The Renaissance: The Origins of the Modern West

Article excerpt

Theodore K. Rabb and his associates have produced a college course on the Renaissance for our time: a telecourse of 18 lessons, with 14 of the 18 lessons also aired on public television; a text with sources; a teacher's guide to the telecourse and text; and a tradebook. All these materials are organized around themes and the historical figures who best embody them: Prince, Warrior, Dissenter, Merchant, Artist, Scientist.

The films aired on public television, narrated by Ian Richardson, comprise five one-hour presentations, one each on "The Scientist, " "The Dissenter," "The Prince," "The Artist," and "The Warrior." In the telecourse there are, in addition, two lessons on "The Merchant" and, at the end of the series, a lesson on the continuing influence on the modern world of the transformations that took place during the Renaissance and a narrative overview of the period 1300-1700. Since I did not buy the telecourse, I have not seen these four lessons. But I taped and took stenographic notes on the films shown on public television, which comprise either all of the other 14 lessons or most of what they contain (I base this judgment on a comparison of written descriptions of the lessons with my notes on the films).

Each program is a kind of narrative history of "The Renaissance" seen through a particular lens. Here is the narrative movement of each program, in the order shown:

1. "The Scientist" begins with the alchemists and magicians and moves to the natural philosophers (roughly 1450-1650), proceeding through the great names of the scientific century, on each of whom there is a longer or shorter segment: Copernicus, Kepler, Bacon, Galileo (longest segment), Descartes, Pascal, Newton. There is relatively little on Newton and the founding of scientific societies; part of lesson i6 may have been omitted.

2. "The Dissenter" treats Wyclif, Hus, and Luther (roughly 1350-1550). Again, there is relatively little about the growth of violence in the name of religion and the beginnings of a demand for religious tolerance, described as part of lesson 8 of the telecourse.

3. "The Prince" begins with Machiavelli's book and the Medici of Florence as an illustration of it, then moves on to Philip II, Elizabeth I, the Stuarts and the English Civil War roughly 1450-1650). All three lessons devoted to "The Prince" in the telecourse seem to be included here.

4. "The Artist" begins with Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Masaccio in early Renaissance Florence, then moves on to Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Durer, Titian, Veronese, Bruegel, Caravaggio, Gentileschi (roughly 1400-1650). All three lessons devoted to "The Artist" in the telecourse seem to be included here.

5. "The Warrior" tells the story of warfare as it changed from the combat of individual knights in heavy armor fighting for honor to the use of gunpowder, the increase in the numbers involved in war, the accompanying increase in taxation to support war (roughly 1350-1650). Two lessons are devoted to this topic in the telecourse, which appear to be included here.

Each of these programs has various contemporary commentators (including Rabb, but a diverse group, appropriately politically correct in their diversity) intervene to make comments, both historical and contemporary, about the subject under review. The comments are most invasive in the programs on "The Dissenter" and "The Warrior" (subjects that particularly lend themselves to such commentary), in which a number of persons who have been dissenters or warriors in contemporary America make interesting personal comments on their involvement and the wisdom they have gained.

Rabb's text, Origins of the Modern West, with sources edited by Sherrin Marshall, is essential to the coherence of the course. His introductions to the seven chapters and his conclusion provide a narrative that, in each case, illuminates the larger historical context. The sources are interesting and well-chosen. …