Monday, June 04, 2007

Rewriting Huizinga

I have completed reading Theodore Rabb's "The Last Days Of The Renaissance And the March To Modernity".

I admire Professor Rabb enormously. A very distinguished scholar and a very erudite man, Professor Emeritus Of History at Princeton (where he was instrumental in devising Princeton's Humanities 216-219, a four-course survey of Western Civilization now emulated at other elite institutions of higher learning), author of several important and renowned books on European history, Professor Rabb is one of the few writers today whose work is equally admired by his peers and by the serious reading public. Professor Rabb's previous publications have been exemplars of history writing, demonstrating great learnedness, original analysis, and the vision of a philosopher.

"The Last Days Of The Renaissance" does not, however, represent Professor Rabb at his best.

In essence, Professor Rabb argues, in his latest book, that: (1) the Renaissance may be characterized, above all, by its attempt to recreate the civilizations of the Greeks and the Romans; (2) one of the primary effects of the Renaissance was a diminution of the power of the Roman Catholic Church; (3) the Renaissance provided the foundations for the centralized secular political institutions that were later to emerge in Europe; and (4) the Renaissance ended after little more than two centuries because the 17th Century ushered in new ideas that ended the Renaissance and initiated the Modern Age.

I had many, many problems with the book, which I found to be completely unconvincing and frequently wrong-headed.

The Renaissance is a difficult concept to define, and Professor Rabb uses the term too broadly. The term "Renaissance", if it means anything at all, most specifically refers to the period from 1400 to 1600, the period in which Italy moved away from the Byzantine Era (an era that had lasted almost a thousand years), and the period in which Flanders and France moved away from the Feudal Era (an era that had lasted at least 600 years). The term "Renaissance", strictly speaking, does not mean anything more than the above, although many writers lend all sorts of personal connotations to the term. The concept of a "Renaissance", as applicable to the 15th and 16th Centuries, originated only in the 19th Century, and I believe that the word's usage should be removed from the lexicon, as it has now become a loaded term, with all sorts of highly-variable, if not outright corrupt, meanings.

The Renaissance was not a continent-wide phenomenon in Europe. There was no Renaissance in England. There was no Renaissance in Northern Germany or Scandinavia. There was no Renaissance in Eastern Europe. The Renaissance, as it is most commonly thought of today, happened almost exclusively in Flanders and Italy (and spilling over to portions of what are now France and Southern Germany), from which certain ideas spread and from which other ideas proved not so amenable to export.

The Renaissance meant different things in different locales. The Renaissance in Burgundy, for example, was far different from the Renaissance in Nuremberg. Even in Italy, the Renaissance of Florence differed mightily from the Renaissance of Venice or the Renaissance of Rome. The purest locus of the Renaissance, as we think of it today, was Florence. And yet Florence, throughout the period of the Renaissance, was a poor and provincial city in comparison to Venice, and was ruled by persons whom we would today identify as uncivilized, if not outright barbaric.

The Renaissance had absolutely nothing to do with the Reformation, which was an entirely separate and discrete event. When Martin Luther tacked his theses onto the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, his act was the culmination of 300 years of intra-church conflict within educated circles of Catholicism in France and Germany. The Reformation was an event unrelated to, and unprompted by, the Renaissance.

The Renaissance had nothing to do with the waning powers of the Roman Catholic Church. The Renaissance would have happened on its own, no matter the ebb and flow of church influence over secular life, and this was because of economic and technological forces at work. If the Renaissance was spearheaded by any outside forces, it was the growth of trade and the growth of transportation, as well as the laying of the foundations of modern banking, all of which fostered the spread of goods and ideas. Better ships and better means of preserving food and better coinage ushered in the Renaissance, not the declining powers of the Papacy.

The Renaissance had practically no impact on the political systems of Europe, with entrenched rulers remaining in place throughout the Renaissance and for centuries thereafter. Except for Venice and Genoa, with their elected doges, Italy remained under the rule of localized powerful dynasties, the occasional disruption notwithstanding. Germany remained under the rule of localized nobility. France, Spain and England remained under the rule of monarchs exercising near-unlimited powers. Only the Netherlands and Flanders were in political turmoil during this period, and this was because those lands were under the domination of a foreign power, Spain--and Spain's eventual withdrawal from the Low Countries was an act of realpolitik, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the Renaissance.

The notion of the Renaissance itself is a fluid one, going through many different phases: early, middle, high, late and mannerist. The Renaissance did not so much end as evolve naturally into the Baroque period, and the Baroque period was, fundamentally, nothing more than a mere extension of the Renaissance's mannerist phase.

The Renaissance may have initiated the study of Greek and Roman civilizations after a lapse of almost a thousand years, but it was in the 17th and 18th Centuries, and not during the Renaissance, that the study of Greece and Rome truly flourished, reaching a peak of influence and importance.

The 17th Century hardly coincided with the birth of the Modern Age. The 18th Century provides a much more convincing base for the Modern Age, what with its astonishing scientific advances, and its many political events and reforms, and its many noted (and vastly influential) philosophers. Even the 1830's and 1840's provide a much more solid foundation for the birth of the Modern Age than does the 17th Century--at the very least, those two decades provided the emendation and eventual repeal of the Corn Laws, and the rise of the Industrial Age, and the renewal of nationalism and state-building in Europe, and the advent of Jacksonian Democracy in North America, all of which have far more to do with the Modern Age than anything that occurred in the 17th Century. Selecting the 17th Century as the point of inception for the Modern Age is, I believe, simply perverse.

I think that Professor Rabb made a mistake in publishing this book. I do not believe that this book was a book he wanted to write. I suspect that Professor Rabb's publisher was pressing him for another book, and he leafed through some old essays and lectures, and strung them together into this book, being careful not to repeat any of the work published in his previous volumes. In the process, he made provocative statements and drew questionable conclusions, perhaps because his publisher was pushing for a "new angle". In fact, the entire time I was reading the book, I kept thinking that Professor Rabb had embarked upon a deliberate intellectual exercise to see whether he could rewrite Johan Huizinga.

Unlike Professor Rabb's previous books, this book is not well-written. This book is not well-organized. This book is not well-argued. Its theories are not well-presented. Its conclusions are not based upon careful research. Fundamentally, the book lacks precision, and this lack of precision is the most fatal shortcoming of the book.

I suspect that Professor Rabb would like to have an opportunity to rewrite the book, or to shelve it entirely. Personally, I hope that this book goes out of print as soon as possible--it does not enhance Professor Rabb's previous work on the subject.

I shall have to convince my father and Joshua to read the book, because I am curious about their thoughts. All three of us have re-read Huizinga over the course of the last sixteen months or so--the new, revised, newly-translated and complete edition of the Huizinga--and the Huizinga remains, in my mind, a classic among classics. The Rabb is scattershot by comparison, a Sears catalog of under-focused, under-developed ideas and theories that do not cohere into an artful and convincing whole.

No comments:

Post a Comment