Tag Archives: Renaissance

Surely you’re mistaken II

I am on holiday this week, and so probably have time but have little inclination to write you a long and technical post just now. Happily, student assessment comes to the rescue, or rather did in January to June 2019, over which time I collected, as some form of relief from marking, some more of my then-students’ best and brightest errors of fact, judgement or meaning on the two first-year modules I then taught, a full medieval and a late antique survey. All these students have now long since left our care, hopefully have their degrees and I don’t, in any case, know who they were as they were marked anonymously. I very much doubt they can remember writing these things, if they should ever read this. So I think it’s OK to let them lighten your summer as well. I shall group them and apply commentary where, well, where I think it’s funny…

Not quite thought through

“The impact of Constantine’s Christian implementation can be seen during the fourth and fifth centuries, whereby a widespread depiction of Christian art was displayed. For instance, churches became decorated with images of clear Christian origin and meaning, which conveyed an apparent Christian message.”

I mean, aren’t churches the last place you’d expect a Christian message to appear?

From one answer on the Black Death (that wasn’t really supposed to be about the Black Death):1

“However, the BD [sic] also led to the emergance [sic] of the Middle Class, ending the war for resources as the peasantry lessened and people could afford to feed their family.”

Damn peasants! We’d have so much more food without farmers!

“Many bodies were buried in the same grave but there were also many graves – this was a damage to the rural land and reduced possible crop-growing land therefore reducing the positive effect of the middle class emergance.”

Also dead people! So inconsiderate with the space they take up!

Similar vein, different paper, no way to know if it was the same student:

“… the growth of the bishops was not necessarily the main cause of the cities’ decline…”

But they just eat so much at that stage!

I know what you started with, but I don’t know how this happened to it

From the same answer on the Black Death as above:

“Public health, due to the Black Death, was instantly improved. In a short-term effort, people knew to isolate the sick from the cities and often used catapults to expel them.”

The source here must be an old story that the Mongols, while besieging the Venetian colony of Caffa in the Black Sea, catapulted their dead from the plague into the city. This may even have been true, though the source isn’t great, but it’s not true as it ended up here!2

And lastly…

“Britain was home to key Renaissance figures such as Chaucer and Diptych and also saw the spread of grammar schools across the country.”

But of course it wasn’t till the secondary moderns came along that we could develop thinkers like Triptych or Quadbyke.3 And that’s all, folks!

1. I have discovered, in my years of teaching across several institutions, that if you run a full medieval survey and don’t include assessment questions on the Vikings or the Black Death, you’ll get answers on them anyway. They are apparently the two things even the weakest students are interested enough by to revise.

2. See Mark Wheelis, “Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa” in Emerging Infectious Diseases Vol. 8 (Atlanta GA 2002), pp. 971–975, DOI: 10.3201/eid0809.010536.

3. My colleague who did the Renaissance lecture on this module liked to use Jan Van Eyck’s diptych of the Crucifixion and the Last Judgement, which see here, as an example of Renaissance art not all being from Italy. I hardly need to say that that colleague did not relocate it or Van Eyck to Britain, but even if they had, this student had more that they could add…

Seminary LXI: notables of the field and their Renaissances

Dave Brock of Hawkwind playing at the Cambridge Junction, December 2009

So, the last post recorded a paper that I was pleased to have made the time to hear. The same is less easy to say of this one. How can I put it? I like old rock bands. Now you can divide old rock bands into four groups, if you obsess enough about such things: those who despite having been going more or less continuously for years are still inventive and productive (Gong, most obviously for me; Hawkwind, to a lesser extent); those who have been going more or less continuously for a long time doing the same thing over and over (Status Quo, ZZ Top) among whom a subset have lost, to death, personality conflicts or reality, their creative cores and should stop for the sake of their once-good name (I will name only Thin Lizzy here, in either of their current touring incarnations). Then there are those who have lately reformed, and either can still cut it (Electric Prunes, Omnia Opera) or who really can’t but presumably needed the money (Blue Cheer…). Every time I risk a gig by some such venerable name, I wonder which of these it’s going to be, but one has to go because there may never be another chance (and every gig is unique anyway).1

Professor Jack Goody lecturing to the American University in Beirut

Professor Jack Goody lecturing to the American University in Beirut

I am less used to applying this scheme to academics, not least because they very rarely return to the field after time off, but it was in my mind after this paper, which was on the same day as the previous one. Long-memoried readers will recall, perhaps, that early in the life of this blog I blogged a book of interviews with various notables of the so-called New History.2 One of the interviewees was anthropologist and social historian Jack Goody, whom I had already noticed has recently put a new book out called Renaissances: the one or the many?,3 and another was Peter Burke, so when I discovered that Professor Goody, who has a local emeritus chair but is nonetheless rarely in these parts, was speaking about his new book at CRASSH and that Professor Burke was responding, I thought it would be interesting to go and see what that was like.

Early 'Abbasid manuscript

Early 'Abbasid manuscript

Professor Goody had, he told us, been in a quandary about this paper. He didn’t really want to just give a talk about the book, so had written another, then been persuaded that people probably wanted to hear about the book so glumly opted for the original after all, which he had then left at home, leaving him only some notes for the other one and his own considerable learning to produce an actual talk more or less on the fly. This he did while sucking on something, cough sweets or similar, throughout, so that it was often rather hard to tell what he was saying even once he had made up his mind. The basic argument, I think, was that the term ‘Renaissance’ involves an awareness of what is past so that it can be revived (however faulty that awareness might be), and that this involves records and therefore literacy, which is one of Professor Goody’s oldest concerns. An interesting sidetrack here took us off to China, where as he observed a pictographic script has allowed an empire of many languages to remain united for centuries, for various values of unity, because even when its inhabitants can’t understand each other speaking they can write their speech down in the same script. It’s a point, though not one germane to the title. Oral societies, he argued, have perpetually to reimagine their past whereas literate ones are constrained by what is recorded, especially if it’s Holy Writ (though it seems to me that even Holy Writ is reinterpreted for each generation). With that given, he produced several examples of societies in which an effloresence of learning comes out of a recovery of old ideas: Sung China with Confucianism, ‘Abbasid Islam with its incorporation of the Classics, or even nineteenth-century Bengal with Sanskrit and Vedic literature (so he argued). The crucial element, he finished by arguing, is the openness of religion to innovation in the respective societies; it can enforce stasis in order to protect the status quo, or in the right frame of reform and renewal it can encourage progress by similarly advocating a return to the roots. The true benchmark of such a renaissance, therefore, is not literary output but scientific progress. (The technology of communication is also a factor—for example, the ‘Abbasid revolution was made far easier by access to paper, so much cheaper than parchment—but less significantly.)

Peter Burke lecturing in 2009

Peter Burke lecturing in 2009

It is possible that I do Professor Goody an injustice with this summary, because he was as I say quite hard to hear properly. I am conscious that I may have filled in gaps in my understanding of his argument myself, so I’m not going to critique, merely report with that caution. Professor Burke, as a friend of Goody’s but one not afraid to argue with him, picked two things to react to: firstly, that Burckhardt’s picture of the Italian Renaissance, which Goody had mentioned, is now deprecated in favour of a continuity from Middle Ages to Industrial Revolution in the context of which the Renaissance has to be placed, and that it is no longer regarded as the single such group of changes even in the Western European context; but secondly, that he felt nonetheless that it was still exceptional in terms of scale, the number of people involved (or, I thought, known to have been involved) and range of disciplines and skills active exceeding those other European ones and even the non-European ones discussed by Goody. This is, he argued, why it remains the great comparator and the concept which is exported to other cultures to be tested against their conceptions of cultural change.

I shall not finish the rock band analogy I’ve started here. Professor Goody is indubitably a rock star in his discipline, and has provoked a great many discussions and arguments, as well as written, as Burke pointed out, on an incredible range of topics. If he genuinely were a seventies rock band I’d be damn impressed he had a new album out at all, and I’d have gone to the gig whatever it was likely to be like, just to say I’d seen him. It’s just that, as I say, the metrics by which I measure those performances are not ones I usually expect to be reminded of in this sphere.

Jethro Tull live in 1998

1. Except, arguably, those by Status Quo. I don’t mean to demean this; they know exactly what their fans want and they provide.

2. Maria Lucía Pallares-Burke (ed.), The New History: confessions and conversations (Cambridge 2004).

3. J. Goody, Renaissances: the one or the many? (Cambridge 2010).

More theory: genealogical narrative and the feudal transformation

There is a paper by Randolph Starn in that van Engen volume I mentioned starting so long ago, called “Who’s Afraid of the Renaissance?”.1 Its main purpose is to argue that medievalists and Renaissance scholars cannot afford, for all that they do subtly different things with their material, to exclude each other from their orbits. This may well be true but as someone whose period comes nowhere near the Quattrocento I’m not worrying too much just now. He does however say some interesting things about periodization.

He observes as an initial point that if you imagine there was a Renaissance at all, you are implicitly accepting three periods; the Renaissance itself, the golden period which it revives, and the interval in between in which that period was in eclipse. We usually call these the Renaissance, Antiquity and the Middle Ages respectively of course but they are all required by the concepts embodied in the first alone, and some have rejected them. Again, all fine. But because one of the things that occupies Renaissance and late medieval scholarship, he argues, is setting the boundary between each other, a boundary that he argues is unhelpful, it is very focused on a grand narrative transition between epochs. And he argues that this is unhelpful because it neglects things that don’t fit the story, and this is also all very fair and true and needs not to be forgot.

So his alternative is to suggest, rather than a narrative approach, a genealogical one. He suggests that rather than telling one story we follow lines down, or up, through history, looking for connections as a genealogist looks for ancestry or descent, expecting some branches to stop, other new ones to `marry’ in, thus allowing things to enter and leave the family without prejudice to their importance or the family’s. I quite like this conceptually, even though I don’t usually have to worry about grand narratives (except the ruddy feudal transformation) because of focusing on nature’s narrative duration, the lifespan, rather more than many. He is certainly right that this allows for a more nuanced and personalised reading of history than a truly big story like `the end of the Middle Ages’, and various analogies with modern family tree software that lets you zoom in and out on particular generations or groups could also be worked in.2 The trouble comes when you stop trying to work vertically.

A real family tree or genealogy has siblings on it. It also has collateral lines, running in parallel but not directly linked. This model has no power to distinguish between the two. Let’s take the good old Transformation, since I can discourse on it easily. As you’ll see from the diagram thumbnailed below, I have views on how things derive in the feudal transformation. I’d also like to keep them so please, if you should find it useful, use it with my name attached and copyright recognised, without other change. But back to the thread.

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation

Somehow, for example, we descend down this notional tree from, for example, a system where the court is the dominant field of political interaction to one where castle lordships are as high as it gets. We also descend from, let’s pick something fairly neutral, an armed yeomanry to a subject and disarmed peasantry who are `protected’ by armoured horsemen. So is the court the `sibling’ of the armed peasantry? Is the castle the `sibling’ of the knights? That latter sounds as if it makes sense, the former less so, though it’s kind of been argued. So which of those two from the upper generation is the parent of the latter two? Do they in fact give rise to either? Even together? Or are they in fact separate `families’? Why are they on the same tree then? And yet they clearly are related, even if only by time, whereas our scheme demands more consequence than that.

So I think it’s a nice idea, but when I try and put something I want to explain into it, it doesn’t help, and probably forces me to make false associations or ignore important ones. Therefore I suspect that it’s not much use for explaining things that actually happened. We may have to keep telling stories instead.

1. Randolph Starn, “Who’s Afraid of the Renaissance?” in John van Engen (ed.), The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 129-147.

2. I should speak a word here for Spansoft‘s Kith & Kin, which has been helping me keep families sorted and Catalan noblewomen called Adelaide distinct since 1999. Not that modern, therefore, although current versions look very different from what I started with (a shareware version that you can still find on the internet in places), but really quite robust and useful. Doesn’t deal gracefully with cousins who marry, though; if anyone knows anything that does, I’m open to suggestions also.