One of my favorite Yiddish plays begins with a quote from a
Jewish mystic, "From highest height to deepest
depth below, why has the soul fallen? The fall itself contains
What's this mean? Well, it's typical mystic stuff, profound sounding, but not altogether clear. Just like some lectures you've heard, no doubt. But the general suggestion here is that, out of the most horrible circumstances, out of the worst of misfortunes, something truly glorious might arise. This, it seems to me is, is the case with what we call the Renaissance. A series of horrible disasters had hit Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries, and in some ways it must have felt like the world was falling apart. Europe had been shaken economically, politically, socially, and spiritually--and this forced people to rexamine their lives, re-examine their ways of doing things, re-examine their basic assumptions about life to see if they could come up with something better. And in many ways, they did: something so much better, that historians the period really does merit the name Renaissance, "rebirth." European society is "born-again" during this period, and when it's over the Medieval world is left behind and the modern age has begun.
The Renaissance, by the way, is in some ways more of a world-view
a specific time period. The Renaissance spirit emerges around
in Italy, and gradually spreads to the rest of Europe. Rough
dates for the Renaissance aree 1350-1600. Note that much of this
is the same period that, in other contexts, we call the late Middle
Ages (1300-1500). There is also a considerable overlap with the
Reformation (1517-1648). Note how well we historians arrange
things just to confuse our students.
There are lots of important examples of Renaissance achievement, and
many of you are familiar with at least some of them already. For
instance, you have all studied Shakespeare--a particular good example
of the Renaissance when it finally gets to England. Here are some
additional examples. First of all, note some examples in the area
European society in the High Middle Ages had already produced some very fine literary works. Renaissance literature even more impressive. Among the great Renaissance writers:
One of the first great Renaissance writers is Giovanni Boccaccio
(1313-1375). [You can find lots
on Boccaccio here.]
Boccaccio wrote of a famous collection
of stories called the Decammeron. The Decammeron was written as the
Black Death hits
Italy: Boccaccio own native city of Florence was particularly hard hit,
losing perhaps 75% of its population as a result of the plague.
The Decammeron tells story of 10 young people who, having fled
area, tell each other stories to pass the time. In class, I give
several examples of Boccaccion stories.
1. The Doctor's Daughter (Gilleta and Count Beltrano, i.e., Bertram).
[You can find the story here, I hope!]
2. Federigo's Falcon.
[You can find the story here, I hope!]
3. Abraham and John (no Martin in this verion....)
[You can find the
The stories are entertaining certainly--but something more than that
First of all, note the basic messages of these stories. Character
is more important than birth. Character is more important than
The last--maybe harder to draw a specific moral, but note the
Jew and Christian: important in view of the increasing tension between
the two groups as a result of the Black Death. Perhaps there's a
suggestion here too that character is more important than ethnicity.
In addition to the individual stories, there's a larger theme in the Decammeron. Most of the stories have to do with the relationships between men and women. There are stories of true love and stories of faithlessness, stories where love overcomes all obstacles, and stories where true lovers are forever separated, stories of model marriages, and stories of marriages like Bill Clinton's. And when you've finished the book, you understand much better the nature of the relationship between men and women. Is there anything more important to understand? Well, maybe: but not very much.
What's important also is that, when your read the Decammeron, you see that *you* have all sorts of choices as to the kind of romantic relationship you're going to have: and this is a typical Renaissance view: (humanism: discover of man and his potential--we can be what we chose to be: see this over and over again). What makes Boccaccio so effective is showing us our variety of choices is that he presents to us people that are so much like ourselves. (Not Rolands or Lancelots, but the kind of people one finds in everyday life--and particulary, the kind of women one finds in everyday life: more attention to women than almost any previous writer.)
Another important Renaissance writer is Giovanni Pico Della
(1463-1494). Pico wrote work called "Oration on the Dignity of
a work which represents quite well the Renaissance spirit. The
is a particular great example of Renaissance humanism, "the discovery
and his potential."
[See Pico's Oration
Dignity of Man]
Pico views mankind as the highest of all God's creation: nothing more wonderful than man, he says (echo of Sophocles' Antigone). What is it that gives man his greatness? His ability to chose what he will be (notice, again, this typical Renaissance attitude, an attitude that clearly leads in to the modern world view). We can be:
Like plants (simply passive, taking whatever comes our ways)
Like animals (run by our senses)
Like angels (run by our minds)
But there's something higher: we can also get in tune with something within us, the divine voice--be led by God's spirit. And if we do, we achieve unity with God: something not even the angels can do.
Pico, then, typical of the Renaissance in his optimistic view of man's potential. Also typical in the wide range of his interests. We talk of Renaissance man as man whose interested in all sorts of things. Certainly true of Pico: Zoroaster, Osirus, Timaeus, Moslem philosopher, Homer, Heraclitus: he'd do really well on the ID portion of a World Civ I test. (Wonder how he'd handle an ID term on himself...) Medieval thinkers also had a wide range of interests: but Renaissance even wider (classical texts, Greek and Latin--and eager to go beyond classical texts, looking to Egypt, Moslem world, and, eventually, to a whole new world: Renaissance spirit, thirst for knowledge that sets stage for Columbus, great age of exploration and discovery). Miranda's line in Tempest: "Oh, Brave New World that has such creatures in it..." excitement of Renaissance at discoveries there were to be made...
And speaking of new worlds, we now come to a man who discovered a Brave New World right withing his own mind: Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527).
As you gathered from your reading, Machiavelli begins to write during a very troubled time in Italian history. Italians constantly at war among themselves: leaders of different city states hire mercenary armies to try and expand control, but none of them able to dominate others. Internal strife led to foreign conquest: French invading Italy, pillaging, sacking towns, etc. Machiavelli: can we do something better? Can we govern ourselves better? Indeed we can...well, maybe not. I said "govern ourselves," and of course that implies something like Republican govt. Machiavelli seems to prefer a Republic, but he doesn't seem to think that's a realistic possiblity. The best option: a strong ruler, a Prince, who really knows what he's doing.
This is what leads to the book you were to read for today, the Prince. The Prince is Machiavelli's advice to Lorenzo the Magnificent, one of the Medici rulers of Florence. Much of the advice seems like nothing more than good common sense. For instance, Machiavelli gives some excellent reasons for not relying on mercenary armies. But there is something else going on here, a radical break with traditional values, and you see that break in the sections I asked you to concentrate on for today.
Traditional view, well elaborated in Middle Ages, clear distinctions between right and wrong. A man should display certian virtues. He should be generous, unselfish, trustworthy, truthful, chaste, religious, and compassionate. He should avoid greed, selfishness, dishonesty, lust, and cruelty. The traditional view was that, if the virtues mentioned above were important characteristics in the average man, they were even more important in rulers.
Machiavelli says: wait a minute. In a ruler, you might very well want the opposite qualities of those considered virtues. Greed might be a good thing. Cruelty might be a good thing. It might even be part of what Machiavelli calls virtue. Notice old Roman word here: but it means something different in Machiavelli. Virtue=power, ability to win, secure one's position in power.
Radical change in all sorts of ways:
Famous: should a ruler be loved or feared? Better to be both, but if you can only have one or the other, choose to be feared.
Now you don't want to be hated: someone will put a knife in your back. But it's easy enough not to be hated. Don't tourch peoples wives, and don't touch there property, and you'll be all right.
And since you'd sort of like to be loved as well as feared, it's perfectly alright to convey the impression that you have qualities you don't really possess. It might be useful to appear religious, even if you're not. It might be useful to appear chaste, even if you're not. It might be useful to appear to be honest, if if your not. In other words, it's perfectly o.k. for a ruler to be a complete hypocrite: as long as hypocrisy keeps them in power.
Humanism, man and his potential, has become something dangerous here. Not only can we be whatever we want, but we determine for ourselves what our values are: what we regard as virtues and vices. Not bound by any higher law...We do whatever works. Machiavelli: father of modern politics: exactly right: This is the spirit that leads to the French Revolution, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot...and of course on a small scale to Bill Clinton.
But the Renaissance spirit did not always, or even usually,
in such a direction. In fact, quite often it led to a deeper
for a higher law, and other important Renaissance figures insisted that
our society ought to be transformed, not on the basis of our own ideas,
but on the basis of that higher law. This is true in particularl
for some of the great....
RENAISSANCE RELIGIOUS LEADERS
One important religious leader of this period John Wyclif
Wyclif was a very popular theology professor at Oxford University. Part of his popularity stemmed from his ability to refute "nominalism," a skeptical sort of philosophy that dominated much 14th century theology. The nominalists believed in a sharp distinction between faith and reason, thinking that men like Anselm and Aquinas were on the wrong track: reason was of no use at all in confirming the truths of Christian faith. Wyclif tried to show that reason and faith did in fact go hand in hand. He wrote a "Summa" sort of like that of Aquinas, but a work which pays special attention to refuting the nominalists.
Wyclif's influence went well beyond the academic world. He translated the Bible from Jerome's Vulgate into English, and, for the first time, English-speaking Christians had the Bible in their own language.
Wyclif's study of the Bible led him to question some of the beliefs
of his contemporaries. He questioned the idea of transubstantion,
and also the idea of papal supremecy. He also challenged the
privileges of the nobles: the Bible, he argued, taught equality, not
special priviliges based on birth.
Naturally enough, there were many powerful people unhappy with
Wyclif, and he had to defend himself against charges of heresy.
But Wyclif defended himself successfully: after all, he knew the Bible
much better than those who accused him!
Not so lucky, a man deaply influence by Wyclif, John Huss.
As a professor at the University of Prague (in the present-day
Czech Republic, what at the time was called Bohemia), Huss was looking
for ways to refute nominalism. In his search, he came across
Wyclif's Summa. He was impressed--and began to read Wyclif's
other works as well. Huss' teachings spread quickly throughout
Bohemia, much to the concern of some of the Catholic hierarchy.
Catholic officials at the time were trying to do everything they could to restore unity to the church. A great council at Constance in 1415 at last put an end to the Great Papal Schism. But the officials at Constance wanted to do more. Huss' teachings were a potential problem as well, they thought, and so Huss was summoned to appear. They promised him a safe-conduct, and so (reluctantly) Huss made his way to Constance. Huss presented his ideas, and the assembled church officials were outraged. Heresy! And the logical thing to do to heretics is to burn them. But what of the promise of safe conduct? Well, promises to heretics don't count, and Huss was burned at the stake. The church officials weren't done, though. The real trouble-maker, they said, was Wyclif. He's the real heretic. And the logical thing to do to heretics is to burn them. Problem was, Wyclif had already been dead for thirty years. Didn't stop them. They sent to England, had Wyclif's remains dug up, and then burned them.
This, of course, was not going to stop the calls for reform.
Later in the 15th century, a man named Savonarola (1452-1498) was a
particularly strong voice for change.
Savonarola was a brilliant young student of philosophy. His
studies eventually led him to the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas,
and, like so many people before and since, Savanola fell in love with
Aquinas' philosophy and determined to live his life by it.
Aquinas had been a Domican, and Savonarola likewise joined that
order. This left him free to travel and preach, and that's what
he did, eventually basing himself in Florence, the home of so many of
the great Renaissance figures. Savonarola began preaching a
series of sermons on the Book of Revelation. He was a powerful
preacher. Pico della Miandola said his voice alone was enough to
make you tremble. But while people were listening to Savonarola,
they weren't changing their lives. Nevertheless, Savonarola was
stirring up trouble by denouncing the way in which the wealthy
merchants of Florence (including the powerful Medici family) were
exploiting the poor and less priviliged. Wealthy and powerful
people don't like hearing themselves denounced, and Lorenzo de Medici
tried to silence Savonarola--first through bribery, then by threats.
Savonarola responded by stepping up his criticisms--and also
predicting God's judgment, not just on Lorenzo, but on the current pope
and the current king of France. All three, said Savonarola, would
die within the year. And, sure enough, that's what happened.
Savonarola was now regarded as something of a prophet. His
prediction of an impending scourge from the north sent by God to punish
the Florentines for their sins seemed about to be fulfilled as
well. The new French king invaded Italy, destroying Milan, and
heading toward Florence. The Florentines in a panic turned to
Savonarola who basically told them to get busy repenting while he dealt
with the French king. The French did turn aside, and now
Savonarola was so popular with the Florentines that they were willing
to put his teachings into practice.
Enthusiastic young people went throughout Florence gathering up
luxery items and anything that might be offensive to God. These
were gathered up and throne into bonfires (the original bonfire of the
vanities). Savonarola also restored republican governement to
Florence, ending the rule of the merchant princes. The new
governement eliminated cruel tortures and passed laws protecting the
poor and weak from exploitation.
Success? For a time. But Savonarola had predicted he would preach for eight years and then die a martyrs death. He called this one two. Throughout his preaching, Savonarola had condemned corruption in the church as lying at the root of all other societal ills. He preached especially strongly against Alexander VI, the current pople. Alexander, one of the Borgia popes, was one of the most unworthy men ever to sit on the throne of St. Peter. He had at least five illegitimate children and a whole series of mistresses. He favored his illegitimate son Cesare Borgia. The whole Borgia family was as corrupt and immoral as one can imagine.
[You really want to know how bad? See this account of the Banquet of the
Naturally, Savonarola thundered against such a corrupt pope.
The pope responded with execommunication, and then by conniving with
the displaced merchant princes of Florence to do away with
Savonarola. The fickly Florentine mob turned on their one-time
favorite, seizing Savonarola, torturing him, hanging him upside down,
and then finally burning his body and scattering the ashes in the river.
A tragic thing that the papacy, once a major force for reform, had
gotten to the point where it is silencing the voice to reformers like
[More on WYCLIF, HUS, and Savonarola]
Strangely, Alexander VI is often treated more generously in the
history books than he deserves, probably because he was a great patron
of the arts. And he certainly did provide funds for some of the
greatest Renaissance artists including figures like Raphael.
This brings us to another great area of Renaissance achievement,
contributions to the visual arts. See the links below for
infomration on the artists discussed in class.