Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History

By Euan Cameron | Go to book overview

2
The Power of the Word: Renaissance and Reformation

EUAN CAMERON


The Renaissance and the Word

In 1500 the culture of the high Renaissance, which had already captivated Italy for several generations, was poised to dominate the cultural and intellectual life of the rest of Europe. During the previous half-century, little knots of scholars in France, Germany, the Low Countries, or England had begun to write classical poetry and rhetorical speeches, to collect classical axioms, and even to try to learn Greek. Less definably, the taste for balance and proportion in the visual arts had begun to make some impact on painting and building north of the Alps, not least among those artists who had visited Italy. There is an irony in all of this. Without doubt, Renaissance culture has helped to shape the thought-world of modern Europe: it belongs to the modern age. Yet the scholars and critics who defined its values claimed to look backwards to antiquity, at least in the humanities. They intended to revive literary skills which the Middle Ages had forgotten. '[In my youth] the times were still dark, and mankind was perpetually reminded of the miseries and disasters wrought by those Goths who had destroyed all sound scholarship. But, thanks be to God, learning has been restored in my age to its former dignity and enlightenment,' wrote François Rabelais's fictitious giant Gargantua to his son in 1532. Their claim to retrieve one golden age so as to inaugurate another was neither wholly insincere nor mere propaganda. Taken too literally, however, it can conceal what they took from the Middle Ages, and what they achieved for themselves.

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