Renaissance I

The six centuries between the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the start of the Crusades may be seen as the time when the "barbarian" states were catching up.

We may mark the start of the civilizing process in Western Europe with king Henry I of England (reigned 1100-1135) who defined homicide to be an offense against the state rather than an offense against only the victims and their relatives [PNKR, p. 74]. Another important civilizing event also happened in England when the king of England signed the Magna Carta in 1215, a document that limited his own powers.

The first painter to break from the formal Byzantine style and start the artistic Renaissance is Giotto (1266-1337) not much later than the civilizing acts of the kings of England. What other historical events happened in those centuries? One that comes foremost to mind are is the sequence of the nine (or ten) Crusades that took place between 1095 and 1272.

Gibbon [EG, Chapter LXI, vol. 6, pp. 205-208] provides an interesting evaluation of the crusades. He points out that the Latins were inferior to both the Greeks and the Arabs in "knowledge, industry, and art" but they had the advantage of an inquiring spirit and were able to learn from the East. However, such improvements could have been achieved better by trade than by war that resulted in large loss of lives. He goes on to say that the major effect of the crusades was "not so much in producing a benefit as in removing an evil." The crusades weakened the oppressive European feudal structure. He writes "The estates of the barons were dissipated ... Their poverty extorted from their pride those charters of freedom which unlocked the fetters of the slave, secured the farm of the peasant and the shop of the artificer ...". He concludes the section with a metaphor: "The conflagration which destroyed the tall and barren trees of the forest gave air and scope to the vegetation of the small and nutritive plants of the soil." [ibid, p. 208].

Gibbon's interpretation provides food for thought and we can search for parallels. One that comes to mind is the extinction of the dinosaurs by the impact of a meteorite and the subsequent growth of the mammals. In the post-crusade period the weakening of the warrior knights created new powers in Italy that were searching for models to govern themselves and they looked to ancient Rome ([MORR], p. 418). That started the Renaissance. Northern Italy was broken up. The Pope liked the many small states; they could not threaten his rule. Suddenly people were free (because of the demise of the crusading knights). The new spirit, of course, spread throughout north-western Europe.

“The odd thing about the Renaissance was that this apparently reactionary struggle to re-create antiquity in fact produced a wildly untraditional culture of invention and open-ended inquiry.” (ibid)
I am not sure about that observation. The return to the antiquity was an excuse. People wanted to act outside the church dogma and the “return to the classics” was a polite way of expressing it.

Big Events of the 1000-1400 period

  • 722-1252 Reconquista: Expulsion of Moorish power from Spain. (Granada held till 1492 but it was a small kingdom at the South of Spain.)
  • 1391 Closure of Synagogues and pogrom in Seville.
  • 1095-1291 Crusades
  • 1200-1300 First Mongol Invasion (Genghis Khan). Affected only the Middle East.
  • 1309-1376 Avignon Papacy (conflict between French kings and the Pope)
  • 1340-1360 Black Death Epidemic.
  • 1360-1410 Second Mongol Invasion (Tamerlane)
  • 1300-1500 Little Ice Age ([GGS] p. 424)

Notable People of the Period in Europe

  • Giotto (1266 –1337) started the revolution in art, painting in a natural way rather than the stylized Byzantine.
  • Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) Florence –Start of Renaissance? Wrote Divine Comedy between 1308 and his death in 1321.
  • Petrarch [Francesco Petrarca] (1304-1374) Florence. Coined term “Dark Ages.” Discovered and translated Livy’s “History of Rome.”

Outside Europe

Maimonides (1135-1204) Jewish scholar and physician. Active in Egypt.

The World was preparing for big things

Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve” depicts the scene in those years. The central character is Poggio Bracciolini (early 1400’s), a scribe, who used to be secretary of several popes. He devoted his free time to search for ancient manuscripts. People were slowly breaking from Church control. “Curiosity was said by the Church to be a mortal sin” ([GRBL] p. 16) Also “debate on books was forbidden” ([GRBL p. 27).

Most of the old Greek and Latin works have been lost (though destruction by Christians). Very few have survived and starting on the 12th century people went looking for them. The term “Italian Renaissance” usually refers to the 14th to 17th centuries (1300-1699). Greenblatt focuses on the poem “De Rerum Natura” (The Nature of the Universe) by the Roman poet Lucretius (lived around 100-50 BCE) recovered by Poggio around 1417.

The poem presents the work of Epicurus to a Roman audience (cited approvingly by Cicero). Epicurus (circa 300 BCE) was an atomic materialist, following in the steps of Democritus. His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. Lucretius poem is the most comprehensive presentation of Epicurean philosophy. The following is a summary of that philosophy ([GRBL], pp. 185-202).

  • Everything is made of invisible particles, atoms.
  • The elementary particles of matter (atoms) are eternal.
  • Atoms are infinite in number but limited in shape and size.
  • All atoms are in motion in an infinite void.
  • The universe has no creator or designer.
  • Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve (clinamen in Latin). Atoms normally move in straight lines but at unpredictable times and places deflect slightly from their course and that sets off a chain of collisions that create the world.
  • The swerve is the source of free will.
  • Nature ceaselessly experiments.
  • The universe was not created for or about humans.
  • Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
  • There is no afterlife.
  • Death is nothing to us. (Corollary of previous)
  • All religions are superstitious delusions.
  • Religions are invariably cruel.
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain. (But beware of craving pointless luxuries.)
  • The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion
  • Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

Although [GRBL] seems to overplay the effect of the Epicurean philosophy to the development of the Renaissance, it was certainly a factor.

1481 First Auto da Fe in Seville – Birth of the Inquisition.

[GGS] Jared Diamond Guns, Germs, and Steel, Norton, 1997-2005.
[EG] Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first published in 1788.Note: I use the 1978 reprint of the 1910 Everyman's Library (Dutton: New York) unabridged edition with comments by Oliphant Smeaton.
[GRBL] Stephen Greenblatt The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
[MORR] Ian Morris Why the West Rules - For Now, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010. Subtitled: The Patterns of History and what they Reveal about the Future.
[PNKR] Steven Pinker The Better Angels of our Nature, Viking, 2011.

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