works of antiquity were discovered and dif- 
fused with extraordinary rapidity. All the 
writings of the Greek philosophers which 
we ourselves possess were now, at least in 

the form of Latin translations, in every- 
body's hands. It is a curious fact that some 
of the most zealous apostles of this new cul- 
ture were men of the strictest piety, or even 
ascetics. Fra Ambrogio Camaldolese, as a 
spiritual dignitary chiefly occupied with 
ecclesiastical affairs, and as a literary man 
with the translation of the Greek Fathers 
of the Church, could not repress the hu- 
manistic impulse, and at the request of 
Cosimo de' Medici, undertook to translate 
Diogenes Laertius into Latin. His contem- 
poraries, Niccol6 Nocoli, Giannozzo Man- 
netti, Donato Acciajuoli, and Pope Nicho- 
las V, united to a many-sided humanism 
profound biblical scholarship and deep 
piety. In Vittorino da Feltre the same tem- 
per has been already noticed. The same 
Matthew Vegio, who added a thirteenth 
book to the "Aeneid," had an enthusiasm 
for the memory of St. Augustine and his 
mother Monica which cannot have been 
without a deeper influence upon him. The 
result of all these tendencies was that the 
Platonic Academy at Florence deliberately 
chose for its object the reconciliation of the 
spirit of antiquity with that of Christianity. 
It was a remarkable oasis in the humanism 
of the period. 

This humanism was in fact pagan, and 
became more and more so as its sphere 
widened in the fifteenth century. Its repre- 
sentatives, whom we have already described 
as the advanced guard of an unbridled indi- 
vidualism, display as a rule such a character 
that even their religion, which is sometimes 
professed very definitely, becomes a matter 
of indifference to us. They easily got the 
name of atheists, if they showed them- 
selves indifferent to religion, and spoke 
freely against the Church; but not one of 
them ever professed, or dared to profess, a 
formal, philosophical atheism. If they 
sought for any leading principle, it must 
have been a kind of superficial rationalism 
a careless inference from the many and 
contradictory opinions of antiquity with 
which they busied themselves, and from the 
discredit into which the Church and her 
doctrines had fallen. This was the sort of 



reasoning which was near bringing Galeot- 
tus Martius to the stake, had not his 
former pupil Pope Sixtus IV, perhaps at 
the request of Lorenzo de' Medici, saved 
him from the hands of the Inquisition. 
Galeotto had ventured to write that the 
man who walked uprightly, and acted ac- 
cording to the natural law born within him, 
would go to heaven, whatever nation he 
belonged to. ... 

With respect to the moral government of 
the world, the humanists seldom get beyond 
a cold and resigned consideration of the 
prevalent violence and misrule. In this 
mood the many works "On Fate," or what- 
ever name they bear, are written. They tell 
of the turning of the wheel of Fortune, and 
on the instability of earthly, especially polit- 
ical, things. Providence is only brought in 
because the writers would still be ashamed 
of undisguised fatalism, of the avowal of 
their ignorance, or of useless complaints. 
Gioviano Pontano ingeniously illustrates 
the nature of that mysterious something 
which men call Fortune by a hundred inci- 
dents, most of which belonged to his own 
experience. The subject is treated more hu- 
morously by Aeneas Sylvius, in the form of 
a vision seen in a dream. The aim of 
Poggio, on the other hand, in a work writ- 
ten in his old age, is to represent the world 
as a vale of tears, and to fix the happiness 
of various classes as low as possible. This 
tone became in future the prevalent one. 
Distinguished men drew up a debit and 
credit of the happiness and unhappiness of 
their lives, and generally found that the 
latter outweighed the former. . . . 

But the way in which resuscitated an- 
tiquity affected religion most powerfully, 
was not through any doctrines or philo- 
sophical system, but through a general ten- 
dency which it fostered. The men, and in 

some respects the institutions of antiquity 
were preferred to those of the Middle Ages, 
and in the eager attempt to imitate and re- 
produce them, religion was left to take care 
of itself. All was absorbed in the admira- 
tion for historical greatness. To this the 
philologians added many special follies of 
their own, by which they became the mark 
for general attention. How far Paul II was 
justified in calling his Abbreviators and 
their friends to account for their paganism, 
is certainly a matter of great doubt, as his 
biographer and chief victim, Platina, has 
shown a masterly skill in explaining his 
vindictiveness on other grounds, and espe- 
cially in making him play a ludicrous fig- 
ure. The charges of infidelity, paganism, 
denial of immortality, and so forth, were not 
made against the accused till the charge of 
high treason had broken down. Paul, in- 
deed, if we are correctly informed about 
him, was by no means the man to judge of 
intellectual things. He knew little Latin, 
and spoke Italian at Consistories and in 
diplomatic negotiations. It was he who ex- 
horted the Romans to teach their children 
nothing beyond reading and writing. His 
priestly narrowness of views reminds us of 
Savonarola, with the difference that Paul 
might fairly have been told that he and his 
like were in great part to blame if culture 
made men hostile to religion. It cannot, 
nevertheless, be doubted that he felt a real 
anxiety about the pagan tendencies which 
surrounded him. And what, in truth, may 
not the humanists have allowed themselves 
at the court of the profligate pagan, Sigis- 
mondo Malatesta? How far these men, des- 
titute for the most part of fixed principle, 
ventured to go, depended assuredly on the 
sort of influences they were exposed to. 
Nor could they treat of Christianity with- 
out paganizing it. ... 



_ Charles Howard Mcllwain was born in 1871 and has had a long and 
distinguished career. Emeritus professor of Harvard University since 
1946, he inspired many generations of Harvard students with his brilliant 
and incisive lectures in his course in the history of political thought. 
Although his chief interest has been in the medieval period and he has 
written several notable works dealing with the political thought and 
institutions of this era, in 1924 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 
book on The American Revolution: A Constitutional Interpretation. 
In 1936 he was honored by being elected president of the American 
Historical Association. 

IT is a common fault, to which I suppose 
we are all more or less subject, when 
we are asked long in advance to speak on 
some topic, to accept gaily without count- 
ing the cost. It was in that spirit that I 
welcomed the honor but incurred the obli- 
gation of speaking to you today on the sub- 
ject of the Mediaeval in the Modern. But 
when I set to work my troubles began. For 
before we dare speak of the mediaeval in 
the modern, we must know what we mean 
when we use the term "mediaeval"; and it 
is amazing what different pictures that word 
calls up for different minds . . . 

... in the intellectual sphere, there is the 
view that the thirteenth century is, as it has 
been called, "the greatest of Christian cen- 
turies"; and, on the other hand, the notion, 
widespread a generation ago if not now, 
that the Renaissance was a "rediscovery of 
the world and of men." What shall we be- 
lieve about that? For these two views are 
irreconcilable. No doubt historians as far 
removed from our time as we are from the 
Middle Ages will have somewhat the same 
conflicting opinions about the first half of 

the twentieth century. Even today we find 
some saying that these moving times are a 
great time to be alive, while others can only 
look back with longing to an earlier period 
when rights and honor and oaths were at 
least respected, even if not always observed. 

With such a disparity of opinions about 
the present, how can we be surprised to 
find them in regard to the Middle Ages? 
Our definitions of the mediaeval, like those 
of the present, will be affected by our tem- 
perament, our traditions, and our peculiar 
studies. The best definition we can frame 
will be partial, incomplete, and inadequate; 
and the sum of all these defects will prob- 
ably be the result of ignorance of something 
essential. . . . 

The period that we dub mediaeval is a 
long one, and on that side of it in which 
my own studies have lain I think we find, 
within the period itself, changes as pro- 
found, if not even more profound, than 
those which mark off our modern institu- 
tions from the ones we call mediaeval. In 
the field of political institutions and ideas 
I venture to think that what Professor 

From C. H. Mcllwain, "Mediaeval Institutions in the Modern World," in Speculum, XVI (1941), 
275-283. By permission of the Mediaeval Academy of America. 




Haskins has termed "the Renaissance of the 
twelfth century" marks a more fundamental 
change than the later developments to 
which we usually attach the word "Renais- 
sance"; that the constitutionalism of the 
modern world owes as much, if not even 
more, to the twelfth and the thirteenth 
centuries than to any later period of com- 
parable length before the seventeenth. 

All this is to do little more than say that 
the term "Middle Ages" in its widest extent 
is a term which includes institutions and 
ideas as widely different from each other as 
the so-called mediaeval is from the modern. 
If so, which of them shall we term "mediae- 
val" par excellence? Or shall we give it all 
up, and say that all we dare do is to term 
"mediaeval" anything and everything we 
find in the whole millenium generally in- 
cluded under the phrase "Middle Ages"? 
Pitfalls certainly do lie in the path of any- 
one who is looking for the peculiar flavor of 
the Middle Ages, and many there are who 
have fallen in. In my own field I am think- 
ing particularly of historians such as Free- 
man, who became so obsessed by the notion 
of constitutional liberty as the dominant 
note of mediaeval political life that he could 
never see the feudalism that everywhere 
stared him in the face, or, if he saw it, 
could only damn it as an abuse. He had a 
pattern ready-made to which the institu- 
tions of the time must conform. 

There have been many like patterns. 
Another such is the notion that a more or 
less complete decentralization of govern- 
ment is a characteristic necessarily inherent 
in the Middle Ages; and therefore, if we 
find a strong monarchy somewhere in the 
midst of the mediaeval period, that we must 
not call it mediaeval; it must be an aberra- 
tion. But because we find that so many of 
these patterns do not truly fit the existing 
facts, must we conclude that after all there 
is nothing whatever whose character war- 
rants us in attaching to it the adjective 
"mediaeval"? Is there no distinctive mediae- 
val pattern at all? Or further, is there noth- 
ing in our modern culture that we may 
safely trace back in unbroken continuity 

into the mediaeval period and term a 
mediaeval heritage? 

In the attempt to list a few things that 
seem at the same time mediaeval and 
modern, I shall not venture to touch any- 
thing but the field of political institutions 
and ideas, beyond which my knowledge is 
mainly but second-hand. And in making 
even such a tentative list I think we must 
always bear in mind the vast difference 
between the earlier and the later part of 
the long period to which we apply the 
word "mediaeval." As a whole, I suppose 
we might roughly describe the epoch gen- 
erally as one in which rather primitive men 
gradually and progressively assimilated the 
more advanced institutions and ideas that 
antiquity had bequeathed them. It is amaz- 
ing how long a period of contact is required 
for men at such a primitive state of cul- 
ture to make their own the remains of 
a civilization so much higher than theirs. 
In western Europe one can hardly make 
this period of progressive assimilation 
shorter than seven or eight centuries. It was 
a long, gradual, progressive development, 
a slow evolution; and the term "mediaeval" 
is probably most fittingly applied to the cul- 
mination in its later centuries, on Aristotle's 
general teleological principle that the na- 
ture of any developing thing is only fully 
knowable in the final outcome of that 

One of the things, probably the most 
important of all the things in my own par- 
ticular field, that we seem to owe in largest 
part to these developments of the Middle 
Ages, is the institution of limited govern- 
ment, which I take to be the synonym for 

This constitutionalism was, of course, no 
new thing when the mediaeval records of 
it first appear. It had been a characteristic 
of republican Rome, had never been wholly 
obliterated by the growing absolutism of 
the Empire, and it was enshrined in the 
Roman legal sources which the ruder suc- 
cessors of the Romans inherited and gradu- 
ally came in course of time to assimilate, 
understand, and apply to their own lives. 

Mediaeval Institutions in the Modern World 


More and more I have become impressed 
lately with the relative importance of this 
Roman influence upon the mediaeval 
growth of our own principles of political 
liberty; an importance that political devel- 
opments since the Middle Ages have tended 
to obscure, and one that it has been the 
usual fashion of the historians of our laws 
and constitutions to belittle, to ignore, or 
even to deny. The recent repudiation of 
Roman law by the Nazis in Germany be- 
cause it is inconsistent with their totali- 
tarianism makes one wonder if we have not, 
for a long time, been greatly over-emphasiz- 
ing the despotic influence of that law in 
our history, and as seriously under-rating 
the importance of Roman constitutionalism 
in the early development of our own. 

Dyed-in-the-wool mediaevalists may ob- 
ject to a procedure like this which admits 
the possibility that events, even of today, 
may or should affect our interpretation of 
an epoch as far behind us as the Middle 
Ages. And yet, as Maitland says, all history 
is "a seamless web/' and the present is a 
part of it as well as the past. Thus we all 
admit that the past should influence our 
ideas and ideals for the present, but if so it 
is hard to deny the validity of the converse 
of this: that the outcome of the past in the 
present should also have some influence 
upon our estimate of the past, and in fact 
of the whole drama of human destiny 
whose final denouement no man can know. 
In saying this I do not, of course, wish to 
imply the crude transfer of modern modes 
of thought and action into past periods, the 
mechanical undiscriminating discovery of 
modern factors in the mediaeval world 
which has constituted probably the chief 
defect in our histories of the past develop- 
ment of our political institutions and ideas. 
It is easy enough to find the present in the 
past if we put the present there in this 
fashion before we start. 

But this slipshod, unscientific method is 
a far cry from the one I have advocated 
above, in which we assume the oneness of 
the entire history of our institutions and 
insist merely that a careful and discriminat- 

ing study of their outcome today may be of 
help toward a fuller understanding of the 
earlier stages through which this later stage 
has been reached. To do so in this way, it 
seems to me, is only to carry out in our his- 
torical investigations the sound general 
principle of Aristotle which I cited a mo- 
ment ago. The best way to learn most about 
an acorn is to look at an oak. It is thus, and 
thus only, that the present should influence 
our views of the past. But "Art is long and 
life is fleeting," and if we are to be good 
mediaevalists we must devote our main at- 
tention to the Middle Ages themselves and 
at the cost of some other periods. 

Yet I submit that this must not lead to 
the narrow view that we should look at 
nothing else. The true nature of the Middle 
Ages cannot be fully understood except by 
some study of their outcome in the Renais- 
sance and of their modern development. 
We can no more understand the true na- 
ture of this period in our history without 
consideration of its outcome than we could 
know all about a tadpole without studying 
the toad. As indicated above, in some 
things, particularly in the growth of the 
institutions and ideas with which I have 
been chiefly concerned, the so-called 
"Renaissance of the twelfth century" seems 
to me to be on the whole more significant 
on a perspective of the whole of history, 
than the later development to which we 
usually attach the word "Renaissance." But 
this is in no way to belittle that later period 
whose influence is undeniable, and ought 
to be so to the mediacvalist above all others, 
because he, more clearly than any others, 
is able to see the utter falsity of the notion 
that then for the first time since the an- 
cients men rediscovered both the world and 
man. He knows that the Renaissance is in 
many ways only an extension of the Middle 
Ages, and this knowledge ought to 
heighten, not to lessen his interest in that 
later period, even though life is too short to 
study it in detail; for undoubtedly some of 
the best and most important elements of 
the culture of the Renaissance are a heri- 
tage from the period before. 



It is for considerations like this that I 
venture to say that the events in Europe 
even of today or tomorrow, equally with 
those of the Renaissance, may legitimately 
influence our interpretation of things as 
remote as those of the twelfth or the thir- 
teenth century, or even as far back as the 
seventh or the eighth. If we find, for in- 
stance, that the Nazis in Germany are now 
repudiating Roman Law because the politi- 
cal principles they think it incorporates 
have proved to be too favorable to indi- 
vidual liberty to suit these promoters of 
totalitarianism, one is naturally led to ask 
whether they may not be right in so think- 
ing, and whether we, after all, may not be 
wrong even in the interpretation of the 
Middle Ages, in our usual assumption that 
Roman principles are synonymous with 
absolutism: that the political essence of this 
Romanism is the maxim, "Quod principi 
placuit legis vigorem habet.". . . 

In coming, then, at long last, to the sub- 
ject I am supposed to talk about, the medi- 
aeval in the present, this subject of Roman 
law furnishes one good example. In Eng- 
land and America at least, we have on the 
whole been prone to accept without enough 
examination the thesis that on its political 
side Roman law in the Middle Ages was 
but a prop to absolutism. We have usually 
taken at its face value the assertion of Sir 
John Fortescue, near the end of the fif- 
teenth century, that the absolutist doc- 
trines contained in such maxims as "quod 
principi placuit legis vigorem habet," or 
Ulpian's statement "princeps legibus solu- 
tus est" express "the chief principles among 
the civil laws" ("inter leges civiles praeci- 
pua sententia"), as he called them. To one 
who has accepted this tradition without 
much question it is something of a shock 
to look back to the thirteenth century and 
learn that Bracton sees nothing whatsoever 
of this kind in Roman law. 

Once started on such an investigation, 
the student soon finds that thirteenth cen- 
tury men generally, unlike those of the fif- 
teenth or the sixteenth, found no absolut- 
ism in the law of Rome, but rather consti- 

tutionalism. Such absolutist statements as 
the ones above do not for Bracton express 
the true central principle either of Roman 
or of English politics. That central princi- 
ple is rather to be found in Papinian's 
dictum "Lex est communis sponsio rei pub- 
licae," "the common engagement of the 
republic," not "the pleasure of the prince." 
And in this, the mediaeval conception of 
the political side of Roman law is typical of 
mediaeval political ideas generally. To men 
of the thirteenth century Roman political 
principles and their own seemed essentially 
alike, not unlike; and neither the Roman 
nor their own were despotic. In proof of 
this, other passages of Roman law might 
easily be cited in addition to the ones we 
have already noted. 

In our own earlier history there is, for 
example, the famous extract in Edward I's 
writ of summons to the Parliament of 1295, 
in which the Archbishop of Canterbury is 
enjoined, before appearing himself, to se- 
cure the presence in person or by deputy of 
the lower clergy of his province: "Sicut lex 
justissima, provida circumspectione sacro- 
rum principum stabilita, hortatur et statuit 
ut quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbe- 
tur, sic et nimis evidcnter, ut communis 
periculis per remedia provisa communiter 
obvietur." "As a most just law, established 
by the far-sighted wisdom of sacred princes 
urges and has ordained that what touches 
all should be approved by all; equally and 
most clearly [it implies] that common dan- 
gers should be met by remedies provided 
in common." In its original use, as repeated 
in Justinian's Code, this provision has to do 
only with the private law, but it is here 
used as a maxim of state in a matter of the 
highest political importance. It is true that 
some have regarded Edward's quotation of 
it as of very little significance, and Professor 
G. B. Adams even cites its frequent use in 
earlier ecclesiastical documents as proof of 
this; but to me this repeated quotation is an 
indication not of its unimportance, but 
rather of the wide prevalence in mediaeval 
politics of the idea it expresses. 

Modern interpretations of this famous 

Mediaeval Institutions in the Modern World 


writ have usually failed to notice its em- 
phasis on the inference to be drawn from 
Justinian's words, as expressed in the added 
clause "that common dangers should be met 
by remedies provided in common." This 
added clause contains the kernel of the writ, 
and indicates the royal purpose in calling 
up the extraordinary number of the lower 
clergy. The writ is, in fact, Edward's antici- 
pation of and answer to the principle of the 
papal bull Clericis laicos of the next year; 
and it is precisely the same answer, though 
much more politely worded, as that of Philip 
the Fair, expressed in the well-known docu- 
ment printed by Depuy, beginning with 
the words Antequam essent clerici. It was 
very natural and very effective, in a writ 
summoning the clergy to an assembly in 
which a large grant was to be asked for, 
thus to cite in justification a maxim which 
the clergy themselves had used so long and 
so often in their own provincial assemblies. 
The political idea underlying this maxim 
finds constant expression, not only in the 
words of the thirteenth century, in Eng- 
land, in France, and in many other parts 
of western Europe; but in the institutions 
as well. 

It is to such institutions that I should 
like in the next place to turn as a further 
example of the mediaeval in its influence 
upon the modern. It is a commonplace of 
modern constitutional history that the 
power of the purse has been the principal 
means of securing and maintaining the lib- 
erties of the subject against the encroach- 
ments of the prince. Probably in no part 
of our constitutional history is the influence 
of the Middle Ages upon the modern world 
more obvious than here. For the constitu- 
tional principle just mentioned can be 
shown to be the outgrowth, the gradual and 
at times almost unperceived outgrowth, of 
the mediaeval principle that a feudal lord 
in most cases can exact no aid from his 
vassal save with the consent of all like vas- 
sals of the same fief. The whole principle 
contained in our maxim, "no taxation with- 
out representation," has this feudal practice 
as its origin. 

This is probably so obvious and so gen- 
erally admitted that it needs little proof or 
illustration. But one aspect of it we are 
likely to overlook. These rights of the vassal 
are proprietary rights, and we are likely to 
give them a definition as narrow as our 
own modern definition of proprietary rights. 
This, however, is to misinterpret the nature 
of these limitations and vastly to lessen the 
importance of the principle of consent in 
the Middle Ages. For these rights of vas- 
sals, though protected by what we should 
call the land-law, included almost all of 
those rights which today we term "per- 
sonal," such as the right to office, the right 
to immunities, or, as they were usually 
called then, to "liberties" or franchises, and 
even to the right to one's security in his 
social and personal status. A serf, for ex- 
ample, was protected against the abuse by 
his lord of rights which we call "personal" 
by remedies which it is difficult to distin- 
guish from those used for the protection of 
the seisin of land. One might be truly said 
to have been "seized" of the rights securing 
his person as much as of those protecting 
his fief. It may be said of the Middle Ages 
generally, then, that private rights were 
immune from governmental encroachment 
under the political principles of the time. In 
this the Middle Ages shared the principles 
of Roman Law, and no doubt it was this 
common feature of both systems that en- 
abled Glanvil and Bracton and all the jur- 
ists in the period between to liken the 
English Law in so many respects to the 

If we are estimating the importance of 
the mediaeval in the modern in this field 
from which I have chosen to illustrate it, 
this constitutionalism, this limitation of 
governmental authority by private right, is 
the main tradition handed down by the 
Middle Ages to the modern world. It is the 
chief element in the political part of our 
mediaeval heritage. With the decay of 
feudal institutions, however, the sanctions 
by which these principles were maintained 
in practice tended to be greatly weakened, 
and no doubt it is the lawlessness of this 



later period of weakness following the de- 
cay of the feudal and preceding the devel- 
opment of the national sanctions for law, 
which has led to the popular impression 
that the Middle Ages as a whole are noth- 
ing more than one long stretch of uncon- 
trolled violence. No doubt the violence of 
this later period may also be considered to 
be the chief cause of the increasing power 
of monarchy and the almost unlimited 
theories of obedience which we find among 
the chief characteristics of the period of the 
Renaissance, As was said then, it is better 
to submit to one tyrant than to a thousand. 
And without doubt the weakness of these 
sanctions of law in the later Middle Ages 
is a prime cause of the strength of mon- 
archy in the period immediately following. 
In the reaction and revolution which in 
time were provoked in the period of the 
Renaissance or afterward by the extension 
and abuse of these powers of government 
we may find the true causes of the modern 
sanctions for the subjects' rights. In the 
early stages at least of this revolution the 
precedents cited in favor of liberty are 
largely drawn from the Middle Ages. 

The particular side of the Middle Ages 
with which we have been dealing certainly 
offers little proof of either of the extreme 
interpretations that we find in modern 
times. It was both a lawful and a lawless 
period. At no time was law more insisted 
upon, but at times few of these laws were 
observed. When we consider this period in 
comparison with periods following, the 
same discrimination is necessary. The polit- 
ical theory of that time included more limi- 
tations upon governmental power than 

many theories of a much later time. It may 
indeed be said that political absolutism, at 
least as a theory of government, is a modern 
and not a mediaeval notion. In fact, the 
great champions of liberty against oppres- 
sion, if their own words are to be trusted, 
have fought for the maintenance of liber- 
ties inherited from the Middle Ages. In our 
own day such traditional conceptions of 
liberty appear less seldom perhaps, for 
many liberals, and certainly most extreme 
radicals, are now frequently struggling for 
rights for which the Middle Ages can fur- 
nish few precedents. But this should not 
blind us to the all-important fact that for a 
long period in this historic struggle; indeed 
for the whole of the early part of it, it was 
for their mediaeval inheritance that all 
opponents of oppression engaged. 

The lesson of it all is discrimination. 
If some modern elements had not been 
added to our mediaeval inheritance, ele- 
ments non-existent before modern times, 
even that inheritance could scarcely have 
persisted; and yet the central principle for 
which free men have always fought, the 
sanctity of law against oppressive will, is a 
principle recognized by our mediaeval an- 
cestors as fully as by ourselves, and more 
fully, apparently, than by their successors of 
the sixteenth century. We cannot, therefore, 
truly entertain notions of the Middle Ages 
which make it one long, dreary epoch of 
stagnation, of insecurity, of lawless vio- 
lence; neither can we truly consider it the 
Golden Age that some have pictured. What 
we need above all is discrimination and yet 
more discrimination. 





Dr. Hans Baron, born and educated in Germany, is now associated 
with the Newberry Library in Chicago. A very productive scholar, 
Dr. Baron has studied the civilization of the Renaissance intensively, espe- 
cially that of Florence. His writings center on the relation and inter- 
connection between ideas and the political and social structure of the 
civilization of Renaissance Italy. The following discussion of its political 
aspects is part of a paper given by Dr. Baron at a session of the 1941 
convention of the American Historical Association which was devoted 
to the problem of the Renaissance. The balance of this paper which 
relates to science is given in a subsequent selection. 

TE tendency to minimize the role 
played by fifteenth -century Italy in 
the emergence of the modern world is by 
no means the product of conditions peculiar 
to the field of science. In political history, 
when attention is focussed on such elements 
of the modern state as constitutionally guar- 
anteed civil rights and parliamentary repre- 
sentation on a nation-wide basis, it is diffi- 
cult to avoid similar negative conclusions 
about the contribution made by the Renais- 
sance. Bearing in mind such aspects of the 
modern state, Professor Mcllwain in a sug- 
gestive lecture before the Mediaeval Acad- 
emy recently gave it as his opinion that 
"what Professor Haskins has termed 'the 
Renaissance of the twelfth century' marks a 
more fundamental change" and "seems to 
be on the whole more significant in a per- 
spective of the whole history, than the later 
development to which we usually attach 
the word 'Renaissance/ 1 ' Opinions like 
these, more or less pronounced, are prob- 

ably held by the majority of present-day 
historians of English law. They form, for 
instance, the key-note of R. W. and A. J. 
Carlyle's six volumes on Mediaeval Politi- 
cal Theory in the West. Again, students 
who place greater emphasis on the growth 
of administration and on the rise of a 
trained, nationally-minded bureaucracy fre- 
quently trace the pedigree of the modern 
state from Norman institutions or from the 
Sicilian monarchy of Frederick II to the 
jurist-administration of fourteenth-century 
France, and then to the centralized organi- 
zation of the absolute monarchy of the 
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries 
without having recourse to any essential 
contributions derived from the Renaissance. 
Yet in the field of political history one 
can hardly say that this new balance has 
been established beyond doubt. No sooner 
are attempts made to reverse what is re- 
garded as an over-emphasis on the Renais- 
sance, than some one comes forward to 

From Hans Baron, "Toward a More Positive Evaluation of the Fifteenth-Century Renaissance," in 
the Journal of the History of Ideas, IV (1943), 22-27. By permission of the editors of the Journal of 
the History of Ideas. 




enhance old claims for some priority of 
fifteenth-century Italy. The way in which 
discussions have developed in the present 
meeting reflects this situation. In a vein 
very different from that of Dr. Durand's 
criticism of the "primato dell'ltalia in the 
field of science," Professor Nelson's contri- 
bution from political history has been a 
vigorous restatement of the thesis which 
was virtually that of Ranke that the state- 
system of the fifteenth-century Italy, com- 
posed of Venice, Milan, Florence, Naples, 
and the Papal State, witnessed the origin 
of modern balance-of -power diplomacy. In 
other words, the differences of opinion that 
embarrass us in our assessment of the 
Renaissance cut across the border-line be- 
tween political and intellectual history. In 
every field of study we are faced with the 
same problem. In cases without number we 
learned to look at modern ideas and insti- 
tutions as an outgrowth of medieval condi- 
tions, which have revealed themselves as 
indispensable stages in the historical con- 
tinuity. But at the same time students ask: 
does this view, however undisputed it may 
be, force us henceforth to disclaim all that 
was once deemed the "modern" face and 
the "precursorship" of the Italian Renais- 
sance? Apparently there are two sides to 
the picture. In order to understand their 
complementary truth, a brief methodologi- 
cal digression seems advisable. 

When Burckhardt coined the famous 
phrase that the Italian of the Renaissance 
was "the first-born among the sons of mod- 
ern Europe," he certainly was prompted by 
what we must today call an over-estimate 
of the direct impact of the Italian Renais- 
sance on the rise of the modern world. He 
underrated the continuity of medieval 
conditions in thought, in politics, and in 
many spheres of life. On the other hand, 
by the phrase "first-born son of modern 
Europe" he did not mean simply that the 
ideas and institutions of the modern world 
must be traced largely to fourteenth- and 
fifteenth-century Italy as their historical 
source. If the words are taken literally, the 
meaning is that fifteenth-century Italy saw 

the coming of the first member of a family 
that subsequently spread throughout the 
western world the first specimen of a new 
species. Burckhardt was thinking of a pat- 
tern of society, education, and thought kin- 
dred in its sociological and cultural struc- 
ture to the life of the later West, and there- 
fore potentially stimulating to all subse- 
quent generations the prototype far more 
than the origin of the modern world. 

The label of "historical significance" we 
so frequently employ is in fact made to 
cover two essentially different types of rela- 
tionship between the past and the present. 
On the one hand, in our evaluation of past 
periods we view history as if it were a 
chain, in which the role of each link is 
merely to bridge the gap between the pre- 
ceding and following links. But were this 
the only basis of historical evaluation, our 
estimate of the import of ancient Greece 
and Rome for the modern world would be 
much lower than it is. As a matter of fact, 
we constantly make use of a second method 
of historical evaluation, one based on the 
realization that history is more than a mere 
chain in which each link has contacts only 
with its neighbors. For instance, the politi- 
cal and ethical ideals of the Greek city-state 
may become powerless in the Hellenistic 
period immediately following, but be re- 
vived to historical potency whenever kin- 
dred patterns of life emerge as in Cicero's 
Rome, in the fifteenth century, in Bacon's 
England, and possibly in our own day, or 
in days to come. Ideas of God, the world, 
space and time, conceived in a religious 
atmosphere, may later affect the whole 
fabric of culture and of thought, when kin- 
dred thought-patterns become possible in 
the sphere of science. 

These are no doubt truisms. Yet they are 
easily overlooked. What they imply is that 
in every given case our attention must be 
turned both to the role of a period as a link 
in the chain of continuity, and to its poten- 
tial affinities, in intellectual and social struc- 
ture, to later periods. This balance of his- 
torical emphasis, I think, has recently been 
neglected in our study of the Renaissance. 

Toward a More Positive Evaluation of the Fifteenth-Century Renaissance 37 

When it is taken into account, the present 
antagonism between two apparently ir- 
reconcilable schools of thought in the ap- 
praisal of the fifteenth century is largely 

In the field of political history it is com- 
paratively easy to discern both the merits 
and the limitations of the two methods. 
From the outset it is improbable that repre- 
sentative government and a centralized ad- 
ministration institutions made to answer 
the specific problems of large nation-states 
could have been substantially promoted 
by the conditions in the small city-republics 
and tyrannies of fifteenth-century Italy. 
There is no doubt that the medieval assem- 
bly of the crown vassals, giving counsel to 
their king, and the emergence of a new 
noblesse de robe in the national monarchies, 
were the chief, if not the only, roots of 
parliamentarism and bureaucracy in Eng- 
land and France. Yet this verdict passed 
from the perspective of the nation-state 
leaves unsolved all the questions which 
might reveal a structural kinship of fif- 
teenth-century Italy with thos patterns of 
political and social life which eventually 
emerged in the modern West. 

In the case of the English constitution, 
increasing knowledge of its preparation 
throughout the Middle Ages has not re- 
moved the gap between "medieval consti- 
tutionalism" and "modern constitutional- 
ism." In spite of the importance attached 
by Professor Mcllwain to the institutions 
and thought of the twelfth and thirteenth 
centuries, no one has emphasized more 
strongly than he himself that to find in 
fifteenth-century England any ideas of re- 
publican participation by the people in the 
government or of active control of the ad- 
ministration by the nation, is to read mod- 
ern concepts into the medieval context. If 
it is true that parliamentary institutions and 
the limitation of despotic monarchy were 
growing in feudal Europe from the twelfth 
century onward, it is also true that "medi- 
eval constitutionalism," meaning subordina- 
tion of the king to the law and the imposi- 
tion of restrictions upon him in matters of 

jurisdiction, was one thing, while the 
modern idea "that the members of a free 
state must be true citizens" by having "a 
part in its control" (as Professor Mcllwain 
puts it) is another. The latter modern 
notion, which had had its major precedent 
in the ancient world, played no role in 
England until the middle of the seven- 
teenth century, i.e., after the cataclysm of 
the Civil War. 

Yet in the smaller orbit of the Italian city- 
state the basic features of modern govern- 
ment by discussion and participation of the 
citizens in political control appeared as 
early as the twelfth century. In this milieu, 
ideas of citizenship that were destined to 
become, in Mcllwain's words, "the com- 
monplace of all political thought in modern 
times" came to the fore at once when polit- 
ical thought of the Scholastics was trans- 
planted into the urban atmosphere. The 
fact that these ideas survived throughout 
the Quattrocento is fundamental for the 
appraisal of its political and intellectual 
make-up. Republican freedom and civic 
initiative, continuing through the "Age of 
the Despots," were forced to develop their 
full bearing on political ideals and thought 
in their life-or-death struggle with Renais- 
sance tyranny. It is because of this survival 
of civic initiative in geographic proximity 
to bureaucratic-unifying absolutism that the 
whole range of modern political experience 
was traversed in the fifteenth century, and 
this so rapidly that by the end of the cen- 
tury many of the basic tenets of modern 
political science had matured, and been set 
forth in works of European scope by 
Machiavelli and Guicciardini. 

Now Professor Nelson has recalled one 
of the most significant implications of these 
conditions, namely, that by the second half 
of the fifteenth century integration and in- 
terplay of the Italian states had reached a 
point where they produced something like 
a prelude to the later European power- 
system. One may go further and conclude 
that there must have been an underlying 
general affinity between the texture of po- 
litical life in Renaissance Italy and the 



structure of the modern state. To refer to 
one example of recent date, when Professor 
Heckscher, in his broad study of modern 
Mercantilism, confronted the medieval and 
modern economic pattern by pointing out 
the interrelationship between industrial 
"Protectionism" and the modern state, he 
found the first appearance of the protec- 
tionist policy of the modern type in the 
Italian city-states and even more in the 
urbanized regional states which formed the 
power-system of fifteenth-century Italy. 
From my own knowledge I should say that 
it is possible to round out such analogies for 
the whole orbit of political life. For in- 
stance, not only was the mechanism of 
modern power-diplomacy anticipated in the 
time of Lorenzo de' Medici . . . , but the 
idea of a "balance" between equal members 
of a state-system then, as later in the 
modern West, issued from a cycle of events 
that had started with the threat by one 
power to transform the whole system into 
a single universal state a threat followed 
by wars of independence, from which the 
individual states emerged conscious of their 
identity, strengthened in national feeling, 
with the will to assert themselves in a bal- 
ance of power. In short, it is not alone in 
diplomatic technique (the feature which 

immediately spread from Italy throughout 
Europe), but in the inherent dynamics of 
international relations that Renaissance 
Italy foreshadowed the character of the 
family of modern western nations. 

Bearing these facts in mind, we shall find 
it hard to subscribe to any judgment to the 
effect that, from the viewpoint of political 
ideas and conditions, the twelfth century 
was more significant than the fifteenth cen- 
tury. At the present stage of our knowl- 
edge, the only fair judgment seems to be 
one not couched in the terms of an alter- 
native. As far as the political pattern of 
modern life is characterized by the exist- 
ence of nation-states, spanning a large geo- 
graphical area by virtue of representative 
government, the foundation laid in the 
Middle Ages looms larger indeed than any 
possible contribution by the Italian Renais- 
sance. Still, when we ask what after all 
distinguishes modern political life from the 
feudal epoch, it is of equal significance that 
the state of aggregation of the modern 
world, as it were, was first foreshadowed in 
the Italian Renaissance, with a political 
system of smaller compass and simpler soci- 
ological conditions albeit the nation-state 
and the representative system had not yet 
entered into the historical compound. 



Alfred von Martin, born in 1882, has taught at the universities of 
Gottingen and Munich. His many books, dealing with sociological inter- 
pretations of the medieval, Renaissance, and modern scenes, are widely 
known. His book on the religion of Burckhardt was confiscated by the 
Gestapo in 1942. 


Inertia and motion, static and dynamic 
are fundamental categories with which to 
begin a sociological approach to history. It 
must be said, though, that history knows 
inertia in a relative sense only: the decisive 
question is whether inertia or change 

The centre of gravity of mediaeval so- 
ciety was the land, was the soil. With the 
Renaissance the economic and thus the 
social emphasis moves into the%town: from 
the conservative to the liberal, for the town 
is a changeable and changing element. 
Mediaeval society was founded upon a static 
order of Estates, sanctioned by the Church. 
Everyone was assigned to his place by na- 
ture, i.e. by God himself, and any attempt 
to break away from it was a revolt against 
the divine order. Everyone was confined 
within strictly defined limits, which were 
imposed and enforced by the ruling Estates, 
the clergy and the feudal nobility. The 
King himself was bound to rule according 
to definite laws: he had to carry out his 
reciprocal obligations towards his vassals; he 
had to treat the Church according to the 
principles of justitia. Otherwise his vassals 
had a right of rebellion, and the Church 
denounced him who had strayed from his 
assigned position as a tryrannus. The 
burgher could be fitted into this order by 

the Church so long as he remained the 
modest middle-class man, who saw himself 
as a part of the established order, living in 
the mediaeval town which was still based 
upon a primary economy and a conservative 
scheme of things. Even in Renaissance 
Italy this petite bourgeoisie had its outlook 
closely circumscribed by such an order of 
society. But, as the burghers became a 
power with the rise of a money economy, 
as the small artisan became the great mer- 
chant, we find a gradual emancipation from 
the traditional forms of society and the me- 
diaeval outlook: there was a revolt against 
those sections of society which were most 
dependent upon this structure and upon 
these ways of thought, by virtue of which 
they exercised their authority. We find 
arising against the privileged clergy and 
the feudal nobility the bourgeoisie, which 
was throwing off their tutelage and emerg- 
ing on the twin props of money and intel- 
lect as a bourgeoisie of "liberal" character. 
By revolting against the old domination 
they also freed themselves from the old 
community ties which had been interlinked 
with it. Blood, tradition and group feeling 
had been the basis of the community rela- 
tionships as well as of the old domination. 
The democratic and urban spirit was de- 
stroying the old social forms and the "natu- 
ral" and accepted divine order. It thus be- 

From Sociology of the Renaissance, translated for the International Library of Sociology and Social 
Reconstruction from Soziologie der Renaissance (Stuttgart, 1932), pp. 1-19. By permission of the 
Oxford University Press and Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. Copyright 1944. 




came necessary to order the world starting 
from the individual and to shape it, as it 
were, like a work of art. The guiding rules 
in this task accorded with those liberal 
aims set by the constructive will of the 

Life in a primary community is apt to 
produce a conservative type of thought, a 
religious way of thought which orders the 
world in an authoritarian manner. Every- 
thing temporal is to it no more than a para- 
ble, a symbol of the metaphysical, and 
nature is but a reflection of the transcen- 
dental. Buti'the bourgeois world as seen 
from the coolly calculating, realist point of 
view of the city state is a world that has 
lost its magic. The liberal mode of thought 
of the emancipated individual attempts to 
control the outside world more and more 
consciously. Thus community becomes so- 
ciety, and thus arises the new domination 
by a new oligarchy, the capitalist domina- 
tion by the moneyed great bourgeoisie, 
which exploits those "democratic" tenden- 
cies which had destroyed feudalism, as the 
best way to ensure its own domination. In 
the Middle Ages political power with re- 
ligious sanction had prevailed: now comes 
the era of an intellectually supported eco- 
nomic power. Religion as well as politics 
becomes a means, just as previously com- 
merce and secular culture had been no 
more than the means to an end. 

The Middle Ages in their social struc- 
ture as well as in their thought had a rigidly 
graduated system. There was a pyramid of 
Estates as well as a pyramid of values. Now 
these pyramids are about to be destroyed, 
and "free competition" is proclaimed as the 
law of nature. God and blood, the tradi- 
tional powers, are deposed, and though they 
maintain some of their importance their 
dominance is shattered. 

The spirit of capitalism which begins to 
rule the modern world with the Renais- 
sance deprives the world of the divine 
element in order to make it more real. But 
the spirit of early capitalism did not as yet 
dehumanize it. Reason was not as yet rated 
above humanity; it was not yet the be-all 

and end-all of all action. Riches were, as 
yet, no more than a means to independ- 
ence, respect and fame (L. B. Alberti). 
Although time was beginning to become 
scarce/ the individual could yet lead a cul- 
tured Existence and see himself as a full 
personality. The culture of Renaissance 
Italy, and only Italy knew a genuine 
Renaissance, contained from the very be- 
ginning certain aristocratic elements and 
tended to emphasize them increasingly. It 
is significant that Italy led the way in the 
development of early, but by no means of 
full capitalism. ' 

Thus the typological importance of the 
Renaissance is that it marks the first cul- 
tural and social breach between the Middle 
Ages and modern times: it is a typical early 
stage of the modern age. And the out- 
standing ideal type is the Italian situation 
above all in Florence. Jakob Burckhardt 
could already write: "The Florentine was 
the model and prototype of the present-day 
Italian and of the modern European in 
general," and Pohlmann said that we find 
in Florence "the most varied expression of 
the spirit of modern times to be seen any- 
where at the end of the Middle Ages or 
within so confined an area." The reasons 
for this advanced position of Italy, and 
above all of Florence, are to be found in 
political, constitutional, economic, social 
and educational history, as well as in the 
relations with the Church. 

But for the sociologist the interest of the 
period lies in the fact that it presents him 
with a complete rhythmic progression of 
the ideal type of a cultural epoch domi- 
nated by the bourgeoisie. The differentia- 
tion of Early, Full and Late Renaissance, 
originally devised by the art critic, finds its 
sociological meaning in those social changes 
which are expressed in the stylistic ones. 
The prelude to the bourgeois era which we 
call the Renaissance begins in the spirit of 
democracy and ends in the spirit of the 
court. The first phase represents the rise of 
a few above the rest. This is followed by 
the securing of their newly won exalted 
position and the attempt to establish rela- 

Sociology of the Renaissance 


tions with the feudal aristocracy and to 
adopt their way of life. From the very be- 
ginning, that part of the bourgeoisie which 
gave its character to the period, i.e. the capi- 
talist entrepreneurs, feels itself called upon 
to rule. In order to achieve this end it must 
first eliminate the former rulers on its 
"Right" by making an alliance with the 
"Left." But from the very beginning it has 
a tendency toward the "Right"; a tendency 
to intermix with the traditional ruling 
classes, to adopt their way of life, their atti- 
tude and their mode of thought and to 
attempt to become part of feudal "good" 

The humanists representatives of the 
intelligentsia follow the same road and 
feel themselves tied to the new elite; 
whether this attachment was voluntary or 
not is of secondary importance here. Under 
the circumstances "democracy" meant no 
more than opposition to the privileges of 
the old powers, the clergy and the feudal 
nobility; hence the negation of those values 
which served to uphold their special posi- 
tion; it meant a new, bourgeois principle of 
selection according to purely individual cri- 
teria and not according to birth and rank. 
But liberty was not made into a revolution- 
ary principle symbolizing an onslaught 
upon all and every established authority. 
In particular the Church was respected as 
an authoritative institution, and the only 
aim of the bourgeoisie was to vindicate its 
right to a position of importance. "A com- 
plete self-disarmament, such as the upper 
Estates carried through before the Revolu- 
tion in France under the influence of Rous- 
seau, was out of the question among these 
utilitarian Italians" (F. G. J. von Bezold). 
This bourgeoisie of the Renaissance had a 
strong sense of what would enhance its 
power; its rationalism served it without ever 
endangering its position. 


Changes in Social Structure 

"Italy, always delighting in a new thing, 
has lost all stability . . . ; a servant may 

easily become a king." It was the new 
power of money that made Aeneas Sylvius 
say this, a power which changes and sets in 
motion. For it is a part of the "power of 
money to subject all walks of life to its 
tempo" (Simmel). In an era of primary 
economy the individual was immediately 
dependent upon the group and the inter- 
change of services linked him closely to the 
community; but now money makes the in- 
dividual independent because, unlike the 
soil, it gives mobility. "Cash payments" are 
now "the tie between people" (Lujo Bren- 
tano); the relationship between employer 
and employed is based upon a free contract, 
with each party to it determined to secure 
the utmost advantage. At the stage of de- 
velopment represented by a primary econ- 
omy human and personal relationships pre- 
dominated; a money economy makes all 
these relationships more objective. 

Authority and tradition were able to 
dominate the mediaeval economy because 
of the methods of the self-sufficient, indi- 
vidual undertaking; but the resulting 
limitations become unbearable when the 
economic system of segregated small or 
medium-sized units is replaced by capital- 
ist enterprises pointing the way to the fac- 
tory system, and when industry begins to 
produce for a larger market, the world 
market in fact. 

Now competition becomes a serious fac- 
tor, whereas the essence of the guild organi- 
zation, with its price fixing and compulsory 
corporization, had been the elimination of 
competition. In those days the individual 
had been unfrec but secure as in a family. 
But for obvious reasons, that had been pos- 
sible only in an economy designed to satisfy 
immediate and local needs. Even the pro- 
fessional trader had been able to maintain 
the characteristics of the artisan owing to 
his unchanging methods and life. As long 
as the horizon remained comparatively lim- 
ited all this was possible, but as soon as the 
horizon expands, as great money fortunes 
are accumulated (in the Middle Ages for- 
tunes consisted solely of land), these condi- 
tions are bound to disappear. The great 



merchants and moneyed men regard the 
rules of the guild as so many fetters, and 
they know how to rid themselves of them. 
In Florence they free themselves from the 
restrictions of the guilds and achieve indi- 
vidual freedom to carry on trade and com- 
merce, thus freeing themselves from all the 
mediaeval barriers against the rise of a class 
of real entrepreneurs. The individualist 
spirit of early capitalism thus replaces the 
corporate spirit of the mediaeval burgher. 

The Florentine development was both 
typical and the first in point of time. The 
townspeople of the Middle Ages were 
"essentially similar and economically inde- 
pendent individuals" (Doren); all this was 
fundamentally altered by the increasing 
power of mobile capital. In step with the 
industrial developments we find radical 
alterations in the social structure, for now 
an elite of capitalists was forming itself; it 
no longer took part in manual work, but 
was active in the sphere of organization and 
management, standing apart from the re- 
mainder of the middle class and the 
working proletariat. The wage-earners 
excluded from the possession of the means 
of production and from all political rights 
were ruthlessly exploited and even de- 
prived of the right of association. But the 
mercantile and industrial capitalist elements 
also asserted their power over the master 
craftsmen, the popolo grasso of the arti mag- 
giori over the popolo minuto of the arti 
minori. And it was the great merchants, 
leading the arti maggiori, who in 1293 
made the guild organization into the basis 
of the Florentine constitution. Only for- 
mally speaking was this a victory of a broad 
middle-class democracy (cf. Davidson). 
Not the "people," but the monetary power 
of the upper guilds defeated the feudal 
aristocracy, and the middle class repre- 
sented by the lower guilds was for all in- 
tents and purposes excluded from power. 
The Florentine constitution of 1293 gave 
power to a selected plutocracy. The "rule 
of the people" remained an ideological 
facade, a slogan for the masses. It was de- 
signed to tie them to the new rulers, and 

deck out as the rule of justice the new form 
of government which degraded and de- 
prived of political rights the whole feudal 
class. The struggle against the feudal aris- 
tocracy was the first trial of strength of the 
haute bourgeoisie, in which it needed the 
support of the middle and small bourgeoisie. 
It is true to say that feudalism had never 
been fully established in Italy, yet even 
Florence had a mediaeval constitution 
which had to be destroyed. Eberhard 
Gothein, in his Renaissance in Suditalien, 
shows to how small an extent the legislation 
even of a Frederick II had destroyed feudal- 
ism in southern Italy, and how it was sys- 
tematically re-established in Renaissance 
Naples. But on the other hand, he also 
shows how largely it had become "an empty 
form, a lie" even there; how much a "fic- 
tion" and a "disguise" which no longer 
corresponded to reality. "The spirit of ruler 
and ruled alike had long since outgrown 
the ideas of feudalism"; "these forms of 
tenure, deprived of their pristine meaning," 
had become fictitious. The primacy of the 
old rulers had corresponded to their mili- 
tary importance, the importance of the 
heavy cavalry of the vassal and his follow- 
ers. In the measure in which the infantry, 
the weapon of the burghers, acquired in- 
creasing and then overwhelming tactical 
importance, the nobility was bound to take 
a place of secondary rank even in its very 
own military sphere. But the same was true 
of economic and cultural trends: the nobil- 
ity was no longer at home in an era of 
reason. Even though the nobility had be- 
fore the bourgeois fought against the 
Church as the sole arbiter of conscience, it 
was now deprived of the basis of its power 
the monopoly in military matters and the 
link of wealth with landed property. It 
stood, senile and outlived, in the midst of 
a new era. Even its respect for "honour" 
was anachronistic; one remembers Vespasi- 
ano da Bisticci's story of King Alfonso's 
impulsive refusal to destroy the Genoese 
fleet by purely technical means, because it 
seemed unchivalrous to do so. Such scruples 
were bound to appear as old-fashioned, aris- 

Sociology of the Renaissance 


tocratic prejudices to an era which ration- 
ally shaped its means to serve its ends, and 
reckoned only the chances of success. 
Against an ideology which bases its power 
upon an empty legitimacy, which is there- 
fore felt to be false, against such an ideol- 
ogy the realistic bourgeois stakes the reality 
of power, for it alone impresses him, 
whereas its absence appears contemptible. 
But the basis of power in a money economy 
is twofold : (a) the possession of money and 
(b) an orderly management of business. 
Giovanni Villani believes that the disorderly 
management of their resources by the 
(Teutonic) feudal nobility forced them to 
satisfy their need for money by arbitrary 
means such as violence and faithlessness. 
It is part of the self-respect of the great 
bourgeois that he, a good merchant, has no 
need of such methods, for economic reason 
gives him a way of calculating correctly; it 
is here that he sees the superiority of his 
civilization, the civilization of the towns. 

The mediaeval system knew in the field 
of economics only one type of order, the 
order of the small men, peasaifts and arti- 
sans, who by the work of their hands 
earned their keep, in accordance with the 
necessities of their rank, their traditionally 
fixed "needs." Apart from this static order, 
which applied to the vast majority, there 
was the static disorder in which the great 
lords, the rich of pre-capitalist days, led 
their particular lives. It did not matter 
whether they were secular magnates or 
among those priests who, according to 
Alberti, desired to outdo all in splendour 
and display, in inclination to inactivity and 
the absence of all economy. As a matter of 
fact, such an unregulated and indolent 
mode of life led to the economic ruin of 
the majority of the old noble families. In 
contradistinction to the nobleman as well as 
the mediaeval peasant or artisan, the bour- 
geois entrepreneur calculates; he thinks ra- 
tionally, not traditionally; he does not desire 
the static (i.e. he does not acquiesce in the 
customary and the traditional) or the dis- 
orderly but the dynamic (i.e. he is impelled 
towards something new) and the orderly. 

He calculates, and his calculations take the 
long-term view. All sentiment (such as the 
peasant's love for his own or the pride that 
the artisan takes in his handiwork) is for- 
eign to him. What he values is the drive 
and discipline of work, directed single- 
mindcdly toward an end. It is this that pro- 
duces order as a human work of art. 

But characteristic of the Renaissance is 
a far-reaching assimilation of the nobility to 
the new conditions and the reception of 
the nobles in the towns. The country no- 
bility, in so far as it is not destroyed by 
"chivalrous feuds and extravagance, settles 
in the town" and takes up commercial ac- 
tivities. It thus wins for itself wealth, and 
upon that basis a new political power; in 
the process it becomes bourgeois in its na- 
ture, attitude and modes of thought, so 
that the bourgeois is no longer determined 
by his ancestry. This type of noble inter- 
marries with the great patrician families 
and together with them forms an exclusive 
aristocracy of commerce. This process is 
accelerated by the inclination of those 
families which are not noble to invest their 
industrial and commercial profits in land. 
This is done in the interest of the prestige 
of their firm and their own social standing, 
perhaps after they have ruined the original 
noble owners. It leads to a complete recon- 
stitution of "good society"; it is a new aris- 
tocracy of talent and determination (in 
place of birth and rank), which begins by 
combining economic with political prowess, 
but whose mode of life is on the whole 
determined by the economic, i.e. the bour- 
geois, element. 

The New Individualist Entrepreneur 

In acquiring power and social standing 
through wealth, the financially powerful 
bourgeoisie had thus become superior to the 
nobility, even in politics. What was funda- 
mentally new was the rational management 
of money and the investment of capital. 
Capital had a creative effect and put a 
premium on ingenuity and enterprise. In 
the Middle Ages, a period of predominantly 
agricultural production, interest had cen- 



tred upon consumption; after all, it is rela- 
tively impossible either to lose or increase 
landed property, which is essentially static. 
Only money, in the form of productive 
capital, creates the unlimited openings 
which emphasize the problem of acquisi- 
tion as against that of consumption. With 
this growth in scope came the desire to ex- 
ploit it: the enlargement of business in- 
creased the will and the ability to overcome 
the problems involved. The stability of an 
as yet static economy was upset by a 
dynamic element which increasingly and 
fundamentally altered its whole character. 
A progressive and expansive force was in- 
herent in the new type of economic man 
and the new economy, a force which was to 
break up slowly but surely the old world 
of small economic unit. Thus an economy 
of money and credit made possible the 
hitherto unknown spirit of enterprise in 
economic matters. 

It became possible in quite a new sense 
to follow "enterprising" aims since they 
could be pursued by completely rational 
means, by the full exploitation of the possi- 
bilities inherent in a money economy. The 
rationally calculating foresight of the mer- 
chant served to fashion in addition to the 
art of trade also the arts of statecraft and 
of war. The bourgeois, having gained his 
position of power, continued to press on 
and, in accordance with his psychology and 
will to power, appeared as a freely com- 
peting capitalist entrepreneur not only in 
commerce but also in political matters. It 
might be that he combined the functions of 
business magnate and political leader (as 
did the Medici, who relied upon their 
wealth and their position as party leaders), 
or he might, by capitalist methods, secure 
free disposal over a military force as a con- 
dottiere or over a subdued state as nuovo 

It is one of the traits of the early capi- 
talist civilization of the Renaissance that 
business and politics became so thoroughly 
interdependent that it is impossible to sepa- 
rate the interests that they represented. We 
can see this clearly already in the case of 

Giovanni Villani. Business methods served 
political ends, political means served eco- 
nomic ends. Political and economic credit 
were already inseparable. The fame and 
glory of a state (also increased by success- 
ful wars) were reflected in profits. On the 
other hand, we can already discern the diffi- 
culties brought about by the cosmopolitan 
character of the new power of money and 
the interlocking of international capital. 
Nevertheless, this obstacle to vigorous for- 
eign policies was more than offset by the 
stimulus it gave to imperialist aims. The 
numerically small group of commercial and 
industrial magnates which at home had 
won political along with economic power, 
pursued in its external relations, too, a 
policy fashioned on broad lines a policy 
of territorial expansion (such as the Floren- 
tine conquest of the ports of Pisa and 
Livorno, which was to benefit Florentine 
seaborne trade) or of winning new markets 
which was pursued "even at the price of 
internal unrest and without hesitating to 
conjure up war and its misery" (Doren). 
This may be contrasted with the more re- 
stricted policy of the petit bourgeois, the 
artisan, whose goal was a "bourgeois" exist- 
ence and the "peaceful comfort of a small 
circle" (Doren). The entrepreneur, abroad 
as at home, was turning the state to his own 

But above all, the state itself was now 
becoming a capitalist entrepreneur; the 
politician began to calculate and politics 
were becoming rational. Political decisions 
were influenced by commercial motives, 
and politics were closely circumscribed by 
the categories of means and ends dictated 
by bourgeois aims and interests. We see 
politics pervaded by the spirit of reason, 
which had been alien to the mediaeval state 
at a time when the Church had been the 
one rationally guided institution. It is of 
minor importance whether the bourgeoisie 
democratically controlled the state or 
whether the bourgeois methods were 
adopted by an absolutist state in the shape 
of mercantilism and rational statecraft. In 
both cases realistic policy guided by eco- 

Sociology of the Renaissance 


nomic considerations provided the contrast, 
typical of the age, with the practices of the 
Middle Ages, which had been sustained by 
the privileged Estates, the clergy and the 
feudal nobility. The attack upon these 
classes reveals a complete parallelism be- 
tween the legislation of the first modern 
absolutist state, the realm of Frederick II 
in Lower Italy, and the Florentine Ordina- 
menti della Giustizia, where justice means, 
in a completely modern sense, the abolition 
of traditional privileges. In this way the 
modern monarchy and the formal democ- 
racy of a city-state fulfilled the same func- 
tion: both were adequate to deal with the 
new social reality created by economic de- 
velopments. These forms of government 
represented the two possible ways of adjust- 
ing the nature of the state to the nature of 
society. Accordingly, the Italian despotisms 
or Signorie continued along lines laid down 
by the town commune: both were built 
upon the foundation of the new money 
economy, the free development of individ- 
ual forces and, on the other hand, the cen- 
tralization of all power which increasingly 
substituted administrative for constitutional 
principles and subjected all spheres of life 
to conscious and rational regulation. The 
unifying factor was no longer an organic 
and communal one (e.g. blood relationship, 
neighbourhood or the relationships of serv- 
ice) but an artificial and mechanized social 
organization which cut adrift even from the 
old religious and moral power and pro- 
claimed the ratio status as an expression of 
the secular nature of a state which was its 
own law. The resulting statecraft was 
"objective" and without prejudices, guided 
only by the needs of the situation and the 
desired end and consisting only of a pure 
calculation of power relationships. It was 
an entirely methodicized, objective and 
soulless craft and the system of a science 
and technique of state management. 

The Norman state of Roger II showed 
already, at a very early date, the tendency 
towards bourgeois valuations, i.e. a spirit of 
sober calculation and the prominence given 
to ability and efficiency rather than to birth 

and rank. At the time of Roger's death 
Georgio Majo, the son of a Bari merchant 
who made big deals in oil, was High Chan- 
cellor of the Sicilian kingdom. Roger him- 
self had already built up a professional civil 
service and sponsored a conscious economic 
policy (cf. his foundation of industries). 
Using these foundations, Frederick II loos- 
ened the old ties by limiting the rights of 
the Church and the feudal nobility in fa- 
vour of a centralized organization which 
used fiscal and rational methods and em- 
ployed a salaried bureaucracy and an army 
of mercenaries. Even the modern trait of 
basic distrust, of not trusting one's fellow- 
men that characteristic of society as op 
posed to the community, which means tra- 
ditional trust or confidence which we 
later find in the urban communes, already 
characterized the regime of Frederick II: 
"the whole machinery of administration 
was so constructed that one section of it 
watched and controlled the others as much 
as was possible" (Ed. Winkelmann). And 
the enlightened despot knew how to exploit 
the magic position assigned to the mediae- 
val emperors as providing a prop for his 
rule and serving as an ideology to counter 
the papal theory of the two swords. 

This Norman kingdom was in need of a 
rational basis in legislation and administra- 
tion because it was a state built upon the 
might of the sword and the powerful per- 
sonality (E. Caspar). It was for this reason 
that Burckhardt earlier pointed out its simi- 
larity to the condottiere states of the Quat- 
trocento. These were "purely factual" struc- 
tures relying on talent and virtuosity to 
assure their survival. In such an artificially 
created situation "only high personal abil- 
ity" and carefully calculated conduct could 
master the perpetual menaces. In these 
states which lacked any traditional sanction 
the conception of the state as a task for 
conscious construction had to develop. And 
thus all depended upon the objective and 
correct attack upon this task by the proper 
constructor: to support this new objectivity 
the modern individual appeared. There was 
no distinction between the prince and the 



state: its power was his power, its weakness 
was his weakness. Therefore the "tyrant," 
himself the negation of the static mediaeval 
ideal of the rex iustus, has to be judged by 
the historical and political criterion of 
"greatness" disregarding the criteria of 
morals and religion. 

The prototype of the combination of the 
"spirit of enterprise" and the "bourgeois 
spirit," the two elements that Sombart dis- 
tinguishes in the capitalist spirit, was the 
combination of war and business. We find 
it, even before the Crusades, in the Italian 
ports. "The warlike enterprises of the 
Italian sea-trading towns" Pisa, Genoa, 
Venice often "had the character of share- 
holding ventures," the share in the loot 
being distributed according to the extent of 
participation and whether it was only in 
the capacity of soldier or by the provision 
of capita] (Lujo Brentano). And as a mili- 
tary profession at the disposal of the high- 
est bidder developed, war became increas- 
ingly a matter of big business for the mili- 
tary entrepreneur, the condottiere, who 
"with the shrewd sense of a modern specu- 
lator changed sides and even fixed in ad- 
vance the price of an expected victory" (v. 
Bezold), as well as for his employer. Stefano 
Porcaro debated before the Signoria at Flor- 
ence whether it be "more profitable" to fight 
one's battles with a levy of citizens or with 
mercenaries, and he concluded that, in spite 
of the cost, it was "safer and more useful" 
to settle the business with money. 

The Curia itself had to bow to the new 
trends which made for clearly circumscribed 
sovereignties forming the basis of financial 
power. The Vatican "was increasingly 
robbed of its economic basis in the shape 
of the powers of taxation of the Church 
Universal; after the Great Schism it had 
to create its own state as a necessary founda- 
tion" (Clemens Bauer) : thus its monetary 
needs involved it in the internal Italian 

New Modes of Thought 

The new mode of thought, evident in all 
these developments, naturally emanated 

from an upper class only. The middle class 
petit bourgeois, whose attitude we see in 
Vespasiano da Bisticci, remained essentially 
conservative. He still clung to a patriarchal 
order divided into estates of a static nature. 
He regarded as "just" the existing state of 
affairs, with which one should moreover 
remain content. Honest and straightfor- 
ward, he took the view of a "good Christian 
and a good citizen." His simple piety knew 
no problems; he defended his faith as an 
absolute truth against the modern, liberal 
and intellectual belief that everything may 
be subjected to discussion: he was indig- 
nant with the "many unbelievers" who "dis- 
pute about the immortality of the soul as 
though it were a matter for discussion," 
seeing that it was "almost madness to cast 
doubt on so great a matter in the face of 
the testimony of so many eminent men." 
Here we see a way of thought that was tra- 
ditional and tied to authority; there is in it 
no individualist emancipation, so much so, 
in fact, that Vespasiano could regard a 
name as a "matter of indifference." And 
yet this middle class was easily impressed 
and it bestowed its admiration where it 
could not really follow. It had to pay trib- 
ute to what impressed it and thus admitted, 
despite itself, valuations which ran counter 
to its own. Of course, it demanded that 
glory be not immorally acquired, but it also 
realized that the great "quegli che gover- 
nano gli stati e che vogliono essere innanzi 
agli altri" are not always able to keep to the 
rules of morality. And the Church itself at 
once came to the rescue! What, after all, 
was the purpose of indulgences? Infringe- 
ments of the moral code could be expiated 
in money. So even the middle class made 
money the last instance, thanks to the lead 
given by the Church. On the other hand, 
almost anything, even noble descent, would 
impress this middle class, which had not yet 
won through to democratic consciousness. 
It felt at once the influence of a gentleman 
of noble birth, a "signore di nobile istirpe e 
sangue." It was impressed by anything out- 
standing, and it made no difference whether 
the distinction were military or literary, of 

Sociology of the Renaissance 


ability, birth or wealth. In this context it 
is worth recalling Simmel's opinion: that 
when for the first time large accumulations 
of capital were concentrated in one hand 
and when the power of capital was as yet 
unknown to the great majority, "its influ- 
ence was increased by the psychological 
effect of the unprecedented and the inexpli- 
cable." By its very novelty, capital, when 
it first appeared as a force, acted upon a set 
of circumstances completely alien to it "like 
a magic and unpredictable power." The 
lower classes were "bewildered by the ac- 
quisition of great wealth" and regarded its 
owners as "uncanny personalities." Thus it 
was, for example, in the case of the Gri- 
maldi and the Medici. 

This admiration for the "demoniac" we 
also find in the cult of virtu, of the man 
who was in any way great, which was rap- 
idly spreading everywhere: this new type 
could achieve greatness only by boldly set- 
ting himself above all ethical and religious 
traditions and relying upon himself along 
with frightening boldness. Traditional 
morality was outmoded: even ^man such 
as Villani, though he would morally con- 
demn those who lacked objective virtue, 
could admire subjective virtu in them, and 
in his appreciation of Castruccio Castracani 
anticipated Machiavelli himself. Christian 
ethics, inasmuch as they condemned su- 
perbia, the complete reliance upon one's 
own strength, though not rejected in theory, 
in practice lost all influence. The individual 
was conscious of the fact that he had to rely 
completely upon his own forces. And it 
was the superiority of ratio over tradition, 
brought about by a mercantile age, which 
gave him the requisite strength. Such a 
penetration of all activities by the cold and 
calculating attitude of the merchant easily 
achieved a demoniac character. It was well 
illustrated by an entry in the ledger of the 
Venetian Jacopo Loredano: "The Doge 
Foscari: my debtor for the death of my 
father and uncle." And when he had re- 
moved him together with his son we find 
the entry "paid" on the opposite page. We 
see the complete repression of impulse and 

the absolute control of the emotions by a 
ruthlessly calculating reason which inexora- 
bly moves to its goal. All this is the ap- 
proach of a bourgeois age, an age of a 
money economy. 

Money capital and mobile property natu- 
rally linked up with the kindred power of 
time for, seen from that particular point of 
view, time is money. Time is a great "lib- 
eral" power as opposed to the "conservative" 
power of space, the immobile soil. In the 
Middle Ages power belonged to him who 
owned the soil, the feudal lord; but now 
Alberti could say that he who knew how 
to exploit money and time fully could make 
himself the master of all things: such are 
the new means to power of the bourgeois. 
Money and time imply motion : "there is no 
more apt symbol than money to show the 
dynamic character of this world: as soon as 
it lies idle it ceases to be money in the spe- 
cific sense of the word . . . the function of 
money is to facilitate motion" (Simmel). 
Money, because it circulates, as landed 
property cannot, shows how everything be- 
came more mobile. Money which can 
change one thing into another brought a 
tremendous amount of unrest into the 
world. The tempo of life was increased. 
Only now was formulated the new inter- 
pretation of time which saw it as a value, 
as something of utility. It was felt to be 
slipping away continuously after the four- 
teenth century the clocks in the Italian 
cities struck all the twenty-four hours of 
the day. It was realized that time was al- 
ways short and hence valuable, that one 
had to husband it and use it economically 
if one wanted to become the "master of all 
things." Such an attitude had been un- 
known to the Middle Ages; to them time 
was plentiful and there was no need to look 
upon it as something precious. It became so 
only when regarded from the point of view 
of the individual who could think in terms 
of the time measured out to him. It was 
scarce simply on account of natural limita- 
tions, and so everything from now on had 
to move quickly. For example, it became 
necessary to build quickly, as the patron 



was now building for himself. In the Mid- 
dle Ages it was possible to spend tens and 
even hundreds of years on the completion 
of one building a cathedral, a town hall 
or a castle (e.g. the Certosa di Pavia which 
is built in the Gothic style): for life was 
the life of the community in which one 
generation quietly succeeds another. Men 
lived as part of an all-embracing unity and 
thus life lasted long beyond its natural span. 
Time could be expended just as possessions 
or human lives themselves were. For the 
Middle Ages knew a hand-to-mouth econ- 
omy, as was natural in an age of primary 
production, for agricultural produce will 
not keep over long periods, and the accumu- 
lation of values was thus impossible. 
"Where the produce of the soil is immedi- 
ately consumed, a certain liberality prevails 
in general . . . which is less natural when 
money brings the desire to save" (Simmel); 
money will keep indefinitely. Largesse was 
a mediaeval virtue; Bisticci could still praise 
the giving of any amount "without count- 
ing the cost" and with a "liberal hand" for 
the "love and greater glory of God" and 
according to "conscience." But the splen- 
did liberality of the Renaissance was of a 
totally different type. On principle it was 
bestowed only where it was "in place." 
Alberti said that "contributions towards the 
erection of churches and public buildings 
are a duty that we owe to the honour of the 
family and of our ancestors." Under such 
circumstances one gave no more than was 
necessary, though always as much as was 
seemly. The reputation of the family which 
could not be separated from the credit of 
the firm had a role of its own in the thought 
of the merchant. Onesta called for certain 
expenditures, but they had to prove useful 
and not superfluous. It would not do to be 
pettifogging, but the rule to spend as little 
as possible is the natural corollary to the 
rule to gain as much as possible; here is the 
real meaning of the specifically bourgeois 
virtues. An orderly plan was the rule. To 
make headway it was necessary to spend 
less or at any rate no more than one's earn- 
ings, one must treat "economically" the 

body and the mind (Alberti regarded hy- 
giene and sports as the way to strength and 
comeliness) and one must be industrious in 
contrast to the noble loafers. It was neces- 
sary to portion out time, even ration the 
time spent in political affairs. The Kingdom 
of Naples enforced over-frequent attend- 
ance at Church, and Caraccioli thought 
that though this might be "useful, it was 
most detrimental to a thorough exploitation 
of the day's time." 

Furthermore, the merchant developed his 
own particular form of religiousness. The 
small artisan had an intimate and almost 
over-familiar attitude to God. The great 
bourgeois, on the other hand, faced him as 
a business partner. Giannozzo Manetti saw 
God as the "maestro d'uno trafico" circum- 
spectly organizing the world on the analogy 
of a big firm. One could open a kind of 
account with him, as was easily suggested 
by Roman Catholic emphasis on good 
works. Villani quite definitely regarded the 
giving of alms and the like as a way of 
securing almost by contract the honour- 
ing of contracts is the highest virtue in the 
code of the honest merchant the divine 
help, so that one may rely upon it. "Ne deo 
quidem sine spe remunerationis servire fas 
est" (Valla). Prosperity, according to Al- 
berti, is the visible remuneration for an 
honest conduct of affairs pleasing to God: 
this is the true religious spirit of capitalism, 
and in a truly Roman Catholic way a kind 
of cooperation between grace and personal 
efficiency was assumed. But this "grace" 
was contractually due in return for one's 
own performance. Even religiousness be- 
came a matter for the calculation of advan- 
tages, part of a speculation designed to 
succeed in economic as well as political 
matters (cf. Villani). 

The state of affairs, in fact, was that re- 
ligion had ceased to be a moving force on 
its own and had become part of the system- 
atized outlook of the bourgeoisie, which 
was primarily determined by economic 
considerations. The religious idea was un- 
able fully to penetrate human life and had 
ceased to cause effects of any magnitude. 

Sociology of the Renaissance 


(The success of popular preachers of re- 
pentance was transient and sporadic.) The 
consciousness of belonging to a family of 
Western, Christian peoples, which in the 
Middle Ages had been upheld by knights 
and clergy, was alien to the bourgeoisie, 
taken up as it was with the feeling of na- 
tional and political separations. Similarly, 
the class-conscious proletariat cannot recog- 
nize the bourgeois concept of the nation 
and the state. The living regard for Chris- 
tendom or Europe taken as a whole died 
together with the belief in a divinely or- 
dained duty to protect it against the infidel. 
The concept of a supra-national occidental 
community lost its meaning with the de- 
cline of those social groups which had up 
held it. It now appeared outmoded and 
threadbare. Indeed, the idea was first aban- 
doned by those who were called to uphold 
it more than anyone else, the Popes. 
Gregory IX and Innocent IV solicited 
Mahometan help against the Christian 
Emperor. Here too the Church, the one 
rational institution of the Middle Ages, had 
beaten the path which the Renaissance was 
to follow. The divers Italian states then 
grew accustomed to ally themselves with 
the Turk, "openly and unashamed" as 
Burckhardt has it, against the other Italian 
powers: "it seemed a political weapon like 
any other" (Burckhardt). Especially for the 
Italians the conception of Christian solidar- 
ity had lost all meaning; nowhere was 
there less dismay at the fall of Constan- 
tinople. On the contrary, an impressive 
personality such as Mahomet II was bound 
to be respected: Francesco Gonzaga, Mar- 
quess of Mantua, was prepared to address 
him as "friend and brother." If a Pope was 
asked to give aid against the Turks it was 
necessary to show "what advantages might 
accrue and what harm would be done if he 
were not to move." It was a Pope, Alex- 
ander VI, who did his best, in concert with 
Ludovico il Moro, to turn the Turks against 

Religion had lost its position as a power 
and its function as the common bond of 

all to the same extent as the ruling groups 
of the Middle Ages had been supplanted 
by the bourgeoisie. Similarly national lan- 
guages began to supersede Latin, the uni- 
versal language of the clergy. Clerical demi- 
rationalism, i.e. the Thomist reconciliation 
of the natural and the supernatural, of the 
world and God, now led to complete ration- 
alism. Religion was increasingly formal- 
ized, becoming a matter of outward observ- 
ances (cf. the growing "judicial" character 
of religious beliefs). It was, in effect, neu- 
tralized and robbed of its hold upon life and 
the present. One did not go as far as to 
deny the theoretical possibility of divine 
interference by way of miracles: that was 
left to a later antitheist enlightenment, 
which by the very intransigence of its pro- 
test showed its continued or renewed pre- 
occupation with religious problems. The 
typical Italian of the Renaissance was al- 
ready one step further: his was that genu- 
ine atheism which has eliminated the idea 
of divine power from the considerations 
governing his actions and indeed from his 
thoughts and writings. Men had ceased to 
believe that anything irrational might in- 
tentionally interfere to disturb their own 
systematic designs, they thought themselves 
able to master fortuna by virtu. This is also 
shown by the absolute position that human- 
ists assigned to the free human will. It is 
true that the mediaeval Church had held 
the doctrine of free will in matter of moral- 
ity, but it deliberately maintained the theo- 
logical antinomy of free will and divine 
grace as a religious paradox. But now in 
this matter too, modes of thought tending 
towards complete individual freedom threw 
off the leadership of the Church. 

Social conditions which had lacked a 
rational basis had already given way to a 
systematic order. Everyone had to rely upon 
himself in the knowledge that neither meta- 
physical concepts nor supra-individual 
forces of the community were backing him. 
No longer did anyone feel himself as a 
trustee in office or vocation. The one goal 
was that of being a virtuoso; . . . 



Robert S. Lopez was born in Italy in 1910. Educated there and in 
the United States, he is now Professor of History at Yale University. 
His publications mark him as an excellent scholar in the area of economic 
history, especially in medieval trade and banking. Professor Lopez pre- 
sented the following paper at the Symposium on the Renaissance held 
at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art on February 8-10, 1952. 

WIEN humanists like Michelet and 
turckhardt accredited the term 
Renaissance, a good many years ago, eco- 
nomic history had hardly been born. Their 
lofty reconstruction of civilization in the 
Renaissance was unencumbered by the sus- 
picion that the passions of Caliban might 
have something to do with the achieve- 
ments of Ariel. Then came the followers 
of Marx and historical materialism, who 
trimmed the wings of the poet-historians 
and inserted literature into the digestive 
process. We ought to pay our deepest re- 
spects to both schools, not only to set an 
example to posterity when our own turn in 
obsolescence comes, but also because both 
the brain and the stomach certainly have 
an influence on the movements of the heart. 
Historians, however, after letting the 
pendulum swing fully in either direction, 
have labored to find an equilibrium and a 
chain of relations between cause and effect. 
The easiest way to link two unfolding de- 
velopments is to describe them as parallel 
and interlocked at every step. The notion 
that wherever there was an economic peak 
we must also find an intellectual peak, and 
vice versa, has long enjoyed the unques- 
tioned authority of mathematical postulates. 
In an examination book of a sophomore 
which I graded not so long ago, the postu- 

late entailed these deductions: Double- 
entry bookkeeping in the Medici Bank 
goaded Michelangelo to conceive and ac- 
complish the Medici Chapel; contempla- 
tion of the Medici Chapel in turn spurred 
the bankers to a more muscular manage- 
ment of credit. But these statements, even 
if they were more skillfully worded, are 
quite misleading. There is no denying that 
many beautiful homes of the Renaissance 
belonged to successful businessmen in 
Italy above all, then in Flanders, in south- 
ern Germany, and in other regions. Yet if 
bankers like the Medici and the Fuggers 
had been capable of conjuring up artists 
like Michelangelo and Diircr, then our 
own Rothschilds and Morgans ought to 
have produced bigger and better Michel- 
angelos. And how could we explain the 
emergence of Goya in an impoverished 
Spain, or the artistic obscurity of the busi- 
ness metropolis that was Genoa? A mini- 
mum of subsistence is indispensable for art 
and a minimum of intelligence is indispen- 
sable for business. But this does not mean 
that great artists and great businessmen 
must be born in the same group and in the 
same generation. 

What strikes us at the outset is the differ- 
ent relation between economy and culture 
in the high Middle Ages and in the Renais- 

From Robert S. Lopez, "Hard Times and Investment in Culture," in The Renaissance: A Symposium 
(New York, 1953), pp. 19-32. By permission of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the 


Hard Times and Investment in Culture 


sance. I must beg leave to begin by a very 
brief description of what we call the "com- 
mercial revolution" of the high Middle 
Ages. This great economic upheaval, com- 
parable in size only to the modern indus- 
trial revolution, surged from the Dark Ages 
at about the same time as the chansons de 
geste and early Romanesque art. It reached 
its climax in the age of Dante and rayon- 
nan t Gothic, after which a great depression 
occurred. Like the modern industrial revo- 
lution, it was a period of great, continuous 
demographic growth, of steady if not spec- 
tacular technological progress, of expansion 
both through increased production and con- 
sumption at home and through conquest 
of new markets abroad. It was an epoch 
of great opportunities and great hopes, of 
small wars for limited objectives, and of 
growing toleration and interchange of ideas 
among persons of different classes, nations, 
and beliefs. Its pace was, of course, slower 
than that of the industrial revolution, be- 
cause progress traveled by horse and galley 
rather than by train, steamship, and air- 
plane. The final results, however, were 
probably of the same order of magnitude. 
The medieval commercial revolution was 
instrumental in bringing about the momen- 
tous changes which bequeathed to the Ren- 
aissance a society not too different from our 
own, and was in turn influenced by all of 
these changes. It caused the old feudal sys- 
tem to crumble and the old religious struc- 
ture to weaken. It all but wiped out slavery, 
it gave liberty to serfs over large areas, and 
created a new elite based upon wealth 
rather than birth. 

A great expansion in all other fields oc- 
curred at the same time. The blossoming of 
a new literature and art, the revival of sci- 
ence and law, the beginning of political and 
religious individualism, the spread of edu- 
cation and of social consciousness to larger 
strata of the population, were concurrent 
and contemporaneous with the commercial 
revolution of the high Middle Ages. 
Though not all facets of medieval literature 
and philosophy were such as one might ex- 
pect of an economic expansion, who will 

deny that there was a connection between 
economic and intellectual progress? It is 
also proper to suggest that the economic 
and social change of the high Middle Ages 
was an indispensable preparation for the 
Renaissance, even as it is safe to state that 
a man must have been an adolescent be- 
fore he can become a father. But we must 
not confuse two different ages. Probably 
there would have been no Renaissance 
or, rather, the Renaissance would have 
taken another course if the Middle Ages 
had not previously built the towns, hum- 
bled the knights, challenged the clergy- 
men, and taught Latin grammar. But the 
towns of the Middle Ages created the civili- 
zation of the Middle Ages. Whether or not 
this civilization was as great as that of the 
Renaissance, it certainly was different. 

Let us not say that the general coinci- 
dence of an exuberant civilization and an 
expansive economy in the high Middle 
Ages shows that great art and great business 
must always go together. Consider the 
different experience of different countries. 
Italy was to the medieval economic process 
what England was to that of the eighteenth 
and nineteenth centuries. It was the cradle 
and the pathfinder of the commercial revo- 
lution, which was on the move in several 
Italian towns long before it made its way 
through the rest of Europe. Like the indus- 
trial revolution, the commercial revolution 
did not spread evenly: here it passed by 
large areas or slackened its speed, there it 
gained impetus as it engulfed other genera- 
tors of economic advance. In Flanders, for 
instance, the currents coming from Italy 
swelled a river which had sprung from local 
streams. But He de France, the home of so 
much glorious medieval art, literature, and 
philosophy, was a retarded if not quite a 
forgotten area. Its towns were small and 
sleepy in the shadow of the great cathedrals 
at a time when the Italian towns hummed 
with business activity and made great 
strides in the practical sciences of law, 
mathematics, and medicine, but had not yet 
produced a Dante, a Giotto, or an Aquinas. 

With these three giants Italy concluded 



the Middle Ages in a thoroughly medieval 
way. Petrarch, another Italian, ushered in 
the intellectual Renaissance at the very 
moment when the economic trend was re- 
versed. The exact span of the Renaissance 
is variously measured by historians of civili- 
zation. There was a lag in time between 
the Renaissance in Italy and that of the 
other countries. Moreover, the imperialism 
of certain lovers of the Renaissance has led 
them to claim as forerunners or followers 
men who would be better left to the Middle 
Ages or to baroque. I shall assume that, 
chronologically speaking, the Renaissance 
means roughly the period between 1330 
and 1530, though the economic picture 
would not substantially change if we added 
a few decades at the beginning or at the 
end. Now that period was not one of eco- 
nomic expansion. It was one of great de- 
pression followed by a moderate and in- 
complete recovery. 

Time alone will tell whether the econ- 
omy of the age in which we live is the early 
stage of another "Renaissance" rather than 
the prelude to another "Dark Age," or a 
mere pause before another cycle of expan- 
sion. We shall see in a moment that certain 
resemblances seem to bring the Renaissance 
closer to us than any other historical period, 
in the economic field as in many others. 
But there was no resemblance in regard to 
population trends. Following a great plunge 
in the mid-fourteenth century, the popula- 
tion of Europe tended to stagnate at a far 
lower level than that of the high Middle 
Ages. A number of epidemics, far more 
terrible than any medieval contagion, whit- 
tled down the population. Famines, birth 
control, and other causes which cannot be 
enumerated here even in the most summary 
fashion, contributed to the same end. The 
decline was particularly pronounced in 
cities the very homes of the essentially 
urban civilization that was the Renaissance. 
The country suffered less and recovered 
better, but it did not escape the general 

The falling curve of the population was 

to some extent connected with other retard- 
ing factors. Technological progress con- 
tinued, but, with the notable exceptions of 
the insurance contract, the printing press 
and certain advances in metallurgy, it was 
represented by diffusion and improvement 
of medieval methods and tools rather than 
by the invention of new ones. True, there 
was Leonardo da Vinci; but his amazing 
inventions were of no avail to his contem- 
poraries, who were uninformed and prob- 
ably uninterested in them. Again, the Ren- 
aissance introduced a better type of human- 
istic schools and of education for the elite, 
but it made no sweeping changes in tech- 
nical education and no significant advances 
in bringing literacy to the masses. In these 
respects the Renaissance was less "modern" 
than the high Middle Ages. 

A closer resemblance to our own times 
lies in the fact that the gradual shrinking 
of political horizons frustrated the improved 
means of transportation and the powerful 
organization of international trade which 
the Middle Ages had bequeathed to the 
Renaissance. Shortly before the Renais- 
sance began, a Florentine merchant had 
described the road from the Crimea to 
Peking as perfectly safe to westerners a 
statement which we would hesitate to make 
today. But, during the Renaissance, East 
and West were split deeply, first by the 
collapse of the Mongolian Empire in the 
Far and Middle East, then by the Turkish 
conquest in the Near East. A medieval 
advance in the opposite direction was nulli- 
fied before its possibilities were grasped: 
the Scandinavians abandoned Vinland, 
Greenland, and Iceland. Within Europe 
each state manifested its incipient centrali- 
zation by raising economic barriers against 
all of the others. To be sure, the twilight 
of the Renaissance was lighted up by the 
greatest geographic discoveries. But it was 
a long time before the beneficial effects of 
the new round of discoveries were felt. The 
first telling result was the disruptive revolu- 
tion of prices through the flood of Ameri- 
can silver and gold and even this came 

Hard Times and Investment in Culture 


when the Renaissance had already been 
seized by its gravediggers, the Reformation 
and the Counter-Reformation. 

War and inflation were as familiar to the 
Renaissance as they are, unfortunately, to 
us. It is true that already in the high 
Middle Ages a continuous but gradual and 
moderate inflation of the coinage and a 
parallel growth of credit money had pro- 
vided much needed fuel for the demo- 
graphic and economic expansion of the 
commercial revolution. But in the Renais- 
sance inflation was steeper and steeper. Soft 
money did not supply larger means of pay- 
ment for a growing number of producers 
and consumers. It was chiefly turned out 
by monarchies and city-states to pay for the 
largest wars that had afflicted Europe since 
the fall of the Roman world the largest 
that Europe was to witness before the 
Napoleonic period, or perhaps our own 
world wars. One thinks first of the Hun- 
dred Years War, which, with some inter- 
mediate truces, lasted well over a century 
and plagued most of western Europe. The 
Angcvin-Aragonese contest wa smaller in 
scope, but it desolated the whole of south- 
ern Italy and Sicily for almost two hundred 
years. The Turkish armies inflicted still 
greater sufferings upon southeastern and 
east-central Europe. In northern Italy the 
mercenaries may have been gentle when 
fighting one another, but they were a 
plague to private harvests and public treas- 
uries. Germany was the theatre of inces- 
sant local wars and brigandage, and Spain 
was hardly more peaceful. It is true that in 
the second half of the fifteenth century 
most of Europe had some respite. But then 
came the wars between the Hapsburgs and 
France, with intervention of the Turks, 
which involved the whole of Europe, used 
artillery on a large scale, and renewed 
atrocities that had almost disappeared in 
the high Middle Ages. They had not ended 
when the wars of religion began. 

Needless to say, disease and famine were 
faithful companions of war. Moreover, 
during the fourteenth century desperate re- 

volts of peasants and city proletarians burst 
out almost everywhere from England to the 
Balkans and from Tuscany to Flanders. 
They also claimed their victims. In the fif- 
teenth century a dull resignation seemed to 
prevail and banditism sprouted sometimes 
even in the vicinity of towns. The early six- 
teenth century was marred by terrible peas- 
ants' revolts in Hungary, Germany, north- 
eastern Italy, Switzerland, and northern 

Then, as now, inflation was not enough 
to support the burden of war. Taxation rose 
to much higher levels than during the com- 
mercial revolution, when a booming econ- 
omy could have borne it more easily. It 
fleeced peasants and landlords, but it 
skinned the bourgeoisie, which had greater 
amounts of cash. In France and England 
the Renaissance marked the downfall of 
town autonomy, largely though not exclu- 
sively because the towns were unable to 
balance their budgets and because the 
richer bourgeois, who could have come to 
the assistance of their poorer fellow-citizens, 
refused to bear even their own full share. 
In Italy the independent towns survived, 
at a price. They fell under dictators, who 
brought about some equalization of burdens 
through universal oppression; or under 
small oligarchies of very rich men, who 
could either bear or evade taxation. 

Yet it would not be fair to ascribe to 
taxation alone the principal blame for an 
economic recession which was essentially 
caused by shrinking or dull markets. The 
markets had shrunk because the population 
had diminished or stagnated, and because 
the frontier had receded and had been 
locked up. Perhaps some compensation 
would have been found through a better 
distribution of wealth if the scattered re- 
volts of the fourteenth century had grown 
into a general social revolution. They 
failed. The recurrence of wars and epidem- 
ics throttled whatever social ferment re- 
mained in the fifteenth century. In the 
general stagnation some of the rich men 
grew richer, many of the poor men grew 



poorer, and the others at best obtained 
security at the expense of opportunity. 

The ominous signs are visible every- 
where. Land prices and landlords' profits 
in the Renaissance were at their lowest ebb 
in centuries. The great movement of land 
reclamation and colonization which had 
characterized the centuries between the 
tenth and the early fourteenth was arrested. 
As early as the thirteenth century, to be 
sure, many landlords in England, in Spain, 
in southern Italy, and in northwestern 
France had transformed arable land into 
sheep ranges. Wool was a good cash crop 
and sheep farming required little man- 
power. The process continued throughout 
the Renaissance, but it became less and less 
rewarding as the demand for wool became 
stagnant or declined. Great patches of mar- 
ginal and even fairly good land, which had 
been exploited in the Middle Ages, were 
now returned to waste. Fertile estates were 
sold or rented for nominal prices. But even 
these low prices were too high for many 
hungry, landless peasants who lacked even 
the small capital needed to buy seeds and 
tools. Fortunate was the peasant whose lord 
was willing to advance money in return for 
a share in the crop. 

In the high Middle Ages the towns had 
absorbed not only an ever increasing 
amount of foodstuffs and industrial raw 
materials, but also the surplus product of 
the human plant. Noblemen, yeomen, and 
serfs, each one according to his capacity, 
could then easily find occupation and ad- 
vancement in town. In the Renaissance, 
opportunities were usually reserved for 
those who were citizens of the town. Yet 
citizens, too, had little chance to improve 
their lot. The guilds formerly had accepted 
apprentices freely and assured every ap- 
prentice of the opportunity of becoming a 
master. Now they became rigid hierarchies; 
only the son of a master could hope to suc- 
ceed to the mastership. Outsiders were 
either rejected or kept permanently in the 
subordinate position of journeymen. This 
trend also affected the guilds of artists. 
Occasionally, to be sure, a town encouraged 

immigration of qualified groups of coun- 
trymen on condition that they carry out 
the humbler industrial tasks at lower sala- 
ries than those of the lowest journeymen. 
Again, the old practice of putting out raw 
materials for peasants to work at home 
gained some ground, but the increase of 
manufacturing in the country fell far short 
of compensating for the decrease of indus- 
trial production in towns. It was not a 
symptom of economic growth but merely a 
means of depressing wages. Luxury indus- 
tries alone maintained and perhaps in- 
creased their production. This reflects the 
decline of production for the masses and 
the growing distance between the very rich 
and the very poor. 

The growing dullness of European mar- 
kets and the loss of many eastern markets 
was bound to depress commerce. The leit- 
motif now was to offer for sale, not the 
greatest quantity and variety of goods, but 
to quote a fifteenth-century manual of 
business "only as much as one can sell in 
the place of destination." Nor was it al- 
ways possible to buy as much as one desired. 
Wars and embargoes frequently interfered 
with trade. Increased duties in nearly every 
country from England to Egypt raised the 
cost of many wares to prohibitive heights. 
The age of rapid fortunes won in daring 
oversea and overland ventures was over. 
Sedentary merchants could still maintain 
their position if they employed many able 
and loyal employees and commission agents, 
if they planned every step carefully, and if 
they could wait patiently for their invest- 
ments to bring hard-won profits. In Italy 
five to eight per cent was now regarded as 
a fair interest in commercial loans a much 
lower rate than those prevailing in the high 
Middle Ages, although risks had not dimin- 
ished. Banks improved their methods and 
often increased their size while diminishing 
in numbers. But they had to use a larger 
and larger proportion of their capital not 
for trade but for loans to the idle upper 
class and more frequently to belligerent 
states. Such investments usually brought 
high interest for a very short period and 

Hard Times and Investment in Culture 


failure when the debtor was unable to pay 
the principal. 

One business insurance boomed dur- 
ing the Renaissance. It bordered on gam- 
bling. Investors had no statistics to rely 
upon. Risky speculations on foreign ex- 
change also drained capital away from 
commercial investments. Overt gambling 
attracted ambitious men who despaired of 
other gainful occupations. There were the 
extreme cases of scoundrels who staked 
their money against the life of an unknow- 
ing person and had that person murdered 
so that they could cash the bet. At the 
other extremity were many business men 
who abandoned trade and invested in land, 
not merely a part of their capital, as mer- 
chants had always done, but everything 
they had. Even when bought at the lowest 
prices, land was not very remunerative; but 
it could insure some reward for the owner 
who sank enough money in improvements 
and administered the investment in the 
spirit of business. The shift of production 
from butter to guns was reflected in the 
different fortune of merchants who ex- 
ploited mines. After a long slump in min- 
ing there was a sudden boom in the late 
fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. 
Metallurgy prospered: iron and bronze 
were war materials, and precious metals 
were the sinews of war. They also were 
needed to pay tributes to the Turks and 
increased custom duties to the Egyptians. 
But alum, a basic material for the declining 
cloth industry, was not in great demand. 
When the mines increased their output, the 
price of alum fell. 

Italy, the earliest and most brilliant 
center of the artistic Renaissance, felt the 
impact of the economic recession most heav- 
ily. Its condition resembled somewhat that 
of England after 1918, or that of New Eng- 
land after 1929. Italy fell harder because 
it had climbed higher. It had exploited 
most of its possibilities, and it could not 
seek recovery by opening up many new 
fields of enterprise. Conversely, those coun- 
tries which watered down their intellectual 
Renaissance with the largest proportion of 

medieval strains also seem to have felt the 
shock of the economic crisis less deeply. 

Of course, we must not overstress the 
dark side of the picture. Contraction and 
stagnation had succeeded expansion, but 
the economic ceiling of the fifteenth cen- 
tury was still much higher than the top 
level of the twelfth, though it was lower 
than the peak of the thirteenth. The bour- 
geoisie preserved its commanding position 
in Italy and its influence in the western 
monarchies. The amazing progress of the 
commercial revolution in methods and tech- 
niques was not lost; indeed, the depression 
spurred business men to further rationaliza- 
tion and sounder management. Thanks to 
their accumulated experience and capital, 
the Italians not only defended their leading 
position but also quickened the recovery of 
other countries by investing capital and fre- 
quently establishing their residence abroad. 
Some countries which had formerly been 
retarded felt the full impact of the commer- 
cial revolution only now. 

Finally, the depression and even the 
greatest disasters were sources of profit for 
some men. In many places food prices de- 
clined faster than real wages. Cheap land 
and cheap manpower made the fortune of 
many entrepreneurs. War enabled Jacques 
Coeur to grab fabulous riches. Inflation was 
a boon to the Fuggers, who controlled silver 
and copper mines. Southern Germany 
gained from the disruption of communica- 
tions through France and, later, from the 
ruin of Venetian and Florentine banks. 
Barcelona inherited some of the trade 
which had slipped from Pisa. Antwerp fell 
heir to the commerce, though not to the 
industry, of other Flemish towns. Some of 
these successes were fleeting. Others lasted 
as long as the Renaissance. None of them, 
however, was as durable as had been the 
commercial and industrial blossoming of 
Italy and Belgium or the prime of English 
and French agriculture in the high Middle 
Ages. Qualitatively and quantitatively the 
compensations fell short of the deficiencies. 

Economic historians are usually expected 
to back their statement with figures. These 



are not easily tested for a period which had 
not yet learned how to use statistics for the 
information of friends and the misinforma- 
tion of enemies. Still what statistical data 
we have are reliable enough as indications 
of trends in growth or decrease, if not as 
absolute indexes of size. Here arc some 

In 1348 the population of England was 
at least 3,700,000. In the early fifteenth 
century it plunged as low as 2,100,000. 
Then it rose slowly, but as late as 1545 it 
was still half a million short of the pre- 
Renaissance level. Yet England suffered 
comparatively little from war, and presum- 
ably was less affected by the economic 
slump than were some more advanced 
countries. Again, Florence in the time of 
Dante had more than 100,000 inhabitants, 
but no more than 70,000 in the time of 
Boccaccio, and approximately the same 
number in the time of Michelangelo. 
Zurich, a typical middle-size town, fell from 
12,375 inhabitants in 1350 to 4,713 in 
1468. Similar declines can be measured for 
the larger part of towns and countries. As 
for the often cited compensating factors, 
Antwerp, the one Belgian town whose 
population increased in the Renaissance 
while that of all the others decreased, in 
1526 had 8,400 houses. There still were as 
many houses in Bruges, its ruined rival. 
Again, Catalonia, one of the few countries 
which continued to grow after the early 
fourteenth century, rose from 87,000 to 
95,000 homesteads from 1359 to 1365. But 
it declined to 59,000 in 1497, and it was 
still down at 75,000 in 1553. 

To turn to another kind of figures, the 
incoming and outgoing wares subject to 
tax in the port of Genoa were valued at 
3,822,000 Genoese in 1293. The figure 
fell to 887,000 in 1424. In 1530 it was 
still more than one million short of the 
1 293 level, in spite of the fact that the pur- 
chasing power of the pound had greatly 
declined in the interval. Again, the aggre- 
gate capital of the main house and seven 
of the eight branches of the Medici bank 
in 1458 was less than 30,000 florins, 

whereas the capital of the Peruzzi bank in 
the early fourteenth century had risen 
above the 100,000 florin mark. Yet the 
Medici company in the Renaissance tow- 
ered above all other Florentine companies, 
whereas the medieval Peruzzi company was 
second to that of the Bardi. Similarly, the 
combined fortunes of the three richest 
members of the Medici family in 1460 were 
valued at only fifteen per cent more than 
the fortune of one Alberti merchant a hun- 
dred years earlier. As for the so-called com- 
pensating factors, it is true that in 1521 
Jakob Fugger the Rich obtained from Em- 
peror Charles V an acknowledgment of 
debt for 600,000 florins. But in the early 
fourteenth century the English king owed 
the Bardi company an equal sum, according 
to English documents, which probably un- 
derestimated the debt, or 900,000 florins ac- 
cording to Villani, who may have overesti- 
mated it. In addition, the English king 
owed the Peruzzi company a sum two 
thirds as large. 

The woolen industry affords the best ex- 
amples in regard to manufacturing because 
it worked chiefly for an international mar- 
ket. Without leaving Florence, we note that 
in 1378 the weavers went on strike to de- 
mand of the industrialists that they should 
pledge a minimum yearly output of 24,000 
pieces of cloth. Forty years earlier the 
yearly output had been between 70,000 
and 80,000 pieces. Yet the depression did 
not hit Florence as hard as Flanders, her 
greater rival. The slow growth of English 
woolen industry, which occurred at the 
same period, was far from compensating 
the decline of production in the other major 
centers. Total export figures very seldom 
exceeded 50,000 pieces, and usually were 
not higher than 30,000. 

It is harder to put one's finger upon 
agrarian figures. But we may regard as suit- 
able examples the contraction of cultivated 
areas and the falling prices of agricultural 
products in a time of general monetary in- 
flation. In Prussia the price of rye fell by 
almost two thirds between 1399 and 1508. 
In England the price of grain declined by 

Hard Times and Investment in Culture 


forty seven per cent between 1351 and 
1500, and that of cattle and animal prod- 
ucts declined by thirty-two per cent. "Of 
the 450 odd [English] manors for which 
the fifteenth-century accounts have been 
studied, over 400 show a contraction of land 
in the hands of tenants." In Gascony after 
1453 "thirty per cent of the rural villages 
were ravaged or seriously damaged." The 
plain of southern Tuscany, which had been 
reclaimed in the high Middle Ages, now 
relapsed to its previous condition of a 
malaria-ridden waste. In Castile the most 
powerful company of sheep owners in 1477 
owned 2,700,000 sheep, or roughly a sheep 
for every other inhabitant of the country. 
Figures of this kind, and the frequent re- 
ports about starvation and vagrancy, more 
than offset what information we have on 
agricultural progress in some parts of Lom- 
bardy and the introduction of some new 
plants to France. 

I hope I have said enough to show that 
the Renaissance was neither an economic 
golden age nor a smooth transition from 
moderate medieval well-being to modern 
prosperity. I have fired only a small part 
of the available ammunition; still less would 
have been needed but for the fact that the 
newer findings of economic historians do 
not easily pierce the crust of preconceived 
impressions. Is it necessary to add that no- 
body should jump to the opposite conclu- 
sion and contend that the coincidence of 
economic depression and artistic splendor 
in the Renaissance proves that art is born 
of economic decadence? I do not think it is. 
We have just seen that the peak of medie- 
val economy coincided with the zenith of 
medieval art. 

A more insidious path would be open to 
straight economic determinism if someone 
invoked the overwrought theory of cultural 
lags. Cultural-lags, as everybody knows, are 
ingenious, elastic devices to link together 
events which cannot be linked by any other 
means. Someone might suggest that a cul- 
tural lag bridged the gap between the eco- 
nomic high point of the thirteenth century 
and the intellectual high point of the fif- 

teenth, so that the intellectual revolution 
of the Renaissance was a belated child of 
the commercial revolution of the Middle 
Ages. What should one answer? Personally, 
I doubt the paternity of children who were 
born two hundred years after the death of 
their fathers. To be sure, the Renaissance 
utilized for its development the towns 
which the Middle Ages had built, the phi- 
losophy which the Greeks had elaborated, 
and nearly everything else that mankind 
had contrived ever since Neanderthal; but 
its way of life was conditioned by its own 
economy and not by the economy of the 

There is no heap of riches and no depth 
of poverty that will automatically insure or 
forbid artistic achievement. Intellectual de- 
velopments must be traced primarily to 
intellectual roots. But that docs not at all 
mean that they are independent of eco- 
nomic conditions. The connection is not a 
direct and crude relation of cause and 
effect. It is a complicated harmony in which 
innumerable economic factors and innum- 
erable cultural factors form together a still 
greater number of chords. That some of 
them are incongruous or dissonant should 
not surprise us. Every age is full of 

We have a unison rather than an accord 
when the literature and the art of the Ren- 
aissance make direct allusions to the trou- 
bled economic circumstances. Machiavelli 
in his History of Florence is well aware of 
the crisis, its causes and its manifestations. 
Martin Luther inveighs against the conse- 
quences of economic causes which he does 
not clearly perceive. The anonymous author 
of Lazarillo de Tormes embraces in his sym- 
pathetic irony the disinherited of all social 
classes. Agrippa d'Aubigne described in 
Biblical terms the terrible sufferings of 
France. Donatello and Jerome Bosch crowd 
their bas-reliefs and their paintings with 
portraits of starved persons. The enumera- 
tion could continue, but it would bring 
little light to the interrelation of economics 
and culture. What we look for is not the 
direct image of economic facts, but the in- 



direct repercussions of these facts on the 
development of ideas. 

Of the many connections that might be 
suggested, some arc too far-fetched and 
dubious for an earthly economic historian 
to take stock of them. For instance, some 
clever contrivance might be found to link 
together economic rationalization and intel- 
lectual rationalism. One might compare 
the clarity and symmetry of Renaissance 
double-entry books of accounting to the 
clarity and symmetry of Renaissance build- 
ings. But the Renaissance also created such 
poems as that of Ariosto, which is anything 
but symmetrical, and such philosophies as 
that of Marsilio Ficino, which is anything 
but clear. Moreover, double-entry account- 
ing was not a monopoly of the Renaissance. 
It made its first appearance in the early four- 
teenth century, if not earlier, and it is still 
used today. Perhaps we should leave these 
lofty comparisons to the examination book 
which I cited at the beginning. 

More definite connections probably ex- 
isted between specific economic factors and 
some themes or fashions in the literature, 
art, and thought of the Renaissance. Con- 
sider, for instance, the theme of the Wheel 
of Fortune, which is one of the refrains of 
the age. To be sure, the blind goddess at 
all times has exercised her influence upon 
all forms of human activity. But her sway 
has seldom been as capricious and decisive 
as in the Renaissance, when gambling was 
one of the principal means of making a 
fortune, and when ill fortune alone could 
unseat the fortunate few who were sitting 
pretty. Then consider the vogue of pastoral 
romance and the fresh interest in country 
life. The country always has its fans and 
its idealizers. Still its charm must have 
been particularly alluring to merchants who 
returned to the country after generations 
of rush to the city. They found there not 
only a better investment but also a healthier 
atmosphere and a more sincere way of life. 
Again, the list could easily be lengthened, 
but it might seem an anti-climax to those 
who are waiting for a comprehensive inter- 
pretation of the interplay of economy as a 

whole and culture as a whole. I shall not at- 
tempt to concoct a catch-all formula, which 
would only conceal the endless variety of 
actions and reactions. No harm is done, 
however, if the discordant details are 
grouped in tentative generalizations. 

We have seen that the essential phases 
of Renaissance economy were first a depres- 
sion, then stabilization at a lower level than 
the highest medieval summit. The implicit 
opposition between those two trends, de- 
pression and stabilization, may perhaps 
help us to understand a certain dualism in 
the general outlook of the Renaissance. 
Note that I said "may help to explain," not 
"explain." I am not postulating direct 
causes, but what my brilliant colleague, 
Mr. Ferguson, would call "permissive or 
partially effective causes." Some Renais- 
sance men were pessimists: they thought 
of the lost heights rather than of the at- 
tained platform. Others, especially those 
who had managed to settle down in suffi- 
cient comfort, felt that they had definitely 
and finally arrived. 

The pessimists may not have been the 
larger group, but they seem to have in- 
cluded some of the most significant per- 
sonalities, ranging from Savonarola to 
Machiavelli, from Leonardo da Vinci to 
Michelangelo, from Diirer to Cervantes, 
from Thomas More perhaps to William 
Shakespeare. It would be useless to list 
more names without accounting for their 
inclusion, but I may be allowed, as an eco- 
nomic historian, to point out some of the 
intellectual aspects of depression. Some 
pessimists joined the medieval preachers in 
demanding an earnest return to God, or 
they imitated the pagan writers in exalting 
the golden age of primitive mankind. 
Others maintained that all human history, 
or indeed the history of the universe, is a 
succession of cycles in growth and decay, 
with no hope for permanent progress. 
Still others built political theories upon the 
assumption that men are basically gullible 
and corrupt, and that a statesman must 
adapt his strategy to human imperfection. 
Similar assumptions underlay many trage- 

Hard Times and Investment in Culture 


dies, comedies, and novels. Quite a few 
pessimists voiced the plight of the poor and 
the weak, or portrayed them in the back- 
groundbut seldom in the forefront, be- 
cause the forefront was reserved for the 
rich and the strong who purchased the 
work of art. A number invoked death or 
sleep, the brother of death. A larger num- 
ber sought an escape from reality, not in 
Heaven but in a world of artistic, literary, 
philosophical, or even mathematical dreams. 
All of these diverse trends may of course 
be detected during any historical period, 
but they seem more pronounced during the 
Renaissance. It is easier to link them with 
economic depression than with any other 
economic trend. 

The optimists in the Renaissance were 
not as different from the pessimists as one 
might think at first. Usually they shared 
with the pessimists a widespread belief in 
the flow and ebb of civilization, and a tend- 
ency to look for an ideal of perfection in 
the past and not in the future. Their stand- 
ard, however, was nothing like the coarse 
emotionalism of the Middle ftgcs or the 
naive primitivencss of the mythical Golden 
Age. It was classic antiquity another age 
of stability and poise in aristocratic refine- 
ment. The optimists thought that antiquity 
had been one of the high tides in human 
history, and that their own time was an- 
other high tide, intimately close to antiquity 
and utterly unrelated to the recent past. 
Now was the time to stretch one's hand for 
the riches which the high tide brought 
within reach. One could be Horatian and 
pluck the rose of youth and love before her 
beauty had faded. One could be more am- 
bitious and make every effort to compre- 
hend, fulfil, and enjoy the greater wealth 
which was now accessible to men freed 
from instinct and ignorance. Private indi- 
viduals and political leaders were equally 
impatient. Their drive for self-fulfillment 
was humanitarian and peaceful so long as 
they strove to discover and develop their 
own self, their own moral and material re- 
sources. But it had to become aggressive 
individualism and political ruthlessness 

when success depended upon conquest of 
resources claimed by other individuals or 
nations. All of these characteristics, too, 
can be found in other ages, but they seem 
to predominate in the Renaissance. They 
are not surprising in an economic stagna- 
tion which still offers a good life to the 
elite but little hope for the outcast. 

The moods of the Renaissance are so 
many and so various that they seem almost 
to defy definition. That is exactly why the 
Renaissance looks so modern to us it was 
almost as rich and diversified as the con- 
temporary scene. One important modern 
trait, however, was lacking. Most of its 
exponents had little faith and little interest 
in progress for the whole human race. In- 
deed this idea seems to be germane to eco- 
nomic expansion. The religious ideal of 
progress of mankind from the City of Man 
towards the City of God hardly survived 
the end of the commercial revolution and 
the failure of social revolts in the fourteenth 
century. In the later period, even the most 
pious men tended to exclude forever from 
the City of God the infidel, the heretic, 
and frequently all but a handful of Catho- 
lic ascetics or Protestant militant men pre- 
destined for salvation. The secular ideal of 
progress of mankind through the diffusion 
of decency and learning was seldom empha- 
sized before the late sixteenth century, 
when economic stagnation began at last to 
be broken. In between there were nearly 
two hundred years the core of the Renais- 
sance during which any hope for progress 
was generally held out, not to the vulgar 
masses but to individual members of a small 
elite, not to the unredeemable "barbarians" 
but to the best representatives of chosen 

Contrary to widespread popular belief, 
the society of the Renaissance was essen- 
tially aristocratic. It offered economic, in- 
tellectual, and political opportunities to 
only a small number. But it lacked a uni- 
versally accepted standard of nobility. The 
commercial revolution of the high Middle 
Ages and the social changes connected with 
it already had undermined the aristocracy 



of blood. The great depression of the mid- 
fourteenth century, and the stagnation 
which followed shook the security and 
whittled down the income of the aristoc- 
racy of wealth. Blood and money, of course, 
were still very useful they always are 
but neither insured durable distinction by 
itself. Too many landowners, merchants, 
and bankers had lost or were threatened 
with losing their wealth, and high birth 
without wealth was of little avail in the 
age which has been called "the heyday of 
illegitimate children." Neither was there 
any recognized hierarchy of states and na- 
tions. The Holy Roman Empire of the 
Germanic people had fallen to pieces; the 
Papacy had come close to total dissolution; 
France and England rose and fell many 
times; the Italian city-states witnessed a 
stunning series of coups d'etat and muta- 
tions of fortune. 

Perhaps this was why culture, what we 
still call humanistic culture, tended to be- 
come the highest symbol of nobility, the 
magic password which admitted a man or 
a nation to the elite group. Its value rose 
at the very moment that the value of land 
fell. Its returns mounted when commercial 
interest rates declined. Statesmen who had 
tried to build up their power and prestige 
by enlarging their estates now vied with 
one another to gather works of art. Business 
men who had been looking for the most 
profitable or the most conservative invest- 
ments in trade now invested in books. The 
shift was more pronounced in Italy because 
in Italy business men and statesmen were 
the same persons. And it is in this field, I 
believe, that we can most profitably investi- 
gate the relation between economic and 
intellectual trends of the Renaissance. We 
ought to explore briefly the increased value 
of humanistic culture as an economic 

Quite probably the increase was relative 
and not absolute. It is doubtful that the 
Renaissance invested in humanistic culture 
more than any period of the Middle Ages. 
The precious metals which early medieval 
artists lavished in their works were a stag- 
gering proportion of the available stocks of 

gold and silver. The cathedrals and castles 
of the twelfth century probably absorbed a 
greater amount of raw materials and man- 
power-hours than the churches and palaces 
of the Renaissance. Medieval universities 
were far greater investments, in strictly 
economic terms, than the humanistic 
schools. But universities, cathedrals and 
castles were not built primarily or, at 
least, not exclusively for the sake of pure 
humanistic culture. Universities aimed at 
preparing men for professional careers, such 
as those of clergyman, lawyer, and physi- 
cian. Castles were insurances against acci- 
dents in this life. It is not surprising that 
shrewd rulers and thrifty business men 
were prepared to invest part of their capital 
in functional works of art and in practical 

The investment, however, often was in- 
versely proportional to the intensity of busi- 
ness spirit. We have noted that northern 
France, the home of most of the largest 
cathedrals, was one of the retarded coun- 
tries in the commercial revolution. Let us 
now point out that cathedrals in northern 
Italy and Tuscany were usually smaller 
than those of France. Paris had the largest 
faculty of theology, whereas Italian univer- 
sities stressed the more practical studies of 
law and medicine. Genoa, perhaps the most 
businesslike town in medieval Italy, had 
one of the smallest cathedrals and no uni- 
versity at all. Yet its inhabitants were pious 
and its merchants were quite cultured. Very 
many had gone to business schools and a 
good number had been graduated from a 
law school. But the state was run as a busi- 
ness proposition and good management 
warned against immobilizing too many re- 
sources in humanistic culture, which was 
functional only to a limited extent. 

The evolution from the state as a busi- 
ness affair to the state as a work of art, if 
I may still use the Burckhardtian formula, 
went together with the depression and the 
stagnation of the Renaissance. The decline 
of aristocracy and the recession of plutoc- 
racy left a gap through which culture, that 
other noblesse, could more easily shine. 
That culture was placed so high higher, 

Hard Times and Investment in Culture 


perhaps, than at any other period in history 
is the undying glory of the Renaissance. 

The transition was smooth because the 
seeds had been planted in the high Middle 
Ages. Already in the thirteenth century, 
culture was a creditable pastime to the 
nobleman and a useful asset to the mer- 
chant. It was then the fashion for kings 
and courtiers to write elegant lyric poems 
or to have them written by the Robert Sher- 
woods of the time on very subtle matters 
of love and courtship. So did the mer- 
chants who traded in and ruled over the 
Italian towns. They did still more: they 
elaborated a formula which vaguely antici- 
pated the Renaissance notion that humanis- 
tic culture is the true noblesse. Real love, 
polite love they said can dwell only in 
a gentle heart. Though a gentle heart is not 
yet the well-rounded personality of the 
Renaissance, it resembles it in at least two 
ways. It is unconnected with birth or 
riches, and it is attainable by cultivating 
one's soul. Again, the Italian bourgeois of 
the thirteenth century were not content 
with building substantial houses with ca- 
pacious storage rooms for their merchandise 
and with high towers from which to pour 
boiling oil on the lower towers of their 
neighbors. They embellished their homes as 
much as they could without diminishing 
the width of the storage rooms and the 
height of the towers. But a merchant of 
the thirteenth century would have been ill 
advised if he had neglected the expanding 
opportunities of trade for the pursuit of 
humanistic culture. He was too busy 
making money to consider lyric poetry and 
home decoration as a full-time occupation. 

During the Renaissance many merchants 
were less busy or, at least, thought they 
could spare more time for culture. In 1527 
a Venetian merchant and ambassador was 
somewhat shocked at seeing that in Flor- 
ence "men who govern the Republic sort 
and sift wool, and their sons sell cloth and 
engage in other work including the lowest 
and dirtiest." But this race of men was 
gradually dying out in Florence, as it had 
in Venice. More frequently the Italian 

merchant princes of the Renaissance had 
employees and correspondents who did the 
dirtier work for them. 

Let us take a great merchant, indeed the 
head of the world's greatest financial or- 
ganization in the fifteenth century, Lorenzo 
the Magnificent. He was at the same time 
the head of the Medici bank, the un- 
crowned king of Florence, a patron of art, 
and a poet in his own right. His record 
shows that, unlike his medieval forefathers, 
he was an amateur in business and a pro- 
fessional in literature. His mismanagement 
of the bank, or, rather, the mismanagement 
of the men he intrusted with running it, 
precipitated its downfall. But his patronage 
of the arts gave his illegitimate power a halo 
of respectability. His poems endeared him 
to his subjects at least, to those who had 
not been involved in the failure of the bank 
and made him famous among intellectual 
aristocrats throughout the world. Niccolo 
Machiavelli, the great historian of Florence, 
lauded Lorenzo for governing the state as 
an artist but blamed him for his poor con- 
duct of business. Yet was this shortcoming 
not the inevitable counterpart of his artis- 
tic achievements? Today we no longer 
suffer from the ruin of the Medici bank, 
while we still are enchanted by the verse 
of Lorenzo de Medici. It is easier for us to 
be indulgent and to observe that business 
at that time was so bad that even a skillful 
management would not have brought many 
dividends. Perhaps Lorenzo may be for- 
given for overlooking some opportunities to 
invest in trade at five per cent interest since 
he invested in art at a rate which will never 
be exhausted. 

One might even contend that investment 
in culture drove the Renaissance to un- 
timely death. To obtain money for the 
building of Saint Peter's in Rome, the only 
Renaissance church that probably repre- 
sented a greater investment in material and 
manpower than any of the Gothic cathe- 
drals, Pope Leo X another Medici pro- 
claimed a special indulgence. The sale of 
indulgences was the spark which ignited 
the Reformation. . . . 




Before taking issue with Professor Hans 
Baron in connection with his review of 
Professor Labande's L'ltalie de la Renais- 
sance (AHR, January, 1956, pp. 385-87), 
I want to stress that I value very highly 
everything that comes from his pen, includ- 
ing the review. But I am not fully con- 
vinced by his definitions of what he calls 
"les donnees esscntielles" of the problem, 
that is, presumably, the uncontrovertible 
generalizations upon which all works 
should be based. 

Since economic history is the field with 
which I am more familiar, I shall limit my 
remarks to it. Professor Baron's objection 
to Labande's "assertion of an all-engulfing 
economic decay" would find little support 
with the majority of economic historians 
unless, of course, "all-engulfing" means 
"total and unrelieved," which is a far more 
radical position than Labande's. For in- 
stance, in the latest general work on the 
subject, Cambridge Economic History of 
Europe, II (1952), several scholars of two 
countries, each of them writing without 
contact with the others, agreed in a verdict 
of general decline. Much the same outlook 
prevailed in the Third International Con- 
vention of Renaissance Studies (Florence, 
1952) and at the Tenth International Con- 
gress of Historical Sciences (Rome, 1955), 
albeit in both cases there were expressions 
of dissent and many qualifications. That 
every generalization must be qualified is a 
truism which should not impair the validity 
of the generalization. Thus, in the face of 

a widely documented demographic stagna- 
tion or regression, it does not seem vitally 
important that "marriages and births did 
not decline everywhere" (incidentally, of 
the four authorities quoted by Baron to this 
effect Barbagallo was a supporter of the 
decay theory, von Beloch had no figures for 
the Middle Ages, and Pieri is a political, 
not an economic, historian; moreover, Fer- 
nand Braudel is probably the greatest spe- 
cialist of early modern economic history, 
but his research has never gone farther back 
than 1492). As for the fact that "public 
debt in Venice and Milan decreased," the 
identification of prosperity with balanced 
budgets is not a bipartisan economic dogma. 
There are those who will be more impressed 
by the collapse of nearly all Venetian banks 
and by the fatal inadequacy of Milanese 
military expenditures. 

Without going into further detail I 
would like to submit that there is a cultural 
lag between the findings of economic his- 
torians and those of political or intellectual 
historians. The lag is unfortunately broad- 
ened by the fact that the latter would prefer 
to believe in a great economic upswing to 
sustain the intellectual blossoming of the 
Renaissance. Who knows? Further research 
in economic history may in the future give 
them some comfort. But until and unless 
this happens, we have to take stock of the 
now prevalent theory that the Renaissance 
witnessed a deep economic crisis though 
not a total catastrophe (are there any total 
catastrophes in history?), and that in spite 

From "Communication," The American Historical Review, LXI (1956), pp. 1087-89. By permission 
of the editor of The American Historical Review. 


Communications to the Editor of the American Historical Review 63 

of many local, partial, or temporary gains 
it represented an anticlimax or at least a 
phase of slower development after the 
quicker progress of the medieval commer- 
cial revolution. Naturally this should not 

prevent Professor Baron's siding with the 
minority of economic historians who deny 
the existence of the crisis provided he 
warns the reader that is only a minority 


1 am glad that Professor Lopez in such a 
friendly and generous fashion broaches a 
problem that has troubled me since, in the 
"Renaissance Symposium" of the Metropoli- 
tan Museum of Art in 1952, he first made 
"preconceived impressions" responsible for 
widespread hesitation to subscribe to the 
theory that the economic depression which 
started with the fourteenth century con- 
tinued in the Italy of the Quattrocento. In 
his stimulating Symposium paper, Lopez 
argued: under the impact of the retrogres- 
sion, even in Italy areas previously culti- 
vated were abandoned; economic freedom 
decreased as guilds were closed to new- 
comers; the rich grew richer and the poor, 
poorer; and these experiences influenced 
Renaissance thought, by engendering pessi- 
mism, as in Machiavelli, and a belief in a 
cyclical flow and ebb of culture. 

Is this provocative theory, either in toto 
or in part, shared by the majority of present- 
day economic historians? From their pub- 
lished statements it would be impossible to 
gain this impression. The only extant com- 
prehensive descriptions of the economic sit- 
uation in Renaissance Italy, by G. Luzzatto 
and C. Barbagallo, revised as late as 1955 
and 1952, include a wealth of evidence not 
only of successful Quattrocento compensa- 
tions for fourteenth-century losses in bank- 
ing, trade, and industry, but also of exten- 
sion and amelioration of the cultivated land 
a definite expansion of Italian agriculture 
after 1400, as C. M. Cipolla has recently 
maintained. . Domination of economic life 
through the guilds, according to Luzzatto, 
was weakened by "una tendenza verso una 
maggiore liberta economica" than had ex- 
isted before the Quattrocento and was to 
exist after 1550. According to Barbagallo, 
the Quattrocento saw a "wider diffusion of 

medium fortunes" than had been known 
previously; and if we follow the account of 
the conditions of the industrial and agricul- 
tural workers by P. S. Leicht (1946), we 
have no reason to assume a lowering of 
wages in purchase power. As for the "de- 
cay" recognized by Barbagallo, he was 
thinking essentially of the economic de- 
struction caused by the wars of the late 
Renaissance after the 1480's; and even 
there he may have exaggerated the decline, 
as I have pointed out in Bibl. d'Hum. et 
Ren. XVII (1955), 433 f. Regarding "the 
collapse of nearly all Venetian banks" in 
the 1490's, V. Magalhaes-Godinho (Even- 
tail . . . a L. Febvre, 1953) has suggested 
that the causes lay largely not in Venice's 
public finance but in temporary trade con- 
ditions in the East; and the catastrophe was 
followed by an impressive Venetian recon- 
struction, which is also known through P. 
Sardella's research. 

At the Ninth International Congress 
of Historical Sciences in 1950, a joint re- 
port of four economic historians (Cipolla, 
Dhondt, Postan, Ph. Wolff) acknowledged 
that in North and Central Italy the rural 
population and the agricultural output rose 
after 1400. And at the Tenth Congress, in 
1955, a five-man report (by Mollat, Postan, 
P. Johansen, Sapori, Verlinden) warned 
that the assumption of a continued depres- 
sion during the fifteenth century every- 
where in Europe might lure us into a 
"snare"; according to present knowledge, 
Italy, after having led "la premiere renais- 
sance economique" during the twelfth cen- 
tury, in the Quattrocento "aurait inaugure 
la secondc, tandis que le reste de 1'Occident 
connaissait encore la depression." 




The selection which follows is a continuation of an article previously 
introduced. In Part I (page 35) Dr. Baron examined some of the political 
contributions of the Renaissance to the modern state; here he presents 
his views on the contributions of the Quattrocento to the development 
of modern science. 

ESE observations in the field of polit- 
ical history will help to unravel the 
apparent contradictions confronting us in 
the history of Quattrocento science. Virtu- 
ally all the recent re-interpretations of 
phases of intellectual life in the fourteenth, 
fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, to which 
Professor Durand refers in his memoir, 
have used one standard of evaluation the 
question how much the authors and schools 
of thought studied contributed to the rise 
of modern natural science. But to the hu- 
manist Renaissance of the fourteenth and 
fifteenth centuries interest in natural sci- 
ence, however fundamental to the modern 
world, was as unfamiliar as the institutions 
of the modern nation-state. Natural science 
was the one great sector of intellectual ac- 
tivity that was almost wholly excluded from 
the humanistic program for almost a cen- 
tury and a half, in favor of the new study 
of man and history. It is in accord with this 
fact that Burckhardt based his evaluation 
of the fifteenth century on no excessive 
claims for any originality in the field of 
science. Partly for these, partly for personal 
reasons, he largely omitted science from his 

Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy as 
did most of the subsequent accounts of the 
period. Only in monographic contributions 
to the history of the sciences has an attempt 
been made to establish "primacies" for the 
fifteenth century in positive science also 
primacies outside the humanistic move- 
ment, notably of Toscanclli in Florence 
and of the Averroism of Padua. These 
studies in fifteenth-century science, long 
impaired by chauvinistic prejudices, as Dr. 
Durand has pointed out, have recently re- 
ceived an objective critical revision, largely 
through the efforts of American scholars. 
Closer investigation particularly such as 
made by Professors Thorndikc and Randall 
has shown that in fact no startling inno- 
vations were made before the end of the 
fifteenth century, although the ban on sci- 
ence by humanists did not prevent studies 
of the medieval type from being continued 
throughout the Quattrocento. But when 
these statements are made, what does this 
mean for the validity of Burckhardt's pic- 
ture? Apparently no errors of perspective 
have been detected in his analysis, but a 
much broader basis has been made available 

From Hans Baron, "Toward a More Positive Evaluation of the Fifteenth-Century Renaissance/' in the 
Journal of the History of Ideas, IV (1943), 27-49. By permission of the editors of the Journal of the 
History of Ideas. 


Toward a More Positive Evaluation of the Fifteenth-Century Renaissance 65 

for re-examining the meaning of the hu- 
manist disregard of science and of the cur- 
sory treatment of this sector of intellectual 
life in many modern portraits of the 

The best way to explain how temporary 
aloofness from science could foster the 
growth of humanistic thought and, indi- 
rectly, even that of later science, is to refer 
to the role played by early humanists in the 
overthrow of astrological superstition. It 
is well known that Petrarch's fight against 
the Averroists of Padua sprang to a large 
extent from his resistance to astrology, 
which permeated science in the Averroist 
atmosphere. So closely knit were astrologi- 
cal notions with the fabric of all science in 
the late Middle Ages that Petrarch, cling- 
ing to Cicero's scorn of superstition of 
every type, was almost unique in rejecting 
astrology as a whole. Against this four- 
teenth-century background one must note 
the following facts from the Quattrocento. 
When in its second half leading humanists 
as well as philosophers influenced by the 
humanist movement began to remove the 
ban on science, the result was a widespread 
return to astrology, a century and a half 
after Petrarch. Giovanni Pontano at Naples 
then worked out what may be called a sys- 
tem of astrological psychology, while Mar- 
silio Ficino in Florence contributed a type 
of astrological medicine innovations in 
the field of science that were by no means 
dead-born, but ushered in a new era of 
astrological ascendancy which, in many 
respects, was to last until the middle of the 
seventeenth century. Now it is true that 
the same terminal decades of the Quattro- 
cento saw the first systematic and conclu- 
sive attack upon astrology the famous 
books of Disputationum in Astrologiam by 
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. But this 
criticism did not come from the most ad- 
vanced scientist, but was ventured by the 
very Italian thinker who kept aloof from 
renewed contacts with science more com- 
pletely than did any of his important con- 
temporaries. What, then, was the source of 
inspiration for this epoch-making exploit? 

Professor Cassirer, in his presentation of the 
philosophy of the Renaissance, offers the 
following account: "The belief in the crea- 
tive power and autonomy of man, this 
genuinely humanistic belief, was the factor 
to triumph over astrology with Pico," not 
empirical-scientific motives, not "the new 
methods of observation and mathematical 
computation." "The first decisive blow was 
struck before these methods reached perfec- 
tion. The real motive for the liberation from 
astrology was not the new concept of na- 
ture, but the new concept of the intrinsic 
dignity of man." More recently Cassirer 
has added this perspective: "It is curious to 
consider how much harder it was for Kep- 
ler, a veritable scientific genius, to escape 
the bonds of the astrological way of think- 
ing. . . . Kepler himself could probably not 
have taken the final step, had not Pico, 
upon whom he expressly relics, preceded 
him . . . : there was needed a new attitude 
and a new sense of the world." There may 
still be some doubt, as Cassirer himself says, 
as to the extent to which lay movements 
outside Italy particularly the Devotio 
Moderna contributed their religious spir- 
itualism to the humanistic roots of Pico's 
critical assault, especially through the 
agency of Cusanus a problem of Euro- 
pean interchange to which we shall pres- 
ently return. But the essential lesson to be 
learned concerning the relationship be- 
tween fifteenth-century science and the 
cultural innovations in the Quattrocento 
scene is clear: the humanists were not en- 
tirely wrong in their belief that natural 
science in the fourteenth- and fifteenth- 
century phase had little to contribute to the 
new ideas championed by humanism. 

But with this eclipse of natural science, 
however logical under fifteenth-century 
conditions, how could humanistic culture 
have been close in spirit to modern thought? 
To ask this question is, in Dr. Durand's 
eyes, to reveal its absurdity. Yet it is a pre- 
cise parallel to the questions that we have 
tried to answer in the field of political his- 
tory. There, in fact, we observed a struc- 
ture of Quattrocento life that did in many 



respects foreshadow the modern pattern, 
despite the circumstance that certain funda- 
mentals of the modern state (nation-wide 
unity and representative government) were 
lacking in the Italian Renaissance. These 
facts should warn us to withhold judgment 
with regard to "tradition" and "innovation" 
in intellectual life, until both possible per- 
spectives that of similarities in "structure" 
as well as that of "continuity" have been 

A milestone in our knowledge of the rise 
of science, no doubt, is the discovery that 
positive scientific work, gradually expand- 
ing beyond the ancient legacy, was started 
in the late medieval schools; that in this 
way a tradition was built up which was 
still an essential element in Galileo's day; 
and that fifteenth-century Italy contributed 
but little to this coherent growth. Yet with 
our knowledge of the effects of humanistic 
thought on astrology, we must conclude 
that this discovery does not settle the prob- 
lem in all its aspects. It certainly does not 
exclude the possibility that, outside the con- 
tinuity of academic science, the Quattro- 
cento may have produced such philosophic 
views and intellectual habits as on the one 
hand could foreshadow characteristics of 
the later "scientific mind" and on the other 
in due time react on science itself. This 
means that the question still remains, to 
what extent did the general transformation 
of the cultural atmosphere in the Quattro- 
cento either anticipate or even indirectly 
influence the change from "medieval" to 
"modern" science in the sixteenth century? 

Couched in these general terms, the 
problem seems to threaten to lead us into 
that blind alley of search for an "intangible 
spirit," against which Dr. Durand warns us 
in his paper. But the vagueness disappears 
as soon as the inquiry is reduced to the 
concrete questions, how far the scientific 
revolution of the sixteenth century was a 
consequence solely of the intrinsic growth 
of thought, a product of the cooperative 
efforts of schools and academic associations; 
and how far, in the critical stage, even sci- 
ence was dependent on contemporary 

changes in moral values, religious and phil- 
osophical convictions, and on the relations 
of thought and practical experience in the 
life of those engaged in scientific pursuits. 
This problem, already attacked by recent 
students, is open to proof or disproof by 
historical evidence. Should we find essen- 
tial contributions made by factors reacting 
on science from outside, then fifteenth-cen- 
tury Italy, despite its barrenness in science 
in the proper sense, may still appear as in- 
strumental in producing the indispensable 
frame for the sixteenth-century revolution 
of science. 

The first example to be examined in this 
light concerns the possible role of the 
"Quattrocento spirit" only in part, since the 
developments of lay society and thought 
outside Italy had a large share in its intel- 
lectual formation. But as the case of Cusa- 
nus, which I have in mind, contains the 
most challenging implications for every ap- 
proach to fifteenth-century science, it has 
become a focal point for Renaissance debate 
and has been used as such by Dr. Durand. 
However, as the intellectual forces by 
which Cusanus mind was moulded were 
largely of non-Italian origin an earlier 
counterpart to the mixture of northern and 
Italian elements in Pico della Mirandola 
it should be emphasized that our charac- 
terization of the Renaissance as a "proto- 
type" of the modern world is not meant to 
imply that every aspect of modern thought 
must first have appeared in fifteenth-cen- 
tury Italy. Many well-known phases of 
Quattrocento life undoubtedly had parallels 
in the contemporary culture of other Euro- 
pean countries, and not a few characteris- 
tics of the modern mind particularly all 
those connected with the rise of a new lay 
piety found even more favorable condi- 
tions outside of Italy. Quattrocento culture 
gives the well-known illusion of a "radical 
break with the Middle Ages," because the 
peculiar structure of Italian society and its 
kinship with ancient Roman civilization 
intensified cultural change and caused so 
rapid a pace of evolution that fifteenth- 
century Italy experienced many social and 

Toward a More Positive Evaluation of the Fifteenth-Century Renaissance 67 

intellectual developments which did not 
appear in the rest of Europe until centuries 
later. Yet, even so, the Italian Renaissance 
was merely part of a greater phenomenon, 
which, in different ways, and with varying 
speed, was appearing all over Europe. 
There was constant interrelation between 
the "Italian Renaissance" and the Renais- 
sance as a movement continental in scope. 
The first great personality in whom all the 
elements of Renaissance "innovation," both 
inside and outside Italy, combined was 
Nicholas of Cusa. 

Cusanus' role in the overthrow of medie- 
val cosmology before cosmology had be- 
come a part of Renaissance interests in Italy 
has given rise to the most conflicting in- 
terpretations. Professor Durand has recalled 
the fact that certain German scholars made 
the mistake of reading "anticipations of 
Copernicus into the mystico-scicntific spec- 
ulations of Nicholas of Cusa," while they 
attributed heliocentric ideas to this mystic 
of the fifteenth century an error that has 
been bitterly assailed by Thorndikc. One 
must insist, however, that these corrections 
have settled the matter only so far as the 
time and circumstances of the emergence 
of modern astronomical concepts are con- 
cerned. The general historical problem in 
the background, the real cause of those mis- 
interpretations, is left unsolved. The intri- 
cacy of this problem is revealed by the fact 
that, although Cusanus did not have at his 
disposal, nor did he anticipate, the relevant 
astronomical data, he did develop the no- 
tion that the earth was not low and vile, 
far below the divine heavens of the stars, 
but was itself a "noble star," along with the 
others. He rejoiced over this vindication of 
the earth in words that were well known 
to and almost literally repeated by the 
founders of the heliocentric theory in the 
sixteenth century while even in the seven- 
teenth century acceptance of the Coperni- 
can system was still obstructed by the argu- 
ment that the earth, in consequence of her 
"vileness," must be in the center of the 
universe, this being the worst possible place 
and farthest removed from the incorrupti- 

ble bodies of the stars. All these facts and 
similar aspects of the Cusanus case have 
been emphatically pointed out by two phil- 
osophers who can hardly be suspected of 
having any chauvinistic axes to grind 
Professor Cassirer (in the introductory 
chapter of his Individuum und Kosmos in 
der Renaissance^) and Professor Lovejoy (in 
the chapter "The Principle of Plenitude 
and the New Cosmology," in his Great 
Chain of Being). 

From this the only plausible conclusion 
seems to be that in the case of cosmology 
the isolated study of the history of science 
leads one astray; that the perspective that 
emerged from mysticism or, better, from 
a combination of mysticism, Platonism, and 
stimuli from the Italian Renaissance for 
the evaluation of life and a metaphysical 
interpretation of the world, anticipated ob- 
servations in astronomical science leading 
to similar conceptions of the universe. 

But if in this case the growth of science 
was closely intertwined with strands of 
thought which had their origin outside the 
scientific sphere, can we believe that a pro- 
found mutation of culture and society, such 
as that which took place in Italy, would 
not have finally reacted on science in a 
similar way, on an even grander scale, and 
with more conclusive results? It is, of 
course, impossible to attempt any exhaus- 
tive inquiry into this problem within the 
compass of this critique. Moreover, the 
selection of evidence depends largely upon 
the notions of "science" that are taken as a 
standard notions that are disputed and 
must be adapted to the changing needs of 
Renaissance research by experts in the his- 
tory of science. Still, certain general con- 
clusions suggest themselves immediately 
when for the Quattrocento such problems 
are raised as have been recently discussed 
by students of the period of Galileo. 

There is no better subject to begin with 
than cosmology, as the discussion of Cusa- 
nus has revealed. It is not necessary to 
emphasize the bonds of kinship which had 
existed between the Weltanschauung of 
the Middle Ages and a type of cosmology 



which held that the heaven of the stars was 
composed of ether, an element purer than 
anything on this sinful earth; where man 
lifted up his eyes to the changeless move- 
ments of the stars signs of divine perfec- 
tion and eternal laws, for which he knew 
no parallel on earth. Not for scientific rea- 
sons alone, therefore, did the idea of the 
universe as a hierarchy composed of pure 
and less pure spheres hold the allegiance of 
medieval man. This cosmic system was con- 
sistent with this habit of thinking in terms 
of a gradational hierarchy and a static 
divine order in all spheres of life. When 
Galileo struck the final blow against this 
old cosmology, proving that the stars are 
made of stuff no different from earthly 
things, and that they follow the same natu- 
ral laws that rule the human sphere, he 
rebelled against the medieval past not only 
as a scientist, but also as a son of an epoch 
in which man rejoiced in the idea that earth 
and stars and every particle of the universe 
are equal in perfection, none degraded for 
eternity. To regard this new frame of mind 
as sufficient cause for Galileo's attempt to 
prove the operation of the same laws in the 
stellar sphere and on earth, would be to 
overstress a single factor. But the distortion 
is equal when the profound change in the 
human evaluation of life, which was a 
necessary concomitant of the transition 
from a gradational and static to a decentral- 
ized and dynamic universe, is regarded as 
negligible. When Galileo jubilantly noted 
the definite proof that this our earth is physi- 
cally one with moon and stars, non autem 
soTdium mundanarumque fecum sentinam 
esse, he knew that he was repeating the 
triumphant words of Cusanus, uttered long 
before the claim was supported by scientific 
discoveries. He also knew that he was 
transforming and expressing in exact mathe- 
matical language the lofty idea of a decen- 
tralized, infinite Nature, evolved from phil- 
osophical speculation first through the 
vitalism and panpsychism dominating biol- 
ogy, medicine, and chemistry early in the 
sixteenth century, and finally by Giordano 
Bruno's pantheistic conviction that one and 

the same divine power unfolds itself rest- 
lessly in every particle of the world. 

Today, because of the prevailing tend- 
ency to accept the coming of the mathemat- 
ical method as the decisive factor distin- 
guishing "new" from "old," Giordano 
Bruno, who once seemed to represent the 
climax of Renaissance philosophy, has re- 
ceded into the background. Yet Bruno, 
standing at the crossroads, provides the best 
evidence that genuine elements of the Ren- 
aissance went into the crucible of modern 
scientific thought. Although he failed to 
perceive the full meaning of the mathemat- 
ical method and the mathematical concept 
of the infinite, he had a firm grip on the 
cosmological idea of the infinity of the uni- 
verse, and in it found a sufficient basis for 
revolt against the Aristotelian-scholastic con- 
cepts of finite space and a finite world. 
From Bruno's work one can perceive the 
almost logical train of the phases of Renais- 
sance thought: experience of the bound- 
lessness of human passion and of the search 
for knowledge the basis common to Ren- 
aissance ethics and psychology since 
Petrarch found a corollary in the idea of 
the infinitude of the physical universe; 
while the infinitude of physical energies in 
turn needed as its vehicle, as it were, the 
infinitude of space the idea that was to 
burst asunder the concept of a static finite 
world. "Here too" quoting from Cassirer's 
description of this fundamental Concatena- 
tion of Renaissance thought "it is a dy- 
namic motive which overcomes the static 
structure of Aristotelian-scholastic cosmol- 
ogy, . . . not (yet) as a new science of 
dynamics, but as a new dynamic feeling 
underlying the cosmological outlook." 

In other words, the story of the birth of 
modern science cannot be fully told before 
inquiry is made into the causes of the rising 
tendency to see life in a "dynamic" vision; 
before it is explained how the belief in 
the universe as an immovable, God-given 
order was overcome by the idea of a de- 
centralized, infinite universe, a world in 
evolution, and so paved the way for the 
later readiness to reduce all phvsical phe- 

Toward a More Positive Evaluation of the Fifteenth-Century Renaissance 69 

nomena to a successive flux, and for the 
evolutionary views characteristic of modern 

To reconstruct this story means to find 
a place for the fifteenth-century Renais- 
sance in the rise of science. The static world 
of medieval man had inspired conviction as 
long as the idea of hierarchic order had 
reigned supreme in every field, in human 
history as well as nature. The famous doc- 
trine of four universal empires succeeding 
one another as a divinely created frame of 
history, with the Roman empire as the last, 
placed above historical flux and destined to 
endure to the end of history, was the exact 
equivalent in historical outlook of the gra- 
dation of the crystal spheres in the Ptole- 
maic system. Again, when the idea of a 
Sacrum Imperium, more "perfect" than the 
other states, was destroyed by the notion of 
a decentralized history with empires and 
smaller states all on one level of natural 
growth and decay, the revolution in his- 
torical outlook thus revealed was a precise 
counterpart to the emergence of a dynamic, 
decentralized view of nature. The intellec- 
tual and psychological effects of rebellion 
in either sphere were bound to be akin and 
to react on one another. 

But the two processes, although related 
in their meaning for intellectual life, did 
not occur at the same time. At the end of 
the Middle Ages, as in all other periods of 
history, intellectual energy was first con- 
centrated on certain sectors of life until, 
with revolutionary results achieved, interest 
shifted to other fields. By the end of the 
humanistic Renaissance of the Quattro- 
cento, a dynamic, decentralized view had 
emerged in history and political science, 
with its first great expression in the works 
of Machiavelli and Guicciardini. In the six- 
teenth century the same vision began to 
transform cosmology and, indeed, all no- 
tions of nature. Machiavelli's Discorsi sopra 
la prima deca di Tito Livio (finished, in 
substance, in 1513) and Galileo's Dlalogo 
sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (fin- 
ished in 1632) were complementary phases 
of one historical process. Both deal with 

the same problem of the dynamic vision of 
a decentralized reality; both represent the 
triumph of the vernacular, and thus of 
closer contacts with the lay world, in their 
respective fields. Finally, to the question 
why the "discovery of man and history" 
should have occurred first in the Renais- 
sance, while the "discovery of nature'* fol- 
lowed, the answer seems to be that the ex- 
perience and sentiments of the citizen of 
the Italian Commune first produced new 
conceptions of culture, politics, and history. 
When the historical outlook and the ideas 
of human nature had been remade, the 
change in perspective, in a second phase, 
would react on natural science. 

If these considerations are sound, fif- 
teenth-century Italy contributed one of the 
most decisive "innovations" to the develop- 
ment of modern science. This contribution, 
it is true, had little immediate effect on 
science, but in the broader intellectual life 
it caused the rise of those very problems and 
attitudes of mind that were to provide the 
indispensable frame of thought for the tran- 
sition from "medieval" to "modern" science, 
a hundred years later. Now one may won- 
der whether inquiry into the nature of such 
general cultural relations must be included 
in the discussion of the evolution of natural 
science and should not be left rather to the 
care of students in other fields, particularly 
in the history of philosophy. However, the 
need for specialization in practical research 
is one thing, while the need to give to indi- 
vidual results their proper place in a synop- 
tic vision of all the vital forces of a period 
is another. If it is true that mental attitudes 
and problems are apt to spread across the 
separate departments of culture, and that 
this dissemination of new concepts often 
requires the span of generations, two infer- 
ences seem inevitable : first, that no estimate 
of the forces of "tradition" and "innovation" 
in any period is reliable if based on research 
in a single field; and second, that neither 
science, nor political thought, nor any sin- 
gle cultural activity can be understood in 
its specific evolution, unless allowance is 
made for cases in which essentials of pro- 



gressive growth for instance, the aware- 
ness of natural laws, or the power to make 
casual observation and research are born 
and first elaborated in sectors of intellectual 
life remote from the particular field of our 
learned specialization. 

In historical sciences older and riper than 
the comparatively recent Renaissance schol- 
arship, integration of the results of study in 
neighboring fields has undoubtedly pro- 
gressed much farther than in present Ren- 
aissance research. A familiar example is, in 
the history of early Greece, the unraveling 
of the subtle threads connecting Ionic na- 
ture philosophy and the political thought 
of the Sophists. It may be useful to bring 
home the point by quoting the following 
account from Professor Sabine's recent 
History of Political Theory: 

At the start the fundamental [Greek] idea 
of harmony or proportionality was applied in- 
differently as a physical and as an ethical prin- 
ciple and was conceived indifferently as a 
property of nature or as a reasonable property 
of human nature. The first development of the 
principle, however, took place in natural phi- 
losophy, and this development reacted in turn 
upon its later use in ethical and political 
thought. . . . The objects that made up the 
physical world were to be explained on the 
hypothesis that they were variations or modifi- 
cations of an underlying substance which in 
essence remained the same. The contrast here 
is between fleeting and ever-changing particu- 
lars and an unchangeable "nature" whose 
properties and laws are eternal. . . . But at 
about the middle of the fifth century . . . [there 
was] a swing in the direction of humanistic 
studies, such as grammar, music, the arts of 
speech and writing, and ultimately psychology, 
ethics, and politics. . . . The Greeks had [now] 
become familiar . . . with the variety and the 
flux of human custom. What more natural, 
then, than that they should find in custom and 
convention the analogue of fleeting appear- 
ances and should seek again for a "nature" or a 
permanent principle by which the appearances 
could be reduced to regularity: 1 The "sub- 
stance" of the physical philosophers conse- 
quently reappeared as a "law of nature," eter- 
nal amid the endless qualifications and 
modifications of human circumstance. 

There is no reason why, in the fifteenth 
and sixteenth centuries of our era, the in- 
verse sequence of, first, humanism and 
politico-historical science and, secondly, 
natural science should not be interpreted in 
similar terms. When viewed in this light, 
the balance between "promise" and "preju- 
dice" in the Quattrocento will take on a 
different aspect. 

So far we have attempted to show that a 
change in the structure of intellectual life 
did have a part in the growth of positive 
science in the sixteenth century, and that 
there had been precedents in fifteenth-cen- 
tury Italy for the new frame of mind essen- 
tial in Galileo's period. With these facts as 
a background, there is more concrete mean- 
ing in the claim that the importance of the 
Quattrocento lay in a new type of thinking, 
in a fresh approach to intellectual problems, 
and not in the extent of the innovations 
that were immediately effected in the spe- 
cific sciences and arts. 

We may now add a second illustration 
one hardly less decisive, taken from the 
sociological aspects of modern science. This 
factor Dr. Durand touches upon when he 
mentions "the happy union of the hand, the 
eye, and the mind, which reached its per- 
fection in Leonardo da Vinci," i.e., the ob- 
servational and experimental work of Quat- 
trocento artists and engineers outside of 
humanism and academic science a trend 
unfortunately excluded from Dr. Duraiid's 
picture because (in his own words) the 
assessment of its "theoretical contributions 
to the whole of Quattrocento science must 
wait for further monographic research.'' But 
are we really justified, on this ground, in 
omitting an appraisal of these artist groups 
from an attempted "balance sheet" of the 
fifteenth-century Renaissance? If their 
"fruitful work," as Dr. Durand says, was 
"undeniably a chief glory of Quattrocento 
Italy," it is difficult to see how one could 
reach any fair balance between its elements 
of tradition and innovation, while eliminat- 
ing one of the most interesting potential 
factors of "innovation." Fortunately for our 
purposes, the point about these groups most 

Toward a More Positive Evaluation of the Fifteenth-Century Renaissance 71 

strongly emphasized by recent students is 
not so much their possible contribution of 
clearly defined theories, as the psychologi- 
cal and intellectual consequences of the 
appearance of foci of practical, unacademic 
investigation in the field of science. But 
before applying the sociological perspective 
of the fifteenth-century set-up, we must 
provide a framework by summarizing the 
results already gained with this approach 
for the history of science in the period of 

The import of Galileo's scientific work 
springs, roughly speaking, from two major 
achievements: his bringing to a triumphant 
conclusion the cosmological revolution that 
had been growing throughout the Renais- 
sance; and his reduction, final and irrevoca- 
ble, of science to measurement, quantity, 
and motion to mathematics working on 
data supplied by observation, checked by 
experiment. To the problems of the origin 
of this mathematical method much study 
has been given in recent years. To a degree, 
stress of mathematics as the core of true 
knowledge, had long been an element of 
Platonist cpistcmology and metaphysics. In 
the wake of Platonism, it had come to the 
fore with Cusanus, and again with Kepler, 
a fact highly emphasized by Cassircr in his 
various works. Yet, though positive science 
in its Averroist and its Ockhamite 
branches developed at the late medieval 
universities, and induction, observation, 
and even the precedents of Galileo's com- 
bination of analytic-resolutive and construc- 
tive-compositive methods gradually ap- 
peared, mathematics did not, until the 
middle of the sixteenth century, obtain its 
modern place in scientific research. In the 
School of Padua as shown by Professor 
Randall and re-emphasized by Professor 
Durand it was largely from the Latin re- 
visions of Archimedes by Tartaglia in 1543 
and by Commandino in 1558, that mathe- 
matical interests and methods slowly began 
to penetrate physical science. 

These conclusions, important and defi- 
nite though they are, seem to require some 
comment. The appearance of a convenient 

revised edition of the familiar work of an 
ancient mathematician, however eagerly 
welcomed and utilized by leading Paduan 
scholars, would not in itself explain the 
triumph of the mathematical method. The 
publication and its effects are remarkable 
rather as a straw in the wind, because they 
signalize a trend of interest which was de- 
veloping in the second half of the sixteenth 
century. The origin of Tartaglia's interest 
in mathematics had little to do with the sci- 
ence of Padua or with any of the older 
schools. Tartaglia was a self-taught man, 
who had made all his discoveries in mathe- 
matics and mechanics in intercourse with 
practical engineers, gunners, merchants, 
and architects in northern Italy. A few 
decades later there were similar conditions 
affecting the development of Galileo. In 
his youth, unable to find an opportunity for 
mathematical training in the University of 
Pisa, Galileo acquired the mathematical in- 
terest characteristic of his later work by 
making contacts with the same type of prac- 
tical mathematics. His studies were pur- 
sued under a teacher who belonged to the 
Accademia del Disegno in Florence, a kind 
of technical institute for the preparation of 
artists, architects, and engineers. 

Thus the conclusion is suggested that it 
was contact with experimenting, practically- 
minded technicians and masters outside the 
schools that infused the decisive element, a 
fresh compound of experiment and mathe- 
matics, into late medieval science. It is this 
point that serves as a leit-motiv in the mono- 
graph on Galilei und seine Zeit published 
by Professor Olschki in 1927 a work 
which first called full attention to the con- 
nection of Tartaglia and Galileo with the 
mathematical pursuits of artists, architects, 
and engineers outside the academic circles. 
More recently, studies by Dr. Edgar Zilsel, 
still in progress, have traced the early con- 
tacts of the academic world with the new 
class of workshop engineers and foremen in 
the countries outside Italy particularly 
from the middle of the sixteenth century 
onward, when scholars first undertook ob- 
servational studies in the mines and foun- 



dries of the new capitalistic industries. 
There may be some danger of exaggeration 
in Zilsel's claim that the "decisive event in 
the genesis of science" about 1600 lay in 
the uniting of the two previously separated 
groups the educated, theoretically-minded 
"upper stratum," and the practical work- 
men in the shops and mines, the "lower 
stratum," which "added causal spirit, experi- 
mentation, measurement, quantitative rules 
of operation, disregard of school authority, 
and objective co-operation." Yet there is one 
outstanding fact which may be definitively 
inferred from Olschki's and Zilsel's find- 
ings: it is now better understood why natu- 
ral science in the modern sense depended 
on the rise of a new society, no less than 
did humanistic education and the new po- 
litical and historical sciences. The point in 
common is that the emergence of a new 
phase was everywhere bound up with the 
appearance of lay circles living a life of 
work and action from which evolved new 
practical skills and subsequently new 
theories, ideas, and evaluations of life. 
What the rise of an urban society, com- 
posed of practical men participating as 
readers and writers in a type of literature 
no longer produced for one rank only, 
meant for humanist education; what the 
reappearance of active political citizenship 
in the Italian city-states meant for political 
studies: this the emergence of groups edu- 
cated and engaged in technological pursuits 
meant for the beginnings of the new natu- 
ral science. 

Viewed in this light the Quattrocento 
reveals itself once more as a prototype of 
the modern pattern as a precursor, even 
if on a somewhat variant basis. It is true 
that the high tide for the new technical 
classes, as Zilsel emphasizes, did not come 
until the full rise of capitalism in the min- 
ing, metal and related industries in the six- 
teenth century, while fifteenth-century 
Italy clung to the "ancient distinction be- 
tween liberal and mechanical arts," with 
the one exception of painters and sculptors, 
who were "gradually detached from handi- 
craft and slowly rose to social esteem/' But 

it was in fact this exception which in the 
Quattrocento brought about the first con- 
tacts of any practical profession with scien- 
tific theory, awakening scientific interest in 
a general cultured public outside human- 
ism and the academic schools. In the con- 
ditions of Renaissance Italy the workshop 
of the artist, in fostering experimental work 
and stimulating observation and causal 
thinking, performed precisely the intellec- 
tual function that was in later centuries 
discharged by the industrial workshop and 
the scientific laboratory. 

There were in the art of the Renaissance 
several elements capable of promoting this 
effect. To begin with, a type of art that 
placed proportion first, made truth to nature 
an indispensable standard, and included in 
the work of the artist-architect town-plan- 
ning and the technique of fortifications, 
was bound to promote mathematical and 
experimental methods far beyond the reach 
of the medieval Schoolmen. Moreover, it 
was in the heart of the new urban society 
that the new technical skills were practiced. 
While passing from the detached, collcctiv- 
ist orbit of the masons' gild engaged in the 
construction and adornment of a medieval 
church, to the workshop of the "artist-engi- 
neer" in a busy Florentine street, art had in 
fact travelled a distance equivalent to that 
covered in the intellectual transition from 
the clerical atmosphere of medieval monas- 
teries and universities to the symbiosis of 
thought and action in the society of the 
Renaissance. Thanks to the pioneering 
work of Professors Olschki and Julius von 
Schlosser we are able to form a very clear 
idea of those early counting, measuring, 
experimenting masters, accustomed to pur- 
sue self-taught studies in optics, perspective, 
anatomy, and the engineering work con- 
nected with the great architectural projects 
of the Renaissance. From Florentine groups 
which included Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, 
L. B. Alberti, and Filarete, there extended 
a coherent tradition of skills and interests 
down to circles subsequently formed at the 
courts of Urbino and Milan, with the climax 
in the great figure of Leonardo. Continued 

Toward a More Positive Evaluation of the Fifteenth-Century Renaissance 73 

throughout the sixteenth century, this trend 
became an essential influence (as was said 
above) on Galileo in his youth. 

For Florence our documents permit us to 
observe the existence of constant and inti- 
mate contacts between the most diversified 
groups of citizens, including the humanist 
literati, and masters of this type working on 
technical as well as artistic projects. The 
universal curiosity aroused by the public 
competition of Florentine artists for the 
adornment of the doors of the Baptistry in 
1401 is mentioned in every history of the 
Renaissance, and the emotional appeal to 
the Florentine public of the pioneering 
problems involved in the construction of 
the cathedral dome strikingly foreshadowed 
the general interest in great technical feats 
in later centuries. Professor Krey, in a re- 
cent pamphlet, has given a convincing ac- 
count of the importance and intensity of 
this exchange between the craftsman and 
the cultured citizen, the artist and the hu- 
manist. That early humanists did not in- 
clude scientific studies in their program 
should therefore not cause us to forget this 
subtle education of Renaissance society in 
scientific interests and ways of thought. 
There was a growing effect on intellectual 
life and even on humanism in the second 
half of the Quattrocento. If it did not pro- 
duce originality in the field of natural sci- 
ence, it still reacted on the literary produc- 
tion of the mature Renaissance, providing 
writers with a scientific background which 
aided them in finding realistic ways of 
thought in many fields of literature and 
learning. In the Florence of Lorenzo de' 
Medici the Neo-Platonists as well as hu- 
manists of the type of Poliziano were all in 
intercourse with Toscanelli's circle, and the 
effects are palpable in their work. As to 
Machiavelli, his dependence on medical 
and biological ideas was demonstrated by 
O. Tammasini in his huge monograph 
thirty years ago. Had scientific pursuits as 
yet not played a part, side by side with 
classical and political interests, in the Flor- 
entine groups which influenced the growth 
of Machiavelli's thought, he would hardly 

have possessed the intellectual tools he 
needed for his naturalistic analysis of politi- 
cal disintegration and growth. 

All these factors throw light upon the 
existence of subtle interrelations between 
the "realism" of the Renaissance and the 
subsequent rise of the scientific spirit. But 
it is necessary to turn to the lonely, gigantic 
figure of Leonardo da Vinci to realize fully 
the promise for the future inherent in the 
scientific by-ways of the Quattrocento. 
Whatever may be the final verdict upon the 
thesis offered by Duhem i.e., that Leo- 
nardo as a scientist largely exploited the 
work of Scholastic predecessors it is evi- 
dent even today that by the artist of the 
Renaissance something substantial was 
added to the legacy of the Schoolmen a 
new achievement springing from the milieu 
of the artist-engineers of the Quattrocento. 
This addition was not only an advance in 
practical experimental skills; it included 
the very element which was to become the 
mark of modern science the ascendancy 
of the mathematical method. Leonardo, 
long before mathematics became the royal 
road of academic science, contended un- 
ambiguously that "no human investigation 
can be called true science without passing 
through mathematical tests/' He was con- 
vinced that any step beyond this solid 
foundation would lead to the illusion of 
understanding the substance of things, a 
knowledge of which "the human mind is 
incapable." And in place of the old hier- 
archy of sciences, with metaphysics and 
theology supreme, he first envisaged a gra- 
dation of studies in terms of the certitude 
they derived from the degree in which they 
were penetrated by mathematics. 

This sudden and unique anticipation of 
the method of modern science is, of course, 
more than an isolated fact. It points to a 
substantial affinity between Leonardo's 
vision of nature and the modern scientific 
outlook. Indeed, viewed from any angle of 
the great transition from a static-centralized 
to a dynamic-evolutionary view of life, 
Leonardo's ideas and discoveries herald the 
things to come. With him Cusanus' exulta- 



tion over the earth as one with the other 
stars the "glory of our universe," as 
Leonardo said with Cusanus led to the 
first dynamic interpretation, not only of 
the cosmos, but of nature as a whole. To 
Leonardo, in the geological history of the 
earth, the Deluge had ceased to be the all- 
determining event a counterpart to the 
eclipse of the Sacrum Imperium in histori- 
cal thought giving way to a vision of in- 
cessant flux and change. For the first time 
the geological scene of human life appeared 
as the work of oceans, rivers, winds, a world 
in which plants, animals, and men grow in 
a natural way until this planet in some 
distant future shall have become cold and 
dry, by the workings of the same natural 
forces, in the same natural cycle of growth 
and decay. It is the keenness of his per- 
ception of the dynamic rotation of nature 
from destruction to reproduction that led 
Leonardo to many of his startling discov- 
eries such as his understanding of the 
change of species in flora and fauna in the 
course of geological history, and of the in- 
cessant processes of consumption and re- 
production in all living substance. For an 
historical perspective of the Renaissance 
the most important point is not the fact 
that these discoveries along with many of 
Leonardo's technological inventions fore- 
shadowed some of the later attainments of 
science in an astounding way, but that in 
their entirety they revealed the same dy- 
namic vision contemporaneously at work in 
the remaking of political and historical sci- 
ence by Machiavelli the vision of reality 
that was to transmute cosmology and, sub- 
sequently, all positive sciences, from the 
second half of the sixteenth century on- 
ward. One may attempt to indicate Gali- 
leo's place in intellectual history with the 
three key- words of experimental observa- 
tion, mathematical method, and the dy- 
namic view of a decentralized nature. All 
these basic avenues of the later science 
Quattrocento thought had entered a 
century before, and in no half-hearted 

With this delineation of the historical 

role of the "artist-engineer" we are in a posi- 
tion to appraise, in a fresh and concrete 
way, the meaning of the claim that a new 
type of man and thought appeared with the 
Quattrocento. The older interpretations of 
the Renaissance, based on fifteenth-century 
humanism and the political conditions of 
the Quattrocento, have been repeated and 
confirmed in the investigation of a new 
sector of Quattrocento life. Wherever, we 
may say, creative individuals belonged to 
social groups which had direct contacts 
with the new life of work and action 
whether we think of the official-secretary, or 
the merchant-statesman, or the artist-engi- 
neer there the transformed relationship 
of life and thought rapidly gave to experi- 
ence, interests, and accepted values the 
shape that differentiates the modern from 
the medieval mind. 

In the perspective of present-day re- 
search, the upshot then seems to be that 
Burckhardt's analysis of the Renaissance as 
a new phase of psychological and intellec- 
tual development still holds its own. The 
definition and formulation of the results 
attainable through his approach have been, 
no doubt, modified and re-modified in the 
course of eighty years of subsequent investi- 
gation. What in Burckhardt's day appeared 
as one perspective, is now refracted in di- 
vergent strains of thought. Most of the 
students who still follow Burckhardt as a 
guide feel that his dictum of "the discovery 
of the world and of man" in the Italian 
Renaissance, i.e., his characterization of the 
period as that of the triumph of "realism" 
and "individualism," is in the light of the 
concrete problems of present scholarship in- 
complete, and needs specification. One 
group of recent students has emphasized 
the place of the Renaissance in what we 
have described as the transition from a 
static-gradational and centralized idea of 
life and the world to a dynamic-evolution- 
ary and decentralized concept of man, his- 
tory, and nature. Others, under the impact 
of increasing evidence that there was much 
of realism in medieval thought and art, feel 
it imperative to redefine the "realism" of 

Toward a More Positive Evaluation of the Fifteenth-Century Renaissance 75 

the Renaissance a redefinition which 
shifts the emphasis to the fifteenth-century 
discovery of objective laws in nature, his- 
tory, and human psychology, with the laws 
of mathematics in a place of special signifi- 
cance for the rise of science. In the last 
analysis these varied views are not alterna- 
tive, but complementary to each other. 
They represent the different avenues along 
which recent scholarship has been develop- 
ing the Burckhardtian thesis that at the 
basis of the fifteenth-century Renaissance 
there was a fundamental change in man's 
outlook on life and the world the coming 

of the "first-born among the sons of modern 

If, on the other hand, we are today more 
aware than Burckhardt of the immense im- 
portance of the continuity binding the ideas 
and institutions of the modern world to the 
medieval past, this insight neither needs 
nor has the power to undo the lesson 
learned from a century of studies of the 
Italian Renaissance. The task before us is 
increasingly to integrate the two great vistas 
opened up by medieval and Renaissance 
research, neither of which gains by their 
mutual disparagement. 



Paul Oskar Kristeller, Professor of Philosophy at Columbia Univer- 
sity, was born and educated in Germany. His research and many publi- 
cations reveal a wide and profound knowledge of Renaissance thought 
and its classical background. Much of his attention has been centered 
on the person of Marsilio Ficino as the outstanding Platonist in the 
intellectual and philosophical history of the Italian Renaissance. Professor 
Kristeller is also widely known as a special lecturer and visiting professor 
both here and abroad. 

TE "problem of the Renaissance," as it 
has been widely discussed in the last 
few decades, is largely a pseudo-problem. 
A complex historical period with a great 
variety of cross-currents, in which each 
European country and each field of interest 
underwent its own particular development, 
can hardly be interpreted in terms of a brief 
definition which would at the same time 

distinguish it from all other periods of his- 
tory. Such definitions are apt to be too 
narrow or too broad. The discussion has 
been further complicated by the tendency 
of many scholars to take the Renaissance as 
an imaginary battle-ground on which to 
fight out contemporary political, social and 
ideological conflicts, or as a test case for the 
solution of such metahistorical questions as 

From P. O. Kristeller, "The Place of Classical Humanism in Renaissance Thought," in the Journal of 
the History of Ideas, IV (1943), 59-63. By permission of the editors of the Journal of the History 
of Ideas. 



the possibility and the causes of historical 
change. On the other hand, there seems no 
doubt about the distinctive physiognomy of 
the Renaissance, and the claim that the 
very existence of "the Renaissance" has to 
be proved by a satisfactory definition of it, 
must be rejected. With the same right, we 
might as well conclude that there was no 
"eighteenth century," since we are unable 
to describe its distinctive characteristics in 
a brief definition. The best procedure would 
be rather to start with a tentative concep- 
tion of the Renaissance, and to take this 
idea as a guiding principle when investi- 
gating the actual facts and sources of the 
period under consideration. 

The question which Professor Durand 
sets out to answer is much more specific: 
what is the contribution of fifteenth-cen- 
tury Italy to the progress of natural science? 
I think the question is worth asking, and 
we must be grateful for the judicious way 
in which he has presented and evaluated 
the facts discovered through recent studies 
in the history of science. He rightly empha- 
sizes the continuity of the university tradi- 
tion, and at the same time recognizes the 
importance of the new translations from the 
Greek, as in the case of Ptolemy's Geogra- 
phy. Many other scientific translations, 
commentaries, and treatises of the fifteenth 
century are still awaiting a more detailed 
investigation, and many other branches of 
science and learning will have to be exam- 
ined. But most probably Professor Durand's 
conclusion will be confirmed, that fifteenth- 
century Italy brought no basic change in 
the methods and results of natural science, 
although it contributed numerous observa- 
tions and theories in the various fields. 

I disagree, however, with the conclusions 
for the general interpretation of the Renais- 
sance Professor Durand seems to draw from 
this result. I fully agree with Professor 
Baron's excellent definition of the relation 
between the history of science and intellec- 
tual history in general, and his emphasis on 
the powerful influence with important 
changes in other fields eventually exercised 
on the development of natural science. The 

question of tradition and innovation in 
Renaissance science cannot be definitely 
settled without taking into consideration 
the non-professional writers on science, the 
non-Italian scientists, many of whom were 
more or less indebted to the Italians, and 
possibly even the scientists of the sixteenth 
century who largely reaped what the fif- 
teenth century had sown. Moreover, sci- 
ence has not always occupied that domi- 
nating place among the other fields of 
culture which it has held during the last 
few centuries of occidental history. We can- 
not accept the claim that historical changes 
are unimportant unless they are changes in 
the field of science or immediately affect 
science. In the case of the Renaissance, the 
cultural change did not primarily concern 
science. Since Burckhardt's conception of 
the Renaissance is not based on any claim 
for a basic change in natural science, I do 
not see how it can be disproved by showing 
that actually no such basic change in sci- 
ence took place. On the other hand, I agree 
with Professor Baron that a change did take 
place in fields other than science, and that 
this change did influence the development 
of science, though indirectly and in a later 

But when I try to answer the question, 
what kind of change was characteristic of 
the Renaissance, and especially of fifteenth- 
century Italy, I find myself less in agree- 
ment with Professor Baron than with Pro- 
fessor Durand. I do believe that classical 
humanism was, if not the only, certainly 
the most characteristic and pervasive intel- 
lectual current of that period. With its 
merits and with its limitations, humanism 
pervaded more or less all achievements and 
expressions of the fifteenth century. When 
its influence declined in the sixteenth cen- 
tury, its work had been already done. The 
influence of humanism on science as well 
as on philosophy was indirect, but power- 
ful. The actual performance of the human- 
ists in these fields was rather poor. But 
they popularized the entire body of ancient 
Greek learning and literature and thus 
made available new source materials of 

The Place of Classical Humanism in Renaissance Thought 


which the professional scientists and philos- 
ophers could not fail to take advantage. 
This was important, because at that time 
occidental science and thought had not yet 
reached or surpassed the results of classical 
antiquity, and hence had still something to 
learn from the ancients. Moreover, medie- 
val science had developed in definite pat- 
terns, and the introduction of new sources 
and "authorities" eventually prepared the 
way for new methods and theories. Those 
who claim that ancient science was com- 
pletely known to the Middle Ages are as 
mistaken as those who deny that it was 
known at all. At least some of the classical 
Latin authors became more widely known 
in the Renaissance, Lucretius, for example. 
Numerous Greek manuscripts were brought 
over from the East, and more men were 
able to read them in the original. More- 
over, practically all the Greek texts were 
translated into Latin by the humanists, 
many for the first time. The question of 
how many were translated for the first time 
and whether the new translations were 
better or more influential than the extant 
earlier translations, cannot be settled by 
dispute, but only by a careful bibliography 
of the Latin translations from the Greek, 
which should include the manuscript ma- 
terials. In the field of philosophy, human- 
ism introduced most of the works of Plato, 
Plotinus, Epictetus, Diogenes Lacrtius, 
Plutarch, Lucian, as well as many works of 
the commentators on Aristotle and of the 
Greek Fathers, not to speak of the Greek 
poets, historians, and orators. In science 
the contribution may be less impressive, but 
it has still to be investigated. Archimedes 
and Hero came at least to be more widely 
known, and many of the minor mathema- 
ticians were translated for the first time. 
The Latin translations were followed by 
extensive commentaries, and by translations 
into the various vernacular languages which 
reached an ever wider public. 

The humanists were certainly not the 
only representatives of science and learning 
in the fifteenth century. On the one hand, 
there were the followers of the medieval 

traditions who carried on the work of their 
predecessors, especially at the various uni- 
versities. On the other hand, there were 
the artists and engineers who through their 
practical work came face to face with 
mathematical and scientific problems and 
sometimes made important contributions, 
as has been recently emphasized. But in 
the fifteenth century both of these latter 
groups were influenced by humanism, as 
was the general public. If the humanists 
failed to make substantial contributions to 
the various fields of traditional learning, 
they did introduce source materials and 
problems which could be applied to those 
fields. By the end of the fifteenth century, 
humanism had not indeed replaced the tra- 
ditional learning, but the representatives 
of traditional learning had absorbed the 
achievements of humanism. This accounts 
for the changes and progresses which took 
place in the sixteenth century just as 
the achievements of the artists and engi- 
neers were taken over by the professional 
scientists after the middle of that century. 
On the other hand, even the artists and 
engineers were subject to the influence of 
humanism, as Professor Baron rightly em- 
phasizes. The personal relations between 
the humanists and the artists need further 
investigation, especially as they appear from 
numerous letters and poems of the human- 
ists which have not yet been utilized for 
this purpose. The number of artists and 
engineers who made active contributions to 
science was still comparatively small in the 
fifteenth century as compared with the six- 
teenth. But the case of Leon Battista 
Alberti shows that this scientific activity of 
the artists cannot be separated from, or op- 
posed to, contemporary humanism. 

I cannot agree with those who identify 
these artists with the general public of the 
unlearned or who make a sharp contrast 
between the "Academic" humanists who 
wrote in Latin, and the "popular" writers 
who used the vernacular language. Those 
artists who also wrote scientific treatises cer- 
tainly had some learning beyond that of 
the general public, and drew something 



from the professional learning of their time, 
whether it was in the medieval or in the 
humanistic tradition. The humanists them- 
selves, no less than these artists, impressed 
the popular imagination of their time, as 
many anecdotes show. Since this was a 
matter of fashion, no real understanding 
on the part of the public was required. If 
today many admire the achievements of 
modern science without understanding its 
methods, we may well grant that in the 
early renaissance many admired the human- 
ists without understanding their Latin. 
Moreover, the question of language is less 
important for our problem than might be 
supposed. In the fifteenth century there is 
abundant evidence for the mutual influence 
between vernacular and Neo-latin litera- 
ture, and when the vernacular definitely 
won out in the sixteenth century, it had 
already absorbed the characteristic achieve- 
ments of humanism, in style, terminology, 
literary form, and subject matter. Other- 
wise, it could not have replaced Latin. 

To conclude, I should like to add to the 
statements of Professors Durand and Baron 
that by popularizing in the fifteenth cen- 
tury the works of classical antiquity, the 
humanists made an important, though in- 
direct contribution to the development of 
science and philosophy, and that this con- 
tribution bore fruit not only in the work of 

the humanists themselves, but also in that 
of the professional scientists and artists of 
their time and of the following century. All 
these statements, however, are tentative 
rather than final, and subject to further 
revision. The only thing that really counts 
in Renaissance studies is the actual investi- 
gation of the extensive source materials 
which have not yet been included in any 
extant synthesis. This investigation must 
proceed with the cooperation of all scholars 
interested in the period, regardless of their 
point of view. In this study we should try 
to eliminate so far as possible our personal 
preference for or against this or that na- 
tion, language, class, current, or field, and 
to arrive at a fair evaluation of the contri- 
bution each of them has made to the whole 
of occidental civilization. Such an evalua- 
tion will not depend wholly on the influ- 
ence, direct or distant, which each phenom- 
enon has exercised on later developments, 
but will also acknowledge the inherent, 
"absolute" significance of many ideas and 
achievements which for some reason or 
other failed to have any visible influence. 
It is this significance, rather than any inci- 
dental sequence of changes or influences, 
which in my opinion should be the ulti- 
mate purpose of the history of ideas, if not 
of all history. 



Lynn Thorndike, widely known as a distinguished teacher and author, 
is now Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University. His many 
books and articles reveal a vast knowledge of the Middle Ages and 
especially of medieval science. He was a founding fellow of the Mediaeval 
Academy of America and of L'Academie Internationale d'Histoire des 
Sciences, and he has served as president of the History of Science Society 
(1929) and as president of the American Historical Association (1955). 


PROFESSOR Dana B. Durand has 
cused me of harbouring a personal 
antipathy to the Renaissance. Whether my 
motive is personal or rational, objective or 
subjective, conscious or subconscious, it 
must be confessed that my aversion to the 
term in question is even more sweeping 
than Durand perhaps thinks and extends 
to such catchwords as the Carolingian Ren- 
aissance and the twelfth-century renais- 
sance, as well as to the more often men- 
tioned Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth 
century or somewhere thereabouts. Reli- 
gion may have its resurrections and revivals, 
but I have even less faith than Nicodcmus 
in rebirths or restorations of whole periods 
of human history. I take my stand with the 
blind writer of Christian hymns, Fanny 
Crosby, who sang, 

But the bird with the broken pinion never 
soared so high again; 

with William Muldoon who said of former 
heavy-weight champions, 

They never come back; 
with Omar Khayyam who mused, 

The moving finger writes and having writ 
Moves on; nor all your piety nor wit 

May lure it back to cancel half a line 
Nor all your tears Wipe out one word of it; 

and with a verse from the light opera, Tom 

Time is not a necromancer; 
Time's a thief and nothing more. 

Legacies from the past? Yes. Inheritances 
from previous periods? Yes. Survivals? Yes. 
Resemblances to our forebears? Yes. Refor- 
mations? Perhaps. Reactions? Unfortu- 
nately. But no rebirths and no restorations! 
Books and works of art are about all that 
remains to us of the past. The latter are all 
too soon sadly altered, and their restoration, 
whether by some German professor or by a 
Thorwaldsen or Viollet-le-Duc, only makes 
them less like what they originally were. 
Books remain less changed by the lapse of 
time, but even their text may become cor- 
rupt, or the meaning of the very words they 
use alter in the interim. The humanists of 
the so-called Italian Renaissance had only 
a bookish knowledge of antiquity; they 
failed almost as dismally as have Mussolini 
and his Fascists to make the reality of an- 
cient Rome live again. If, even in our own 
day, all the resources of the art of history 
aided by archaeology can give us only a 

From Lynn Thorndike, "Renaissance or Prenaissance?" in the Journal of the History of Ideas, IV 
(1943), 65-74. By permission of the editors of the Journal of the History of Ideas. The documenta- 
tion of the original article has been omitted. 




faint and imperfect idea of the past, how 
can we expect actual renaissances of it or 
recognize them as such, if they were to 
occur? At the age of sixty I am perhaps 
more like myself at the age of twenty than 
I am like anyone else. But I couldn't possi- 
bly put myself back into the frame of mind 
that I had then. I have a dim recollection 
of it; my present state of mind is an out- 
growth of it; that is all. A girl of eighteen, 
dressed up in the clothes which her grand- 
mother wore when a girl of eighteen, may 
look more like her grandmother as she was 
then than her grandmother herself does 
now. But she will not feel or act as her 
grandmother felt and acted half a century 
or more ago. Much more tenuous is the 
connection between distant historical peri- 
ods, and much less likely is it that historians 
can successfully venture upon glittering 
generalities about them. Who can evoke 
from the past more than a wraith, a phan- 
tasy, a specter, which murmurs, like the 
ghost in Hamlet, "Historian, remember 

It is true that history offers examples of 
human customs which somewhat resemble 
the conception of a renaissance. For in- 
stance, at Tonalamatl in ancient Mexico 
the recurrence of the year date 2. acatl 
every 52 years was considered a critical 
occasion, it being feared that the sun might 
fail to rise next day and that the evil spirits 
might destroy the world and mankind. 
Accordingly, a festival of ceremonial fire- 
making was held. All the old fires were 
carefully extinguished and at midnight on 
the mountain top the high-priest by rub- 
bing sticks together kindled a new fire on 
the breast of a prisoner who was forthwith 
sacrificed. The new fire was then distributed 
to the temples of the surrounding cities 
and thence to the adjacent peoples. Old 
garments were thrown away and household 
dishes and utensils were broken or freshly 
painted over in token of the new lease of 
life given to mankind. But this rekindling 
and renewal was immediate, continuous, 
and perfunctory. Only a part of one night 
intervened between the two periods, not 

centuries of dark ages. There was no intel- 
lectual or spiritual rebirth. 

We might also adduce the influence 
upon our notions of revolutions and periods 
in history of the astrological theory of con- 
junctions and revolutions of the planets. 

But let us turn to the development of 
the concept of an Italian Renaissance and 
begin with the translation into Latin of 
Ptolemy's Geography in the first decade of 
the fifteenth century. Durand is inclined 
to censure the previous medieval transla- 
tors for neglecting this work. If they did 
for a previous translation may have escaped 
our notice it is to be remembered that 
after all the text in question consists largely 
of lists of ancient place-names, many of 
which cannot be identified and located with 
any assurance and are of purely historical 
and linguistic interest. Moreover, Ptolemy 
had made the Mediterranean Sea too short 
by one-third, whereas one of the medieval 
portolani is more accurate than any other 
map of the Mediterranean until the eight- 
eenth century. Concerning the Far East, 
too, and islands in the Atlantic the thir- 
teenth and fourteenth centuries were much 
better informed than Ptolemy. The transla- 
tion and subsequent vogue of his Geogra- 
phy were therefore in some ways regretta- 
ble. Be that as it may, in the dedication of 
his translation to pope Alexander V, Jacobus 
Angelus, who was a booster of his native 
town of Florence, says: 

This very age of ours, especially in our city 
of Florence, has sparkled with how many wits, 
who to their great glory have resuscitated lib- 
eral studies which had grown almost torpid. 

In the fifth volume of A History of Magic 
and Experimental Science I have given vari- 
ous examples of this notion of a resuscita- 
tion of liberal studies becoming stereotyped 
and being extended to most inappropriate 
fields, such as astronomy by Moravus and 
Santritter, chiromancy and physiognomy 
by Codes, anatomy by Vesalius, and magic 
in the case of Antiochus Tibertus. Abste- 
mius depicted pope Paul III as restoring 

Renaissance or Prenaissance? 


astrology after it had lain in darkness, dis- 
repute, barbarism and sordid squalor for 
many centuries past; Pena praised Charles, 
cardinal of Lorraine, for having resuscitated 
the prostrate mathematical sciences. Just as 
the humanists who found manuscripts of 
the Latin classics in monasteries represented 
themselves as discovering the work in ques- 
tion and rescuing it from neglect and decay, 
saying nothing of the fact that the monks 
had copied it in Carolingian times and pre- 
served it ever since, but leaving their own 
manuscripts when they died to some monas- 
tery as the safest place in which to keep 
them, so publishers who printed a text for 
the first time, even if it was a typical prod- 
uct of medieval scholasticism, represented 
themselves as snatching it from Gothic filth 
and dust and mildew and cobwebs and 
bringing it to the light of fairest impres- 
sions with the text carefully restored to its 
pristine purity and freed from barbarisms, 
when in reality they were very likely using 
a single inferior manuscript and neglecting 
a dozen older and superior versions. 

When was the word, Renaissance, first 
used? Nicolaus Prucknerus or Prugner ap- 
proached such usage when, in the preface 
to his re-edition of the ancient Roman 
astrologer, Julius Firmicus Maternus, ad- 
dressed from Strasbourg on January 28, 
1551, to young king Edward VI of Eng- 
land, he spoke of religion reviving in that 
realm (una cum renascente religione istius 
regni). But evidently he was speaking of 
the Protestant Reformation. Two years 
later, however, the French naturalist, Pierre 
Belon, in the dedicatory epistle of his Les 
observations . . . de plusieurs singularitez to 
Francois cardinal Tournon, assured him 
that, as a result of his patronage of learning 
and education of promising young scholars, 
it had followed that the minds of men, 
which were formerly as it were asleep and 
sunk in a profound slumber of long-standing 
ignorance, had begun to awake, to come 
forth from the shadows where they had so 
long dwelt, and to develop in all sorts of 
good disciplines a happy and desirable Ren- 
aissance, like plants that, after the rigors of 

winter, regain their strength with the sun 
and sweetness of springtime. 

Peter Ramus, in an oration delivered in 
1546, made the following vivid contrast be- 
tween his own and the preceding century. 
Suppose, he said, a master of a century ago 
should return to life now, what progress he 
would discover, how astounded he would 
be! He would be as surprised as one who, 
risen from depths of earth, should see for 
the first time sun, moon and stars shining 
bright. For then he heard no one speak ex- 
cept in a barbarous and inept manner, 
while now he would hear countless persons 
of every age speaking and writing Latin 
correctly and ornately. Then no one could 
read Greek, now men not only read it but 
understand it thoroughly. He used to hear 
as grammarians, poets and orators, Alexan- 
der of Villa-Dei, Facetus, the Graeciswus; 
in philosophy, Scotists and followers of 
Petrus Hispanus; in medicine, the Arabs; 
in theology, I know not what upstarts. Now 
he would hear Terence, Caesar, Virgil, 
Cicero, Aristotle, Plato, Galen, Hippocrates, 
Moses and the prophets, the Apostles and 
other true and genuine messengers of the 
Gospel, and indeed voices in all languages. 

Except for the closing allusions to ver- 
nacular translations of the Bible, this pas- 
sage well expresses the original restricted 
significance of the Renaissance as a purifi- 
cation of Latin diction and grammar, a re- 
vival of Greek, and a return from medieval 
compilers, commentators and originators to 
the old classical texts. This was all that the 
revival of learning meant to the Italian 
humanists of the quattrocento and to their 
fellows beyond the Alps, and for them it 
was enough. The mere thought of it aroused 
in Ramus a grand and glorious feeling of 
enthusiasm tempered with complacency. 
He neither sensed any change in the politi- 
cal and economic set-up nor was aware of 
any alteration in social and moral values. 

As the study and reading of Latin and 
Greek waned, however and this was partly 
because the humanists and classicists had 
substituted a dead for a living language 
fewer and fewer persons could sincerely 



share in this thrill or impart it to others. 
Such fervor as the concept of the Renais- 
sance still invoked was largely in the realm 
of the fine arts, where the term had been 
applied to the post-Gothic period. It was 
at this juncture that Michelet called the 
Renaissance "the discovery of the world and 
of man," and was followed in this lead by 
the very influential book of Burckhardt, in 
which, on what seem too often to be dog- 
matic or imaginery grounds without suffi- 
cient presentation of facts as evidence, the 
Renaissance was no longer regarded as pri- 
marily a rebirth of classical learning and 
culture but rather as a prebirth or precursor 
of present society and of modern civiliza- 
tion "a period," to quote the Boston 
Transcript (February 27, 1926) concerning 
Elizabethan England, "that witnessed the 
birth pangs of most that is worth while in 
modern civilization and government." 

This made a well-calculated appeal to 
the average reader who is little interested 
to be told that Erasmus was a great Greek 
scholar or that Leonardo da Vinci copied 
from Albert of Saxony, but whose ego is 
titillated to be told that Leonardo was an 
individual like himself or that Erasmus's 
chief claim to fame is that he was the first 
modern man the first one like you and 
me. All this was quite soothing and flat- 
tering and did much to compensate for 
one's inability to read Horace or to quote 
Euripides. It even had its appeal for pro- 
fessors of modern European history and for 
teachers of the modern languages. It ap- 
pears to be the concept of the Renaissance 
which such recent advocates thereof or 
apologists therefor as Wallace K. Ferguson 
and Hans Baron are concerned to defend, 
retreating to new standing ground by plau- 
sible hypothesis and ingenious conjecture, 
when some of Burckhardt's old bulwarks 
are proved to be untenable by new masses 
of facts concerning either or both the mid- 
dle ages and the quattrocento. But would 
it not make things clearer, if they ceased to 
employ the old name, since the old concept 
has been abandoned, and, instead of talking 
of the Renaissance, spoke of the period or 

movement or whatever it is they have in 
mind as the Prenaissance? 

With regard to the work of Burckhardt 
I may perhaps be permitted a few further 
comments. Of its six parts, the third on the 
Revival of Antiquity seems to me scholarly 
and just, recognizing the defects as well as 
the merits of the Italian humanists and 
containing many bits of illuminating detail. 
But most of the political, social, moral and 
religious phenomena which he pictures as 
Renaissance seem almost equally character- 
istic of Italy at any time from the twelfth 
to the eighteenth century inclusive. The 
fourth part on the discovery of the world 
and man uses only popular, not scientific 
literature, nor may this be dismissed as 
merely a sin of omission, since elsewhere in 
the volume are such atrocious misstatcmcnts 
as that few works of Aristotle had been 
translated into Latin by the fourteenth cen- 
tury. By including such personalities as 
Frederick II and such authors and literary 
composition as Dante and the Carmina 
burana within the Renaissance, Burckhardt 
freed the movement from the embarrass- 
ment of chronological limits and made any 
differentiation between it and medieval cul- 
ture well-nigh impossible. At bottom this 
was a wholesome tendency, equivalent to 
recognition that there is no dividing line 
between "medieval" and "renaissance" cul- 
ture, just as most historical museums have 
a single section labeled '"Middle Ages and 
Renaissance." In general, Burckhardt de- 
voted so much of his pages and energy to 
the attempt to trace intangibles, such as 
personality, imagination, passion, spirit, the 
popular mind, the feeling for this and that, 
such and such a sentiment, that his book 
hardly touches the domain of intellectual 
history and seems to possess a will-o'-the- 
wisp sort of character. 

The attraction which this kind of writing 
has for many has been well expressed by 
Professor Schevill in reviewing another 

If the modern scientific method, a well co- 
ordinated plan, and the view-point regarding 

Renaissance or Prenaissance? 


the character of the social process which ob- 
tains among present-day scholars are the indis- 
pensable requirements of a good history, it 
would have to be conceded that Mrs. Taylor's 
book stands self -condemned. But if there is 
salvation outside the ruling formulas, if a work 
may still be history, and good history, when, 
instead of building up a solid edifice of fact, it 
occupies itself with the spirit behind the facts 
in the hope of communicating the color and 
perfume of a segment of human experience, 
this book can be confidently recommended not 
only to the notoriously unscientific lovers of the 
Renaissance but to those grave and reverend 
signers, the professional historians themselves. 

The trouble is that this kind of writing is 
almost invariably based upon an insufficient 
acquaintance with the facts and misinter- 
pretation of them. Of the same genus is 
another bete-noire of mine, those writers 
who proclaim that this or that person was 
far in advance of his time, like Roger Bacon 
or Leonardo da Vinci. But should you ask 
them to name a few contemporaries of the 
person in question who were typical of that 
time, they would hardly be able to do so. 
Was the individual freed and personality 
enhanced by the Renaissance or Prenais- 
sance? Burckhardt affirmed that with it 
"man became a spiritual individual and rec- 
ognized himself as such/' whereas "in the 
middle ages both sides of human conscious- 
ness that which was turned within as that 
which was turned without lay dreaming 
or half awake beneath a common veil." It 
might be remarked that individualism may 
be a mark of decline rather than progress. 
The self-centred sage of the Stoics and 
Epicureans rang the knell of the Greek 
city-state. Basil, on the verge of the bar- 
barian invasions, complained that men "for 
the greater part prefer individual and pri- 
vate life to the union of common life." Carl 
Neumann held that "true modern individ- 
ualism has its roots in the strength of the 
barbarians, in the realism of the barbarians, 
and in the Christian middle ages." Cun- 
ningham believed that the Roman Empire 
"left little scope for individual aims and 
tended to check the energy of capitalists 

and laborers alike," whereas Christianity 
taught the supreme dignity of man and 
encouraged the individual and personal 
responsibility. Moreover, in the thirteenth 
century there were "fewer barriers to social 
intercourse than now." According to 
Schafcr, "So far as public life in the broad- 
est sense, in church and state, city and 
country, law and society, is concerned, the 
middle ages are the time of most distinctive 
individuality and independent personality 
in volition and action." We may no longer 
think of the Gothic architects as anony- 
mous, and de Mely discovered hundreds of 
signatures of miniaturists hidden in the 
initials and illuminations of medieval man- 
uscripts. No period in the history of philos- 
ophy has discussed individuality and its 
problems more often or more subtly than 
did the medieval schoolmen. Vittorino da 
Feltre and other humanist educators may 
have suited their teaching to the individual 
pupil; at the medieval university the indi- 
vidual scholar suited himself. The human- 
ists were imitative in their writing, not orig- 
inal. Vitruvius was the Bible of Renais- 
sance architects who came to follow author- 
ity far more than their creative Gothic 
predecessors. For the middle ages loved va- 
riety; the Renaissance, uniformity. 

Not only has it been demonstrated that 
the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries 
were more active and penetrating in natural 
science than was the quattrocento, but 
the notion that "appreciation of natural 
beauty" was "introduced into modern 
Europe by the Italian Renaissance" must 
also be abandoned. Burckhardt admitted 
that medieval literature displayed sym- 
pathy with nature, but nevertheless re- 
garded Petrarch's ascent of Mount Ventoux 
(which is only 6260 feet high) in 1336 as 
epoch-making. Petrarch represented an old 
herdsman who had tried in vain to climb 
it fifty years before as beseeching him to 
turn back on the ground that he had re- 
ceived only torn clothes and broken bones 
for his pains and that no one had attempted 
the ascent since. As a matter of fact, Jean 
Buridan, the Parisian schoolman, had vis- 



ited it between 1316 and 1334, had given 
details as to its altitude, and had waxed en- 
thusiastic as to the Cevennes. So that all 
Petrarch's account proves is his capacity for 
story-telling and sentimental ability to make 
a mountain out of a molehill. Miss Stock- 
mayer, in a book on feeling for nature in 
Germany in the tenth and eleventh cen- 
turies, has noted various ascents and de- 
scriptions of mountains from that period. 
In the closing years of his life archbishop 
Anno of Cologne climbed his beloved 
mountain oftener than usual. 

As for the feeling for nature in medieval 
art, let me repeat what I have written else- 
where anent the interest displayed by the 
students of Albertus Magnus in particular 
herbs and trees. 

This healthy interest in nature and com- 
mendable curiosity concerning real things 
was not confined to Albert's students nor to 
"rustic intelligences." One has only to ex- 
amine the sculpture of the great thirteenth- 
century cathedrals to see that the craftsmen 
of the towns were close observers of the 
world of nature, and that every artist was a 
naturalist too. In the foliage that twines 
about the capitals of the columns in the 
French Gothic cathedrals it is easy to recog- 
nize, says M. Male, a large number of 
plants: "the plantain, arum, renunculus, 
fern, clover, coladine, hepatica, columbine, 
cress, parsley, strawberry-plant, ivy, snap- 
dragon, the flower of the broom, and the 
leaf of the oak, a typically French collec- 
tion of flowers loved from childhood." 
Mutatis mutandis, the same statement 
could be made concerning the carved vege- 
tation that runs riot in Lincoln cathedral. 
"The thirteenth-century sculptors sang their 
chant de mai. All the spring delights of the 
Middle Ages live again in their work the 
exhilaration of Palm Sunday, the garlands 
of flowers, the bouquets fastened on the 
doors, the strewing of fresh herbs in the 
chapels, the magical flowers of the feast of 
Saint John all the fleeting charm of those 
old-time springs and summers. The Middle 
Ages, so often said to have little love for 

nature, in point of fact gazed at every blade 
of grass with reverence." 

It is not merely love of nature but scien- 
tific interest and accuracy that we see re- 
vealed in the sculptures of the cathedrals 
and in the note-books of the thirteenth- 
century architect, Villard de Honnecourt, 
with its sketches of insect as well as animal 
life, of a lobster, two parroquets on a perch, 
the spirals of a snail's shell, a fly, a dragon- 
fly, and a grasshopper, as well as a bear 
and a lion from life, and more familiar ani- 
mals such as the cat and the swan. The 
sculptors of gargoyles and chimeras were 
not content to reproduce existing animals 
but showed their command of animal anat- 
omy by creating strange compound and hy- 
brid monsters one might almost say, evolv- 
ing new species which nevertheless have 
all the verisimilitude of copies from living 
forms. It was these breeders in stone, these 
Burbanks of the pencil, these Darwins with 
the chisel, who knew nature and had stud- 
ied botany and zoology in a way superior 
to the scholar who simply pored over the 
works of Aristotle and Pliny. No wonder 
that Albert's students were curious about 
particular things. 

Finally, can we accept the altered con- 
cept of a Prenaissance as the vestibule to 
modern times and seed-bed of the modern 
spirit? Chronologically, perhaps. But, aside 
from the circumstance that modern times 
and spirit seem at present to be swiftly 
shifting, are not our political, economic, 
charitable, educational and ecclesiastical 
institutions quite as much an outgrowth 
from medieval life? Without attempting 
here to argue this larger question, 1 would 
merely recall that medieval men coined the 
word, modern, and regularly spoke of them- 
selves or the last generations of themselves 
as such. "Maurus, Matthew, Solomon, 
Peter, Urso are modern physicians through 
whom reigns the medicine of Salerno." 
About 1050 Berengar of Tours was accused 
of "introducing ancient heresies in modern 
times"; about 1108 Hugh de Fleury wrote 
his Historia moderna. "On all sides they 

Renaissance or Prenaissance? 


clamor," wrote John of Salisbury in the 
twelfth century, "what do we care for the 
sayings or deeds of the ancients? . . . The 
golden sayings of the ancients pleased their 
times; now only new ones please our times." 
When in the next century Robertus Angli- 
cus composed his treatise on the quadrant, 
it was called Tractatus quadrantis secundum 
modernos. But then improvements were 
made in the quadrant and Robert's work 
became Tractatus quadrantis veteris. Even 
scholastic philosophy had its via moderna 
as well as via antiqua. 

The concept of the Italian Renaissance 
or Prenaissance has in my opinion done a 
great deal of harm in the past and may 
continue to do harm in the future. It is too 
suggestive of a sensational, miraculous, ex- 
traordinary, magical, human and intellec- 
tual development, like unto the phoenix 
rising from its ashes after five hundred 
years. It is contrary to the fact that human 
nature tends to remain much the same in 
all times. It has led to a chorus of rhapso- 
dists as to freedom, breadth, soaring ideas, 
horizons, perspectives, out of fetters and 
swaddling clothes, and so on. It long dis- 
couraged the study of centuries of human 

development that preceded it, and blinded 
the French philosophes and revolutionists 
to the value of medieval political and eco- 
nomic institutions. It has kept men in gen- 
eral from recognizing that our life and 
thought is based more nearly and actually 
on the middle ages than on distant Greece 
and Rome, from whom our heritage is more 
indirect, bookish and sentimental, less insti- 
tutional, social, religious, even less eco- 
nomic and experimental. 

But what is the use of questioning the 
Renaissance? No one has ever proved its 
existence; no one has really tried to. So 
often as one phase of it or conception of it 
is disproved, or is shown to be equally char- 
acteristic of the preceding period, its de- 
fenders take up a new position and are 
just as happy, just as enthusiastic, just as 
complacent as ever. 

You may break, you may shatter the vase, if 

you will, 
But the scent of the roses will hang round it 


Still lingers the sweet perfume of the Ren- 
aissance; still hovers about us the blithe 
spirit of the Prenaissance. 



Douglas Bush is Professor of English Literature at Harvard University. 
The selection which follows is part of his first lecture given in 1939 under 
the provisions of the Alexander Lectureship in English of the University 
of Toronto. Ferguson considers his first lecture "an excellent general 
account, certainly the best in our language, of the history of the Renais- 
sance concept." 

A MORE recent religious interpretation 
of the Renaissance is that of Giu- 
seppe Toffanin. For him individualism, in 
Burckhardt's sense of the word, is a late 
medieval phenomenon and a short-lived 
one. Toffanin sees classical humanism 
rising, not as a contributory cause of irre- 
ligious individualism, but as an anti-indi- 
vidualistic wall of learned orthodoxy. The 
spirit of the age of transition from medie- 
valism to modernity is a faith in the pro- 
gressive and final religious and cultural 
unity of the world under the auspices of 
classical humanism. Humanism has a 
bond of union with scholasticism, for both 
originated in an anti-democratic and anti- 
heretical impulse. Like scholasticism, hu- 
manism arrested for a time the eruption of 
the various rationalistic and naturalistic 
forces which we call modern. In concen- 
trating on the Italian humanistic tradition, 
which many writers of late have tended to 
neglect or disparage, Toffanin may perhaps 
be charged, like other theorists, with a too 
narrow exelusiveness, yet to me at least 
the tradition of Christian humanism seems 
a broad and central road. Toffanin's view 
of a strong Italian orthodoxy is, I think, 
fundamentally sound, and one large result 
is the emergence of the true harmony, 

rather than the conventional differences, 
between Italian and northern humanism. 
But this subject must be postponed for the 

We may turn now to those theories 
which reject the notion of Italy as the 
matrix of the Renaissance. The only other 
country which can be set up as a rival is 
France that is, pending an official procla- 
mation from Germany of purely Teutonic 
origins. The significance of medieval French 
culture was already a commonplace in the 
time of Pater's volume, and some modern 
scholars have urged that the Renaissance 
was not Italian and of the fifteenth century, 
but French and of the twelfth. All the 
manifestations of ripe culture found in Italy, 
from conversation to cathedrals, are found 
in France at an earlier date civilized towns 
and polished courts; cultivated society in 
which women play an important role; an 
abundant and sophisticated literature; 
achievements in the fine and useful arts; 
and so on. In many things, such as the 
romances of chivalry and the lyrical poetry 
of love, France is the teacher of Italy. Even 
the classical primacy of the Italians may be 
questioned. Old French literature shows 
wide and intelligent knowledge and adap- 
tation of the Latin classics. The classical 

From Douglas Bush, The Renaissance and English Humanism (Toronto, 1939), pp. 24-38. By per- 
mission of the University of Toronto Press. 


The Renaissance and English Humanism 


revival under Charlemagne, which caused 
Bishop Modoin to exclaim that golden 
Rome was reborn for the world, was carried 
on in such centres as Chartres and flowered 
in the great renaissance of the twelfth cen- 
tury. This early renaissance was of major 
importance on the classical side and it was 
still more important in the development of 
philosophy, science, and mathematics. And 
all this fertile activity is going on in France 
before Italy is well awake. As even a sum- 
mary partly indicates, this thesis can be car- 
ried to extreme lengths, as it has been by 
Job an Nordstrom, and we find a French 
scholar declaring, for instance, that until 
the sixteenth century English literature was 
hardly more than an offshoot of French! 
But even chauvinistic claims may have an 
ultimately salutary effect. We cannot ig- 
nore the international character of medieval 
culture and isolate the French or the Italian 
Renaissance as a purely self-contained 

The various strands of our large problem 
are too closely interwoven to be kept sepa- 
rate and the question of Italian origins has 
already partly anticipated the question of 
chronology. We must have some rough 
chronological limits in mind when we use 
the word "Renaissance." Even if we use it 
to indicate an individual outlook and atti- 
tude we imply that there was some period 
when that outlook and attitude were char- 
acteristic and dominant, or as characteristic 
and dominant as a particular Weltans- 
chauung ever is in any age. Burckhardt 
saw the Renaissance as beginning in Italy 
in the fourteenth century and reaching its 
climax around 1 500. It was a simple matter 
for him, since Renaissance day banished 
medieval night, and the few gleams of indi- 
vidualism that he discerned in the Middle 
Ages, such as the Goliardic songs, were 
obviously the first rays of dawn. Michelet 
had already taken a wider view. He had in 
fact observed so many medieval expressions 
of individualism that he was compelled to 
ask why the Renaissance arrived three hun- 
dred years later than it should have. The 
answer seemed to be that the medieval 

mind, entrenched behind its walls of reli- 
gious conservatism and superstition, stub- 
bornly resisted the forces making for a re- 
turn to nature. Of later nineteenth-century 
historians, some saw the Middle Ages as a 
broad plain, without much on it but 
churches and monasteries, sloping up 
slightly from the early barbarian period and 
then rising suddenly to a mountain range. 
For others the plain was studded with hills, 
but they were the foothills of the Renais- 
sance. When we stop to think of it, the 
term "Middle Ages," though both the 
phrase and the idea have a long pedigree, 
is unhistorical. It implies that a period of 
a thousand years, a fairly large segment in 
the recorded life of man, was not itself, an 
integral and consecutive part of the great 
panorama, but a sort of interlude between 
the two periods which really mattered. 
Andre Maurois somewhere caricatures the 
unhistorical attitude by having a knight 
address his followers in this fashion: "In 
truth, then, we men of the Middle Ages 
must not forget that tomorrow we set off 
for the Hundred Years' War." 

One reason for the general readiness to 
play fast and loose with the Middle Ages 
has been the general ignorance which has 
prevailed until a relatively recent time. 
William Morris was a medieval enthusiast, 
with great knowledge in some directions, 
yet his conception of the medieval world 
was quite unrealistic. Of late years we have 
had the religious, social, and alcoholic ro- 
manticism of Chesterton and Belloc, the 
twin exponents of "the Mass and Maypole" 
school of history. And many secularly 
minded people still believe that the Middle 
Ages were romantic, though a medieval 
knight, sitting down at a modern breakfast- 
table beside a toaster and a percolator, 
would think he had been transported out 
of his own prosaic world into the land of 
Prestcr John. But the more serious fault 
of serious historians has been the drawing 
of picturesque contrasts between the religi- 
osity of the Middle Ages and the paganism 
of the Renaissance. Symonds, for example, 
can indulge in a paragraph like this, in 


which you will observe, incidentally, the 
usual echoes of Michelet: 

During the Middle Ages man had lived en- 
veloped in a cowl. He had not even seen the 
beauty of the world, or had seen it only to cross 
himself, and turn aside and tell his beads and 
pray; . . . humanity had passed, a careful pil- 
grim, intent on the terrors of sin, death, and 
judgment, along the highways of the world, 
and had scarcely known that they were sight- 
worthy or that life is a blessing. Beauty is a 
snare, pleasure a sin, the world a fleeting show, 
man fallen and lost, death the only certainty, 
judgment inevitable, hell everlasting, heaven 
hard to win; ignorance is acceptable to God as 
a proof of faith and submission; abstinence 
and mortification are the only safe rules of life : 
these were the fixed ideas of the ascetic mediae- 
val Church. The Renaissance shattered and 
destroyed them, rending the thick veil which 
they had drawn between the mind of man and 
the outer world, and flashing the light of reality 
upon the darkened places of his own nature. 
For the mystic teaching of the Church was sub- 
stituted culture in the classical humanities; a 
new ideal was established, whereby man strove 
to make himself the monarch of the globe on 
which it is his privilege as well as his destiny 
to live. The Renaissance was the liberation of 
the reason from a dungeon, the double discov- 
ery of the outer and the inner world. 

At least we should acknowledge that 
Jean dc Meung and Chaucer wore their 
cowls with a difference, even if they did 
not enjoy life like Savonarola and Calvin. 

To return to the specific problem of 
chronology, modern critics may be roughly 
divided into two camps. One view extends 
the Renaissance backward to include the 
Middle Ages, the other extends the Middle 
Ages forward to include the Renaissance. 
It may serve as a useful warning of my own 
set of prejudices if I say that I incline to 
the latter. These two groups often appear 
in unnecessarily rigid opposition, when 
logic as well as history would recommend a 
compromise, but they have one basic atti- 
tude in common: they do insist on an his- 
torical continuity which makes the Middle 
Ages and the Renaissance much more alike 
than they used to be thought. The great 

watershed of the Renaissance has been, if 
not levelled down, at any rate made a less 
conspicuous eminence than it was. If we 
take the metaphysical view of man and the 
universe to be the most fundamental cri- 
terion, some scholars would say that the 
later Middle Ages and the seventeenth cen- 
tury witnessed more essential and far-reach- 
ing changes than the intervening period. 
The wholesale introduction of Aristotle in 
the twelfth century enabled St. Thomas 
Aquinas to build his great structure of ra- 
tional theology; it also started the stream 
of scientific rationalism which was to un- 
dermine that structure; and these two move- 
ments, especially the latter, may be said to 
have given the modern mind its direction. 
At the same time, to be indecisively and 
exasperatingly judicial, undue insistence on 
continuity and undue depreciation of the 
Renaissance may result in missing the 
woods for the trees, in blurring really sig- 
nificant alterations in the contours of the 
spiritual landscape. There has been a dan- 
ger in modern scholarship, a danger which 
is perhaps being illustrated in these dis- 
courses, but our concern at the moment is 
with the older attitude which brought on 
the reaction just described. 

Depreciation of the Middle Ages has had 
a number of more or less traditional reasons 
behind it. One has been noticed, the lack 
of real knowledge and understanding of 
medieval culture. Another reason is that 
historians have been over-ready to take at 
its face value the scorn which many Renais- 
sance humanists and neoclassicists felt for 
things medieval, such as degenerate scholas- 
ticism and Gothic art. A future historian 
would be injudicious if he allowed his esti- 
mate of the Victorian age to be guided by 
twentieth-century rebels against effete Vic- 
torianism. Thirdly, there has come down 
from the sixteenth and seventeenth cen- 
turies a considerable Protestant prejudice 
against the Catholic Middle Ages. Finally, 
and perhaps chiefly, the Michelet-Burck- 
hardt conception of the Renaissance, which 
has been so congenial to the modern mind, 
while it was, to be sure, based on historical 

The Renaissance and English Humanism 


research, was also largely predetermined by 
the philosophic outlook of its authors. It 
was, in short, a conception engendered by 
modern secular liberalism, by the nine- 
teenth-century faith in rationalistic enlight- 
enment and progress. From that point of 
view the Middle Ages appeared as not 
much more than a long cultural lag, a 
period in which man was enslaved by a 
system based on religious superstition and 
unnatural restraint. Hence anything in the 
way of revolt was a step toward the Renais- 
sance and, ultimately, toward the trium- 
phant freedom of the nineteenth century. 
As I have remarked already, Burckhardt's 
conception of the Renaissance is still the 
popular one, and there are still scholars who 
celebrate the secularizing of the human 
mind, its emancipation from the shackles 
of superstition. But nowadays such verdicts 
command less immediate assent than they 
once did. As we look around our world and 
consider where the emancipated mind has 
landed us, we may think that liberal his- 
torians might be a little less complacent 
about progress. And, in spite of our long 
subservience to secular liberalism, the 
climate of opinion in some quarters has 
changed a good deal. Voices can be heard 
declaring that the Renaissance, so far as it 
involved a secular revolt, was more of a 
calamity than a triumph. Our concern, 
however, is with less nostalgic and more 
historical ideas. On the one hand we might 
defend the Middle Ages by saying that they 
were full of rebels against religious, ethical, 
social, and political authority. But such a 
defence, though obvious and true, is not the 
one I would choose to offer. The Middle 
Ages can rest sufficient claims to greatness 
on their leaders of orthodoxy, however im- 
portant the rebels may have been. On the 
other hand, until quite recent times his- 
torians, partly through prejudice and partly 
through ignorance, have much exaggerated 
the suddenness and completeness of the 
Renaissance emancipation from medieval- 
ism. Since these lectures will be largely oc- 
cupied with some Good Things which the 
Renaissance inherited from the Middle 

Ages, we can afford to admit that many 
Bad Things also survived. The so-called en- 
lightenment did not banish astrology and 
witchcraft; indeed such sciences flourished 
with fresh vigour. And countless other irra- 
tional and uncritical beliefs and habits of 
mind persisted not merely among the multi- 
tude but among the educated, including 
such heralds of modernity as Bodin and 
Bacon and Descartes. 

It is self-evident that the Renaissance, 
even in its narrower meaning of a classical 
revival, was a heterogeneous movement 
which contained many mutually antagonis- 
tic impulses. Without forgetting the various 
pitfalls of generalization we have encoun- 
tered, and without denying the importance, 
the necessity, of the rebellious side of the 
Renaissance, I wish in these discussions to 
emphasize the more neglected and, I think, 
more truly representative elements of ortho- 
dox conservatism. That means, of course, 
emphasis on the continued strength of me- 
dieval attitudes and ways of thought, in 
union with a richer and fuller appreciation 
of the classics than medieval men ordinarily 
possessed. To put the matter briefly and 
somewhat too bluntly, in the Renaissance 
the ancient pagan tradition (which does 
not mean neopaganism), with all its added 
power, did not overthrow the medieval 
Christian tradition; it was rather, in the 
same way if not quite to the same degree 
as in the Middle Ages, absorbed by the 
Christian tradition. And that, after all, is 
only what we would, or should, expect. 

If we are more accustomed to think of 
the Renaissance in terms of emancipation 
and rebellion and are more familiar with 
the rebels than with the conservatives, it is 
partly because all the world loves a rebel 
and partly, as I have said, because the his- 
torians have stressed what appealed to 
them. We look at the voluptuous Venuses 
of the Italian painters and exclaim, "How 
typical of the Renaissance lust of the eye 
and pride of life!" But why are they more 
typical than the multitudinous Madonnas 
of the same period? For one person who 
has heard of Vittorino da Feltre, the Chris- 



tian humanist whose teaching flowered in 
the culture of Urbino, a score have heard 
of that really insignificant scoundrel, Pietro 
Aretino. It is a cliche of English literary 
history that Marlowe is the very incarna- 
tion of the pagan Renaissance. But is Mar- 
lowe's half-boyish revolt against traditional 
faith and morality more, or less, typical and 
important than Hooker's majestic exposi- 
tion of the workings of divine reason in 
divine and human law? 

Before we leave general definitions of 
the Renaissance for classical humanism, I 
should like to dwell a bit longer on the 
theory of individualism. There is not much 
time for it, but one may ask a few questions. 
In the first place, was the medieval church 
so crushing a weight upon the individual? 
One might reply that Chaucer's pilgrims 
do not seem to feel crushed. On a more 
philosophic if not necessarily a more con- 
vincing level one might appeal to the thor- 
oughgoing moral individualism of Aquinas. 
It is dubious history as well as dubious 
praise to claim for the Renaissance the dis- 
tinction of having established immoral indi- 
vidualism. If that were true, the medieval 
church would have had an easier task than 
it had. 

But, it may be said, was not Protestantism 
itself the expression of Renaissance indi- 
vidualism par excellence? While on the one 
hand Protestantism made every man his 
own priest, on the other it substituted the 
absolute authority of the church. And if in 
practice the medieval church was often re- 
pressive, it was less so than Protestantism, as 
soon as the latter achieved organization and 
power. Besides, we must remember that the 
Reformation was only the climax of a wide- 
spread medieval movement; Luther's chief 
guides, apart from the Bible, were Augus- 
tine and medieval pietists. 

In the field of political thought there is 
the bogeyman of Europe, the exponent of 
unscrupulous Italian individualism. Machi- 
avelli was a conscientious official and ardent 
patriot who was daring enough to find les- 
sons for his troubled time and country in 
the pages of Livy. His ideal was not the 

despotism of the ruthless strong man, it was 
the ancient Roman republic; but he be- 
lieved that despotism might be a necessary 
prelude to a republic, since only the strong 
man could create order out of chaos. Machi- 
avelli's view of the state, as his avowed 
modern disciple has realized, has much in 
common with Fascism. Further, his sup- 
posedly revolutionary doctrine of expedi- 
ency was in the main a formulation of the 
principles on which medieval statecraft had 
operated. As Professor J. W. Allen remarks, 
in connection with Machiavelli, the fur- 
ther you go into the political thought of the 
sixteenth century, the more medieval you 
will find it. 

In the field of personal ethics there is 
that philosophic individualist, Montaigne, 
who devotes his life to the study of himself 
as he is, without excuses and without un- 
duly exacting aspirations, and who seems 
to be, in his quiet ironic way, a solvent of 
all traditional external restraints. Yet, al- 
though Montaigne draws his rationalism 
from the classics and from himself, he re- 
spects religion as a plane of experience 
above his own. And he is a good if not 
over-active Catholic, partly by instinct and 
inheritance, but much more because he be- 
lieves in the necessity and efficacy of the 
church as a bulwark of solidarity. More- 
over, if Montaigne secularizes personal 
ethics, he is no modern advocate of "self- 
expression." He had a large share in creat- 
ing the ideal of the honnete homme, and 
the very definition of the civilized man is 
that he obeys standards of good taste, a 
norm of rational behaviour free from indi- 
vidual eccentricities. Thus, however much 
Montaigne might be invoked by libertins, 
he is to be found on the side of order, au- 
thority, reason. His essays may be called, 
in the words of Lanson (who makes due 
qualifications), the great reservoir from 
which is to flow the classic spirit. . . . 

Altogether, our theory of the Renaissance 
must be, like the Copernican hypothesis, 
the simplest theory which explains the phe- 
nomena. That of rebellious individualism 
is much too simple and exclusive. 



Charles Homer Haskins (1870-1937) is remembered by many as a 
profound scholar, a great teacher, and a respected author and editor. 
Educated at Johns Hopkins University, he was a member of its faculty 
until 1902 when he became Professor of History at Harvard University. 
At this latter university he served for many years as Dean of The Graduate 
School of Arts and Sciences. His scholarship and publications in the field 
of medieval history were recognized when he was elected to the presi- 
dency of the Mediaeval Academy of America in 1926. He also served 
as editor of The American Historical Series. 


The title of this book will appear to many 
to contain a flagrant contradiction. A ren- 
aissance in the twelfth century! Do not the 
Middle Ages, that epoch of ignorance, stag- 
nation, and gloom, stand in the sharpest 
contrast to the light and progress and free- 
dom of the Italian Renaissance which fol- 
lowed? How could there be a renaissance 
in the Middle Ages, when men had no eye 
for the joy and beauty and knowledge of 
this passing world, their gaze ever fixed on 
the terrors of the world to come? Is not this 
whole period summed up in Symonds' pic- 
ture of St. Bernard, blind to the beauties of 
Lake Lcman as he bends "a thought-bur- 
dened forehead over the neck of his mule," 
typical of an age when "humanity had 
passed, a careful pilgrim, intent on the ter- 
rors of sin, death, and judgment, along the 
highways of the world, and had scarcely 
known that they were sightworthy, or that 
life is a blessing"? 

The answer is that the continuity of his- 
tory rejects such sharp and violent contrasts 
between successive periods, and that mod- 

ern research shows us the Middle Ages less 
dark and less static, the Renaissance less 
bright and less sudden, than was once sup- 
posed. The Middle Ages exhibit life and 
color and change, much eager search after 
knowledge and beauty, much creative ac- 
complishment in art, in literature, in insti- 
tutions. The Italian Renaissance was pre- 
ceded by similar, if less wide-reaching 
movements; indeed it came out of the 
Middle Ages so gradually that historians 
are not agreed when it began, and some 
would go so far as to abolish the name, and 
perhaps even the fact, of a renaissance in 
the Quattrocento. 

To the most important of these earlier 
revivals the present volume is devoted, the 
Renaissance of the Twelfth Century which 
is often called the mediaeval Renaissance. 
This century, the very century of St. Ber- 
nard and his mule, was in many respects 
an age of fresh and vigorous life. The epoch 
of the Crusades, of the rise of towns, and 
of the earliest bureaucratic states of the 
West, it saw the culmination of Roman- 
esque art and the beginnings of Gothic; 

Reprinted by permission of the publishers from C. H. Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth 
Century, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927 and 1955, pp. vii-ix, 3-12, by Clare 
Allen Haskins and The President and Fellows of Harvard College. 




the emergence of the vernacular literatures; 
the revival of the Latin classics and of Latin 
poetry and Roman law; the recovery of 
Greek science, with its Arabic additions, 
and of much of Greek philosophy; and the 
origin of the first European universities. 
The twelfth century left its signature on 
higher education, on the scholastic philoso- 
phy, on European systems of law, on archi- 
tecture and sculpture, on the liturgical 
drama, on Latin and vernacular poetry. 
The theme is too broad for a single volume, 
or a single author. Accordingly, since the 
art and the vernacular literature of the 
epoch are better known, we shall confine 
ourselves to the Latin side of this renais- 
sance, the revival of learning in the broad- 
est sense the Latin classics and their in- 
fluence, the new jurisprudence and the 
more varied historiography, the new knowl- 
edge of the Greeks and Arabs and its effects 
upon Western science and philosophy, and 
the new institutions of learning, all seen 
against the background of the century's cen- 
tres and materials of culture. The absence 
of any other work on this general theme 
must be the author's excuse for attempting 
a sketch where much must necessarily rest 
upon second hand information. . . . 


The European Middle Ages form a com- 
plex and varied as well as a very consider- 
able period of human history. Within their 
thousand years of time they include a large 
variety of peoples, institutions, and types 
of culture, illustrating many processes of 
historical development and containing the 
origins of many phases of modern civiliza- 
tion. Contrasts of East and West, of the 
North and the Mediterranean, of old and 
new, sacred and profane, ideal and actual, 
give life and color and movement to this 
period, while its close relations alike to an- 
tiquity and to the modern world assure it 
a place in the continuous history of human 
development. Both continuity and change 
are characteristic of the Middle Ages, as 
indeed of all great epochs of history. 

This conception runs counter to ideas 

widely prevalent not only among the un- 
learned but among many who ought to 
know better. To these the Middle Ages are 
synonymous with all that is uniform, static, 
and unprogressive; "mediaeval" is applied 
to anything outgrown, until, as Bernard 
Shaw reminds us, even the fashion plates 
of the preceding generation are pronounced 
"mediaeval." The barbarism of Goths and 
Vandals is thus spread out over the follow- 
ing centuries, even to that "Gothic" archi- 
tecture which is one of the crowning 
achievements of the constructive genius of 
the race; the ignorance and superstition of 
this age are contrasted with the enlighten- 
ment of the Renaissance, in strange disre- 
gard of the alchemy and demonology which 
flourished throughout this succeeding pe- 
riod; and the phrase "Dark Ages" is ex- 
tended to cover all that came between, let 
us say, 476 and 1453. Even those who 
realize that the Middle Ages arc not "dark" 
often think of them as uniform, at least 
during the central period from ca. 800 to 
ca. 1300, distinguished by the great me- 
diaeval institutions of feudalism, ecclesias- 
ticism, and scholasticism, and preceded and 
followed by epochs of more rapid transfor- 
mation. Such a view ignores the unequal 
development of different parts of Europe, 
the great economic changes within this 
epoch, the influx of the new learning of 
the East, the shifting currents in the stream 
of mediaeval life and thought. On the in- 
tellectual side, in particular, it neglects the 
mediaeval revival of the Latin classics and 
of jurisprudence, the extension of knowl- 
edge by the absorption of ancient learning 
and by observation, and the creative work 
of these centuries in poetry and in art. In 
many ways the differences between the 
Europe of 800 and that of 1300 are greater 
than the resemblances. Similar contrasts, 
though on a smaller scale, can be made be- 
tween the culture of the eighth and the 
ninth centuries, between conditions ca. 
1100 and those ca. 1200, between the pre- 
ceding age and the new intellectual cur- 
rents of the thirteenth and fourteenth 

The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century 


For convenience' sake it has become com- 
mon to designate certain of these move- 
ments as the Carolingian Renaissance, the 
Ottonian Renaissance, the Renaissance of 
the Twelfth Century, after the fashion of 
the phrase once reserved exclusively for the 
Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century. 
Some, it is true, would give up the word 
renaissance altogether, as conveying false 
impressions of a sudden change and an 
original and distinct culture in the fifteenth 
century, and, in general, as implying that 
there ever can be a real revival of some- 
thing past; Mr. Henry Osborn Taylor prides 
himself on writing two volumes on Thought 
and Expression in the Sixteenth Century 
without once using this forbidden term. 
Nevertheless, it may be doubted whether 
such a term is more open to misinterpreta- 
tion than others, like the Quattrocento or 
the sixteenth century, and it is so conven- 
ient and so well established that, like Aus- 
tria, if it had not existed we should have 
to invent it. There was an Italian Renais- 
sance, whatever we choose to call it, and 
nothing is gained by the*process which 
ascribes the Homeric poems to another poet 
of the same name. But thus much we 
must grant the great Renaissance was not 
so unique or so decisive as has been sup- 
posed. The contrast of culture was not 
nearly so sharp as it seemed to the human- 
ists and their modern followers, while 
within the Middle Ages there were intel- 
lectual revivals whose influence was not 
lost to succeeding times, and which partook 
of the same character as the better known 
movement of the fifteenth century. To one 
of these this volume is devoted, the Renais- 
sance of the Twelfth Century, which is also 
known as the Mediaeval Renaissance. 

The renaissance of the twelfth century 
might conceivably be taken so broadly as to 
cover all the changes through which Europe 
passed in the hundred years or more from 
the late eleventh century to the taking of 
Constantinople by the Latins in 1204 and 
the contemporary events which usher in the 
thirteenth century, just as we speak of the 
Age of the Renaissance in later Italy; but 

such a view becomes too wide and vague 
for any purpose save the general history of 
the period. More profitably we may limit 
the phrase to the history of culture in this 
age the complete development of Roman- 
esque art and the rise of Gothic; the full 
bloom of vernacular poetry, both lyric and 
epic; and the new learning and new litera- 
ture in Latin. The century begins with the 
flourishing age of the cathedral schools and 
closes with the earliest universities already 
well established at Salerno, Bologna, Paris, 
Montpellier, and Oxford. It starts with 
only the bare outlines of the seven liberal 
arts and ends in possession of the Roman 
and canon law, the new Aristotle, the new 
Euclid and Ptolemy, and the Greek and 
Arabic physicians, thus making possible a 
new philosophy and a new science. It sees a 
revival of the Latin classics, of Latin prose, 
and of Latin verse, both in the ancient style 
of Hildebert and the new rhymes of the 
Goliardi, and the formation of the liturgical 
drama. New activity in historical writing re- 
flects the variety and amplitude of a richer 
age biography, memoir, court annals, the 
vernacular history, and the city chronicle. A 
library of ca. 1 100 would have little beyond 
the Bible and the Latin Fathers, with their 
Carolingian commentators, the service books 
of the church and various lives of saints, 
the textbooks of Boethius and some others, 
bits of local history, and perhaps certain of 
the Latin classics, too often covered with 
dust. About 1200, or a few years later, we 
should expect to find, not only more and 
better copies of these older works, but also 
the Corpus Juris Civilis and the classics 
partially rescued from neglect; the canoni- 
cal collections of Gratian and the recent 
Popes, the theology of Anselm and Peter 
Lombard and the other early scholastics; 
the writings of St. Bernard and other mo- 
nastic leaders (a good quarter of the two 
hundred and seventeen volumes of the 
Latin Patrologia belong to this period); a 
mass of new history, poetry, and correspond- 
ence; the philosophy, mathematics, and 
astronomy unknown to the earlier mediae- 
val tradition and recovered from the Greeks 



and Arabs in the course of the twelfth cen- 
tury. We should now have the great feudal 
epics of France and the best of the Proven- 
cal lyrics, as well as the earliest works in 
Middle High German. Romanesque art 
would have reached and passed its prime, 
and the new Gothic style would be firmly 
established at Paris, Chartrcs, and lesser 
centres in the lie de France. 

A survey of the whole Western culture 
of the twelfth century would take us far 
afield, and in many directions the prelim- 
inary studies are still lacking. The limits of 
the present volume, and of its author's 
knowledge, compel us to leave aside the 
architecture and sculpture of the age, as 
well as its vernacular literature, and con- 
centrate our attention upon the Latin writ- 
ings of the period and what of its life and 
thought they reveal. Art and literature are 
never wholly distinct, and Latin and ver- 
nacular cannot, of course, be sharply sepa- 
rated, for they run on lines which are often 
parallel and often cross or converge, and we 
are learning that it is quite impossible to 
maintain the watertight compartments 
which were once thought to separate the 
writings of the learned and unlearned. The 
interpcnctration of these two literatures 
must constantly be kept in mind. Never- 
theless, the two are capable of separate dis- 
cussion, and, since far more attention has 
been given to the vernacular, justification 
is not hard to find for a treatment of the 
more specifically Latin Renaissance. 

Chronological limits are not easy to set. 
Centuries are at best but arbitrary con- 
veniences which must not be permitted to 
clog or distort our historical thinking: his- 
tory cannot remain history if sawed off into 
even lengths of hundreds of years. The 
most that can be said is that the later 
eleventh century shows many signs of new 
life, political, economic, religious, intellec- 
tual, for which, like the revival of Roman 
law and the new interest in the classics, 
specific dates can rarely be assigned, and 
that, if we were to choose the First Crusade 
in 1096 as a convenient turning-point, it 
must be with a full realization that this 

particular event has in itself no decisive 
importance in intellectual history, and that 
the real change began some fifty years 
earlier. At the latter end the period is even 
less sharply defined. Once requickencd, in- 
tellectual life did not slacken or abruptly 
change its character. The fourteenth cen- 
tury grows out of the thirteenth as the thir- 
teenth grows out of the twelfth, so that 
there is no real break between the mediae- 
val renaissance and the Quattrocento. 
Dante, an undergraduate once declared, 
"stands with one foot in the Middle Ages 
while with the other he salutes the rising 
star of the Renaissance"! If the signature 
of the thirteenth century is easy to recog- 
nize in the literature, art, and thought of 
ca. 1250, as contrasted with the more fluid 
and formative epoch which precedes, no 
sharp line of demarcation separates the two. 
We can only say that, about the turn of 
the century, the fall of the Greek empire, 
the reception of the new Aristotle, the tri- 
umph of logic over letters, and the decline of 
the creative period in Latin and French 
poetry, mark a transition which we cannot 
overlook, while two generations later the 
new science and philosophy have been re- 
duced to order by Albertus Magnus and 
Thomas Aquinas. By 1200 the mediaeval 
renaissance is well advanced, by 1250 its 
work is largely done. In a phrase like "the 
renaissance of the twelfth century," the 
word "century" must be used very loosely 
so as to cover not only the twelfth century 
proper but the years which immediately 
precede and follow, yet with sufficient em- 
phasis on the central period to indicate the 
outstanding characteristics of its civiliza- 
tion. For the movement as a whole we must 
really go back fifty years or more and for- 
ward almost as far. 

Furthermore, the various phases of the 
movement do not exactly synchronize, just 
as in the later Renaissance there is not com- 
plete parallelism between the revival of 
classical learning, the outburst of Italian 
art, and the discoveries of Columbus and 
Copernicus. Certainly the revival of the 
Latin classics begins in the eleventh cen- 

The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century 


tury, if indeed it may not be regarded as 
a continuous advance since Carolingian 
times, while the force of the new humanism 
is largely spent before the twelfth century 
is over. The new science, on the other 
hand, does not start before the second quar- 
ter of the twelfth century, and once begun 
it goes on into the thirteenth century in 
unbroken continuity, at least until the ab- 
sorption of Greek and Arabic learning is 
completed. The philosophical revival which 
starts in the twelfth century has its culmi- 
nation in the thirteenth. Here, as through- 
out all history, no single date possesses equal 
importance in all lines of development. 

Unlike the Carolingian Renaissance, the 
revival of the twelfth century was not the 
product of a court or a dynasty; and unlike 
the Italian Renaissance, it owed its begin- 
ning to no single country. If Italy had its 
part, as regards Roman and canon law and 
the translations from the Greek, it was not 
the decisive part, save in the field of law. 
France, on the whole, was more important, 
with its monks and philosophers, its cathe- 
dral schools culminating n the new Uni- 
versity of Paris, its Goliardi and vernacular 
poets, its central place in the new Gothic 
art. England and Germany arc noteworthy, 
though in the spread of culture from France 
and Italy rather than in its origination; in- 

deed, the period in Germany is in some 
respects one of decline as we approach the 
thirteenth century, while England moves 
forward in the closest relation with France, 
as regards both Latin and vernacular cul- 
ture. Spain's part was to serve as the chief 
link with the learning of the Mohammedan 
world; the very names of the translators 
who worked there illustrate the European 
character of the new search for learning: 
John of Seville, Hugh of Santalla, Plato 
of Tivoli, Gerard of Cremona, Hermann of 
Carinthia, Rudolf of Bruges, Robert of 
Chester, and the rest. Christian Spain was 
merely a transmitter to the North. 

Such names, for the most part only names 
to us, suggest that the twelfth century lacks 
the wealth and variety of striking personali- 
ties in which the Italian Renaissance 
abounds. It has no such mass of memoirs 
and correspondence, its outstanding indi- 
viduals are relatively few. Nor can it claim 
the 1 artistic interest of portraiture. Its art is 
rich and distinctive both in sculpture and 
architecture, but it is an art of types, not of 
individuals. It has left us no portraits of 
scholars or men of letters, very few even 
of rulers or prelates. It has not even given 
us likenesses of its horses, such as adorn the 
palace of the Gonzaga dukes at Mantua. 



Johan Huizinga (1872-1945), the Dutch historian, served as professor 
of history at the universities of Groningen and Leyden. A capacity for 
projecting himself imaginatively into historical ages and personalities, 
makes his writings reveal deep impressions of the spirit and inner life of 
the subject he was describing. His contributions to cultural history were 
great and his artistic style and impressionistic manner remind one of 

AICORDING to the celebrated Swiss 
historian, the quest of personal 
glory was the characteristic attribute of the 
men of the Renaissance. The Middle Ages 
proper, according to him, knew honour and 
glory only in collective forms, as the honour 
due to groups and orders of society, the 
honour of rank, of class, or of profession. 
It was in Italy, he thinks, under the influ- 
ence of antique models, that the craving 
for individual glory originated. Here, as 
elsewhere, Burckhardt has exaggerated the 
distance separating Italy from the Western 
countries and the Renaissance from the 
Middle Ages. 

The thirst for honour and glory proper 
to the men of the Renaissance is essentially 
the same as the chivalrous ambition of 
earlier times, and of French origin. Only 
it has shaken off the feudal garb. The pas- 
sionate desire to find himself praised by 
contemporaries or by posterity was the 
source of virtue with the courtly knight of 
the twelfth century and the rude captain of 
the fourteenth, no less than with the beaux- 
esprits of the quattrocento. When Beau- 
manoir and Bamborough fix the conditions 
of the famous combat of the Thirty, the 
English captain, according to Froissart, ex- 
presses himself in these terms: "And let us 

right there try ourselves and do so much 
that people will speak of it in future times 
in halls, in palaces, in public places and 
elsewhere throughout the world/' The say- 
ing may not be authentic, but it teaches 
what Froissart thought. 

The quest of glory and of honour goes 
hand in hand with a hero-worship which 
also might seem to announce the Renais- 
sance. The somewhat factitious revival of 
the splendour of chivalry that we find every- 
where in European courts after 1300 is al- 
ready connected with the Renaissance by a 
real link. It is a naive prelude to it. In re- 
viving chivalry the poets and princes imag- 
ined that they were returning to antiquity. 
In the minds of the fourteenth century, a 
vision of antiquity had hardly yet disen- 
gaged itself from the fairy-land sphere of 
the Round Table. Classical heroes were 
still tinged with the general colour of ro- 
mance. On the one hand, the figure of 
Alexander had long ago entered the sphere 
of chivalry; on the other chivalry was sup- 
posed to be of Roman origin. "And he main- 
tained the discipline of chivalry well, as did 
the Romans formerly," thus a Burgundian 
chronicler praised Henry V of England. 
The blazons of Caesar, of Hercules, and of 
Troilus, are placed in a fantasy of King 


i T. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (London, 1948), pp. 58-60, 297-308. Bvpermis- 
of Edward Arnold and Co. The English translations of the French passages have been taken from 


the footnotes of the book. 


The Waning of the Middle Ages 


Rene, side by side with those of Arthur 
and of Lancelot. Certain coincidences of 
terminology played a part in tracing back 
the origin of chivalry to Roman antiquity. 
How could people have known that the 
word miles with Roman authors did not 
mean a miles in the sense of medieval 
Latin, that is to say, a knight, or that a 
Roman eques differed from a feudal knight? 
Consequently, Romulus, because he raised 
a band of a thousand mounted warriors, 
was taken to be the founder of chivalry. 

The life of a knight is an imitation; that 
of princes is so too, sometimes. No one was 
so consciously inspired by models of the 
past, or manifested such desire to rival 
them, as Charles the Bold. In his youth 
he made his attendants read out to him the 
exploits of Gauvain and of Lancelot. Later 
he preferred the ancients. Before retiring 
to rest, he listens for an hour or two to the 
"lofty histories of Rome." He especially 
admires Caesar, Hannibal and Alexander, 
"whom he wished to follow and imitate." 
All his contemporaries attach great impor- 
tance to this eagerness to imitate the heroes 
of antiquity, and agree in regarding it as 
the mainspring of his conduct. "He desired 
great glory" says Commines "which 
more than anything else led him to under- 
take his wars; and longed to resemble those 
ancient princes who have been so much 
talked of after their death." The anecdote 
is well known of the jester who, after the 
defeat of Granson, called out to him: "My 
lord, we are well Hannibaled this time!" . . . 

Thus the aspiration to the splendour of 
antique life, which is the characteristic of 
the Renaissance, has its roots in the chival- 
rous ideal. Between the ponderous spirit of 
the Burgundian and the classical instinct of 
an Italian of the same period there is only 
a difference of nuance. The forms which 
Charles the Bold affected are still flam- 
boyant Gothic, and he still read his classics 
in translations. 


The transition from the spirit of the de- 
clining Middle Ages to humanism was far 

less simple than we are inclined to imagine 
it. Accustomed to oppose humanism to the 
Middle Ages, we would gladly believe that 
it was necessary to give up the one in order 
to embrace the other. We find it difficult to 
fancy the mind cultivating the ancient 
forms of medieval thought and expression 
while aspiring at the same time to antique 
wisdom and beauty. Yet this is just what we 
have to picture to ourselves. Classicism did 
not come as a sudden revelation, it grew up 
among the luxuriant vegetation of medieval 
thought. Humanism was a form before it 
was an inspiration. On the other hand, the 
characteristic modes of thought of the Mid- 
dle Ages did not die out till long after the 

In Italy the problem of humanism pre- 
sents itself in a most simple form, because 
there men's minds had ever been predis- 
posed to the reception of antique culture. 
The Italian spirit had never lost touch with 
classic harmony and simplicity. It could 
expand freely and naturally in the restored 
forms of classic expression. The quattro- 
cento with its serenity makes the impression 
of a renewed culture, which has shaken off 
the fetters of medieval thought, until 
Savonarola reminds us that below the sur- 
face the Middle Ages still subsist. 

The history of French civilization of the 
fifteenth century, on the contrary, does not 
permit us to forget the Middle Ages. France 
had been the mother-land of all that was 
strongest and most beautiful in the products 
of the medieval spirit. All medieval forms 
feudalism, the ideas of chivalry and cour- 
tesy, scholasticism, Gothic architecture 
were rooted here much more firmly than 
ever they had been in Italy. In the fifteenth 
century they were dominating still. Instead 
of the full rich style, the blitheness and the 
harmony characteristic of Italy and the Ren- 
aissance, here it is bizarre pomp, cumbrous 
forms of expression, a worn-out fancy and 
an atmosphere of melancholy gravity which 
prevail. It is not the Middle Ages, it is the 
new coming culture, which might easily be 

In literature classical forms could appear 



without the spirit having changed. An in- 
terest in the refinement of Latin style was 
enough, it seems, to give birth to humanism. 
The proof of this is furnished by a group of 
French scholars about the year 1400. It was 
composed of ecclesiastics and magistrates, 
Jean de Monstrcuil, canon of Lille and sec- 
retary to the king, Nicolas de Clemanges, 
the famous denouncer of abuses in the 
Church, Pierre et Gontier Col, the Milan- 
ese Ambrose de Miliis, also royal secretaries. 
The elegant and grave epistles they ex- 
change are inferior in no respect neither 
in the vagueness of thought, nor in the con- 
sequential air, not in the tortured sentences, 
nor even in learned trifling to the epis- 
tolary genre of later humanists. Jean de 
Monstrcuil spins long dissertations on the 
subject of Latin spelling. He defends Cicero 
and Virgil against the criticism of his friend 
Ambrose de Miliis, who had accused the 
former of contradictions and preferred Ovid 
to the latter. On another occasion he writes 
to Clemanges: "If you do not come to my 
aid, dear master and brother, 1 shall have 
lost my reputation and be as one sentenced 
to death. 1 have just noticed that in my last 
letter to my lord and father, the bishop of 
Cambray, I wrote proximior instead of the 
comparative propior; so rash and careless is 
the pen. Kindly correct this, otherwise our 
detractors will write libels about it." . . . 

It suffices to recall that we met Jean de 
Monstreuil and the brothers Col among the 
zealots of the Roman de la Rose and among 
the members of the Court of Love of 1 40 1 , 
to be convinced that this primitive French 
humanism was but a secondary clement of 
their culture, the fruit of scholarly erudi- 
tion, analogous to the so-called renaissance 
of classic latinity of earlier ages, notably the 
ninth and the twelfth century. The circle 
of Jean de Monstreuil had no immediate 
successors, and this early French humanism 
seems to disappear with the men who cul- 
tivated it. Still, in its origins it was to some 
extent connected with the great interna- 
tional movement of literary renovation. 
Petrarch was, in the eyes of Jean de Mon- 
streuil and his friends, the illustrious initia- 

tor, and Coluccio Salutati, the Florentine 
chancellor who introduced classicism into 
official style, was not unknown to them 
cither. Their zeal for classic refinement 
had evidently been roused not a little by 
Petrarch's taunt that there were no orators 
nor poets outside Italy. In France Petrarch's 
work had, so to say, been accepted in a me- 
dieval spirit and incorporated into medieval 
thought. He himself had personally known 
the leading spirits of the second half of the 
fourteenth century; the poet Philippe de 
Vitri, Nicholas Orcsme, philosopher and 
politician, who had been a preceptor to 
the dauphin, probably also Philippe de 
Mezieres. These men, in spite of the ideas 
which make Orcsme one of the forerunners 
of modern science, were not humanists. As 
to Petrarch himself, we are always inclined 
to exaggerate the modern clement in his 
mind and work, because we are accustomed 
to see him exclusively as the first of renova- 
tors. It is easy to imagine him emancipated 
from the ideas of his century. Nothing is fur- 
ther from the truth. He is most emphatically 
a man of his time. The themes of which he 
treated were those of the Middle Ages: De 
contempiu mundi, De otio religiosorum, De 
vita soliiaria. It is only the form and the 
tone of his work which differ and are more 
highly finished. His glorification of antique 
virtue in his De viris illustrilms and his 
Rerum memorandarum libri corresponds 
more or less with the chivalrous cult of the 
Nine Worthies. There is nothing surprising 
in his being found in touch with the founder 
of the Brethren of the Common Life, or 
cited as an authority on a dogmatic point 
by the fanatic Jean de Varennes. Denis 
the Carthusian borrowed laments from him 
about the loss of the Holy Sepulchre, a 
typically medieval subject. What contempo- 
raries outside Italy saw in Petrarch was not 
at all the poet of the Sonnets or the Trionfi, 
but a moral philosopher, a Christian Cicero. 
In a more limited field Boccaccio exer- 
cised an influence resembling that of 
Petrarch. His fame too was that of a moral 
philosopher, and by no means rested on the 
Decamerone. He was honoured as the 

The Waning of the Middle Ages 


"doctor of patience in adversity," as the 
author of De casibus virorum illustrium and 
of De claris mulieribus. Because of these 
queer writings treating of the inconstancy 
of human fate "messire Jehan Bococe" had 
made himself a sort of impresario of For- 
tune. As such he appears to Chastcllain, 
who gave the name of Le Temple de Bocace 
to the bizarre treatise in which he endeav- 
oured to console Queen Margaret, after her 
flight from England, by relating to her a 
series of the tragic destinies of his time. In 
recognizing in Boccaccio the strongly me- 
dieval spirit which was their own, these 
Burgundian spirits of a century later were 
not at all off the mark. 

What distinguishes nascent Humanism 
in France from that of Italy, is a difference 
of erudition, skill and taste, rather than of 
tone or aspiration. To transplant antique 
form and sentiment into national literature 
the French had to overcome far more obsta- 
cles than the people born under the Tuscan 
sky or in the shadow of the Coliseum. 
France too, had her learned clerks, writing 
in Latin, who were capable at an early date 
of rising to the height of the epistolary 
style. But a blending of classicism and me- 
dievalism in the vernacular, such as was 
achieved by Boccaccio, was for a long time 
impossible in France. The old forms were 
too strong, and the general culture still 
lacked the proficiency in mythology and 
ancient history which was current in Italy. 
Machaut, although a clerk, pitifully dis- 
figures the names of the seven sages. Chas- 
tcllain confounds Peleus with Pelias, La 
Marche Proteus with Pirithous. The author 
of the Pastoralet speaks of the "good king 
Scipio of Africa." But at the same time his 
subject inspires him with a description of 
the god Silvanus and a prayer to Pan, in 
which the poetical imagination of the Ren- 
aissance seems on the point of breaking 
forth. The chroniclers were already trying 
their hand at military speeches in Livy's 
manner, and adorning their narrative of 
important events by mentioning portents, 
in close imitation of Livy. Their attempts at 
classicism did not always succeed. Jean 

Germain's description of the Arras congress 
of 1435 is a veritable caricature of antique 
prose. The vision of Antiquity was still very 
bizarre. . . . 

In so far as the French humanists of the 
fifteenth century wrote in Latin, the medie- 
val subsoil of their culture is little in evi- 
dence. The more completely the classical 
style is imitated, the more the true spirit 
is concealed. The letters and the discourses 
of Robert Gaguin are not distinguishable 
from the works of other humanists. But 
Gaguin is, at the same time, a French poet 
of altogether medieval inspiration and of 
altogether national style. Whereas those 
who did not, and perhaps could not, write 
in Latin, spoiled their French by latinized 
forms, he, the accomplished latinist, when 
writing in French, disdained rhetorical 
effects. His Debat du Laboureur, dn Prestre 
et du Gendarme, medieval in its subject, is 
also medieval in style. It is simple and vig- 
orous, like Villon's poetry and Deschamps' 
best work. . . . 

Classicism then was not the controlling 
factor in the advent of the new spirit in 
literature. Neither was paganism. The fre- 
quent use of pagan expressions or trophies 
has often been considered the chief char- 
acteristic of the Renaissance. This practice, 
however, is far older. As early as the twelfth 
century mythological terms were employed 
to express concepts of the Christian faith, 
and this was not considered at all irreverent 
or impious. Deschamps speaking of "Jupi- 
ter come from paradise," Villon calling the 
Holy Virgin "high goddess," the humanists 
referring to God in terms like "princeps 
superum" and to Mary as "genetrix tonan- 
tis," are by no means pagans. Pastorals re- 
quired some admixture of innocent pagan- 
ism, by which no reader was duped. The 
author of the Pastoralet who calls the Celes- 
tine church at Paris "the temple in the high 
woods, where people pray to the gods," 
declares, to dispel all ambiguity, "If, to lend 
my Muse some strangeness, I speak of the 
pagan gods, the shepherds and myself are 
Christians all the same." In the same way 
Molinet excuses himself for having intro- 



duced Mars and Minerva, by quoting "Rea- 
son and Understanding/' who said to him: 
"You should do it, not to instil faith in gods 
and goddesses, but because Our Lord alone 
inspires people as it pleases Him and fre- 
quently by various inspirations.". . . 

To find paganism, there was no need for 
the spirit of the waning Middle Ages to 
revert to classic literature. The pagan spirit 
displayed itself, as amply as possible, in the 
Roman de la Rose. Not in the guise of some 
mythological phrases; it was not there that 
the danger lay, but in the whole erotic con- 
ception and inspiration of this most popular 
work of all. From the early Middle Ages 
onward Venus and Cupid had found a 
refuge in this domain. But the great pagan 
who called them to vigorous life and en- 
throned them was Jean de Meun. By blend- 
ing with Christian conceptions of eternal 
bliss the boldest praise of voluptuousness, 
he had taught numerous generations a very 
ambiguous attitude towards Faith. He had 
dared to distort Genesis for his impious pur- 
poses by making Nature complain of men 
because they neglect her commandment of 
procreation, in the words: 

So help me God who was crucified, 
I much repent that I made man. 

It is astonishing that the Church, which 
so rigorously repressed the slightest devia- 
tions from dogma of a speculative character, 
suffered the teaching of this breviary of the 
aristocracy (for the Roman de la Rose 
was nothing less) to be disseminated with 

But the essence of the great renewal lies 
even less in paganism than in pure Latinity. 
Classic expression and imagery, and even 
sentiments borrowed from heathen Antiq- 
uity, might be a potent stimulus or an in- 
dispensable support in the process of cul- 
tural renovation, they never were its moving 
power. The soul of Western Christendom 

itself was outgrowing medieval forms and 
modes of thought that had become shackles. 
The Middle Ages had always lived in the 
shadow of Antiquity, always handled its 
treasures, or what they had of them, inter- 
preting it according to truly medieval prin- 
ciples: scholastic theology and chivalry, 
asceticism and courtesy. Now, by an in- 
ward ripening, the mind, after having been 
so long conversant with the forms of Antiq- 
uity, began to grasp its spirit. The incom- 
parable simpleness and purity of the ancient 
culture, its exactitude of conception and of 
expression, its easy and natural thought and 
strong interest in men and in life, all this 
began to dawn upon men's minds. Europe, 
after having lived in the shadow of An- 
tiquity, lived in its sunshine once more. 

This process of assimilation of the classic 
spirit, however, was intricate and full of 
incongruities. The new form and the new 
spirit do not yet coincide. The classical 
form may serve to express the old concep- 
tions: more than one humanist chooses the 
sapphic strophe for a pious poem of purely 
medieval inspiration. Traditional forms, on 
the other hand, may contain the spirit of 
the coming age. Nothing is more erroneous 
than to identify classicism and modern 

The fifteenth century in France and the 
Netherlands is still medieval at heart. The 
diapason of life had not yet changed. Scho- 
lastic thought, with symbolism and strong 
formalism, the thoroughly dualistic concep- 
tion of life and the world still dominated. 
The two poles of the mind continued to be 
chivalry and hierarchy. Profound pessimism 
spread a general gloom over life. The gothic 
principle prevailed in art. But all these 
forms and modes were on the wane. A high 
and strong culture is declining, but at the 
same time and in the same sphere new 
things are being born. The tide is turning, 
the tone of life is about to change. 



One cannot think of the "problem of the Renaissance" without the 
name of Wallace K. Ferguson coming to mind. Formerly at New York 
University and now Professor of History at the University of Western 
Ontario, Dr. Ferguson is well known for his writings on the Renaissance 
and especially for his fundamental work, The Renaissance in Historical 

E ATTEMPT to find an historical in- 
:erpretation of the Renaissance, or of 
any other age, is predicated upon the ac- 
ceptance of certain methodological assump- 
tions. We must assume first the value of 
periodization and of synthesis, and the pos- 
sibility of achieving both in a significant 
way. Few historians would now deny the 
value of periodization, though there are 
some who would still argue that the his- 
torian's task consists simply in recounting 
events as they occurred. But, in fact, peri- 
odization is an intellectual tool, essential to 
the historian's trade. Its use, to quote Col- 
lingwood's dictum, "is a mark of advanced 
and mature historical thought, not afraid to 
interpret facts instead of merely ascertain- 
ing them." Whether his periods be decades, 
centuries, or larger chronological areas such 
as the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, the 
historian cannot think about history with- 
out them, much less interpret it for others. 
There is perhaps less agreement concerning 
the need for synthesis, particularly among 
scholars who are concerned primarily with 
one discipline or one aspect of history. Yet 
even for specialists, some general notion of 
the character of the age they deal with, and 
of the relation of their own field of interest 

to the total complex of its civilization, seems 
to me essential. Without some such general 
conception, the specialist may well find 
himself operating in an historical vacuum, 
in which the gravity of all objects seems 

A synthetic interpretation, which in- 
cludes all aspects of a given civilization, is 
especially important for its bearing upon 
the problem of causation, even in the most 
restricted fields of enquiry. Painting, sculp- 
ture, music, poetry, science, philosophy, or 
theology may each develop to a certain ex- 
tent along lines dictated by the discipline 
itself, either by a kind of inner logic, or as 
the result of the contribution of individual 
men of genius. Yet the general direction 
taken by any one of these can never, I be- 
lieve, be fully understood or explained with- 
out consideration of other contemporaneous 
or antecedent changes in economic activity, 
political institutions, social configurations, 
and religious beliefs, or in these more im- 
ponderable shifts in ways of thinking which 
we classify under the heading of climates 
of opinion, or which we designate, such 
being the poverty of the English language, 
as the Zeitgeist, or the Weltanschauung of 
the age. The interrelation of these various 

From Wallace K. Ferguson, "The Interpretation of the Renaissance: Suggestions for a Synthesis," in 
the Journal of the History of Ideas, XII (1951), 483-495. By permission of the editors of the Journal 
of the History of Ideas. 




forms of historical activity may be difficult 
to establish with certainty; but the scholar 
who ignores the possibility of a causal rela- 
tion between them and the subject of his 
own special interest, or who is content to 
recount what occurred without venturing 
to suggest why it may have occurred, is, I 
think, using the concept of scientific objec- 
tivity as a pretext for avoiding the necessity 
of thought. 

But, if we admit the value of periodiza- 
tion and the desirability of synthesis, can 
these be applied satisfactorily to the concept 
of the Renaissance? In many disciplines, 
especially the history of art and music, the 
term Renaissance has been commonly used 
as a style concept, as distinguished, for ex- 
ample, from Late Gothic or Baroque. In 
other fields, notably the history of literature 
and the history of ideas, it has been used to 
designate a movement of thought, some- 
thing which may influence, coincide with, 
or run counter to, such contemporaneous 
movements as the Reformation. Such uses 
of the term, if consciously defined, are justi- 
fied within the framework of the particular 
discipline, and in both instances there is an 
implicit pcriodization, since certain chron- 
ological limits are assumed. For purposes of 
synthesis, however, the term Renaissance 
should, I think, be given a broader and 
more specifically periodic connotation, and 
be applied to the entire civilization of the 
age. It is as a period in the history of West- 
ern civilization, then, that I shall discuss it. 
Nor shall I pause here to justify the use of 
the term in this connotation, unfortunate 
though it is in many respects. I suspect it 
is here to stay. There is, in any case, little 
to be gained by re-enacting the miracle of 
the confusion of terms. The real problem is 
not what the age should be called, but what 
were its most characteristic traits and its 
chronological boundaries. How, in short, 
can we establish a periodic concept of the 
Renaissance that will prove a useful tool for 
the historian, and have practical value for 
the interpretation of history? 

It would seem, at first glance, that the 
primary problem in periodization is to estab- 

lish the chronological limits of the period 
in question. But that cannot be done with- 
out first forming some idea of what are the 
characteristics that distinguish it from the 
preceding and following ages. To serve the 
purpose of historical thought, a period must 
possess for the historian some conceptual 
content. It must correspond to a significant 
stage in the development of a civilization 
or a part thereof. Otherwise it is merely an 
arbitrarily selected and meaningless section 
of time. But significant periods do not 
emerge of themselves out of the unbroken 
flow of historical activity as it occurred from 
day to day and from year to year. It is the 
task of the thoughtful historian to discern, 
by close study of the facts, noteworthy 
changes in the course of history; and this he 
cannot do without at the same time form- 
ing a concept of the nature of these changes. 
Having determined to his own satisfaction 
what are the fundamental characteristics of 
a particular stage in historical development, 
he may then determine more exactly the 
chronological limits of the period to which 
these characteristics apply. This process 
should not be regarded as the imposition 
upon historical reality of an arbitrary 
scheme, founded upon a priori reasoning. 
All that is meant is that in the interpretation 
of history, as in the study of the natural 
sciences, an hypothesis must arise out of 
observation, if the infinitude of isolated 
facts is to be arranged in some coherent 
pattern and so be made accessible to 

To return to the problem of the Renais- 
sance, the first step in establishing a period 
that will have practical value for the his- 
torian must be to form, from the infinite 
variety of available fact, an hypothesis con- 
cerning its essential character. Divergence 
of opinion in this respect is, indeed, the 
principal cause of the bewildering diversity 
of opinion regarding the chronological 
scope of the Renaissance. When the Italian 
Renaissance first emerged, like Pallas 
Athene, full-grown from the head of Jacob 
Burckhardt, it possessed certain traits that 
were regarded as characteristic of Italian 

The Interpretation of the Renaissance: Suggestions for a Synthesis 103 

culture during the whole period from Dante 
to the Counter-Reformation. Of these traits, 
individualism was, in Burckhardt's synthe- 
sis, the determining factor. He regarded this 
as primarily the product of the unique social 
and political organization which had shaped 
the genius of the Italian people, but he also 
attributed it in secondary degree to the re- 
vival of the classics. The influence of the 
latter, he thought, was predominant in the 
most characteristic forms of Renaissance lit- 
erature and art, and also gave rise to the 
pagan spirit that was commonly regarded as 
an essential element of Renaissance culture. 
The periodic concept of the Renaissance 
thus continued to be attached, more or less, 
as was the older and narrower conception 
of the renaissance des lettres, to the revival 
of antiquity. When northern scholars strove 
to establish a Renaissance period for their 
own countries, they found that equivalent 
phenomena occurred much later than in 
Italy, and largely as importations. They 
thought of the Renaissance as having 
crossed the Alps at some time around the 
middle or end of the fi f teen tb century. The 
chronological beginnings of the Renaissance 
thus varied from country to country by a 
century or more. Still other scholars, react- 
ing against the significance traditionally as- 
signed to the revival of antiquity, thrust the 
beginnings of the Renaissance back to St. 
Francis, or continued the Middle Ages 
through to the Elizabethans. And some, 
particularly the historians of the natural sci- 
ences, regarding humanist culture with a 
bilious eye, looked before and after and 
pined for what was not, with the result that 
for them the Renaissance disappeared en- 
tirely, or became at best a kind of Middle 
Age, a regrettable lapse of time between 
two great periods of scientific thought. 

Much of this chronological confusion 
arose, it seems to me, from constructing the 
concept of the Renaissance upon too narrow 
a foundation. If we take into consideration 
the total complex of European civilization, 
it will become evident, I think, that all the 
countries of Western Europe entered upon 
a period of decisive change about the begin- 

ning of the fourteenth century. The charac- 
ter as well as the rate of change varied 
from country to country, and from one type 
of culture, or institution, or form of activity, 
to another. But wherever we look, the typi- 
cally medieval forms begin to disintegrate, 
while new and recognizably modern forms 
appear, if only in embryo. At the same 
time the centre of gravity shifts noticeably 
from the social and cultural factors that had 
been dominant in the Middle Ages to those 
minority phenomena that were to assume a 
leading role in the modern period. To de- 
fine the Renaissance in a sentence seems 
rather like rushing in where not only angels 
but even fools would fear to tread. To avoid 
doing so at this point, however, would savor 
of moral cowardice. Viewing the Renais- 
sance as an age in the history of Western 
Europe, then, I would define it as the age 
of transition from medieval to modern civili- 
zation, a period characterized primarily by 
the gradual shift from one fairly well co- 
ordinated and clearly defined type of civili- 
zation to another, yet, at the same time, 
possessing in its own right certain distinc- 
tive traits and a high degree of cultural 
vitality. And on the basis of this concept 
or hypothesis, I would set the arbitrary dates 
1 300 to 1600 as its chronological bound- 
aries. To invest this definition with any sig- 
nificant content, however, and to pin down 
the weasel words, it is necessary, first of all, 
to indicate what may be considered the pre- 
vailing elements of both medieval and 
modern civilization, and then to trace the 
main lines of development within the tran- 
sitional period. 

In the broadest terms, then : the two dom- 
inant institutions of the Middle Ages were 
the feudal system and the universal church. 
Between them, they determined both the 
social structure and the ideological content 
of medieval civilization. And both, in their 
institutional aspects, were founded upon an 
agrarian, land-holding economy. Feudalism, 
indeed, took shape in the early Middle Ages 
very largely because it was the only possi- 
ble means of maintaining social and politi- 
cal organization in a moneyless economy 



an economy in which the land and its prod- 
uce were almost the sole form of wealth 
commerce, industry and normal city life 
having virtually disappeared. Lacking finan- 
cial resources in fluid form, central govern- 
ment was unable to maintain effective polit- 
ical or judicial authority, and was forced to 
relinquish these into the hands of the great 
land-holders. Lay society was divided into 
two hereditary classes of widely divergent 
status: the land-holding nobility, whose 
duty it was to fight and govern; and the 
peasants, more or less servile, whose duty it 
was to work the land. Only one other class 
had a useful service to perform: the clergy, 
whose duty it was to pray and to care for 
the souls of men. Having no other means 
of support, the clergy necessarily became a 
land-holding class, and, as land-holders, the 
officers of the church became feudal lords. 
On the material side, then, the church was 
deeply involved in the feudal system. At 
the same time, the church had inherited 
from its origins in the Roman Empire a 
principle of universality and a centralized, 
hierarchical government, which it never 
lost. But this universal authority was of too 
large a sort to come into direct conflict with 
the highly localized government of the 
feudal nobles. Feudalism and the universal 
church, indeed, could live more or less 
harmoniously together as concordantia 

Into this agrarian, feudal society the com- 
mercial revival of the eleventh and twelfth 
centuries introduced the new and alien ele- 
ments of commerce and skilled industry, 
with the resulting growth of cities and the 
expansion of money economy. This was fol- 
lowed by a notable increase in the pros- 
perity and the fluid wealth of the land- 
holding classes. It was also accompanied by 
a great quickening of cultural activity, by 
that full development of clerical and feudal 
culture that made the twelfth and thir- 
teenth centuries the classic period of medie- 
val civilization. The economic stimulus 
which spread from the growing cities, to- 
gether with the heightened tempo of inter- 
communication along the lines of trade, 

was I think, the material factor that made 
possible the immense cultural vitality of 
these two centuries. But the content and 
spirit of that culture did not emanate from 
the urban classes. Learning remained the 
exclusive monopoly of the clergy. Art and 
music served the church. And vernacular 
literature expressed the ideals of feudalism 
and chivalry. Exceptions to these broad 
statements will, of course, leap to mind im- 
mediately. It is my contention, merely, that 
the elements of medieval civilization which 
I have mentioned were the most general, 
and the most characteristic. 

When we turn to the modern age, say 
by the beginning of the seventeenth cen- 
tury, the general complex of European civ- 
ilization has changed so radically that it 
amounts to a change in kind rather than in 
degree. The economic balance has shifted 
from agriculture to commerce and industry. 
Money economy has become almost univer- 
sal, and capitalism has replaced all but the 
vestigial remnants of medieval economic 
organization. On the political side, the na- 
tional states with centralized government 
have taken the place of feudal particular- 
ism, while at the same time the unity of 
Christendom has been decisively broken. 
Beside the Catholic Church stand the Prot- 
estant churches and sects, in their infinite 
variety. The social balance has shifted, so 
that the urban classes are no longer a minor 
element in society, but are prepared to as- 
sume political and cultural leadership. The 
clerical monopoly of learning has been 
broken, and laymen have replaced the 
clergy as the most numerous and influential 
group, both as patrons and creators of the 
higher forms of culture. The secular ele- 
ments in literature, learning and general 
Weltanschauung now decisively outweigh 
the transcendental; and the natural sciences 
have replaced theology as the dominant 
form of knowledge. 

Compared with the revolutionary changes 
in the character of Western European civili- 
zation between the years 1300 and 1600, 
the changes in the following three centuries 
are changes in degree rather than in kind. 

The Interpretation of the Renaissance: Suggestions for a Synthesis 105 

Despite the increasingly rapid tempo of de- 
velopment, the evolution of modern civiliza- 
tion has followed, or did follow at least until 
our generation, lines already clearly estab- 
lished by the beginning of the seventeenth 
century. It is my contention, then, that 
medieval and modern civilization, despite 
the common elements that have remained 
constant in the Western world for the past 
two thousand years or more, are, in effect, 
two different types of civilization, and that 
the change from the one to the other oc- 
curred during the three centuries of the 

But, in thus asserting the transitional 
character of the Renaissance, I have done no 
more than lay the ground work for an inter- 
pretation of the age itself. The mere char- 
acterization of the types of civilization that 
preceded and followed it suggests the lines 
of change within the transitional age, but 
does nothing to indicate how or why the 
changes took place. Here we must face the 
fundamental problem of causation. What 
were the dynamic forces that disintegrated 
the medieval social structure, and as a result 
altered medieval ways of thinking, gradu- 
ally at first, but in the long run so pro- 
foundly as to create a new type of culture? 
In thus framing the question, I am, of 
course, implying a partial answer to the 
problem of causation, for there is implied 
in the question the assumption that the 
fundamental causes of change in the forms 
of culture are to be found in antecedent 
changes in economic and political institu- 
tions and in the whole structure of society. 
This is an assumption that many scholars, 
notably those imbued with the traditions 
of Hegelian or Thomist idealism, would be 
loath to accept. Yet it seems to me that, if 
we regard the whole complex of European 
civilization in this period, social change 
everywhere precedes cultural change, and 
that what is new in Renaissance culture, 
including novel adaptations of inherited 
traditions, can most readily be explained as 
the product of a changed social milieu. 

Let me repeat my earlier generalization 
that medieval culture was predominantly 

feudal and ecclesiastical, the product of a 
society founded upon an agrarian, land- 
holding economy. By the beginning of the 
fourteenth century that society had already 
been replaced in Italy by an urban society, 
constructed upon an economic foundation 
of large-scale commerce and industry, and 
with rapidly developing capitalist institu 
tions. In the northern countries the expan- 
sion of money economy worked more slowly, 
but by 1300 it was already disintegrating 
the land-holding basis of feudal society, and 
had at the same time made possible the 
effective exercise of central government in 
the great national or territorial states. Both 
politically and economically, the feudal 
nobles were losing ground to the rising 
forces of monarchy and the bourgeoisie. 
Meanwhile the church was also entering 
upon a period of profound crisis when, with 
its moral prestige sapped by a monetary 
fiscal policy, it was forced into a losing 
battle with the newly arisen political power 
of the national states. Though it survived 
as a universal church for about a century 
after the Council of Constance, it never re- 
covered the prestige and authority lost dur- 
ing the period of the Babylonian Captivity 
and the Great Schism. 

The changes in the social structure and 
in the balance of the social classes, which 
resulted from these economic and political 
developments, were not reflected immedi- 
ately or in equal degree everywhere by 
changes in the forms of higher culture. But, 
with due allowance for a normal cultural 
lag, it seems to me that as the economic, 
political, and social balance shifted, the 
leadership in all forms of intellectual and 
aesthetic activity also shifted in the same 
directions: from the clergy to the laity, from 
the feudal classes to the urban, and from 
the isolation of monastic foundations and 
baronial castles to the concentrated society 
of cities and of royal or princely courts. 

One of the ways in which the influence 
of economic and political change worked 
most directly upon Renaissance culture was 
through the spread of lay education and lay 
patronage of art, learning, and letters. And 



this, I think, was clearly the result of the 
massing of population in cities, of the 
growth of large private fortunes, and of the 
concentration of both fluid wealth and 
political power in the hands of kings and 
princes. Under the conditions of feudal life, 
the noble classes made no pretence to intel- 
lectual eminence or scholarship sublime, 
and as Professor Pollard once remarked, 
even today a little thinking goes a long way 
in rural England. Not only did ideas circu- 
late more rapidly in an urban atmosphere, 
but capitalist enterprise necessitated a gen- 
eral literacy among the middle and upper 
classes of the cities, while at the same time 
it furnished the most prosperous of the 
urban patriciate with the means for liberal 
patronage. In similar fashion, the growth of 
centralized state governments, supported by 
taxation, opened up careers to laymen 
trained in law and administration, and also 
created new centres of lay patronage. The 
princely courts of Italy all became active 
centres of lay culture, and had also, inci- 
dentally, broken completely with the feudal 
traditions that had inspired the greater part 
of lay culture in the Middle Ages. The 
royal courts of the North, and semi-royal 
courts like that of the Dukes of Burgundy, 
retained the forms of a feudal and chival- 
rous society, but the literary reflections of 
these forms had by the fifteenth century 
lost the vitality that had inspired the feudal 
literature of the twelfth and thirteenth cen- 
turies. The forms of feudalism and chivalry 
no longer bore a close relation to social 
reality. Economic and political pressure 
combined to transform the semi-independ- 
ent baron of the Middle Ages into the Ren- 
aissance courtier. The ranks of the nobility 
were being infiltrated by the nouveau riche, 
and beside the remnants of the old noblesse 
d'epee now stood^e wealthy and highly 
cultured members of the noblesse de la robe. 
To maintain their position at court, scions 
of the old nobility were being forced to don 
a veneer of education and cultured taste, 
and to extend their intellectual interests be- 
yond the spheres of courtly love and refined 
homicide which had been the principal 

themes of medieval feudal literature. The 
spread of lay education among the upper 
ranks of both the bourgeoisie and the no- 
bility thus served not only to break the 
ecclesiastical monopoly of learning and the 
patronage of art, but also to modify radically 
the feudal and chivalrous spirit of vernacu- 
lar literature. As higher education was 
adapted increasingly to the needs of a lay 
society, even the clergy were exposed more 
than ever before to secular learning, so that 
their contribution to Renaissance culture 
was in many instances indistinguishable 
from that of the educated layman. 

xThe increasing laicization of education 
a'nd of learning, literature, art and music 
was accompanied, almost inevitably, by an 
expansion of their secular content, and fre- 
quently by the introduction of a more secu- 
lar tone. By this I do not mean to imply 
that the men of the Renaissance were, in 
general, less religious than those of the 
Middle Ages. There has been enough non- 
sense written about the pagan spirit of the 
Renaissance without my adding to it. On 
the other hand, it seems to me equally non- 
sensical to seize upon every evidence of re- 
ligious feeling or belief in the Renaissance 
as proof that its culture was still basically 
medieval. Christianity was not a medieval 
invention. The Christian tradition certainly 
continued from the Middle Ages through 
the Renaissance and beyond but it did 
not continue unaltered, nor did it in the 
same degree dominate the culture of the 
age. In the first place, the greatly increased 
participation of laymen introduced into 
learning, literature and art whole areas of 
secular knowledge and subjects of general 
human interest which, if not wholly lack- 
ing in the Middle Ages, were yet inade- 
quately represented. In the second place, 
the writer or artist, who worked for a pre- 
dominantly lay audience or for lay patrons, 
had to meet the demands and satisfy the 
taste of men not trained in theology nor 
bound by clerical traditions. Even the re- 
ligious art of the Renaissance gives frequent 
evidence of consideration for the taste of 
lay patrons. Finally, religion itself was in 

The Interpretation of the Renaissance: Suggestions for a Synthesis 107 

some degree laicized. /This is evident, in the 
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, in the 
growth of anti-clerical sentiment, and in re- 
volts against the hierarchical authority of 
the church and the sacramental-sacerdotal 
aspects of medieval religion. The Wycliffite 
and Hussite heresies are extreme cases. But 
even within the bounds of orthodoxy, such 
movements of popular mysticism as the 
Devotio Moderna in the Netherlands show 
a tendency toward the development of a 
peculiarly lay piety. The religious writing 
of the Christian humanists offers further 
examples of an increasingly independent 
participation of laymen in the shaping of 
religious thought. These men were deeply 
pious, but they had little in common with 
Thomas Aquinas or Innocent III. The Prot- 
estant Reformation itself was in part a 
revolt against the sacerdotal domination of 
religion.^ In proclaiming the priesthood of 
all believers, Luther placed the believing 
layman on an even footing with the cleric. 
The whole problem of the relation of the 
Reformation to both medieval and Renais- 
sance culture is, however, toft complex to 
be discussed here. For the present, I can 
do no more than assert the opinion that it 
can be fully understood only if it is con- 
sidered in relation to the changes that had 
altered the whole structure of European 
society and the character of European cul- 
ture since the beginning of the fourteenth 
century. In short, I think that the Reforma- 
tion must be interpreted as one aspect of 
Renaissance civilization, rather than as 
something running counter to it. 

The emphasis I have placed upon social 
and cultural change, upon the decline of 
medieval and the rise of modern elements, 
is in accordance with my conception of the 
Renaissance as a transitional age. But, as I 
defined it, the Renaissance was also an age 
which possessed, aside from the uneasy co- 
existence within it of medieval and modern 
characteristics, certain distinctive traits and 
a high degree of cultural vitality. Here I can 
do no more than suggest answers to a few 
of the innumerable questions posed by this 
latter aspect of the problem. In the first 

place, whence came the cultural vitality of 
the Renaissance? Having no time for any 
but the briefest and most dogmatic of state- 
ments, I would say that it was made possible 
by unprecedented wealth and by the par- 
ticipation of an unprecedented variety of 
social types. I would say, further, that it 
drew its positive inspiration from the intel- 
lectual excitement caused by the challenge 
of new conditions of life, of new potentiali- 
ties in every field of culture, and, in general, 
of a sense of breaking new ground and of 
scanning ever-widening horizons. Within 
the civilization of the Renaissance there 
were, of course, innumerable cross-currents, 
inconsistencies, and apparent reactions. 
These, I think, were the natural results of 
the conflict, more intense in this age than 
in any other since the dawn of Christianity, 
between inherited tradition and a changing 
society. The Renaissance was an age of 
moral, religious, intellectual and aesthetic 
crisis. This has been recognized often 
enough. What has not always been so 
clearly recognized in this connection is that 
it was also an age of acute crisis in eco- 
nomic, political and social life. 

In the second place, was the Renaissance 
an age marked to a peculiar degree by the 
spirit of individualism? This is a difficult 
question to answer, for individualism is a 
perilously protean concept. It is also more 
than a little shop-worn, and it bears the 
marks of much careless handling. In any 
case, I find it difficult to think in terms of 
the spirit of the Renaissance, just as I find 
it impossible to envisage the Renaissance 
man. Such a complex and vital age must 
have had many spirits, good and bad, 
though probably few indifferent. Never- 
theless, it does seem to me that there was 
in this transitional age a growing aware- 
ness of personality and a keener sense of 
individual autonomy than had been possi- 
ble in the social and cultural conditions of 
the Middle Ages; and it may be that this 
trait was more strongly marked, more ag- 
gressive, in the Renaissance than in later 
ages, when the individual's right to self- 
determination was more easily taken for 



granted. To individualism, thus defined, 
many factors contributed, in addition to 
those mentioned by Burckhardt; for there 
were more changes in the heaven and earth 
of Renaissance men than were dreamed of 
in Burckhardt's philosophy for example, 
the growth of a lay piety that stressed the 
individual man's direct communion with 
God, and, at the other end of the moral 
spectrum, the development of a capitalist 
spirit that stressed the individual man's 
direct communion with Mammon. With 
the dislocation of European society that 
accompanied the breaking up of medieval 
institutions, men were left more dependent 
than before upon their own personal quali- 
ties, while the increasing complexity of 
social organization opened up a wider 
choice of careers, and more varied opportu- 
nities for the development of personal tastes 
and interests. 

Finally, what is the role in the Renais- 
sance of the revival of antiquity? That I 
have left discussion of the classical revival 
to the last does not mean that I regard it as 
unimportant. Rather the reverse. But I do 
think that its causative force, great though 
it was, was of a secondary character; that, 
indeed, the enthusiasm with which classical 
literature and learning were seized upon 
was itself caused by antecedent changes in 
the social structure, which became effective 
first in Italy, and later in the North. That 
men should love the classics, once exposed 
to them, has always seemed to classicists an 
obvious fact needing no explanation. Yet I 
think that the intense, almost excessive 
enthusiasm for classical culture, which 
was peculiar to the Renaissance, can be 
explained only by the fact that it was per- 
fectly designed to meet the needs of edu- 
cated, urban laymen, of a society that had 
ceased to be predominantly either feudal 
or ecclesiastical, yet had in its own immedi- 
ate past nothing to draw upon for inspira- 
tion but the feudal and ecclesiastical tradi- 
tions of the Middle Ages. I am not forget- 
ting that the twelfth century also had its 
clerical humanists, notably John of Salis- 
bury, but their humanism was of a different 

sort, and between them and Petrarch fell 
the shadow of scholasticism. The humanism 
of the Renaissance was not a clerical hu- 
manism, though there were clerical human- 
ists and it was certainly not feudal. It cut 
across the most characteristic of medieval 
traditions. When the mania for antiquity 
had passed its peak, and the writers of the 
sixteenth century were laying the founda- 
tions for the modern national literatures, 
they wrote not only for one class but for all 
cultured people. 

Without minimizing the importance of 
the revival of antiquity, it is also worth 
noting that, even where the classics exerted 
no direct influence, as in music, the Renais- 
sance broke new ground, and exhibited 
enormous vitality. This was the age that 
witnessed the greatest strides in the devel- 
opment of polyphony and the work of a 
long line of brilliant composers, from 
Machaut to Palestrina. Here, as in so many 
other aspects of Renaissance culture, the 
increasing participation of laymen, and the 
growth of lay patronage, was accompanied 
by the development of new forms and by 
the introduction of a larger proportion of 
secular content and tone. Music in the 
Renaissance was a social art, and a fair 
mastery of its techniques was an essential 
qualification for the successful courtier or 
indeed for any cultured person. Any ac- 
count of sixteenth century social life leaves 
the impression that wherever two or three 
were gathered together they sang four or 
five part polyphony. I make no apology for 
thus ending my discussion of the Renais- 
sance on a musical note. That any synthesis 
should leave an adequate place for music 
is, indeed, a point that I wish to emphasize; 
for it is one of the peculiarities of the tra- 
ditional schools of Kulturgeschichte that, 
while giving full consideration to all the 
pictorial arts, they have scarcely afforded a 
passing word for music, the most closely 
related of all the arts to the life of the 

In conclusion, may I disclaim any pre- 
tension to having solved all the problems 
of the Renaissance. The interpretation I 

The Interpretation of the Renaissance: Suggestions for a Synthesis 109 

have suggested is no more than a frame- 
work, within which there is room for much 
variation in treating the individual aspects 
of Renaissance civilization. Yet I feel that 
to approach the problems presented by the 
history of intellectual and aesthetic disci- 
plines, of morality and religion, as well as 
of economic, political and social institutions 
from the point of view I have suggested 
will lead to a clearer understanding of the 
relation of each of these to the others and 
to the main currents of historical develop- 
ment. There is implied in this point of 
view a theory of historical interpretation, 
but not historical determinism. I would 
maintain, for example, that the growth of 
a wealthy urban society might well be re- 
garded as a necessary conditioning factor 
in the development of Quattrocento art, 
whereas I find it difficult to see how the 
development of the art of the Quattrocento 
could have been a necessary conditioning 
factor in the growth of a wealthy urban 
society. Yet, I also sec no reason to believe 
that such a society must necessarily have 
produced Donatello or Ghirlaftdajo. To say 
that things happened thus does not imply 

that they could not have happened other- 
wise. In seeking to discover the causes of 
cultural phenomena, the historian must 
often be content with permissive or par- 
tially effective causes. He may be able to 
assert with some confidence what made a 
specific development possible, or even what 
determined its general direction, and what 
were the boundaries beyond which it could 
not go. But within that frame-work, he must 
always leave room for the unpredictable 
activity of the human spirit. He may be 
able to explain why the achievements of 
Michelangelo or Machiavelli, of Josquin 
des Pres or Erasmus were possible and why 
they would have been impossible a hundred 
years earlier or later, but what in these men 
was peculiar and personal eludes him. 
Realization of the fact that he cannot hope 
to explain everything fully, that history is 
not an exact science, should not, however, 
cause the historian to lose confidence in his 
craft or cease his endeavor to understand 
what can be understood. The historian's 
reach must exceed his grasp, or what's the 
study of history for? 





Known as a supporter, with modifications, of many of Burckhardt's 
original theses, Dr. Baron was honored by having a special session of the 
American Historical Association meeting of December 1956 devoted to 
an examination of his contributions to the study of the Renaissance an 
honor seldom accorded a living scholar. Part of his paper given on this 
occasion follows. 

AICORDING to the "Conclusion" of Fer- 
guson's Renaissance in Historical 
Thought, the bracket that we need most as 
a complement to the other fields considered 
for Renaissance interpretation is the eco- 
nomic history of the Renaissance; and no- 
body can contest the justification of this 
contention. But how achieve such fusion 
today in the practice of historical work? 
Among economic historians, there is a con- 
sensus at present that so far as the economic 
activities of the Italian merchant class are 
concerned, "Renaissance individualism" had 
already reached its zenith by about 1300, if 
not earlier, and that during the period called 
by the cultural historian "The Renaissance/' 
the trade volume, the population figures, 
and even, as many economic students con- 
tend, the merchant's enterprising spirit, as 
well as his public-mindedness, had become 
inferior to what they had been in the pre- 
ceding centuries. These facts and infer- 
ences, if they constitute the whole of the 
truth, may lead one to argue that according 
to the teachings of economic history the true 
age that deserves the name of "Renaissance" 

is the thirteenth century, and this is what 
leading economic historians have been 
proclaiming, from J. Stricdcr's paper on 
"Origin and Evolution of Early European 
Capitalism," thirty years ago, to the present 
veritable crusade of A. Sapori in favor of 
a reassignment of the term "Renaissance" 
to thirteenth-century Italy. We may ask: 
would we obtain an intelligible picture, or 
would we come nearer to the truth, if we 
were to conclude that after "The Renais- 
sance" had flowered and was already wither- 
ing in economic life, "the Renaissance'' be- 
gan to start in Humanism, philosophy, and 
literature? And that the citizens of Flor- 
ence, as humanists, proclaiming that there 
could be no true culture withdrawn from 
the life of the community, at the same time 
when as merchants they decided that the 
prudent man should keep aloof from public 
burdens and honors? 

To my mind, the cause of this confusion 
lies in the circumstance that our present 
notion of "economic individualism," which 
is invariably placed parallel to the Burck- 
hardtian concept of Renaissance individual- 

From Hans Baron, "Moot Problems of Renaissance Interpretation: An Answer to Wallace K. Fergu- 
son/' in the Journal of the History of Ideas, XIX (1958), 31-34. By permission of the editors of the 
journal of the History of Ideas. 


Moot Problems of Renaissance Interpretation 


ism, has not yet been sufficiently put 
through the filter of modern criticism; there 
have been different kinds of "individual- 
ism," and not every phase and group of the 
Quattrocento and Cinquecento was char- 
acterized by lack of the public spirit. If the 
recent political and cultural reappraisal of 
the horizon and conduct of the Florentine 
aristocracy and intellectual class during the 
early Quattrocento proves correct, the day 
will come when economic students of the 
same period will feel compelled to loosen 
their still too uniform and rigid notion of 
"the merchant of the Renaissance" and 
elaborate, more distinctly than has been 
done until today, a variety of types and 
groups, among which the Florentine Lana 
industrialist, the chief upholder of the new 
politics and culture of the period, can take 
a place of his own beside the pure "eco- 
nomic man" Francesco Datini, creature of 
provincial Prato and cosmopolitan Avignon, 
who today is almost generally looked upon 
as the true paradigm of the Florentine- 
Tuscan merchant about 1400. But unless 
and until such changes in the frame of 
reference among economic students take 
place, the best advice for the historian of 
the humanistic Renaissance would seem 
to be to go on with the specific promising 
approach now available to him and frankly 
admit that at this moment not every culti- 
vated area of Renaissance research can 
receive an adequate share in a coherent 
interpretation of the civilization of the 

With this enforced limitation, our situ- 
ation is, after all, not different from that of 
our predecessors. For in the past, as Fergu- 
son's penetrating book on the history of 
Renaissance interpretations has shown so 
persuasively, the greatest increments in the 
historical understanding of the Renaissance 
were always due not to rounded and com- 
prehensive portraits of the period but rather 
to successive fresh approaches, entered upon 
now in one, now in another field, as new 
perspective opened up from varying van- 
tage points that became accessible with 
the changes of interests and experiences 

during the century from Burckhardt to the 

I say: from Burckhardt, because it would 
be a mistake to think that Burckhardt pro- 
duced any "synthesis" different not only in 
quality but in structure from the "perspec- 
tive" and "reinterpretations" which fol- 
lowed. If by the word "synthesis" we mean 
a total picture whose strength lies in a sys- 
tematic collection and balanced composition 
of all available approaches and data, few 
important historical books, indeed, deserve 
the name "synthesis" as little as Burck- 
hardt's "Essay" (as he called his book delib- 
erately). From the late eighteenth cen- 
tury, Italian scholars had described as a 
coherent period the time from the acquisi- 
tion of autonomy by the Communes in the 
eleventh century, to Tyranny, Patronage, 
and Humanism about 1500. Hume, in 
England, and later Sismondi, in Geneva, 
had traced the flowering of that period to 
the effects of freedom in competition which 
existed among the citizens of the city-repub- 
lics and, in the fifteenth century, among 
the members of a system of independent 
states. From this older, much more compre- 
hensive synthesis Burckhardt annexed for 
his purposes the fourteenth and fifteenth 
centuries alone, and there he focussed his 
attention on one objective : to determine the 
factors which in the republics as well as in 
the tyrannies helped to dissolve the public 
civic spirit and mold that ruthless individ- 
ualism in which he saw the source of great- 
ness as well as the guilt of the age. Yet it 
was precisely by this contraction of focus, 
and this restriction of the material to a 
period freshly intelligible to him in its 
mind and sentiments, that he succeeded in 
creating a new vista. Writing in the mid- 
nineteenth century, when contemporary 
culture was keenly individualistic and had 
a strong aesthetic note, he could discern in 
Renaissance Italy the prototype and exam- 
plar of these modern attitudes. The great- 
ness of his work, indeed, derived from his 
power to establish the traits which he was 
first to note so permanently and with so 
lavish a mass of sources that Die Kultur 



der Renaissance in Italien will remain 
ike introduction to the Renaissance as 
far as the Renaissance was an age of 

Today, a hundred years after Burck- 
hardt so I would argue culture, as well 
as opinions as to the value of Humanism 
for our own world, have so profoundly 
changed that for the first time the limita- 
tions of the Burckhardtian pattern of refer- 
ence can be fully grasped, although his 
fundamental discovery, that Renaissance 
Italy somehow was a prototype of the 
modern world, has preserved its truth. Now 
that the relations between culture, society, 
and citizenship have become keen problems 
for us, we can discern that the humanistic 
education and philosophy of life, in many 
interesting respects, represent a first ap- 
proach to our own problems and solutions; 
just as we are now beginning to recognize 
that the modern struggle against the dangers 
of classicism was not entirely unknown be- 
fore the eighteenth century, but to a degree 

inherent in Renaissance Humanism from its 
Quattrocento stage. 

Even though a comprehensive counter- 
part to Burckhardt's Kultur der Renaissance 
has not appeared as yet and may never 
appear, the years since the end of World 
War II have seen these and similar obser- 
vations spread in an increasingly larger 
body of studies. If we expect their final 
results to be as peripheral as Thode's and 
Walser's proof that older forms of piety left 
their marks on Renaissance culture, a more 
promising approach may, indeed, be a "syn- 
thesis" which, by taking something from all 
approaches, past and present, might erect 
an edifice much richer than that now out- 
moded shell in which Burckhardt clothed 
his discovery of Renaissance individualism. 
But if we assume, as many scholars now do, 
that today we are witnessing the emergence 
of an incisive rein terp relation from the van- 
tage point of the scholarship of our own 
age, such essential reappraisal will offer the 
best prospect for the future. 


The historiography of the problem of the 
Renaissance is very complex and the litera- 
ture on the varying concepts of the Renais- 
sance is very extensive. It is thus fortunate 
that there is available an excellent survey 
of the literature in Wallace K. Ferguson's 
The Renaissance in Historical Thought: 
Five Centuries of Interpretation (Boston, 
1948). This work is a comprehensive and 
detailed study of the concept of the Renais- 
sance as it existed in the minds of the 
writers of various epochs beginning with 
the Italian humanists themselves. Burck- 
hardt's outstanding essay is discussed in 
Chapter VII and the remaining half of the 
work is devoted to an analysis of the more 
recent writings on the subject of the Ren- 
aissance and how they support, modify, or 
disagree with Burckharclt's synthesis. Bibli- 
ographical surveys of the literature dealing 
with the Renaissance can also be found in 
H. Schulte Nordholt, Het *Beeld der Ren- 
aissance: Een Hisioriografische Studie 
(Amsterdam, 1948) and in Herman 
Baeyens, Begrip en Probleem van de Ren- 
aissance (Lou vain, 1952). 

Jacob Burckhardt's work, The Civiliza- 
tion of the Renaissance in Italy, should be 
read in its entirety. Only in this way can 
this masterful essay be truly appreciated. 
A number of English editions are available, 
but it must be noted that in many editions 
the text and notes have been augmented 
by another German historian. The edition 
of 1944 (Phaidon Press) in the translation 
of S. G. C. Middlemore is recommended 
not only because it contains the original 
text but also because of the hundred plates 
appended to this volume. 

At first, indeed for half a century, his- 
torians were content to follow Burckhardt 
in general, only amplifying details or re- 
modeling them slightly as specialized stud- 
ies increased the depth of knowledge of the 
period of the Renaissance. John Adding- 
ton Symonds expanded Burckhardt's essay 

into a well-written seven-volume general 
study, Renaissance in Italy (London, 1875- 
86). Pasquali Villari, in a patriotic vein, 
popularized the period in his Life and 
Times of Girolamo Savonarola, 2 vols. 
(Eng. trans., London, 1888) and his Life 
and Times of Niccolo Machiavelli (Eng. 
trans., London, 1889). Volume I of the 
Cambridge Modern History (Cambridge, 
1902) was also much influenced by the 
basic Burckhardt tradition. 

Writers of intellectual, social, and eco- 
nomic history, soon examined in detail 
these areas slighted or ignored by Burck- 
hardt. The intellectual history of the Ren- 
aissance was studied by Wilhelm Dilthey 
and Ernst Cassirer. The latter stressed the 
originality of the period in his Individuum 
und Kosmos in der Philosophic der Renais- 
sance (Leipzig, 1927) and in his articles, 
"Giovanni Pico della Mirandola," Journal 
of the History of Ideas, III (1942) and 
"Some Remarks on the Question of the 
Originality of the Renaissance," Ibid. f IV 
(1943). Leonardo Olschki traced the devel- 
opment of scientific thought in the vernac- 
ular literature and the role in this develop- 
ment of the practical technician and artist. 
In a number of works Giovanni Gentile 
dealt with the growth of the scientific 
spirit, rising out of the humanistic opposi- 
tion to scholasticism. Hans Baron, intro- 
duced to the reader in earlier pages, has 
long been engaged in showing the interre- 
lations of ideas and the evolution of the 
social, political, and economic institutions 
of Renaissance Florence. Besides numerous 
German articles, the following may be read 
with profit: "The Historical Background 
of the Florentine Renaissance," History, N. 
Ser. XXII (1938); "A Sociological Inter- 
pretation of the Early Renaissance in Flor- 
ence," South Atlantic Quarterly XXXVIII 
(1939); "Articulation and Unity in the 
Italian Renaissance," Annual Report, Amer- 
ican Historical Association, III (1942). 



Suggestions for Additional Reading 

The views of his articles can best be learned 
from his Humanistic and Political Litera- 
ture in Florence and Venice at the Begin- 
ning of the Quattrocento: Studies in Criti- 
cism and Chronology (Cambridge, Mass., 
1955) and his The Crisis of the Early Ital- 
ian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Re- 
publican Liberty in an Age of Classicism 
and Tyranny, 2 vols. (Princeton, 1955). 
Here the Burckhardtian thesis of a union 
of the "Revival of Antiquity" and the awak- 
ening of the Italian national spirit is 
stressed, with the latter being interpreted 
as Florentine in origin and character. 
Leonardo Drum is his model for the new 
"civic humanism" which results from the 
crisis in Florentine history of the early 

In addition to the work of Alfred von 
Martin, the socio-economic explanation of 
Renaissance culture is also to be found in 
Edgar Zilsel's "The Sociological Roots of 
Science," The American Journal of Sociol- 
ogy, XLVII (1942) and in Ferdinand 
Schevill's History of Florence from the 
Founding of the City through the Renais- 
sance (New York, 1936). 

Also within the general Burckhardtian 
tradition, but contributing details and add- 
ing knowledge to the history of the litera- 
ture and art of the Renaissance arc Fran- 
cesco de Santis' Storia clella letteratura ital- 
iana, 2 vols. (Naples, 1870-71; Eng. trans. 
New York, 1931), Ludwig Gciger's Renais- 
sance und Humanismus in Italien und 
Deutschland (Berlin, 1882), Philippe Mon- 
nier's Le Quattrocento, Essai sur I'histoire 
litteraire du XV e siecle italien, 2 vols. 
(Paris, 1900, new cd. 1924), Eugene 
Muentz' Histoire de Van le Renaissance, 3 
vols. (Paris, 1889-95), and Max Dvorak's 
Geschichte der italienischen Kunst im 
Zeitalter der Renaissance, 2 vols. (Munich, 
1927-28). E. Panofsky upholds the Renais- 
sance as a style concept in his "Renais- 
sance and Renascences," Kenyan Review, 
VI (1944). 

The great amount of research in the late 
nineteenth and twentieth centuries, par- 
ticularly in the history and civilization of 

the Middle Ages, was bound to produce 
modification and some opposition to the 
Burckhardtian thesis. Henry Thode con- 
sidered St. Francis of Assisi as the moving 
spirit and inspiration of the Renaissance 
movement. In this he received support 
from the work of Emile Gebhart and Paul 
Sabatier. The contrast between the Middle 
Ages and the Renaissance which the Ro- 
manticists had maintained was rejected by 
Charles Homer Haskins in The Renais- 
sance of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, 
Mass., 1927) and in his Studies in Medi- 
eval Culture (Oxford, 1929). Friedrich von 
Bezold and Fedor Schneider wrote about 
the continuation of the classical tradition 
in medieval humanism, as did H. Liebes- 
chutz in his Mediaeval Humanism in the 
Life and Writings of John of Salisbury 
(London, 1950) and E. K. Rand, "The 
Classics in the Thirteenth Century," Spec- 
ulum, 1929). The role and influence of 
mystical lay piety in forming the Northern 
Renaissance was examined by Albert 1 lyma 
in his The Christian Renaissance, a 
History of the "Devotio Modern a' 9 (New 
York, 1924). J. J. Walsh in his The Thir- 
teenth the Greatest of Centuries (New 
York, 1907) claimed many modem ele- 
ments could be found in the Age of Faith. 
Humanism was found even earlier by D. 
Knowlcs, "The Humanism of the Twelfth 
Century," Studies: An Irish Quarterly Re- 
view, XXX (1941). 

James Westfall Thompson revealed the 
extent of medieval lay education in his 
work, The Literacy of the Laity in the Mid- 
dle Ages (Berkeley, 1939). Douglas Bush 
pointed out the medievalism and the Chris- 
tianity of Renaissance humanism in his 
Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition 
in English Poetry (Minneapolis, 1932) and 
in his The Renaissance and English Hu- 
manism (Toronto, 1939 and 1956). Ro- 
berto Weiss showed the strength of the 
medieval tradition in English humanism in 
his Humanism in England during the Fif- 
teenth Century (Oxford, 1941). 

Science is rightly considered as one of 
the most distinguishing elements of modern 

Suggestions for Additional Reading 


civilization, but the historians of science 
found much evidence of scientific achieve- 
ment and speculation in the medieval pe- 
riod. The original studies of Pierre Duhem, 
Le sy steme du monde. Histoire des doc- 
trines cosmologiques de Platan a Copernic, 

5 vols. (Paris, 1913-17) were continued 
and expanded by Lynn Thorndike, A His- 
tory of Magic and Experimental Sciences, 

6 vols. (New York, 1923-41) and Science 
and Thought in the Fifteenth Century 
(New York, 1929). George Sarton, who 
once wrote that "from a scientific point of 
view, the Renaissance was not a renais- 
sance" in his "Science in the Renaissance" 
in J. W. Thompson, G. Rowley, et al, The 
Civilization of the Renaissance (Chicago, 
1929), has greatly modified his earlier views 
in his recent Six Wings: Men of Science in 
the Renaissance (Bloomington, Incl., 1957). 
His monumental Introduction to the His- 
tory of Science, 3 vols. in 5 (Baltimore, 
1927-48) reflects his earlier views. 

A large number of books and articles 
deal specifically with the problem of the 
Renaissance. Reviews of interpretive trends 
or studies of particular criteria can be found 
in R. H. Fife, "The Renaissance in the 
Changing World," The Germanic Review, 

IX (1939); E. F. Jacob, "The Fifteenth 
Century: Some Recent Interpretations," 
Bulletin of the ]ohn Rylands Library, XIV, 
(1930); N. Nelson, "Individualism as a 
Criterion of the Renaissance," The Journal 
of English and Germanic Philology, XXXII 
(1933); K. M. Setton, "Some Recent Views 
of the Renaissance," Report of the Annual 
Meeting of the Canadian Historical Asso- 
ciation (1947); A. S. Turbeville and E. F. 
Jacob, "Changing Views of the Renais- 
sance," History, N. S. XVI (1931-32); and 
W. W. J. Wilkinson, "The Meaning of 
the Renaissance," Thought, XVI (1941). 
The following four studies by H. Weisin- 
ger examine the theories of the Renaissance 
found in the writings of the humanists: 
"Renaissance Theories of the Revival of 
the Fine Arts," Italica, XX (1943); "The 
Self-Awareness of the Renaissance as a 
Criterion of the Renaissance," Papers of 
the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, 
and Literature, XXIX (1944); "Who Be- 
gan the Revival of Learning: 3 The Renais- 
sance Point of View," Ibid., XXX (1944); 
"The Renaissance Theory of the Reaction 
against the Middle Ages as a Cause of the 
Renaissance," Speculum, XX (1945). 


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