Leesfragment: Renaissances. The One or the Many?

27 november 2015 , door Jack Goody
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Zojuist verschenen: Jack Goody's Renaissances. Was de Renaissance een inherent Europees fenomeen? Of, en dat betoogt Goody op zijn typisch polemische wijze, was het eerder een internationale ontwikkeling waarin Europa niet meer dan haar deel had? Vanavond kunt u er al enkele pagina's over lezen en uw exemplaar bestellen of reserveren.

One of the most distinguished social scientists in the world addresses one of the central historical questions of the past millennium: does the European Renaissance deserve its unique status at the very heart of our notions of modernity? Jack Goody scrutinises the European model in relation to parallel renaissances that have taken place in other cultural areas, primarily Islam and China, and emphasises what Europe owed to non-European influences. Renaissances continues that strand of historical analysis critical of Eurocentrism that Goody has developed in recent works like The East and the West (1996) or The Theft of History (2006). This book is wide-ranging, powerful, deftly argued, and draws upon the author's long experience of working in Africa and elsewhere. Not since Toynbee in The Study of History has anybody attempted quite what Jack Goody is undertaking in Renaissances, and the result is as accessible as it is ambitious.

De inleiding is te raadplegen bij Cambridge University Press. Deze pagina's, het begin van hoofdstuk 1, volgen daarop.


1. The idea of a renaissance
2. Montpellier and medicine in Europe
3. Religion and the secular
4. Rebirth in Islam (With S. Fennell)
5. Emancipation and efflorescence in Judaism
6. Cultural continuity in India (With S. Fennell)
7. Renaissance in China (With S. Fennell)
8. Were renascences only European?

1 The idea of a renaissance

Beginning with the ‘first lights’ (primi lumi) of the fourteenth century, the Italian Renaissance has often been seen as the critical moment in the development of ‘modernity’, in terms not only both of the arts and of the sciences, but from the point of view of economic development also of the advent of capitalism. That this was certainly an important moment in history, even world history, there can be no doubt. But how unique was it in a general way? There is a specific historical problem as well as a general sociological one. All societies in stasis require some kind of rebirth to get them moving again, and that may involve a looking back to a previous era (Antiquity in the European case) or it may involve another type of efflorescence.

My own polemical background is this. I do not view the Italian Renaissance as the key to modernity and to capitalism. This seems to me a claim that has been made by teleologically inclined Europeans. In my opinion its origins were to be found more widely, not only in Arabic knowledge but in influential borrowings from India and China. What we speak of as capitalism had its roots in a wider Eurasian literate culture that had developed rapidly since the Bronze Age, exchanging goods, exchanging information. The fact of literacy was important because it permitted the growth of knowledge as well as of the economies that would exchange their products. As distinct from purely oral communication, literacy made language visible; it made language into a material object, which could pass between cultures and which existed over time in the same form. Consequently, all written cultures could at times look back and revive past knowledge, as was the case with the humanists in Europe, and possibly lead onto cultural efflorescence, that is, to a definite burst forward. Especially in religious matters, this looking back may be conservative in character rather than liberating, in the areas of the arts or the sciences. Or it is of course possible that a cultural liberation of this kind may not involve a looking back. But in a significant number of cases the two are linked together and it is into these parallel events in other literate cultures that I want to enquire, not to deny some uniqueness of western achievements but to contextualize and explain them.

What were the main features of the Italian Renaissance from a comparative point of view?1 Firstly, there was the revival of classical knowledge, as in the work of the humanists, which had long been set aside by a hegemonic religion. The notion of a renaissance has a somewhat similar feel to that of a revenant about it, as Toynbee claimed, something that comes back from the dead. That is what happened in the Italian Renaissance which was a rebirth, not only a coming back from the dead (of the Dark Ages) but also a revival of a ‘dead’ literature, the classics, which were ‘brought back to life’.

In his multivolumed A Study of History, Toynbee looked upon a renaissance as ‘one particular instance of a recurrent phenomenon’.2 The essential feature of this genus was ‘[t]he evocation of a dead culture by the living representative of a civilization that is still a going concern’.3 Here we are not only concerned with the looking back but also with a burst forward, a flowering. Toynbee does indeed argue that there were such renaissances in other parts of the world, especially in China. However, the idea of a burst forward remains implicit and he does not link the event to literacy nor yet to the secularization of knowledge.4 In this extraordinary work, however, he does offer a more comparative approach to the Renaissance but one which is alsomore fragmented in that he treats separately ‘renaissances of political ideas, ideals and institutions’, ‘renaissances of systems of law’, ‘renaissances of philosophies’, ‘renaissances of language and literature’ and ‘renaissances of the visual arts’. My own study accepts the breadth of Toynbee’s approach but tries to deal with the problem more holistically.

Toynbee sees the Renaissance both in Christianity and in the Song period as being respectively Christian and Buddhist under a Hellenistic or Confucian ‘mask’.5 It is true that certain aspects of these traditions were incorporated but others, especially the hegemonic claims to truth, were necessarily rejected. This is not to say they reinstated earlier doctrines; they invented an approach which represented neither the one nor the other but a new flowering. Toynbee, with his persistent metaphor of the revenant, does not fully appreciate the theoretical importance of a new birth, an efflorescence, which is intrinsic to the idea of a renaissance. Toynbee’s problem, like Spengler’s or Collingwood’s,6 is concerned with the ‘spirit’, with ideas, not with the other aspects of the period, for example its commercial activity. He also conceives his spirit in terms of the ‘native genius’, whatever that may mean. Rather he advocates Bury’s attitude which talks of discarding ‘medieval na¨ývet´e and superstition, in assuming a freer attitude towards theological authority’ and of calling up ‘the spirit of the AncientWorld to exorcise the ghosts of the Dark Ages’:7 gradually the ancient world was excluded in favour of ‘modernism’ over the course of the Enlightenment.8

Secondly, there was also a partial secularization, a restriction of the intellectual scope of religion, which was entailed by this looking back to a pre-Christian past. Not so much, it should be said, an abandonment of the religious life but a reconsideration of the long-term appropriateness of Abrahamistic religion to control science and the arts.9 There was the revolution in both areas, which the Florentine enterprise and the Scientific Revolution involved.10 This revolution meant putting on one side those earlier religious restrictions in the arts and on ‘scientific’ knowledge about the world, implying a measure of demystification of knowledge and of life generally. Thirdly, there was the economic and social transformation of Europe beginning in Italy which was central to the achievements of the Renaissance,11 and which, according both toMarx andWeber, led to ‘modern’ society.

In Europe the actors did think this change significant, even if they did not speak of it as the Renaissance. The humanists saw themselves as establishing a golden age by going back to Antiquity. Clearly not all had changed. The Gothic continued, despite the later advent of the new style, based on Roman architecture. In politics the struggle between the princes, the church and the populace went on. The economy grew. The arts and sciences were renewed. In Fontenelle’s words, ‘[a] reading of the Ancients cleared the ignorance and the barbarity of preceding centuries ... It suddenly gave us ideas of Truth and Beauty which we would have taken a long time to reach’.12

We are unlikely to find all these features occurring together anywhere else, but each feature may have its parallels in other parts of the world. Historians have spoken of other renascences in Europe, the Carolingian in the late eighth and ninth centuries, and another in the twelfth century making way for the scholastics. Some have even found a ‘Renaissance’ in the work of Bede of Jarrow (673–735 CE) and Alcuin of York (735–804 CE) but this was part of the Carolingian Renaissance; the Englishman Alcuin was a friend of Charlemagne. Even before that, Bolgar writes of the revival of classical studies in the early Irish monasteries (from 458 CE). But this was essentially a revival of the teaching of Latin to speakers of Celtic and Germanic languages which led them to the classics, the content of which was dangerous. As St Gregory said to Bishop Desiderius, ‘the same lips cannot sing the praises of Jove and the praises of Christ’. You should not ‘spend your time on the follies of secular literature’.13 The work of pagan authors was condemned by Alcuin, Hraban and St Gallen.14 Nevertheless, some classical learning inevitably came back into Christian culture. Others have even extended the concept abroad, where periods of efflorescence (not necessarily involving a rebirth but a flowering) have sometimes been characterized as a golden age. We want to examine these other times in other literate cultures in Eurasia where the specific term has been used but also to look at periods of dramatic change that seem to offer some parallels, and then to pursue the question of common features.

The early Italian humanists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, like Petrarch who was trained at Bologna, were constantly looking back to a ‘golden age’ of letters in ancient times; ‘les temps revient’, involving the work of searching for ancient manuscripts. These would tell them not only the proper way to write in Latin, or to represent, but also the right way to live, not by rejecting the world but by being part of it, the active life (of the town) rather than the contemplative life (of the monastery). This move did not mean that churchmen were not involved in ‘humanism’; they were in some numbers. But the efflorescence went further than simply looking back to Antiquity; it has been claimed that Petrarch developed the concept of the individual and this represented the birth of ‘modern man’.15 Venice was to be la nuova Constantinopoli, mainly due to its close connection with the Near East, which one historian describes as ‘this ancient part of an eastern empire existing in the west’ (by Byzantium).16 Meanwhile, Florence was the second Rome.

First of all, let us look briefly at the impact of the Italian Renaissance in Europe. The idea of a renaissance, as we have seen, is central to European history of the modern age. Not only did it serve to characterize a rebirth of artistic and scientific activity but it signalled the take-off into economic prosperity, ‘capitalism’, world conquest and ‘modernization’, all of which are closely interrelated. The Renaissance is defined as ‘the birthplace of secular modernism’.17

For Europeans this was a specific phase of earlymodern history, unique to that continent, and one without which ‘modernization’ would not have happened. The Renaissance seems such a dramatic period to us in Europe partly because of the twilight that preceded it. As far as the visual and dramatic arts and the sciences were concerned, it was a necessary beginning but very much linked to the relative darkness of the preceding period when a hegemonic religion had dominated all these fields. The revival of classical culture did not mean any less religious activity for most people but it involved a pagan and secular element in art, portraying the existence of mythical classical gods, as in the paintings of Botticelli. At first, painting did not immediately relinquish religious themes but it widened its content to include portraits, classical myths, courtly scenes, the representation of landscapes and even of ordinary existence as in the Dutch oils, thus becoming increasingly secularized. At the same time, the theatre too emerged from its long sleep since the Greek and Roman periods. Popular drama had continued but there was nothing comparable at the level of ‘high culture’. First of all, this revival saw the performance of exclusively religious plays in the shape of mystery or miracle drama; eventually there was the secular, sometimes based upon classical or on historical themes. In sculpture too, there was already some figuration in relief in Gothic art, but three-dimensional representation was largely confined to religious themes. Now other persons, other themes were included.

This gradual awakening followed a Dark Age, an idea that has been challenged but, in my opinion, ineffectively so. For if there had been a rebirth there must also have been a death, in this case the death of the classical civilization which is today held to be so central to European culture. That death occurred with the fall of the Roman empire, partly causing a decline in the European urban economy and the cultural life that took place there. But cultural life also suffered from the spread of the Abrahamistic religions that not only forbade forms of representation such as theatre and the visual arts (except later in Catholic Christianity for religious purposes) but to some extent music and dance as well as other forms of play including cards, encouraging puritanical activity more generally, around sex for example. For Augustine (354–430 CE), man was born in sin and needed a prince to guide him. Moreover, his religion also inhibited scientific enquiry into the natural world by insisting that God was already omniscient, knowing all. In all these spheres Christianity required its own literature, not that of the pagans of Rome and Greece. Reading this was not intended to widen the mind so much as to confirm beliefs. He writes: ‘Indeed he is no true man that knoweth not and worshippeth not Christ. What needeth all these digests, codes, glosses, counsels, and cautels? ... Thou shalt then be greater than Plato or Pythagoras with all their travails and numbers; than Aristotle with all his quirks and syllogisms.’18 Initially all three religions excluded much scientific activity and knowledge from mainstream teaching, largely in clerical hands and confined to religion, although some obviously took place. As we shall see, in Islam the natural sciences were later taken up in certain liberal (humanistic) periods, especially in courts, libraries and around medical schools. The latter were something of a special case as healing the sick was always a permanent aspect of human existence which medicine sought to ameliorate. And amelioration involved seeking better ways of treating illness, in most respects an open question whatever the formal ideology. In literate societies another subject that gave rise to separate instruction was law but it was clearly not open-ended in the same way as medicine, though it always required the application of general principles to particular cases.

The role of the monotheistic religions in holding back knowledge is interesting, for they are often assumed to represent the vanguard of civilization, mainly because they come from Europe and the Near East. We need to be reminded, as the classicist Vernant19 has indeed done, that there is no universal rule whereby religions progress or evolve from the polytheistic to the monotheistic. The very ‘rational’ Greeks were polytheistic; so too the Chinese; some would even claim that Catholics have become so. For the differences are in some aspects not all that great. Generally, polytheistic religions too have the notion of a creator god, a supreme being, so that the possibility of monotheism is buried in polytheistic beliefs, as the history of Egyptian religion makes clear.20 Far were in practice the most hegemonic, allowing less room not only for alternative versions of the ‘truth’ but also for independent enquiry and in the Abrahamistic ones, for the most part, for the development of the representational arts. That was not the case in China or in Greece where both scientific and artistic traditions were strong. Monotheism may have meant a certain coherence, aiming at universalism, but it was a religious coherence, a coherence of the ‘irrational’ which was in many ways damaging to the development of the both sciences and the arts.

As mentioned, in the post-classical period the representative arts, like the sciences, also suffered. Naturalistic representation was restricted, especially figurative. The role of the Abrahamistic God as creator was a monopolistic one. Consequently many of the creative arts suffered. So looking back to the pagan period in European history meant a certain freeing of the mind. We have to draw a sharp line between the artistic accomplishments of the Renaissance and those in the sciences, in the widest sense. In the arts, you could go back to Roman and Greek architecture, sculpture, theatre, and start from there. But there had been a radical discontinuity, with only a small contribution from other cultures. The same withmusic, fiction and, to a lesser extent, poetry. The ‘puritanical complex’ meant that these activities were abandoned. Neighbouring religious cultures were equally ambivalent. However, in the knowledge ‘industries’, some continuity has been maintained partly through the Arab connection, the contents of which fed back into the west at various points in time, though here too objections were raised to what did not have transcendental backing.

This freedom is not always how the progress of art has been portrayed. Berenson, the art critic, wrote, ‘the thousand years that elapsed between the triumph of Christianity and the middle of the fourteenth century have been not inaptly compared to the first fifteen and sixteen years in the life of the individual’.21 That statement presumes Europe grew continuously from the coming of Christianity, the moment of ‘triumph’. But that religion meant the introduction of Semitic notions of iconophobia, and only later allowed, in the Roman Church or in the Byzantine icon, the development of art as long as it was confined to religious themes. In earlier classical Greece or Rome matters had been very different; a secular art was encouraged, for example at Pompei where sex was a prominent topic in a way that was scarcely possible in Christendom at most periods, especially with a celibate priesthood and a puritanical ideology. Of course, as time went on, religious art increasingly included a secular background (as well as sex in the literature of Chaucer and Bocaccio); but it was virtually not until the Renaissance that completely secular painting was legitimated. That had partly to do with ideological shifts but was also a matter of patronage, which was increasingly neither of the church nor of the court but of the bourgeoisie, involving the rebirth of the city and of urban life. The result is clear in the attention now given to nature. Most ‘[p]ainters of the early Renaissance were aware of landscape elements in a way altogether unknown to painters of the Gothic past, when landscape was treated symbolically’.22 Landscape had of course long formed an essential aspect of Chinese painting. But that came much later in Europe; it was Dürer who produced not only the self-portrait23 but dwelt on the visual aspects of small creatures. And soon after, in the 1510s and 1520s, the artists of the Danube school, especially Albrecht Altdorfer and Wolf Hüber, ‘started, for the first time in Europe, to treat figureless landscape studies on panel or paper as an independent speciality’.24 The Renaissance broke with the past. ‘While Christian themes and representations, with the Madonna and child always popular and ubiquitous, continued to dominate the interest of Renaissance painters, there was a proliferation of purely lay art and sometimes pagan subject matter.’25 It was only possible for historians of art, like Berenson, to draw a continuous line in its development from earlier times because they saw the ‘triumph’ of Christianity as the beginning of things, continuing down to the Renaissance. In fact, continuity never existed and therefore the problem needs looking at again, in a comparative way.

In this context there was also the question of the status of the painter. During the Middle Ages, he was an artisan who carried out the instructions of his patron-employer to the best of his abilities; art did not require independent invention. An art market gradually emerged in the Renaissance, where each prince or republic wanted the best artist. And with the increasing laicization of the subject matter, more scope was given to imagination and innovation. That market reached its peak in the Low Countries, where the bourgeoisification of patronage was more pronounced; in Italy the process was always caught up with the aristocracy of the city, even in republics such as Florence or Venice. If demand was sufficient, the artisan could establish an atelier, a shop, where he would train and employ apprentices and would supervise their work. Then the painter was free to choose his subject, as in genre painting, without having as an artisan a prearranged position as a member of a famiglia. But much portrait painting still today implies a designated patron.

Portrait painting was very much part of the view of the Renaissance as the progenitor of modernism, the notion that it represented the beginning of individualism. That quality is seen as characteristic of capitalism (via the entrepreneur) and is especially evident in painting, especially in the large-scale portraits (and sculptures) of particular individuals, particularly lay ones. This view was critical to the still influential work of the mid-nineteenth-century historian Jacob Burckhardt in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy,26 where Florence is seen to have ‘torn the veil that enveloped medieval minds with a tissue of faith and prejudices’ and to have allowed man to be a spiritual individual. This was supposed to be one of the major themes of the Italian Renaissance: ‘the development of the individual’.27 And its particular manifestation is the growth of (realistic) portrait painting and of the autobiography. But leaving aside for the moment the growth of autobiography, this scenario, so beloved by European historians of the Renaissance, is most unhistorical. Portraits existed in Antiquity; they existed in Buddhist and other paintings in China; there is nothing new (modern) in the Renaissance portrait except when it is viewed against the background of the restrictions of medieval Christian art which in some respects held to the iconoclastic tradition of Abrahamistic religions.

In Islam, that tradition continued and, as recounted in chapter 4, some miniature-painters in Turkey were horrified at the idea of one of their company being commissioned to produce a large portrait of the sultan Mehmet, which was realistic, from life, capable of being on a wall where it might even be worshipped. Yet this was precisely what was happening in the Italian Renaissance. Realism was the aim, so too was individuality, and both features appeared even in group portraits and in religious scenes. Gradually, art became more realistic, as in landscapes, and included large figures, with the donors of religious paintings included at the side. There followed religious (and mythological and court) scenes where well-known living individuals were represented in the crowd, then individual portraits of great men, and eventually the Dutch genre paintings and portraits of ordinary people. But the ‘realism’ and ‘individuality’ were not only to be associated with ‘modernism’ for both were present in earlier societies. In art both had been obviously set aside by the Abrahamistic religions. But individuality was not a sudden invention; the anthropologist Evans-Pritchard discovered this quality among the Nuer of the southern Sudan.28 In painting, it is very much an aspect of the ‘rebirth’, the renascence, stimulated by a return to classical paganism and rejection of the Abrahamistic antagonism to representation, especially to realistic representation of the secular.

In sculpture there was a very distinct move to resurrect the Greek (and Roman) tradition. In architecture too classical models had an extensive influence down almost to the present day. That was less the case with the representations of literature, except that there was more emphasis on the epic, with Virgil acting as a guide for Dante to the other world, with poems like Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and others. Classical themes were constantly taken up by Shakespeare in England, by Racine in France, as well as references to classical mythology in the poetry of Spenser and many others. But in painting, the influence was rather limited to classical themes, which certainly gained great currency after the virtual imprisonment of painting in Christian themes over one thousand years. That move led to a secularization of painting (as with other arts, such as music), which reflected the process of secularization taking place throughout society.


© Jack Goody 2010


1 While the name for the period, Renaissance, was not an early one, right from the time of Petrarch it was realized a break had been made with what was known as the Middle Ages.
2 Toynbee 1954: 4.
3 Toynbee 1954: 4.
4 My use of the metaphor of the revenant, which runs tirelessly throughout Toynbee’s work, was quite independent. The extremity of his ghostly metaphor is to be found on pp. 128–9 of vol. 9, where it gets quite out of hand.
5 Toynbee 1954: 166.
6 Toynbee 1954: 56.
7 Bury 1924: 48; Toynbee 1954: 67.
8 See Toynbee’s discussion (1954: 68–9) of the ancients and the modern in Fontenelle 1716 [1688], Wotton 1694, Swift 1704 and Bayle 1697, a predecessor of Diderot’s Encyclopédie (Diderot 1772).
9 For the continuity and even expansion of other areas of religious activity see Crouzet-Pavan 2007 for Italy and see Rublack 2005 for the Reformation.
10 The first was the subject of art historians like Berenson (1952), the second of historians of science like Needham (1954– ).
11 Jardine 1996.
12 Fontenelle 1716 [1688]: 147.
13 Bolgar 1954: 96.
14 Bolgar 1954: 127.
15 Crouzet-Pavan 2007: 57.
16 Crouzet-Pavan 2007: 86.
17 Eckstein 2005: 6–7.
18 Augustine 1945: 426; he also wrote: ‘There exists in the soul ... a cupidity which does not take delight in carnal pleasures but in perceptions acquired through the flesh. It is a vain inquisitiveness dignifiedwith the title of knowledge and science ... To satisfy... this diseased craving ... people study the operations of nature, which lie beyond our grasp when there is no advantage in knowing and the investigators simply desire knowledge for its own sake’ (Augustine, Confessions 10:35: 54–5; trans. Chadwick 1991: 210–12).
19 Vernant 2006 [1979].
20 Assman 2001 [1984]. from being the most ‘rational’ form of religion, the monotheistic ones
21 Berenson 1952: 4.
22 Beck 1999: 10.
23 Other Italians had already done so.
24 Bell 2007: 186.
25 Beck 1999: 7.
26 Burckhardt 1990 [1860]: 63.
27 Crouzet-Pavan 2007: 346.
28 Evans-Pritchard 1940.

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