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On "Renaissance" (Part 1)
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  7 Aug 2007

What's in a name?  If it's the name of a historical period, potentially a hell of a lot.

The term Renaissance refers to the rebirth of the classical tradition in Europe -- in large part a delayed response to the recuperation of classical texts captured during the Crusades.  In practice, the term -- like all of those identifying a period -- takes in more than any one definition may allow; for the Renaissance, this includes aspects that have less to do with the classical tradition than the term invites.

The most pertinent element of the classical tradition resuscitated in the Renaissance was the belief in the glory of human accomplishment on Earth.  Whereas Medievals could celebrate Arthur or Charlemagne, a fatalism permeated such accounts -- it was the next world, the afterlife, that ought to be the focus.  This contrasts sharply with the classical world, in which the afterlife was generally a dreary place and even the gods lusted.  The best example of the rediscovery of this may be seen in Michelangelo's artwork, with its flowing nude and unapologetic bodies, reminding us not fatalistically of their fleeting nature but rather of their gloriousness, like Da Vinci's famous drawings of the idealized human form.  In politics, one might think of Machiavelli's almost unapologetic focus on governance in this world, without the conventional Medieval lament about the incompatibility of Christianity and the demands of kingship:  Machiavelli radically discriminates between Christian morality and capability or virtú, redefining even the idea of virtue.

The Renaissance has long been rightly associated with the flourishing of the arts.  The change in painting, with increased naturalism and perspective, ought to be obvious enough.  In literature, characters suddenly begin to acquire a previously unfound interiority.  Shakespeare's Hamlet seems a particularly Renaissance formulation:  an intellectual man of inaction, he spends the entire play ruminating, second-guessing, and playing at games -- and yet, because of the force of his personality and Shakespeare's depiction, the play remains riveting.

Religion becomes something questionable, debatable -- even subordinated to the human mind, though Renaissance writers rarely dared to go so far.  The Reformation may be the most obvious example, but the trend exists before it.  Dante's Divine Comedy, the founding epic of the Renaissance, Dante places himself above the popes in placing them in Hell, and he dares to imagine the entire afterlife scheme of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.  Milton's Areopagitica more explicitly argues for the ability of the divinely endowed human mind to judge good and evil for itself.

Taking place in different European countries at different times, the Renaissance hit England relatively late.  The actual date depends upon the critic involved, but Thomas More's 1516 Utopia strikes me as a key work for its embracing of human possibility.  An unorthodox thinker eventually put to death for his views, More paints a portrait of a perfected human society -- indeed, the notion of human perfectibility may be described as the liberal project, one underway since the Renaissance and still continuing.  That More was being ironic does not distract from the radically daring nature of his work.

Lately, however, there has been a move in the humanities to replace the term "Renaissance" with "Early Modern."  Historians thus teach courses titled "Early Modern Europe" (in fact, I had a course with this title from an able historian in my first term in college).  Those in literature refer to Shakespeare as an "Early Modern" writer.  Implicit in this terminological shift is the notion that the Renaissance is more relevant for its nascent modernity than any reborn classicism.  And it is certainly true that Renaissance writers frequently feel as if they have one foot in the Medieval or classical worlds and another in the modern one.  But to say this reeks of presentism -- viewing the world from the perspective of the present, complete with its biases, and discriminating accordingly.  While the term "Early Modern" does not necessitate the finding of Early Modern texts as not feminist or egalitarian enough -- as those critics guilty of presentism typically do --, to think of the Renaissance as relevant for its nascent modernity implicitly invites the criticism that the Renaissance was not modern enough.

I would defend the term "Renaissance" not because I do not find Renaissance texts interesting for their sometimes shocking modernity -- indeed I do.  Nor do I choose and defend the term because I think the Renaissance most notable for looking to the classics of the past.  In fact, while awareness of the classics during the Renaissance was profound -- it is sometimes shocking the degree to which Renaissance authors knew their classical writers (though particularly Roman ones), often in the original Greek or Latin --, I do not think the Renaissance somehow defined by this classicism:  writers at least as frequently springboard off the classics as imitate them, and few in the wake of the period itself have denied that the Renaissance really was other than a mélange of classicism with Medieval aspects, including perhaps Christianity itself.  Moreover, I would argue that the "Renaissance" is not, in fact, look to the past at all:  the Medieval period, far more bound by tradition, had a cult of artistic and political imitation rather than originality.  Indeed, what defined the Renaissance is in some sense how forward-looking it is, whether towards new and mixed literary forms or the establishment and improvement of new religious traditions or reconfigured nations.  After all, in looking backward, the Renaissance was also looking forward -- even in the most backward-focused interpretation, stealing the achievements of the past in order to reincarnate them in the present.  A new life is, after all, another life.

Yet, for all this, I would defend the term "Renaissance" because the period was indeed a rebirth:  a rebirth not so much in mimic of the classics as of something new.  There was a remarkable fluidity of ideas in the Renaissance:  works could freely participate in the classical, the Medieval, and the nascent modern.  If one can make a generalization, it is this sudden expansiveness of possibility that characterizes the Renaissance -- exactly the same expansiveness that one sees in Thomas More.  And an examination of English Renaissance texts bears this out.


Spenser's Faerie Queene is a good example of this mélange, this expansion of possibility.  Ostensibly, the incomplete epic feels distinctly Medieval:  it is, after all, about knights and even features Arthur as a character.  Certainly, the epic looks back to the romances of the Medieval period, rather than the classical one -- a problem for both the terms "Renaissance" and "Early Modern."  The whole allegorical mode, with knights representing various virtues, clearly borrows from the Medieval.  Indeed, we have every reason to believe that Spenser saw his epic in this light:  in his "Letter to Raleigh," Spenser writes that the epic will culminate in a typical romantic conclusion -- a feast at the court of the Faerie Queene herself.

But the poem is not that.  The Faerie Queene appears only once, and even this is in a dream of Arthur's (I.ix).  The epic even seems to avoid the court:  book I, for example, begins with the Red Cross Knight having left court and ends with him returning to it; books II and III take place in what seems like the hinterland, unconnected with any sense of geography.

The poem does have its classical elements.  Spenser begins the epic by echoing Virgil -- or at least the beginning of the Aeneid that was long thought, in Medieval manuscripts, to have been correct.  Even in this, we see how the Renaissance appropriation of the classical is hardly a direct infusion.  Spenser's epic does have the epic similes and catalogues, as well as the invocations, that we expect from epic.  The epic is shot through with classical allusions and references:  in book III, Spenser retells the fall of Troy (III.ix-x).  And it does seem to combine faux-mythological figures with Medieval romance.  But one can hardly define the epic as somehow a rebirth of classical concerns.

In fact, the poem is defined in many ways by a particularly odd combination of the modern, the Renaissance, and the Medieval.  The modern comes by way of a sort of fragmentation, even delight with the sound of lines themselves, that we identify more with modern writers than Renaissance, Medieval, or classical ones.  None of the virtues the knights supposedly make sense in terms of the narrative.  The Red Cross Knight abandons Una and is thus confronted by Sans Foy, representing faithlessness -- but the noble knight does not learn his lesson and, basking proudly in his victory, lets Duessa take him to the House of Pride.  In what sense does this demonstrate the virtue of holiness when the one-ness represented by Una is discarded?  Book II espouses temperance -- which isn't a Medieval or Christian virtue at all, but rather a classical one to be found in Aristotelian theory.  Moreover, Guyon's destruction of the Bower of Bliss (II.xii) certainly seems intemperate.  Book III seems to espouse marriage, but Britomart is noteworthy not for marriage but a defense of her chastity so excessive that it seems antithetical to marriage.

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Essays on Literature by Julian Darius:
On "Renaissance" (Part 1)
On "Renaissance" (Part 2)
Implications of Dante’s Placing of Ulysses in Hell
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 1)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 2)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 3)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 4)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 5)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 6)
Pulling the Cheese from the Mousetrap:  Donne’s “The Bait” as (Anti-)Pornographic Narrative Fantasy
The Mistaken and Apologetic Chorus:  Shakespearean Faultlines in Henry V
The Old Conventional Metamorphosis:  Transvestitism in The Taming of the Shrew and Shakespeare
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 1)
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 2)
"W - a - l - d - e - n," a large number of words by "T - h - o - r - e - a - u"
And When We Long, We Long as Gatsby