The full flower of Italian expression

Italy in the Central Middle Ages - Renaissances
February 25, 2005

Textbooks are the aunts and uncles of the academic enterprise: adult mentors related to parental authorities - the scholarly monographs - but lacking their weight and immediate authority. They are expected to help with raising the children, and while most treat this duty soberly, there is a special place for the unconventional relative who winks at rules, introduces the children to less-travelled paths and sets them thinking in different ways.

David Abulafia's Italy in the Central Middle Ages: 1000-1300 is the responsible relation here: clear, precise, well rooted in the monograph literature and drawing on it to show how new scholarship demands a reshuffling of older categories and a rethinking of older interpretations.

Richard Mackenney's Renaissances: The Cultures of Italy, c. 1300-c. 1600 is the wild uncle: versed in the recent literature but eager to take readers beyond it by proposing new categories and juxtapositions.

Abulafia's collaborative effort appears in Oxford's excellent Short History of Italy series. Its ten authors offer succinct and scholarly reviews of the critical developments that set Italy at the forefront of Europe's economic, cultural and political developments from 1000 to 1300.

One of the collection's particular strengths is the attention it pays to social and political dynamics that earlier reviews have explored less thoroughly. These include chiefly the shifting relations between the Italic Kingdom of the north and the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily in the South.

Many texts note that the peninsula's economic and political balance moves from the latter to the former over these centuries, but few cover the implications for rural life, material culture, literature and trade. Each of these chapters - and others on family life, urban communes and the papacy - are informative, sometimes entertaining and accessible to readers with a minimal background in medieval history generally.

Other chapters move beyond convention. A section on "The Other Faces of Italy" explores the place of Greeks, Jews and Muslims in urban culture, and the relation of Sardinia to mainland politics. These critical new areas of research are seldom explored outside monographs and scholarly articles.

Mackenney's Renaissances , part of Palgrave's European Studies series, is less a survey text than an interpretive essay on the model of Jacob Burckhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). The only modern parallel of a textbook that seeks more to disrupt conventional wisdom than to indoctrinate is John Bossy's Christianity in the West . Yet this is a disruption that brings us full circle. Against recent approaches that emphasise continuities between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Mackenney follows Burckhardt in highlighting the tensions between pagan and Christian cultures. These he represents with Plato and Augustine respectively, both for simplicity and to exploit the further tension that Augustine was at once Plato's interpreter to Christianity but also its guard against his effort to cultivate the soul outside the Church.

For Mackenney, Augustine stands as a censor between Renaissance humanists and the classical past. He exploits this theme most fully in the book's chapters on humanism and art. Fascinating and disruptive, the ruminative discussion may fly over the heads of undergraduates who want a quick run through civic humanism or linear perspective. Yet these chapters will force them to think more deeply about what the different value systems implied, and about who and what was lost in the efforts to bring them together.

Similarly, the early chapters on historiography and chronology eschew the crammer's catalogue for a discussion of what the different approaches to each have implied.

The chapters on social and political context offer more straightforward accounts of urban and courtly life and cultural patronage. The most inventive chapter groups language together with music under the heading of "Soundscapes", and includes an extraordinary rap-like translation of Andrea Poliziano's hymn to Bacchus. The most compelling (and probably most controversial) chapter on "Legacies" explores the spread of Renaissance tensions beyond the Alps and particularly into the verse of Shakespeare.

Mackenney argues that as Counter-Reformation strictures left only the simulacra of Renaissance culture in Italy, it was Shakespeare who gave voice and audience to its animating spirit in England. It is a point well taken, though readers may want to check a companion volume in the same Palgrave series, C. F. Black's Church, Religion, and Society in Early Modern Italy (2004), for another interpretation.

Abulafia's text offers a superb and authoritative survey fully alive to the newest developments in the field. Mackenney's startling and vigorous narrative aims less to survey a period than to help students encounter its voices and think through its dynamics. Its conversational tone and sometimes startling juxtapositions raise hopes that they will join the experiment, while its rich allusiveness may engage their instructors as well.

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

Italy in the Central Middle Ages: 1000-1300. First Edition

Editor - David Abulafia
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 299pp
Price - £42.00 and £15.50
ISBN - 0 19 924703 X and 924704 8

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