Exam Question

At heart, what was the Renaissance? How did it contribute to the Reformation?

The Renaissance was fundamentally a rebirth of classical Latin – or rather, the Latin of the first century BC, particularly as it was composed by Cicero (and perhaps Virgil, Livy, Ovid, and other Augustan writers). To Francesco Petrarca, who lived in the fourteenth century AD, this was the pinnacle of its development and worth returning to. Language changes over time, of course – on the ground, Latin morphed into French, Spanish, and Italian – but even as a formal, learned language it changed, such that the Latin in daily use by the medieval Church was not quite the same as the one employed in the Senate House to expose the conspiracy of Cataline. I’m sure that any fourteenth-century reader would have noticed this difference, and not very cared much, but Petrarch cared a great deal. To him, every linguistic change since Cicero was necessarily a debasement, a corruption. (Cicero did employ certain rhetorical effects that had fallen out of use.) The venality of the Church, and its stultifying bureaucracy in which Petrarch worked, seemed to be reflected in the prosaic Latin it used.

Thus, to Petrarch, it was a cultural imperative to revive Ciceronian Latin. This project was slightly risqué – Cicero was a pagan, and the Church did not recommend that Christians read too much pagan writing. As it happens, the Church was right – Petrarch almost single-handedly started a vogue for the revival of Ciceronian Latin – and of necessity a revival of the pagan idea of making something of yourself. No longer did life need to be a vale of tears so that one’s heavenly reward could be all the sweeter; now, people started to claim that God had given them talents, and they glorified God when they developed those talents. This is not necessarily anti-Christian, and indeed the Pope later became one of the greatest Renaissance patrons of all, but it did entail a certain skepticism towards traditional Christianity, and the Church that sponsored it. That Lorenzo Valla, using humanist philology, proved conclusively that the Donation of Constantine was a fabrication, is emblematic of this. Emperor Constantine (d. AD 337) did not actually grant to the pope the rights to the papal states, nor the right to name the western emperor. The pope himself invented the notion in the eighth century.

A similar philological critique was launched by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, who set himself the task of publishing an authoritative edition of the New Testament in Greek. To this end he collected as many manuscripts as possible which, he discovered, did not necessarily agree with each other. To help determine which was the original reading, he adopted the “principle of maximum embarrassment” – that is, the reading that was most likely to be true was the reading that the Church liked the least. In other words, Erasmus implicitly accused the Church of being a bad steward of the Bible. And just as Italian humanists returned to Cicero for his Latin, and for his ideas about human nature, so also did Erasmus believe that this original text ought to be the main arbiter of Christian practice. Thus did Erasmus write Praise of Folly, a scathing attack on the mechanistic, superstitious, non-Biblical Christianity he saw around him. Instead, he believed that everyone should have access to the Bible, so that they could consume the word of God directly.

These two strands, skepticism towards the claims of the Roman Catholic Church, and the idea that we should go back to the Bible to determine our own Christian practice, came together in the program of Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. Everyone knew that the Church was corrupt, in that it often did not live up to its own ideals, but Luther went further than that, and identified non-Biblical Christian practice (starting with purgatory and indulgences) as part of that corruption. If he wasn’t going to be elected Pope, the next best thing would be to get certain German princes to declare their territories free from the Pope’s writ, and reorganize the church there according to his own understanding of Christian practice. And if Luther could do this, then so could others – with or without the support of the local government authorities.

In this way did the Reformation grow out of the Renaissance.


As a card-carrying member of the medievalists’ guild, I am contractually obliged to defend the Middle Ages whenever possible. Of course, after years of teaching the Western Civ. sequence, I have come to appreciate other historical eras as well – even the Renaissance, which originated the whole idea that we had a “Middle Ages” in the first place. But while praising what humanists did, I still dispute the notion that for them to succeed, others had to fail. You know the narrative: the Roman world, in particular the age right before the advent of the Principate, was pretty good, and if we try really hard, we can be as good as them – we can witness a “rebirth” of their ideals, or at least of their beautiful language. Everything between those two points – a period lasting over a thousand years – was designed a “Middle” Age. Aristotle might have favored the mean as particularly “golden,” and even the expression “middle of the road” suggests safety and inoffensiveness, but this middle was very bad indeed, a long slough of despond between two high points. It does not help that the adjective in English, “medieval” (from the Latin “medium aevum”), contains the word “evil.” It definitely has a negative connotation, as in Marsellus Wallace’s promise that his torturers would “get medieval” on the rapist Zed in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), or Aaronow’s line from Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) about how a win-or-you’re-fired sales incentive is “medieval… it’s wrong.”

With that in mind, allow me to comment on this excerpt from Leonardo Bruni’s History of the Florentine People (1442):

The Latin language, in all its perfection and greatness, flourished most vigorously in the time of Cicero, for its first state was not polished or refined or subtle, but, mounting little by little to perfection, it reached its highest summit in the time of Cicero. After his age it began to sink and to descend, as until that time it had risen, and many years had not passed before it experienced a great decline and diminution; and it can be said that letters and the studies of the language went hand in hand with the condition of the Roman Republic, which had also grown in power until the age of Cicero.

After the liberty of the Roman people had been lost through the rule of the emperors, who did not desist from killing and eliminating the men of excellence, the flourishing condition of studies and of letters perished, together with the welfare of the city of Rome. Augustus, who was the least evil of the emperors, had thousands of Roman citizens slain; Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero did not leave anyone alive who had the face of a man. There followed, then, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, who killed off each other within a few months. After them there were no more emperors of Roman blood, since the country had been so ruined by the preceding emperors that no one of any excellence remained… Why am I relating all this? Simply to demonstrate that as the city of Rome was destroyed by the emperors, who were perverse tyrants, so studies and Latin letters experienced a like ruin and decay, to such an extent that finally almost no one could be found who understood Latin literature with any refinement.

That literary and moral development go hand in hand is an interesting theory. I suppose this is true on some level – you do need some measure of prosperity and political stability before you can devote your time to cultivating your prose style. But what about the idea that all great art comes from crisis? Or that famous speech in The Third Man (1949):

Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Of course, this is visual art, and not literature… and I suppose that Bruni is right on some level: in totalitarian regimes, language is utterly debased, in that everyone must publicly consent to lies on a daily basis. In the Roman context, everyone of any influence had to pretend that Augustus actually restored the republic when he didn’t. But note that Bruni is not complaining about truth-telling, but about “style.” He claims that learned men were killed off by the emperors – and I suppose that many of them were. But what about the first century BC, when Rome was still a republic and still featured Romans merrily killing each other, including the great Cicero, who was assassinated by agents of Marc Anthony? What about the “Augustan age” of literature, including Ovid, Livy, Virgil, and other master stylists, some of them sponsored by Augustus himself? What about the eighty-year period of political stability in the second century AD, the so-called Golden Age of the Roman Empire – was this not long and prosperous enough for someone to cultivate a good style? Do Apuleius and Suetonius not count?

OK, so Bruni is generalizing, and exaggerating. The fall of the Western Empire doubtlessly did have an effect on letters:

Then Italy was invaded successively by the Goths and the Lombards, barbarian and foreign peoples, who almost completely extinguished all knowledge of letters, as appears in the documents drawn up in that time, than which nothing could be found more coarse and crude. From the time when the liberty of the Italian peoples was recovered, by the defeat of the Lombards who had occupied Italy for two hundred and four years, the cities of Tuscany and elsewhere began to revive, and to take up studies, and somewhat to refine the coarse style. So little by little these came to recover vigor, but very feebly, and without any true sense of refinement, paying more attention to writing in vernacular rhymes than to other forms. And so until the time of Dante few knew the cultivated style, and those few understood it rather badly, as we have said in the life of Dante. Francesco Petrarca was the first who had such grace of talent, and who recognized and restored to light the ancient elegance of style which was lost and dead, and although in him it was not perfect, nevertheless by himself he saw and opened the way to this perfection by recovering the works of Cicero, by enjoying them, by understanding them, and by adapting himself as much as he could, and he learned the way to that most elegant and perfect fluency.

The chronology here is a little fuzzy – Charlemagne defeated the Lombards in the eighth century, and Dante died in the early fourteenth, but I suppose that the long-term prosperity of the commercial revolution did invigorate Italian letters. I sure wish that Bruni would provide examples of what he means by “cultivated style” or “elegant and perfect fluency.” Because on one level it seems arbitrary: language changes over time, as the humanists noticed all too well; who is anyone to say what register is “better” than another? As long as language is efficient within its community at conveying meaning, there is no such thing as “good style.” As I like to tell my students, it would be as though we decided that our English was ugly, and that we need to revive the English of Shakespeare. This would be an exercise in pure affectation.

But we have all had the experience of reading beautiful prose, and trying to slog through bad prose, so I’m not prepared to dismiss aesthetic considerations completely. I just don’t believe that morality and “style” go hand in hand, and I especially dislike how the humanists ran down the “Middle” Ages because their style wasn’t as “good” as that of Cicero.

Reformation Sunday

One of the delightful features of the church I currently attend is that it celebrates Reformation Sunday, the Sunday before October 31. That was the day on which Martin Luther, in 1517, nailed the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, thereby inaugurating the Protestant Reformation! (Of course, there is no primary source evidence that he actually did this, although he may very well have, given that the church door functioned as the university bulletin board. What really mattered is that they were translated into German and published with the printing press, an example of an academic idea bursting out of the confines of the university and into the wider culture. This happens from time to time.)

The church bulletin yesterday did not feature Martin Luther composing, nailing, or printing his theses. Instead, the illustration was of him at the Diet of Worms of 1521, when he stood up to no one less than Emperor Charles V! (Even if he did this in April – actually, I think that Savior of All should celebrate Diet of Worms day, too. Unfortunately, there is no proof that he ever said “Here I stand; I can not do otherwise.”)


I like that the artist has rendered the double-headed Imperial eagle on a gold field. Alas, he has also simplified the coat of arms beyond recognition. Here is what Wikipedia has:


Here is another work of art featuring Luther, discovering justification by faith:


The original of this painting may be found in the Bob Jones University Museum and Gallery in Greenville, South Carolina, which we visited in the spring of 2014, and which houses the most fantastic collection of late medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art. Apparently Bob Jones, Jr., son of the founder and university president for many years, had a predilection for Christian-themed art and so began acquiring it when he could. (The painting above is not representative; it is nineteenth century in origin and Protestant in theme. Most of the BJU collection is older than that and quite Catholic, which is somewhat at odds with BJU’s historic principles.) I highly recommend a visit to the Museum and Gallery should you be visiting Greenville.

Ren-Ref Reading

A nice nugget in Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (cap. XIV, trans. George Bull):

As for intellectual training, the prince must read history, studying the actions of eminent men to see how they conducted themselves during war and to discover the reasons for their victories or their defeats, so that he can avoid the latter and imitate the former. Above all, he must read history so that he can do what eminent men have done before him: taken as their model some historical figure who has been praised and honoured; and always kept his deeds and actions before them.

How Dare He?!

From J.H. Plumb, The Italian Renaissance (1961). Speaking of the Middle Ages, Plumb writes:

The wealth that was wrung from the soil and the tenuous trade of those dark centuries was poured into the splendid barbaric churches, noble if grotesque, that soared to heaven in violation of all the harmonies of ancient art. Or it served a grimmer purpose, and from it grew the towering fortresses, the embattled towers, the walled cities that were a necessity in a society in which the clang of armor was as common as the church bell.

As a card-carrying member of the medievalists’ guild, I must protest! Why is wealth “wrung from” the soil (as opposed to, say, “produced by” it)? How could Chartres Cathedral be built by “tenuous” trade? And why are we judging Gothic churches, marvels of engineering and beautiful in their own right, by any ancient fashions? Furthermore – have you seen the Medici palace, or the Visconti castle? These Renaissance buildings were certainly built with the “grim” purpose of defense in mind, given that in Renaissance Italy the clang of armor was a very common sound indeed.


Film Review

As we approach the first anniversary of the death of our dear colleague Kevin Crawford, I wanted to share with you his review of the film Anonymous (2012). Knowledge is good!

Anonymous dramatizes the absurd idea that Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays of “William Shakespeare” but could not claim to have done so as a nobleman.

This piece of utter nonsense, although beautifully shot and mostly well-acted, gets more than a few things wrong…

Elizabeth I was childless, not the mother of countless male bastards who got to be foster-child earls. She was not de Vere’s mother, and most certainly not his lover and a mother of HIS child (who later gets to be the Earl of Southampton). At least we get the first film to include Queen Elizabeth engaged in oral sex with her son/lover right before he fathers his own son/brother on his own mother/lover…

Christopher Marlowe is shown alive in 1598; he died – by the nagging inconvenience of murder – by 1593.

Apparently, Shakespeare was Marlowe’s murderer; Ben Jonson accuses him of the crime, claming he “slit (Marlowe’s) throat” in Southwark. Hmmmm. Marlowe was murdered by Ingram Frizer in the suburb of Deptford when Mr. Frizer slipped his dagger in Marlowe’s left eye. Ouch. (Marlowe also dies in the film on the same day Essex leaves to meet the rebellion in Ireland – these two events happened six years apart. Oops.)

In 1603, either the Rose or the Globe Theatre burns down; the film doesn’t make it clear, but we know the Globe Theatre burned down in 1613, and the Rose never caught fire.

Richard III is billed as premiering in 1601, but was actually printed four years earlier in 1597 and performed well before its publication. Even worse, RIII is performed in the film as a rabble-rousing prelude to the Essex rebellion, when in fact Richard II – a VERY different play – was performed before the uprising (Shakespeareans are, admittedly, divided on how much the play’s performance was connected to Essex, but the play’s deposition scene was banned on stage and in print for many years).

The poem Venus and Adonis is depicted as a bestseller written and printed especially for Queen E in 1601. It was published in 1593; no known 1601 edition exists.

Ben Jonson is shocked that Romeo and Juliet, written in 1598, is entirely in blank verse. ButGorboduc precedes it as the first drama to use blank verse throughout a play by more than 35 years. By 1598 the form was standard in the English theatre. Oh, and Romeo and Juliet has quite a bit of prose in it, too. Like nearly fifteen percent of the play.

Elizabeth’s funeral takes place on the frozen Thames. The ceremony took place on land and the Thames did not freeze over that year.

Richard III was not the first play performed at the Globe.

Shakespeare was not illiterate. His grammar school education had him reading and translating major works in Latin and a few in Greek. How many modern college graduates read Latin and Greek? How many were doing so after the equivalent of sixth grade? Take lots of time with your answer…

Shakespeare spelled his own name in different ways? Fine. So did Marlowe, and the Earl of Oxford. Indeed, Oxford spelled the work “halfpenny” eleven – ELEVEN – different ways. Was he illiterate? Obviously, which means he couldn’t have written Shakespeare. I guess that means Queen Elizabeth wrote the plays when she wasn’t having sex.

And so on…

Fun with Fonts

The Gutenberg Bible was the first book printed with moveable type in the west.* To own a copy would now cost tens of millions of dollars, and even a single folio will set you back tens of thousands. Yet it is difficult to remember that in the fifteenth century, the products of the moveable-type printing press were el-cheapo simulacra of the real thing, books written and decorated by hand, by a genuine team of craftsmen. Hence the GB’s hexagonal gothic typeface, which imitated monastic script, even including the abbreviation marks (which make it easier for monks to write things out, but which make printing things by moveable type more difficult). Plus the decorated initials and marginalia, added afterwards by hand.

Detail, first page of the Epistle of Saint Jerome, Gutenberg Bible, University of Texas copy. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Very quickly, however, Italian humanists came to view this sort of writing as carrying the foul stench of the monastic scriptorium. If we’re going to revive Ciceronian Latin, we need more appropriate clothing for it! So humanists derived the sort of Roman fonts (e.g. “Times New Roman”) that we’re familiar with today. These were not a slavish imitation of actual Roman letters (Romans did not use minuscules, after all), but the clarity and gracefulness of a good Roman inscription were highly valued and reproduced on paper.

Inscription on the Arch of Titus (first century AD). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Type specimen by Aldus Manutius, from Pietro Bembo’s De Aetna, 1495–96. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Eventually humanist letterforms triumphed all over Europe – except in Germany. Just as Gothic architecture held out in England long after the Italians switched to a neoclassical style, so also did medieval letterforms hold out in Germany, where they eventually became a badge of national pride. Here is a German article from 1894 that I got through interlibrary loan (thanks, Stephanie!) illustrating the distinctive German Fraktur font:

Note that the French expressions (fête des fous and fête de l’âne) are actually set in Roman type (or, as it was known in Germany, Antiqua) – the idea being that German language required a German font. According to a Wikipedia article on the Antiqua-Fraktur dispute, Otto von Bismark would return gifts of German books not set in Fraktur, with the notice that “I do not read German books in Latin letters!” This certainly helps to explain why Bauhaus typography was so outré in the 1920s. The irony is that Fraktur fell out of use under… the Nazis! You’d think that the Nazis of all people would have cherished it as an aspect of the ineffable Germanness that they claimed to represent, but instead they condemned it as old-school and fusty. From the page (Adolf Hitler this time):

Your alleged gothic internalisation does not fit well in this age of steel and iron, glass and concrete, of womanly beauty and manly strength, of head raised high and intention defiant… In a hundred years, our language will be the European language. The nations of the east, the north and the west will, to communicate with us, learn our language. The prerequisite for this: The script called Gothic is replaced by the script we have called Latin so far…

Fascinating stuff! (Every now and then the Nazis would claim to represent Modernity, although Hitler did not go in for architectural modernism nearly as much as Mussolini did.)

* The Chinese invented moveable type in the eleventh century, but it is much less useful with an ideographic script.