We often hear how the European Renaissance, or rebirth, came about thanks to the influence of the ancient classical world, but why does any of it matter, and what is it relevance today in our new globalised world with its democracies, dictators and various permutations of political thinking? Why does the subject continue to occupy such an important place in our thoughts, whether in the form of historical fiction, history or art, and why does it even matter that there was a Renaissance in the first place?
The fact is that the Renaissance was important because it meant a complete shift of everything, from what we think, to how we express it and the way we represent it. Generally speaking, if there had not been a European Renaissance, Europe as a whole would probably never have developed into the mature democracy it is today. It almost certainly would never have become a major industrial force, or an innovator of science and technology. It could also have been governed along much more religious lines than it is today, perhaps even on a par with other theocracies that are administered by religious laws rather than secular ones. The freedoms we take for granted, both as far as women are concerned and for the individual in general, may never have become statutory. We owe all of these freedoms, in reality, to the Renaissance period of intense inquiry and discovery, which, even if it was stifled for a while, became mostly unstoppable, driving like a steam roller over the old ideas of the Dark Ages and paving the way for our current right to say what we like, write what we like and pretty much do as we like within the limits of what is socially acceptable.
And that, I might say, is incredibly precious — particularly when you look around at what is happening elsewhere in the world. In so many countries democracy and secularism are under threat, and even over the Atlantic in the Land of the Free things are changing — hopefully not too much, but who can say for certain?
So, back to the Renaissance itself – as a momentous time of change it had more than one direct cause, but without a doubt the rediscovery of the work of the Ancient Greek scholars was a major catalyst for change. These works, which were stored in the old library of Constantinople, were, many of them, the product of Greek minds. Men like Archimedes, the father of mathematics and engineering, Democritus who wrote that the world was composed of atoms, Plato whose belief in the power of truth and virtue changed the course of human thought.
But there were also other books, or scrolls to be exact, that the Greeks had translated but which had been written by Muslim scholars during the Islamic Golden Age around the tenth century. A number of such works had been rescued from the clutches of the Mongol armies in the 13th century and taken to Constantinople for safe-keeping.
The libraries of today have catalogues and databases, but in those days everything was handwritten from the records to the scrolls, so it is hard to say what was where at any given time in antiquity, and we can only be thankful that so much of it was saved. As for where it all ended up – that is another story.
Still, these scrolls had been mostly forgotten during the Middle Ages by the non Greek world, or perhaps I should say ignored. A quick read of my previous blog post, The Fall of Constantinople – and what it really meant, will give you more clues to the reasons why they were ignored, but in any case it was during the years that preceded the fall of Constantinople that many of the Greek works were at last, and fortunately for us, sent across to Europe, sparking a new way of thinking and setting a challenge to the old. Why were these treatises and codices sent out of the city? Simply because they represented a wealth of unimaginable proportions and the Greeks did not want them to fall into the hands of the advancing Ottoman invaders, their conquerors.
So the Emperor and his brother Constantine sent them on to Italy, into the hands of Europe’s pioneers of new inquiry: the Medici family and the scholars they fostered. Men such as Petrarch, Leonardo da Vinci, and Erasmus would one day profit from them, and we, likewise in turn would profit from them. The Greek legacy was rich – too rich to quantify, but it’s good to stop and think about it from time to time.
For a start, the Greeks understood that humankind was a work in progress; we shouldn’t beat ourselves over the head for our imperfections but turn those flaws of ours into a road map for spiritual improvement. As such, on the human scale the Greeks gave us the modern hero of popular culture, the good guy who isn’t perfect but who aims high. Now he appears in most of our films, and especially those that come from the other side of the Atlantic.
But wait – were it not for the work of Greek scholars Columbus, for one, would probably never have set sail for America at all; nor would Galileo have proven that the earth circled around he sun. We may even still think it flat. Michelangelo would perhaps not have painted the Sistine Chapel; Isaac Newton would not have discovered and formulated the law of gravity. The steam engine would ultimately not have been invented, and the Industrial Revolution would finally not have taken place.
Of course we cannot say what would have come along instead, had the Renaissance not taken root the way it did. Perhaps something else would have established itself with greater permanence, such as the Spanish Inquisition. But the Renaissance brought one very significant change to the way of thinking of the time – it took the attention of scholars away from theological texts and made them engage in the pursuit of rationalism, argumentative debate, what you could actually observe as truth instead of the truth you were obliged to swallow.
All of this laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment, which came just afterwards in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Enlightenment in turn laid the foundations of modern science, and all the rest is history.