It's been seen as the period that brought about the flowering of the individual after centuries of stagnation The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy , it's been seen as an organic outgrowth of medieval culture and thought Renaissance Thought and Its Sources , and nearly everything in between. Every time a historian points out all the lovely poetry, classical rhetoric, and emerging authorial voice, another can point out economic recessions, a decline in the standard of living for women, and nearly relentless violence.
Ronald G. Witt - Renaissance Society of America
But regardless of opinions on what the Renaissance was, I think most can agree that Italy of the late 13th and early 14th century was unique, and that the culture that suddenly burst open there, so stylistically different from the traditional medieval culture north of the Alps, was something that would not be found elsewhere. Ronald Witt's book tries to figure out why this could have been, and he does a remarkably thorough job of it. Most books on renaissance thought will include an introductory chapter called "Medieval Antecedents to Renaissance Humanism" or something like that, pointing out bits of medieval culture that strike them as vaguely renaissance-y.
But Witt apparently decided that this wouldn't suffice and wrote an entire book addressing the issue, casting his net all the way back to the Carolingian invasion of Lombard Italy in the eighth century.
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This makes me like him. It's a difficult thesis to summarize neatly, and when Witt tries to do it in his conclusion it takes up a solid 15 pages. But in broad strokes, he argues that Italy's uniqueness stems from the fact it possessed the dual Latin cultures of the title: while the vast majority of medieval Christendom had a predominantly clerical book culture that focused on the traditional schema of the liberal arts and remained accessible to a small and difficult-to-enter class, Italy had two.
Besides the book culture, it also possessed a documentary culture that was mostly the sphere of laypeople, and focused primarily on the notarial trade and emerging fields of Roman and canon law. This class of literate laymen, present since the promotion of lay notaries under the Lombards, flourished under the promotion of the notarial trade by the Carolingians and Ottonians and became even more important as the Investiture Controversy and its surrounding political upheavals helped pave the way for the emergence of the Italian communes.
During the 12th century this class of literate laypeople expanded, and Italy became the center for legal education in Europe. Interestingly, throughout all of this, the presence of a multitude of literate townspeople did not spur the production of literature. Compared to the English, German, and French of the same period, Italians produced very little creative work, focusing instead on legal briefs, letter writing, and notarial work. Witt argues that this occurred predominantly due to a lack of courtly patronage in the Italian peninsula: there were no courts like those of Marie de France to promote troubadours in Italy, at least until French culture spilled over the Alps in the late 12th and 13th centuries.
Witt points out that this arrival of French chivalric culture matched up perfectly with a period of crisis for the traditional elite of the Italian cities: faced with communal rebellions and crowds of popolo demanding a higher share in governmental participation, many in the cities grasped onto the traditional structures of authority present in chansons de geste. It was during this period that an aspiring merchant from Assisi, after all, could name his son Francis based on his love for all things French.
This mixture of widespread lay literacy, social unrest in the communes, economic development, a unique independence from the dominant and traditional book culture, and the revival in poetry and literature thanks to French influences allowed for the emergence of humanism at the turn of 14th century. As laymen increasingly looked around for answers to civic unrest, Witt, argues, they viewed classical antiquity and its culture as an antidote to the traditional chivalric views of the contemporary elites.
That's a terrible oversimplification of the thesis, and one of the joys of the book is how many interesting little tidbits you'll discover along the way. There's one point, for example, where Witt argues that the French clerical class produced more creative work in the 12th century predominantly due to the circulation of death rolls between monasteries: when a monk died, a notice would be sent around to neighboring or associated monasteries, and the more literary monks would add on a poem or epitaph to the announcement.
It was, at Witt notes, a bit like a morbid literary journal. His discussion of the Investiture Crisis is likewise fantastic, and you'll get an idea of how colossally important it was to the history of medieval and early modern Europe. It's also very accessibly written for being so intensive. Witt is very good about providing neat little summaries of each chapter's thesis at the end of each section, which is very helpful when you're going through a book of this size.
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I'm sure the book has some problems - some of Witt's statistics are necessarily based on a very, very small sample size, for example - but I think this is the sort of work that really gets conversation going, and will really make its reader stop to think. And in some ways, that's the highest kind of praise that you can give to an academic work. View all 3 comments. Sadegh Safarzadeh rated it it was amazing Aug 03, Jaakko Tahkokallio rated it it was amazing Oct 04, Matt Brady marked it as to-read Jul 22, Kalliope added it Jul 22, Steve marked it as to-read Jul 22, Oosterhoff, Fides et Historia ' Such technical generosity allied to the scholarly generosity of spirit that infuses every phase of the argument is rare indeed, and can only be the mark of wisdom as Socrates described it.
Ronald Witt has composed a compelling, panoramic, and masterful prequel to his earlier study, In the Footsteps of the Ancients. Elizabeth M. McCahill, Renaissance Quarterly This large and complex book makes a powerful case for Italy as the precursor of the modern, educated Western world. To facilitate navigation, Witt provides lengthy footnotes Charles G. Nauert, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History A work of this scope and breadth leads one to inquire into the author's historical method.
Witt employs, it seems to me, a careful logic rounded by skepticism.
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His book showcases an experienced, thoughtful historian at his craft, constantly alert to the limitations of his sources even as he derives the principles and themes that guide his argument forward. Timothy Kircher, Reviews in History This will be an essential work for historians of medieval culture and not just in Italy, for in addition to sifting the wheat from the abundant chaff of earlier research, Witt's deep familiarity with the original sources permits him to arrive at a comprehensive picture of Italian culture and education from the eight to the thirteenth centuries.
The Catholic Historical Review We have long needed a magisterial work to navigate the artificial barrier between medieval and Renaissance histories of intellectual, literary, institutional, and political life Richard J. Oosterhoff, Fides et Historia Kathy Eden, Common Knowledge This is a book that no one with an interest in the intellectual history of medieval Italy can possibly afford to ignore; it is a book furthermore that is a landmark in the discussion of the origins of the Renaissance, and will surely remain an essential point of reference, not only for the remarkable synthesis that it offers, but for the way in which it puts its material at the reader's disposal in a bibliography and outstanding analytical index that between them account for one fifth of the volume.
Tragedy Revenge. Main article: List of Renaissance humanists. Antihumanism Posthumanism. Outline List of secular humanists. The English equivalent 'humanist' makes its appearance in the late sixteenth century with a similar meaning. Only in the nineteenth century, however, and probably for the first time in Germany in , is the attribute transformed into a substantive: humanism , standing for devotion to the literature of ancient Greece and Rome, and the humane values that may be derived from them" Nicholas Mann "The Origins of Humanism", Cambridge Companion to Humanism , Jill Kraye, editor [Cambridge University Press, ], p.
The term " Middle Ages " for the preceding period separating classical antiquity from its "rebirth" first appears in Latin in as media tempestas. This volume pp. Reid, King's sister--queen of dissent: Marguerite of Navarre and her evangelical network [ dead link ] Studies in medieval and Reformation traditions, ; v.
Leiden; Boston: Brill, The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Cambridge University Press. Lepage 5 December The Revival of Antique Philosophy in the Renaissance. Palgrave Macmillan.
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Retrieved The Library of Congress. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion. Corpus Publications. See also Davies, for similar caution. Schools of thought. Mazdakism Zoroastrianism Zurvanism. Christian Scholasticism Thomism Renaissance humanism. Kyoto School Objectivism Postcritique Russian cosmism more Formalism Institutionalism Aesthetic response.
Consequentialism Deontology Virtue. Atomism Dualism Monism Naturalism.
The Italian Exception: A debate on Ronald Witt’s “Two Latin Cultures of Medieval Italy”
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