There were three sets of questions that occurred to me as I surveyed this semester's readings. First, in what way did the Renaissance and the Enlightenment differ from other periods? What were the distinguishing characteristics of these eras? This first set of questions seems to obtain for and inhere in all the authors I read. The second set of questions deals with distinctions surrounding motivation and significant causes. In assessing difference, how did the authors I read assemble and weigh the factors they deemed relevant? How did they judge between economic, artistic, political, and religious motivations for change? How did they decide what was fundamentally significant to the people they described? What did these authors believe to be the significant causes of social structure and of change to social structure? The third set of questions has to do with the best way to approach an historical understanding of an era. What is the proper job of the historian? These authors may be divided between the inclination and ability to provide a "disaggregated" view and a unified view of the era. It is also important to keep in mind that different authors intended different results: we are not, in these works, comparing similar efforts. Taking the sets as I have presented them, then, suggests three brief overviews of the readings, and this method will necessarily produce a somewhat looser and layered presentation. I will start with the last set of questions first, and work backwards towards a coherent picture of the whole.
Jacob Burckhardt, Jan Huizinga, Ernst Cassirer, Max Weber and Leonard Kreiger make the strongest cases for a single illuminating theme in the eras that they cover. In The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy Burckhardt argues for an early occurrence of modern notions of individuality in Italy. Huizinga writes with both Burckhardt and the low countries in mind; his Waning of the Middle Ages argues that the new realism in Dutch and French art were, in fact, the last flowering of medieval symbolism. Modernity came to these countries later, and rested on a native and non-Latinate tradition. Cassirer's Philosophy of the Enlightenment characterizes the early eighteenth century as a period that gave new importance and significance to philosophical thought and crystallized a "systematic spirit" of thinking. In Kings and Philosophers 1689-1789 Krieger, too, sees the impress of philosophers and of systematic thinking as essential to the construction of secular and Enlightened absolutist monarchies. Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism explains the rise of capitalism as a calling to a secularized ascetic accumulation-oriented Protestantism.
The economists Miskimin (The Economy of Early Renaissance Europe; The Economy of Later Renaissance Europe) and De Vries (Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis) are not without illuminating ideas or lacking in the virtue of single-mindedness. Both Miskimin and De Vries make a link between the space for individual liberty and the capital accumulation that formed the basis of the Industrial revolution. Furthermore, they have, by nature of their materials, the job of adding things up, and explaining broad trends. However, because of the time period in question (pre-industrialization) and the subject (all of Europe), both resist making pronouncements on anything larger than a region. The offer another, and more contemporary approach, to historical overviews. Both Miskimin and De Vries take a "disaggregated" (sorry!) view of history. The Foundations of Early Modern Europe (Rice and Grafton), The Age of Religious Wars (Dunn) and Lisa Jardine's Worldly Goods are in similar vein. The latter work does have a clear theme: the individualism of the Renaissance is expressed in the exuberant "multicultural and brauvara" consumerism that took strength and shape in the trade flowing across regions. But even in Jardine's case, the book builds up themes slowly from disparate parts. The conclusions of these authors include the caveat that there may be no conclusion.
In a sense, the foregoing is only to say that some scholars believed, or were trained to believe, that there was, or ought to be, a unifying theme for the time in question, and that it was a historian's job to bring that theme to light. It is also to say that these scholars have established a set of questions to ask and answer, and recreated the past in the image that they themselves held of it: they set the stage for others to work on. Providing a unified vision is an effort, however, seemingly somewhat out of fashion -- or perhaps, with the welter of information available to be considered, an effort that is understood to be a failure at the outset. At any rate, scholars publishing in the latter half of the 20th century as compared to the late 19th and early 20th century, seem to be working on and in history as if it were a different sort of problem.
Returning to the second set of questions divides these authors and their works up a bit differently. I asked four related questions: 1) how did these authors assemble and weigh the factors they deemed relevant? 2) How did they judge between economic, artistic, political, and religious motivations for change? 3) How did they decide what was fundamentally significant to the people they describe? and 4) What did these authors believe to be the significant causes of social structure and of change to social structure? What makes sense as a causal factor to an author writing in one era may make less sense to another author in another era, and different disciplines, too, may instill varying ideas about what counts as "logic."
Sometimes assembling the important data means simply assembling the data that is available. Some economic data is available for this period and Dunn, De Vries, Miskimin, Rice and Grafton, and Jardine are alike in giving more weight to economic trends. Jardine stands out because in her hands, consumerism is a force something like Weber's ascetic calling: both Weber and Jardine describe a desire that affected a small group of people profoundly -- and how that group in turn affected the surrounding society profoundly. Naturally demographic trends are important to the economists, Miskimin and De Vries, who note the concentration of wealth in fewer hands and population in a few larger cities. A handy economic tool for understanding lifestyle is the grain yield ratio they both use. Demographics also have significance for Huizinga, to whom the high death rate is a social factor as powerful as the church itself. Consumption patterns as way to understand worldly desires and responses to the fear of death are significant to both the economists and the art historians.
Another factor of significance is dynastic ambitions: Krieger, Dunn and Rice offer extended discussions on the Habsburgs, the Valois, the Ottomans, Prussia, Russia, the Swedes, and -- to summarize -- the reasons that rulers were willing to engage in so many wars. Kreiger in particular seems to believe that personal ambition of a dynastic kind lost its "outlet" in the eighteenth century. Enlightened rulers took land and created monopolies on goods in order to improve the state, not to advance a family line. Certainly wars continued: mercenary armies were hired and sometimes paid. De Vries suggests that the effect of war and pillage could be hard to evaluate: it wastes resources and lives, but also it stimulates certain sectors of the economy and offers a reason for governments to pursue the efficient and rational collection of taxes. In this sense, large-scale war leads the way to modern industrialism.
Still another kind of data that is available is material culture, or artifacts. Jardine alone deals at length with objects. If she has got the characterization of her study group right, it suggests that in the Renaissance, as in other eras, a small group had a disproportionate ability to influence and organize the labor of artisans. Finally, patriotism, honor, family loyalty and religious belief are motivations for behavior, and obviously these are important factors for Weber and Burckhardt and Cassirer. They are accessible through histories, essays and treatises, but also through plays, songs and stories. Huizinga spends some time reviewing chivalry, as does, to a lesser degree, Burckhardt. Huizinga and Burckhardt are readiest, perhaps, to attempt to describe the mindset of their subjects. And whether or not he can be successful in the attempt, Huizinga certainly believes that it is his proper job to excavate the medieval understanding of the world.
The tendency of more recent works -- unless it is just an anomaly in this particular set of readings -- is to elevate economic conditions and to pay less attention to religious belief or family life as an explanatory cause for change. It may be that the important questions to be answered may have changed somewhat: if the lives of upper class nobility only are in view, there are more resources for answering questions about their choices and concerns. Learning about peasant life requires a kind of economic archaeology. But a work like Jardine's, with its focus on "brauvara consumerism" is a significant reworking of the ground traversed by Burckhardt and Huizinga without requiring a new set of data. And along these lines, through further study, it might be interesting to take a closer look at questions and problems abandoned by newer schools of thought and later times.
Having reviewed some of the concerns and evaluative stances of this groups of authors, I turn now to the final and first set of questions. What were the significant and distinguishing characteristics of the Late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Enlightenment? Further, what problems in these eras might be of interest to my particular project: cultural values as expressed in business tools?
If indeed the Later Middle Ages are a period of violent emotional expression and casual cruelty as limned by Huizinga, then concepts of justice may be worth exploring. Miskimin suggests that the loss of the church as a restraining factor allowed the excesses of individualism to grow, and to some degree, Burckhardt says the same thing. How does an era ending the habit of architectonic thinking, and ending a tendency to link essence to essence in a Platonic way, prepare to lend and receive money back? If most needs are met in local economies 50-100 miles in area, but some burgeoning cities are dependent on grain imports, could one expect a difference in rural and urban willingness to enter into contracts for labor, and what would that difference be? Finally, if the expression of success is ownership of a landed estate and sumptuous clothes, but the security of heaven lies in an endowment to a church or monastery, what future desires would move groups of people to whom neither of these aspirations were possible? Would inheritances gained through the plague be used differently, or seen differently, or invested differently, than they had been in the earlier Middle Ages? These are questions, based on the distinguishing characteristics of the Late Middle Ages, that might offer avenues of exploration.
Is the Renaissance the birthplace of modern individualism? The general consensus appears to be "yes" but proof is hard to assemble. Burckhardt sees room for individualism in the freedoms of the Italian city states after the papacy had become one of many contending powers. That birth counted less than ability is of importance in his assessment. Did indifference to caste contribute to the Italians' vaunted ability with financial transactions? After the plagues, cities were larger, more securely organized, and offered more opportunities for money-making through trade. Rice and Grafton note the shift in attitudes towards money-making, which went from a doubtful to a noble activity. A comparison of economic instruments hedging losses through shipping might be of interest. How would such an instrument differ from a document drawn up in the Late Middle Ages? How would the concept of time or justice embodied in the legal provisions have changed? That individualism and humanism was also stimulated by the discovery of secular writers of antiquity is also a matter of consensus. Were there "humanist" habits of thought that laid the groundwork for the beginnings of the scientific revolution? If there is such a thing as a humanist attitude about the planets and stars, is there a humanist stance on the fluitschip or a windmill or a canal? It seems to me that technology is first linked to business, and not religious impulse, in this era, and that change also offers an avenue for exploration.
It might be very post-modern to see retail stores as the distinguishing mark of the Enlightenment; however, unlike ships, windmills, planets and stars, they appear to be something quite new in human experience for that era. Material things or events that no one has ever experience before -- for instance regular travel at speeds above 25 miles per hour -- are always of interest: do such experiences change the way people think or interact? If Kreiger and De Vries are right, this is the era of kings, philosophers, and the bitter fruits of rational secularism: inescapable taxes, endless compilations of facts, home-wrecking (coffee was so seen in England) stimulants as the basis of international trade, and wars fought by drunken recruits with guns for neither God nor family nor friend. The Condottieri Otto Van Urslingen's motto -- "the enemy of God, of pity and mercy" --seems merely quaint. Such loyalties and virtues had lost their significance. One question debated by historians of this era is how much impact international versus intra-national trade had on the coming capitalism system of labor. It might be possible to attack this problem by following personal fortunes as they were inherited and invested by families, and by estimating the percentage of particular fortunes that were invested in factories and machines to the entire fortune of a region or nation. (And surely such an effort has already been made?) If this is also the time when nation-states gain primacy and identity, does it mean that loyalties other than patriotism are devalued, shifted, or dropped? How do new loyalties affect who will consent to do business with whom?
These three final sketches indicate what I see as the distinguishing
features of the three periods covered by the readings in this semester.
They also offer some avenues of exploration, and indicate my interests
as they cross economics, culture, and beliefs about of fairness, hierarchy
and risk. I hope, finally, that the questions I ask urge me toward the
breadth of understanding I admire in others.