The Renaissance Myth

James Franklin

( Quadrant 26 (11) (Nov. 1982), 51-60)

(In Polish)

THE HISTORY OF IDEAS is full of more tall stories than most other departments of history. Here are three which manage to combine initial implausibility with impregnability to refutation: that in the Middle Ages it was believed that the world was flat; that medieval philosophers debated as to how many angels could dance on the head of a pin; that Galileo revolutionised physics by dropping weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. None of these stories is true, and no competent historian has asserted any of them, but none shows any sign of disappearing from the public consciousness.

The first of these is easily refuted. The best known work of medieval thought, both in its own time and now, is Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica. In book 1, question 1, article 1 of this treatise, the roundness of the earth is given as a standard example of a well-known scientific truth. The libel about angels on the heads of pins seems to be of comparatively recent invention. I have not been able to find it in any author before Erasmus Darwin (who was late enough to have written, in his Visit of Hope to Sydney Cove, on the prospects for the spread of civilisation to New South Wales), though one might suspect the Encyclopedists or Rabelais as more likely originators of the idea. [Update] No medieval writer has been exhibited who engaged in such a dispute, for the good reason that there was none. The Galileo story has a little more foundation, in that it was asserted within fifty years of Galileo's death by someone who had been alive in his time. But investigation has failed to turn up any good evidence that Galileo really did conduct such an experiment, either in Pisa or elsewhere.

I do not expect that denying these stories will have any effect on their spread. It hasn't in the past. The only threat to their immortality seems to lie in their possible displacement by an inconsistent and more bizarre story. The one about the earth being thought flat, for example, is really not very interesting. There is a chance that, in this country (Australia) at least, it will be replaced by the story that St Augustine believed the southern hemisphere must be uninhabited, since people living there would be unable to see the Second Coming over Jerusalem.

Granted that one of the purposes of history is to supply us with picturesque and instructive anecdotes, it must be insisted that this requirement cannot override the obligation on writers of history to keep to the truth. On the contrary, tales of the perfidy of fortune or the folly of princes are instructive precisely to the extent that they are true. In most branches of history, counsels of good sense along these lines have prevailed, and the public expects of its historians a certain complexity in their explanations and reasonably high standards of evidence. It is no longer possible to ascribe the course of events simply to the ambitions of great men or to class hatred, nor can anyone just repeat a story using as sole evidence the assertion of some previous historian. The examples above, though, make one wonder whether these laudable developments have taken place in the history of ideas, at least of the more popular kind. The subject is still a morass of colourful falsehoods and sectarian myths handed down from generation to generation with no more foundation in evidence than those genealogies whereby royal houses once sought to connect themselves with the heroes of Troy. And here I do not use "myth" in any technical sense, as some avant garde theologians are said to do, according to which a myth may be in some way essentially true. By "myth" I mean "lie".

The tales about the medieval thinkers and Galileo are little lies. The big lie of which they are the foothills is the Renaissance.

The main elements of the Renaissance myth are familiar enough: the sudden dawning of a new outlook on the world after a thousand years of darkness, the rediscovery of ancient learning, the spread of new ideas of intellectual inquiry and freedom, investigation of the real world replacing the sterile disputes of the scholastics, the widening of the world through the discovery of America and the advance of science, the reform of religion. Apart from a few quibbles about the supposed suddenness of the change, and that more on the grounds of a general belief in the gradualness of historical change than because of any evidence, this paradigm seems to be as firmly in place now as it ever was.

In fact there is no truth in any of this. On the contrary, as we will see, the "Renaissance" was a period when thought declined significantly, bring ing to an end a period of advance in the late Middle Ages.

Any attempt to pin down what happened in the Renaissance is soon going to run into definitional problems, concerning what is to count as in the period. Platitudes on the impossibility of defining a period of history exactly, and the public's inability to remember any date before 1492, have permitted the Renaissance to undergo some alarming changes of scale, like King Kong in the film. A reasonably popular consensus would start it roughly with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, allowing the Middle Ages to finish on a suitably final note, and end about 1564. In that year, by a convenient coincidence, Michelangelo and Calvin died and Shakespeare, Marlowe and Galileo were born. This gives a Renaissance of a hundred years or so, which seems quite long enough for a burst of creative energy. It puts the dispersal of Byzantine scholars and the voyages to America and India early in the period, to act as causal factors in the spread of new ideas. It fits in all the people we would definitely want to see as Renaissance figures - Leonardo da Vinci, Lorenzo de Medici, Botticelli, Rabelais, Erasmus, More, the Borgias, Machiavelli and Luther. But the problem for an admirer of the period is that it can produce only one intellectual achievement of any significance at all - Copernicus' theory of the planets, published near the end of the period in 1543. This embarrassment has been solved by letting the edges of the Renaissance, on the pretext that these cannot be precisely defined, tacitly drift out to include Dante and Giotto at one end and Galileo at the other. That gives a bloated Renaissance of three hundred years, and includes the Black Death, the entire Hundred Years War and other things calculated to tarnish a golden age. But there is a compelling motive for wanting to make this move, namely that in Italy, the centre of the Renaissance, there were no thinkers worthy of the name between the two extremes.

In order to compare the Renaissance with something (unfavourably, as it will turn out), let us recall something about the state of the world around 1300, the time of Dante and Giotto. There could hardly be a more medieval figure than Dante, nor a more perfect expression of the medieval world view than the Divine Comedy. Dante's lifetime was, from most points of view (though not necessarily his own), the high point of the Middle Ages. It was an age of technological marvels, with the first spectacles, the first glass mirrors, the first mechanical clocks and the introduction of double-entry bookkeeping and blast furnaces. Giotto's painting, by universal agreement the beginning of modern art, should probably count as a technological achievement as much as an artistic one. He produced, apparently single-handed, the illusionist ideal of art which ruled until at least 1870 - that the aim of painting was to discover methods that would make the picture "look exactly like the thing itself". Giotto himself discovered some of the most important of these tricks, such as the grouping of figures with one obscuring part of another to indicate depth and the correct use of angles to represent three-dimensional lines on a two dimensional surface.

Giotto's coretti: Arena Chapel, Padua.

Inventions in other fields had made the world very wide - Europe had more or less regular contact with Greenland in one direction and China in the other. There was a Christian archbishop in Peking and missionary activity in a number of other Asian countries. Marco Polo's account of his travels enjoyed a great vogue. In 1291 the Vivaldi brothers of Genoa set out from Morocco in an attempt to find a sea route around Africa to India. Unfortunately they vanished without trace, but their relatives did establish trading agencies in India, reached by the Red Sea route. An uncritical admiration for the time may, however, be restrained by mention of another of its innovations, cannon. Though a great age in many respects, it was as afflicted by war, plagues, pogroms and misogyny as many another time before and since.

The main intellectual effort of the Middle Ages was of course expended not on technological subjects but on philosophy and theology. Of the great scholastics, two of the most famous, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, were roughly contemporaries of Dante. Although the achievements of medieval philosophy are not easy to appreciate, we can understand something of what was done in science, then considered a branch of philosophy. The history of medieval science has only been treated seriously in comparatively recent times, since it suited the theses of most historians that the medieval scholars should have been poring over ancient books instead of examining the real world. Less culpably, an interest in science and skill in medieval Latin are, in the nature of things, rarely conjoined. But with the excellently chosen texts now available in translation in Edward Grant's Sourcebook in Medieval Science, we can see how good the science of the time really was. One thing that becomes clear is that all the best bits come from the period 1250-1350, that is, Dante's lifetime plus a few years either way. By then the best of Greek and Arab science had been translated and absorbed and new discoveries were being made. Until 1300 the most actively cultivated science was geometrical optics, the leading researchers in which were associated with the Papal court of John XXI in the 1270s. The Pope was himself the author of a book on the subject (besides writing best-sellers on logic and medicine), and in fact died in the pursuit of science when the roof of his laboratory collapsed.

In the next century, it was mechanics that caught the attention of the learned. The importance of this was that the next phase of science and mathematics, represented by Galileo, Descartes and Newton, made its most important discoveries in connection with the motion of bodies. But this was a subject notably absent from the science of antiquity. Motion, and continuous variation in general, seems to have been thought too confusing to be treated rigorously, and there is no suggestion that any kind of measurement might apply to motion. There is no phrase in ancient Greek or Latin equivalent to "kilometres per hour". Even the motion of the planets was treated in terms of the geometry of the heavenly spheres, to which the planets were supposed to be attached. To remedy this situation, what was needed was an identification of continuous variation as a subject and the drawing of some important distinctions between the basic concepts. If there was one thing that medieval philosophy was good at, it was drawing distinctions. The scientists of the Merton School, at Oxford in the 1330s and 1340s, wrote at length on the "intension and remission of forms", that is, the changes of any quantities which could vary continuously. The topic covered the motion of bodies, the gradual change from hot to cold, the variation in brightness over a surface and, according to one of the school, the "intension and remission of certainty with respect to doubt". Their crucial achievement was to distinguish between speed and acceleration, and then between uniform and non-uniform acceleration. They were able to devise what we would express by an equation of uniformly accelerated motion. All this requires mathematical talent of a high order.

The next (and, as it proved, final), steps taken in this direction were the accomplishments of the last and greatest of the medieval scientists, Nicole Oresme. A remarkably versatile thinker, he wrote on such varied subjects as theology and money, but devoted much of his effort to science and mathematics. He invented graphs, one of the few mathematical discoveries since antiquity which are familiar to every reader of the newspapers. He was the first to perform calculations involving probability. He had a good grasp of the relativity of motion, and argued correctly that there was no way to distinguish by observation between the theory then held that the heavens revolve around the earth once a day, and the theory that the heavens are at rest and the earth spins once a day. He was apparently the first to compare the workings of the universe to a clock, an image much repeated in later ages. Many of his more technical achievements have also been admired by the experts.

Then everything came to a stop. Given the scientific and mathematical works of Descartes and Galileo, but no chronological information, one might suppose the authors were students of Oresme. Galileo's work on moving bodies is the next step after Oresme's physics; Cartesian geometry follows immediately on Oresme's work on graphs. But we know that the actual chronological gap was 250 years, during which nothing whatever happened in these fields. Nor did any thing of importance occur in any other branches of science in the two centuries between Oresme and Copernicus. Other intellectual fields have no more to offer. Histories of philosophy are naturally able to name philosophers between 1350 and 1600, but their inclusion seems to be on the same principle as world maps which include Wyndham, WA, but leave out Wollongong - big blank spaces must be filled. While it is almost impossible to find an English translation of any philosopher in the three hundred years between Scotus and Descartes, it is not a lack one feels acutely. The intellectual stagnation of those centuries is evident too in the lack of change in the universities: the curriculum which bored Locke at Oxford in 1650 was almost identical to the one which Wyclif found wanting in 1350.

Why was Oresme's generation the last one for two hundred years able to think? There is an obvious suggestion; it was the last to grow up before the Black Death. The plague of 1348-50 killed a third of the people in Europe, and recurrences of the plague and other disasters caused a continuing decline of population for a century. In many ways the order of society gradually fell apart; the process formed the subject of one of the most popular books on history in recent years, Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror. While violence had not been in short supply earlier, it then reached unheard-of proportions. The years of the plague themselves saw the outbreak of many massacres of Jews, especially in Germany. France and England suffered severely during the Hundred Years War. Although pitched battles were rare, the war proceeded mostly by campaigns of pillage through wide areas of countryside. The cost of regular expeditions was met by oppressive taxation which weakened the economy, and the constant warfare left behind bands of robber barons who lived by local terror and mercenary service. Central governmental authority largely lost its effectiveness. At different times, revolutions by the lower orders seized power in Rome, Florence, Paris, Flanders and London. In all cases suppression and massacre followed. The authority of the Church, hitherto the main influence for unity in Europe, and patron of intellectual life, fared even worse. The Great Schism and its accompanying abuses discredited the Church by creating two rival authorities, mutu mutually excommunicate, and neither with much sanctity to recommend it.

None of this improved much in the fifteenth century, even though the Schism was finally healed and the Hundred Years War ended. In England especially things went from bad to worse when anarchy became normal during the Wars of the Roses. Legal historians record this as a period of degeneration in English law; there was no point in developing the King's law when the King no longer had the means of enforcing it. The world contracted: a nationalist revolution in China wiped out all foreign influences, contact with Greenland was lost, and the Schism caused a loss of interest in the eastern missions. A sign of the times was the fifteenth century's preoccupation with death in art and literature, and presumably in daily life. The walls of churches filled up with danses macabres, poetry repeated the lesson of mortality almost to the exclusion of anything else, and the worm probably replaced the bird as the most sculpted animal. The figures of the century who have survived in the popular imagination are Joan of Arc, Bluebeard, Dracula and Torquemada, all of them associated with violent death in one form or another.

The effect of these developments on the life of the mind was, not surprisingly, bad. It is not entirely easy to understand what happened in detail, since on the surface things went on as usual. The universities continued to teach the same things, and indeed a number of new universities were founded. But nothing new occurred in them - the university philosophers and theologians of the fifteenth century, for example, are found repeating Ockham almost word for word. At a more popular level of thought, some very odd developments took place in man's general conception of the world. The world became, as it were, covered up by an elaborate web of signs. In the secular field, there was an epidemic of heraldry. Of all sciences, it is perhaps genealogy which is the most intellectually degenerate, being a kind of perversion of the perfectly genuine scientific urge towards system and order, in the same way that philately is a perversion of the will to classification. Heraldry is, if anything, a further step away from genuine thought, in that while genealogy at least studies some actual facts, heraldry is a completely arbitrary system of signs parasitic on genealogy. Even the Wars of the Roses took their names from the symbols of the opposing sides.

At the same time literature contracted a malaise that seems in some way to be a symptom of the same basic disease: allegory. Huizinga's famous examination of this period in The Waning of the Middle Ages describes how everything came to be regarded as material from which to fashion signs of something else:

The walnut signifies Christ, the sweet kernel is His divine nature, the green and pulpy outer peel is His humanity, the wooden shell between is the Cross ... Each of the words of the Ave signifies one of the perfections of the Virgin, and at the same time a precious stone, and is able to drive away a sin, or the animal which represents that sin ... the seven electors of the Empire signify the virtues ... shoes mean care and diligence, stockings perseverance, the garter resolution, etc.

This habit of thought was peculiarly destructive of rational thinking, since on the one hand enormous imaginative effort was expended in drawing ever more striking parallels between things, but on the other hand it was essential to the exercise to pretend that these parallels were not just figments of the imagination, but were edifying just because the things compared really did mirror one another. It is not too far-fetched, I think, to compare this with Marxism. The tendency of Marxist thought when faced with, say, a scientific result, is to relate the ideology of bourgeois science to the historical consciousness of scientists and their community. Aside from the question of the truth of this, the overall effect is to divert attention from the original fact. The same is true of allegory. The facts about a thing and its actual relations with other things will be missed if the mind contemplating it is trained to look immediately for ingenious ways of seeing the thing as a sign of something else. The construction of allegorical similarities replaced the search for causal connections.

The enumeration of pathological systems of signs is, regrettably, by no means complete with heraldry and allegory. Astrology, though combated vigorously by Oresme and others, increased its influence, producing its own division of the sky into signs ruling the destinies of men. The Jewish cabala soaked up more intellectual energy fabricating a rival but equally nonsensical system of signification.

These systems at least had few more demerits than being false and wasting a lot of time. Some related developments were more sinister. The habit of thought according to which anything might turn out to signify and affect anything else led to the search for occult influences. Astrology, of course, purported to find one set of hidden causes of action. Alchemy enjoyed its heyday in the Renaissance, catering to a similar market. So did witchcraft. Naturally the existence of people hunting for occult powers generated the fear in others that they might be successful. Repression grew in proportion. Witch-burning and the Inquisition tend to be seen now as belonging to the Middle Ages, being incompatible with the Renaissance myth of growing enlightenment. Though the Middle Ages had these phenomena from time to time the real rage of the hate against witches and heretics exploded as the fifteenth century progressed (or regressed). The Spanish Inquisition was at its worst at about the time of Columbus' voyages, by which time it had become linked with political repression and proved beyond the power of the Pope to control. The large-scale hunting and burning of witches belong mainly to the sixteenth century.

By 1500, there were apparently few thinkers left capable of telling the difference between signs and things. Religion, according to the Reformers, was not so much about man or God or the Christian community as about scripture, the signs written by God. The excessive concentration on the text by the first reformers threatened to sweep away as irrelevant anything other than faith in the signs, including personal morality and science. Fortunately things did not work out quite like that in most places, and fundamentalist theology did not kill thought stone dead as it did in Islam.

Calvin developed yet another system of signs. Since he intended to set up states in which the elect of God could praise Him for singling them out, it was essential to be able to recognise the signs whereby one could distinguish the elect from the damned. Calvin was at first confident that he knew what these were, but the program ran into difficulties when some of his associates who had appeared to possess all the requisite signs later disagreed with him. He finally admitted that although one could be certain of one's own election, there were no infallible signs for telling whether anyone else was in the saved state. Mention of Calvin may serve to remind us that the Renaissance could be regarded, among other things, as the age of vendors of lunatic panaceas: Torquemada, Savonarola, Paracelsus, Nostradamus, John Knox. Some of these managed to seize power over whole countries. "The sleep of reason brings forth monsters", as Goya said. Between them, these people should also put paid to any suggestions that the Renaissance had something to do with freedom and tolerance.

What the sign mania did to science can be seen in the work of the late Renaissance naturalist Aldrovandi, who considered his account of the snake incomplete until he had treated it in its anatomical, heraldic, allegorical, medicinal, anecdotal, historical and mythical aspects. To throw in the anatomy of the snake with the hotchpotch of signs collected about it in various fields of human interest is simply an indication of scientific thought driving into a blind alley.

The literary end of intellectual life did not fare much better than science, except that the slump was not quite so long. Rather than protest, as is usual, about the difficulty of confining historical movements within definite dates, I am happy to name the fifteenth century as coinciding quite accurately with the decline of literature. Chaucer died in 1400; the next writers that anyone still reads are Erasmus, More, Rabelais and Machiavelli, just after 1500. Hard information on what is widely read is admittedly not easy to come by, but here is some evidence: of the 282 volumes currently available in the Penguin Classics series, twelve and most of two others are from the fourteenth century; they include works of Dante, Chaucer and Boccaccio. By contrast only two are from the fifteenth century. One is Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ, a work of genuine piety, but with an attitude to intellectual matters typified by its remark that "I would rather feel compunction than be able to define it". The other is Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, a not especially good example of a genre perfected hundreds of years earlier. A preoccupation with the past, in lieu of any developments in the present, was pervasive in the writings of the century, from the repetitive Arthurian and Trojan legends of England and France to the Italian humanists' obsessive commentaries on Latin rhetoric and poetical theory. The vanishing of past glories is almost the sole theme of Villon, the only French writer of the century who has any modern audience.

Literature in English suffered, if anything, an even worse eclipse than continental literatures. From the fourteenth century, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and other poems, Langland's Piers Plowman and the Gawain poems are still read, and not just by professional language students. But, except for Malory and a few lyric poets anthologised for completeness, it is hard to think of any writer in English between Chaucer and Spenser who is now read even by the most enthusiastic students. The gap is almost two hundred years.

But it is not quite true that the fifteenth century produced nothing of value anywhere. The only achievement of the century that is even semi-intellectual is the discovery of the rules of perspective by Brunelleschi, a Florentine engineer. It is fitting that this should have been related to painting, since this was an area where the Renaissance really did excel. Art had not escaped a period of decline - the paintings of the late fourteenth century were largely a series of laughably inept attempts to imitate Giotto. Everyone understood that Giotto had found a set of techniques to represent three-dimensional space on a flat surface, but nobody could quite see how he had done it. The result is a century of pictures in the same colours as Giotto, but with lines drifting across the picture plane at all sorts of impossible angles. Then from the 1420s onwards, painters using the new rules of perspective produced one of the great ages of art. It was the only significant achievment of the Renaissance mind, but one worthy of the fullest admiration. Without detracting from it in any way, one could, even so, wish that the excitement over perspective had not causeed the illusionist ideal in art to triumph quite so completely. Even such comparatively realist painters (from our point of view) as El Greco and the French Impressionists found the extreme realist ideal inherited from the Renaissance an incubus on art, which made their own innovations seem shocking to their contemporaries. Admittedly, the fact that Royal Academicians in Queen Victoria's time were still earning fortunes and peerages with imitations of Renaissance paintings was partly a tribute to the excellence of what was being imitated. But it also undeniably had something to do with the fact that Renaissance pictures are very easy to understand. They are brightly coloured, look "exactly like" the things they depict, and have narrative subjects. Indeed, one could see the genius of the best Renaissance masters as consisting partly in their ability to paint genuine masterpieces despite being expected to produce a series of lurid Martyrdoms of Saint Sebastian.

The immediate impact of painting is perhaps one factor which will help account for the subsequent inflated reputation of the Renaissance. It does not take long to glance at paintings and be impressed. While the expectation that the era that produced them should have excelled equally in other fields is no doubt natural, it ought not to be taken for granted before some time has been spent reading the purported literary, philosophical and scientific masterpieces of the age. To do so takes more time and effort than a tour of an art gallery. It is hard to believe that most of the writers who wrote in praise of the Renaissance made this effort. It is worth mentioning Huizinga's theory that some of the habits of Renaissance painting were actually counterproductive when applied to other arts. In particular a concentration on intricate and exhaustive detail can make the viewer uncomfortable even with some of the greatest Renaissance artists. Durer's fantastically detailed etchings of hares, with every hair drawn in, or the hundreds of tiny houses in the townscapes behind Jan van Eyck's Madonnas, or the elaborate fan-vaulting of King's College Chapel, are all very well for the viewer, who can glance quickly over them to get a general effect. "The sight of this multitude of details fatigues us no more than the sight of reality itself," as Huizinga elegantly puts it. But the mental attitude of their creators is closer to that of the manufacturers of genealogies than to our own. It is clear what will happen when this sort of thing spills over into literature. Writing cannot be glanced over briefly; it has to be followed linearly in the order the author wrote it. The horrors of trying to read thousands of lines of elaborate figures repeating each other need not be contemplated too closely. The modern reader will not be familiar with these works, simply because their unreadability prevents them from being printed in modern editions. But they are all there for those who care to look.

A particular case of the way that the skill of the Renaissance in art has served to cover up its utter incompetence at anything else is evident in the admiration of many for Leonardo da Vinci. Admirers of the Renaissance have acclaimed him as a type of the Renaissance man; its detractors can, I think, do the same. Like the Renaissance itself, Leonardo was supposed to be good at everything. But on examination, it turns out he had nothing of importance to say on most subjects. Some histories of Italian literature do not mention Leonardo at all; those which do mostly approve his description of himself as a "man without letters" (he could not write in Latin at all), and advise us to look elsewhere for his achievements. Doing so, we find that a standard history of mathematics says "[his] published jottings on mathematics are trivial, even puerile, and show no mathematical talent whatever." Though he had some skill as a military engineer, he does not seem to have made any definite contributions to science or technology. Dreams about helicopters do not constitute great science. But he was a great painter.

Once Renaissance painting and its connection, or lack of it, with intellectual developments has been established, it remains to consider some other achievements of the time which have been seen as signs of intellectual progress. These are the invention of printing and the discovery of America. Both of these have been the occasion of innumerable effusions of a priorist theorising, to the effect that they opened new vistas of thought, led to the spread of radical ideas, confuted scholastic dogmas and so on. As usual, evidence that any of this happened is rarely seen. We ought to know what to expect from this kind of development, since we have very close parallels to both in the last thirty years: the introduction of television and the landings on the moon. What television produced was a flood of drivel catering to the lowest common denominator of the paying public, plus a quantity of propaganda paid for by the sponsors. Much the same happened when printing was invented. This is a slightly unfair judgement in both cases, since there was a quality end to the early printing market just as there is in television. Certainly some worthwhile early printed books and recent television shows can be exhibited. Even so, it is hard to see that thought in the later Middle Ages was greatly restricted by having to rely on manuscripts.

Everybody knew that the best ideas were to be found at the best universities, especially Paris and Oxford, and it was simply a matter of going to one of these to find out what the ideas were. After the invention of printing, the universities carried on much as before, but in addition the reading public was besieged by book salesmen convincing the semi-literate of the virtues of works on alchemy, millenarian prophecy, sayings of the ancient sages, signs for recognising witches, pornography and similar rubbish. It is no wonder that the sixteenth century yielded such a crop of conflicting and mostly lunatic sects.

The moon landing, as we know, resulted in a short spate of moralising on the small size of the earth and then dropped out of everyone's con consciousness. The discovery of America produced little reaction - and indeed it is hard to see what attitude intellectuals could have taken to it beyond a little polite applause. No doubt it is a marvellous thing to hear that the back of the moon has no seas, or that there is a civilisation in Mexico, but this is hardly the stuff of intellectual revolution. No new idea was imported with the potato. The only Renaissance thinker who seems. to have discussed the New World at any length is Vitoria, whose De Indis examined in enormous detail the law and morality of colonisation. And he is chiefly known as a reviver of medieval thought.

In fact, the only major idea apparently generated in the European soul by the thought of the Americas was that of the wild goose chase. Columbus himself, as is well known, believed he had landed in India. While an estimate of longitude 180 degtees wrong is strange enough, the truth about the workings of Columbus' mind is odder still. What he actually expected to find in "India" was the Garden of Eden, which, according to some commentaries on Genesis he had been reading, was located at the farthest point of the East. On a later voyage, he convinced himself that the Orinoco was one of the Four Rivers of Paradise and that the region of Veragua in Panama was the site of the mines from which King Solomon had extracted the jewels to adorn the Temple. God had appointed him, he believed, to use these mines to finance an expedition which would capture Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Columbus was eventually shipped home from America in chains, but he was succeeded by a series of adventurers with delusions of at least equal calibre. For the next fifty years, a good part of the European population of America was entirely occupied in quests for the Earthly Paradise, El Dorado, the Noble Savage, the North West Passage and the Fountain of Youth. "The fresh green beast of the new world", Fitzgerald writes at the end of The Great Gatsby, "once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams . . . the orgiastic future". Not one of the things dreamed of existed.

So, all in all, the claims made for the Renaissance are more than a little hollow. But if the Renaissance is a myth, the Dark Ages were, unfortunately, only too real. From about AD 250, the tradition of ancient learning simply fell to pieces, and successive generations knew less and less of what the best thinkers had said. By AD 600 Isidore of Seville wrote that a cylinder was "a square figure with a semicircle on top". The Venerable Bede, in the eighth century, was also rightly considered the most learned man in Europe; his idea of a hard problem was determining the date of Easter. It was becoming progressively easier to become the most learned Man of one's time. A period which, for want of any reliable facts, is occupied in our imagination by the myths of Arthur's Britain is as remote from our understanding as the Bronze Age. Caesar's Rome, by comparison, or Palestine under Herod, is dose enough to our own times - the actors are discovered in period costume, perhaps, and lack some of our creature comforts, but essentially the light of common day is found to illuminate a familiar cast of megalomaniacs, effete literati, whited sepulchres and so forth. Individuals, in short, and not the legendary heroes and nameless hordes that mill about the Dark Ages.

Now if there was a Dark Age, it might be argued, with some show of reason, that there must have been a renaissance to end it. This is perfectly correct. There was one, and it happened in the twelfth century. This fact has, it is true, not entirely escaped the notice of historians, and it has become common to speak of "the twelfth-century renaissance" and also of a "Carolingian renaissance" in the ninth century. But, as the qualifiers in the names suggest, these are thought of as pale forerunners of the Renaissance - good efforts for their time, perhaps, but hardly to be compared with the real thing. But the Carolingian renaissance did not amount to much, and the capital-R Renaissance was, as we have seen, more like two steps back than one step forward. The twelfth century, though, had a real, true, and unqualified renaissance.

Simply on the level of material remains, the sudden change from what went before is absolutely clear. The few buildings surviving in England from the times of Bede and Alfred the Great are room-sized piles of rubble with a hole in them; by contrast Durham Cathedral (begun in 1093) is as big a church as there is any point in building, and is only the best of a number built at the same time. The engineering skill of the builders of the Leaning Tower of Pisa becomes better confirmed each year.

The rediscovery of ancient knowledge, which the later Italian humanists claimed for themselves, was actually accomplished in the twelfth century. Hitherto I have mentioned almost entirely men whose names are well known to history, but there is a special obligation on anyone discussing this period to recall some of the real heroes of western culture, the first translators of the ancient classics into Latin. Though they are now almost forgotten, it was their extraordinary efforts in travelling around the Mediterranean, learning strange languages, discovering what books were worthwhile, and producing intelligible versions in Latin, that began the intellectual advance of the West. Some of these men were: Adelard of Bath, who made the first Latin translation of Euclid about 1120; Gerard of Cremona, who went to Toledo to find Ptolemy's Almagest and spent the rest of his life there translating enormous quantities of Greek and Arab science; Gundissalinus, who, unable to read Arabic, had a Jewish friend translate from Arabic into Castilian, from which he translated into Latin. This is the kind of anecdote we expect from a genuine renaissance. By 1200, thanks to the work of these scholars, there were reasonably accurate Latin translations of the main works of Aristotle, Plato, Euclid, Ptolemy, Archimedes and Galen, that is, of all the intellectually crucial ancient authors except Thucydides.

Things were moving ahead also at a less purely cerebral level. The last quarter of the century (for reference, the epoch of Good King Richard's absence on crusade) saw the introduction to western Europe of the compass, the vertical windmill, papermaking, canal locks and arabic numerals. On the cultural plane, there was a flourishing of vernacular literatures (another innovation often attributed to the Renaissance), especially in Provencal, French, Icelandic and Welsh. The high Gothic style of architecture was created. There were various conscious revivals of classicism, some of them sane enough, like John of Salisbury's Ciceronian Latin style, others perhaps over-literal, as with Arnold of Brescia's restoration of the Roman Republic, complete with Senate and consuls (this took place during the reign of the first English Pope; the experiment was not tried again.)

One feature of this story worth noting is the prominence in it of England and France. From being a distant outpost of Mediterranean civilisation, the "remote and fogbound West" at this time first emerged into the centre of history. The contribution of England and France, at the end of the twelfth century, included the two most lasting medieval institutions - the university and English common law. The University of Paris, the leading university for centuries and the exemplar for all later foundations, grew up about 1170. Glanville's treatise, the first collection of materials forming a body of English common law, was written about 1187, and the first cases later cited as precedents date from about 1200.

The situation is well symbolised by a strange event that took place unnoticed in England on September 3, 1189 - the end of time immemorial. In later times it was ordained that, in English law, the phrase "from time immemorial" should mean "from 1189". The exact choice of date was a coincidence (it was Richard the Lionheart's coronation), but there was a good reason for choosing the later twelfth century: by then the country was settled enough, and literate enough, to have reasonably complete public records everywhere. Even today research in public records has a fair chance of tracing ancestry or land title as far back as 1200; before that, royal blood is usually needed to produce any information.

Then came the century and a half of the High Middle Ages, with Notre Dame and Chartres cathedrals, Thomas Aquinas and the harmony of faith and reason, Marco Polo's travels, Dante, Giotto and Oresme. Without warning, the Black Death of 1350 brought it to an end, and the "Renaissance" praised itself while science slept. But the Renaissance was at least not another Dark Age. Though knowledge did not advance, it did not, on the whole, vanish either. When enough of the accumulated allegories and other rubbish had been cleared aside, things could advance without the need to rediscover hidden manuscripts or study semitic languages. Galileo could study at university the achievements of all important previous scientists before criticising them; he and Descartes had the tools of scholastic language and mathematics to express their discoveries precisely. Shakespeare and Cervantes had large quantities of previous literary forms and plots to draw on. So the Renaissance was not a time like the Dark Ages when everyone stopped thinking; they just stopped thinking anything new.

Finally, if the Renaissance was not an age of intellectual brilliance, who put about the myth that it was, and to what end?

There is one man deserving most of the blame - Petrarch. Though in fact he lived at the time of the Black Death, a century before the Renaissance is usually thought to have begun, he first made most of the claims advanced by later advocates of the Renaissance. He hunted for manuscripts, and claimed to have rediscovered various ancient authors. He imitated Cicero, meaning his style rather than his content. He criticised the university scholars of his day for irrelevant dialectical subtleties and hair-splitting logic, though there is no evidence that he ever tried to understand what they were saying. He is said to have left Venice because some young university philosophers said he was "a good man, but illiterate." In view of his own dictum that "it is better to will the good than to know the truth", they were surely at least half right. Even on his chosen ground, lyric love poetry, it is possible to feel in his work a certain obviousness and lack of sensibility compared with, say, Guido Cavalcanti's Donna mi Prega of fifty years earlier. After writing several hundred sonnets cataloguing Laura's numerous charms and virtues and his own living deaths and delicious pains, he noted the news of her death in his copy of Virgil, in order that he might be constantly reminded of the decay of all earthly goals. He pulled off the century's most amazing propaganda stunt by having himself crowned as poet on the Capitoline Hill, reviving a supposed classical tradition. This was to celebrate, he said, the rebirth of poetry after a thousand years. Even if the troubadour lyrics, the Eddas and the Roman de la Rose had never been written, the idea of someone announcing the rebirth of poetry thirty years after Dante's death is just a disgrace.

No psychological insight is needed to guess Petrarch's motives in pretending that a thousand years of darkness had ended with himself. But there is something of a puzzle as to why later historians continued to accept the exaggerated account the Renaissance gave of itself. A few, especially the Encyclopedists of eighteenth-century France, had ideological motives, since they wanted to condemn the churches of their own time by attributing to them the alleged obscurantism of the Middle Ages. Something similar holds for Michelet's wish to represent the Renaissance world view as a forerunner of the opinions of the liberal political faction to which he adhered. But most historians have not had any particular reason for agreeing with any of this. Speculations on what may have been common to most historians over a period of centuries cannot be certain, but there are a few things it seems fair to assert. The writers who gave us our view of the past, from the authors of massive Histoires de France to the average text book hacks, were basically not interested in the history of ideas. In most cases, their primary concerns were political, military and economic. On opening an average history of the Renaissance, we can expect to find keen debate on whether Lorenzo de Medici's Milanese policy was well advised or not. But we can rely on being assured without argument that his court was brilliant. Courts of successful princes are always brilliant. And brilliant courts are of necessity adorned by great poets and profound philosophers. The training of historians, and their natural bent, fit them to evaluate politics and literature better than science and philosophy. For success in the field of history, and especially popular history, depends more on the humanistic arts of rhetoric and grammar than on scientific and logical skills. Good men, most historians, but innumerate. Since in addition science, mathematics and medieval philosophy are of their nature harder to understand than Renaissance belles lettres and narrative painting, it would be surprising if the tradition of history did not praise the Renaissance.

We, though, are at liberty to be more sceptical.

For an account of the history of ideas free of anti-medieval prejudice, see my The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability Before Pascal (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), especially the section `The genius of the scholastics, and the orbit of Aristotle'.

Of related interest:
`Diagrammatic reasoning and modelling in the imagination: the secret weapons of the Scientific Revolution'.

`Myths about the middle ages'.

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