Rebirth, reform and the culture of change

Courts, Patrons, and Poets. First edition - The Renaissance in Europe - The Impact of Humanism. First edition - Challenges to Authority. First edition - The Renaissance in Europe
March 2, 2001

The five books here are all texts for an Open University course, "The Renaissance in Europe: A Cultural Inquiry" (AA305). Or at least that is their primary purpose. In electing to co-publish them, Yale University Press is betting that their appeal can leap the Atlantic and reach within traditional classroom walls.

This is, without a doubt, the most ambitious, extensive and integrated set of course texts ever produced on the Renaissance. It leads students through the historiography of the concept, introduces them to traditional and current scholarship, familiarises them with key primary source readings and sets the whole into an interdisciplinary narrative that stretches beyond many familiar conventions of the undergraduate Renaissance.

The writing is clear and at times vivid. The format steers students towards reflection and discussion of concepts and readings, aiming to give the benefits of such discussion to those who may be studying the materials on their own at home. The series incorporates much of the recent scholarship on the areas that it has chosen to focus on, although some may quibble with the choice and treatment of those areas.

The integration of the Reformation into the course is done on more traditional and limiting terms. Europe's push overseas in this period, facilitated by Renaissance intellectual, economic and political developments, is hardly treated at all. Yet the fact remains that the editors, authors and publishers have put together an expansive and impressive collection that can be as useful to students in traditional university classes as to those seeking an Open University credit or pursuing a personal interest.

The five texts form an integrated whole. At the core are three texts that, although made up of independently authored chapters, give the course's basic narrative. These connect to two collections of readings. One is The Renaissance in Europe: An Anthology , containing 91 readings from primary sources, organised into seven thematic sections: "Humanism", "Politics and humanism", "The Renaissance court", "The Renaissance in Britain", "The Reformation", "Renaissance science" and "Montaigne". The edited extracts range in length from two pages to ten, and include familiar authors (Valla, Machiavelli, Luther) and less traditional pieces such as Cassandra Fedele's "Oration to the Univer-sity of Padua" or Thomas Platter's visit to a London theatre.

The humanism readings are almost entirely on things Italian, and those for "Politics and humanism" are largely Florentine. The court readings are heavily Italian, although they expand to include the court of the Hungarian king Mattias Corvinus. Poems and literary pieces convey the Renaissance in Britain, while Luther and German sources generally dominate "The Reformation". "Renaissance science" has three slim pieces and "Montaigne" is represented by one. Each reading comes with a brief explanatory introductory paragraph and a source reference.

Although the readings relate to the three narrative texts, this anthology could stand alone as a Renaissance course text.

The second collection, The Renaissance in Europe: A Reader , has 34 excerpts from recent scholarly articles. These are not classic articles, but pieces chosen for their commentary on points raised in the three narrative texts. The Reader's three sections correspond to the titles of those texts, "The impact of humanism courts, patrons and poets and challenges to authority".

Each of the narrative texts comprises five to eight chapters written for the series by a variety of authors. While stylistic differences mark one chapter from the next, there are enough editorial constants to ensure that the series functions as an integrated set of texts that is designed to enhance independent study. Each chapter opens with a list of objectives. Chapters close with a bibliography directing students to further sources on the subject. Most chapters are amply illustrated and include primary source materials. This much is conventional.

Less conventionally, the narrative flow of each chapter breaks every few pages for an exercise and discussion. The exercise sends a student to one of the primary sources in the Anthology , or a secondary source in the Reader . The primary source illustrates a point, while the secondary source offers a window into some more extensive background or into historians' debates on the subject. Exercise questions are numbered and are followed immediately by numbered answers. These answers come in various voices, from the impersonal to the more chatty.

This movement back and forth between narrative, sources and discussion clearly aims to replicate the back and forth between lecture and tutorial in a conventional university setting. The Anthology and Reader stand in for trips to the university library. There, students go off to read articles or texts, and come back to discuss what they have read or to get parts explained more fully. Such an approach allows those readings to be integrated directly into the flow of a chapter rather than simply being tacked on at the end of it. A resulting drawback is that the three narrative texts depend so heavily on the two readers that they cannot stand on their own. The variety of voices is presumably meant to stand in for the variety of teaching styles that a student would otherwise experience from one instructor to another, but the effect is a bit precious and seems, on first reading, to be an editorial lapse.

If this is the pedagogical form, what of the content? The series waves the flag of cultural studies to assert its novelty, but also pays homage to historiographical tradition. The opening volume on The Impact of Humanism is an extended commentary on the view of the Renaissance propounded by Jacob Burckhardt, whose Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) inspired much of the modern study of the period. Designing a course around Burckhardt's essay is more effective at the graduate than the undergraduate level. No matter how advanced the commentary, undergraduates almost always end up absorbing concepts such as Burckhardt's "The discovery of the world and of man", or "The state as a work of art" without the nuances. More to the point, it is hard for a course such as this to shake this 19th-century framework and incorporate more modern approaches.

Volume one gives us Renaissance humanism in relation to politics, music and ancient philosophy and, on the whole, does an excellent job of it (particularly music, which seldom gets the extensive treatment given here). Yet these areas represent only a small portion of current Renaissance studies. The series as a whole gives less attention to the social history that dominates today, and the frequent reference back to the intellectual schema of Burckhardt in volume one crowds out the sociological and anthropological approaches that might demonstrate how humanist values permeated the social order. Those elements are more evident in volumes two and three.

Volume two on Courts, Patrons, and Poets deals with the arts and court culture generally. There are discussions of Urbino and Mantua and Hungary (as an example of reception abroad), separate chapters on the Medici court in Florence and the Sforza court in Milan, and excursions into the British Renaissance as found in poetry and on the stage. This volume gives its nod to Burckhardt, but then more helpfully takes us beyond earlier views of the artist as individual genius into the complicated worlds of patronage that shaped painting, architecture, music and theatre. Much of art emerged in dialogue with informed patrons who aimed to advance corporate, familial or civic goals and the essays in this volume convey this context effectively. They also cover the stylistic issues and technical innovations that figure in more conventional textbook treatments of Renaissance artistic culture.

Volume three on Challenges to Authority considers the relations between Renaissance humanism and religious reform generally before focusing more deliberately on the work of Luther and Co. It then opens up again with a treatment of reform, ritual and the arts, a concrete reminder that while the Reformation may have gone back to the word, it remained highly dependent on the image and the tune for its popular emotive effect.

The text then turns to a satirical Spanish literary text Lazarillo de Tormes before a chapter on Renaissance science, two on magic and witchcraft and a concluding chapter on Montaigne. While this volume's title is traditional, its content is not. The popular stereotype has individuals like Luther and Galileo driven by conscience and experiment to challenge authority, but here we see two reformers operating very much from within cultures of authority, and depending on those cultures to advance their ideas and careers. This volume conveys some of the ambiguous legacies of classical humanism in the 16th century: agent of change, identifier of social enemies, source of surety and control, but also of ambivalence and tolerance. The volume, and series, closes with Montaigne as the neo-Burckhardtian individual, the true -that is postmodern -Renaissance man.

These volumes are largely successful in bringing the insights of cultural studies to refresh the familiar topic of Renaissance culture. The set is pedagogically creative and manages that enviable mix of being comprehensive and self-contained; the parts fit together into a whole that exposes students/readers to a wide range of scholarly and literary genres and interpretive approaches.

If there is a drawback, it is that the parts fit together so tightly that they can hardly be pulled apart. The five books function as a unit, but it is a unit that would have many undergraduates - certainly those in North America - gasping for breath at the amount of reading, not to mention the cost. Yet they should take that breath. We have more nuance, more constructivism and more context here. We have less heroism, less genius, less dichotomising of humanist truth versus superstitious obscurantism.

Given these creative departures from convention and the solid base of modern scholarship, the decision to build so much around Burckhardt is puzzling. While it demonstrates the limitations we expect of the dogged pursuit of a moot point, the set as a whole transcends these limitations and offers an excellent approach to Renaissance culture.

Nicholas Terpstra is associate professor of history, University of Toronto, Canada.

Courts, Patrons, and Poets. First edition

Editor - David Mateer
ISBN - 0 300 08219 3 and 08225 8
Publisher - Yale University Press / Open University
Price - £35.00 and £15.95
Pages - 384

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