Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History

By Paul K. Conkin; Roland N. Stromberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3

HISTORY IN THE
EARLY MODERN PERIOD

The Renaissance

THE time-honored division of Western history which puts “Renaissance and Reformation” together in one basket might perhaps be questioned. Recent social historians have questioned the entire “Ren./Ref.” category; looking at popular rather than elite culture or socioeconomic rather than intellectual-cultural elements, they find no significant break in the period from about 1450 to 1650, the traditional if rather vague boundaries of the era. From still another perspective, the rise of the modern territorial state beginning in the later Middle Ages and climaxing in the seventeenth century is the most significant process. Nowhere is the arbitrary nature of periodization more evident than in this “premodern” epoch.

Novelty was not the goal of the men and women who led the two movements of Renaissance and Reformation. The humanists of the Renaissance wanted to go back to ancient Greece and Rome; the reformers wanted to go back to the earliest Christianity. The two movements were not much connected with each other, except in a chronological overlap: it is difficult to imagine minds more different than Machiavelli's and Luther's. For the purpose of a history of history, they stand in the same ambiguous light. Both have been credited with bringing to birth “modern historical scholarship,” yet neither intended anything of the sort. If they performed this feat, they did so unintentionally and in quite different ways.

Modern historiography has frequently been traced back to the humanist scholars of the so-called Renaissance but not because of any new conception of history, since in this respect they did not wish to differ from their adored masters, the ancients. First, they revived interest in these historians, in Livy and Polybius and Cicero. Second, they had a “historical” way of looking at things, if by that term we mean a personal

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