Early Modern V Renaissance

term Renaissance (or Renascence) literally means "rebirth." In the context of cultural studies (history, literature, fine arts, religion, sociology, etc.), the term applies to the time immediately after the Middle Ages. More specifically, it refers to the rebirth of the classi cal tradition that triggered a new enthusiasm for scholarly and artistic pursuits during this era. However, the term Renaissance is grounded in a particular, long-term historical theory that has often been challenged by scholars.

In the original theory, the medieval period in Europe was considered a low point in all facets of civilization. Feudalism, the prevailing system of government, relegated ownership of virtually all the land to an elite few—the aristocrats, many of whom also controlled large numbers of serfs. The hierarchy of the Christian church exercised its power over all of Western Europe, making canon law as powerful as civil law. Literacy rates were low, and few "literary" works were written in the vernacular. The fine arts almost exclusively reflected religious patronage, and the rules of painting followed the two-dimensional format of iconography. This view is, of course, a gross simplification of the realities of medieval Europe as we now understand them, but the basic course of development from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance depends on such simplification. The Renaissance (which is seen as beginning in the 14th century in Italy and the early 16th century in England) was perceived as an enlightened period that eliminated the primitivism of the medieval period; reintroduced "lost" concepts of art, government, and philosophy prevalent in classical Greece and Rome; and paved the way for the Enlightenment of the 18 th century, and, eventually, its further development into modernism.

The importance of the Renaissance to this scheme of continuing human development and improvement was first articulated by the 19th-century German historian Jacob Burckhardt in 1860. His work, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, begins with an examination of the state (government) as "a Work of Art" (Part 1) and points out how the "republics" that developed in various Italian city-states were culturally superior to the rule of despotic feudal lords during the medieval period. This "republican" form of government presumably developed from the actual and theoretical systems of rule in classical Greece and pre-Augustan Rome. Burckhardt sees the "Revival of Antiquity" (Part 3) as necessary for the development of Renaissance humanism, history, education, ethics, and literature overall.

But his major concern is the "Development of the Individual" (Part 2)—including, briefly, women—and the "Discovery of the World and of Man" (Part 4). Clearly Burckhardt's work continues the narrative of perfection encoded within the narrative of the development of medieval into Renaissance culture. His argument focuses on the development of man (as opposed to woman): "Man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such" (121). Such individuality led to the discovery of new worlds and to the development of "artists who created new and perfect works in all branches of the arts, and who also made the greatest impression as men" (125). Burckhardt also claims that the Renaissance allowed upper-class women to be educated the same as men and to be "regarded as equal to men" (280), though he mitigates this view by stating that "women had no thought of the public; their function was to influence distinguished men, and to moderate male impulse and caprice" (281).

The Renaissance man was no longer a person submerged in familial, political, and religious loyalties; he was now an individual unfettered by state or religious loyalties, able to reveal personal preferences for an educated life guided by classical writings. He could, if he wished, use the example of classical literature to become a writer, use newly rediscovered classical statues or theories on perspective to become an artist, or use his newly developed confidence as an individual to become an explorer. While many of the ideas outlined here are certainly true, the extreme focus on the indi-vidual—specifically the upper-class male individual— by scholars like Burckhardt present a very one-sided view of an extremely complex period in European history. That is why many scholars of the English Renaissance prefer to use the term early modern to refer to their period of study.

First to question the traditional view of the Renaissance were Marxist and feminist critics. The Marxists pointed out that Burckhardt was simply following the "great man" theory of history, a reading that focused on the deeds and accomplishments of upper-class men: the discoveries of Christopher Columbus and Sir Francis Drake; the art of Leonardo da Vinci or Michaelangelo; the writings of Dante or Petrarch. Marxists wished to investigate the histories of labor and laborers, especially as they related to the "class struggle" and its economic effect on society. Feminist scholars such as Joan Kelly-Gadol, concerned with Burckhardt's focus on upper-class men, pointed out that the development of the Renaissance state also led to the development of the concepts of "public" and "private," where women were usually relegated to the "private" (or home) space and were not permitted a role in "public" society.

once Marxist and feminist critics began to question the use of the term Renaissance as an all-encompassing marker of a very important period of English cultural history, other critics followed, notably New Histori-cists and Cultural Materialists. These critics pointed out that the period from about 1500 to 1699 was certainly a high point in the development of English language and literature, producing such writers as Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Sir Francis Bacon, the translators of the King James Bible, and so on. The development of a vital, national literature is only one aspect of this dramatic change, however. Consistent and successful English attacks on Spanish treasure ships returning home from the new world as well as the later defeat of the Spanish Armada gave England the power and reputation to control the seas. Further increases in the English wool trade led to the beginning of English dominance of world trade— in Europe, the New World, and India. The small country with a previously feudal/agricultural economy was changing to a capitalist/imperialist one. Such a change led to both fabulous increases in wealth for some citizens and descent into grinding poverty for others. England's embrace of the Protestant Reformation led not only to the dissolution of the monasteries—and a consequent restructuring of the social order—but also to a restructuring of government at home and political relationships abroad. Elizabeth I's rule also seemed to allow more questioning of the role of women within this rapidly changing society.

The use of the term early modern, then, suggests that the user will be more open to considering the vast array of changes undergone by England in the period formerly referred to strictly as the English Renaissance. This is not to deny that critics who use the term early

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