Imperceptible change

The classics were still classy in the MIddle Ages. An ancient portrait of Seneca the Younger standing high over a 9th century manuscript of the Apocolocyntosis, Seneca’s satire on the Roman emperor Claudius, St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 569 (arrangement by the British Museum)

A textbook definition of Renaissance humanism is that of a period of European intellectual history that was characterised by a rediscovery of classical antiquity and a desire to imitate the ancients.

But any medievalist will tell you that the Western Middle Ages never lost sight of Antiquity, that from the 9th to the 12th century, Western intellectuals sought refuge, support and energy in the authors of ancient Rome, that Cicero, that towering figure of Renaissance rhetoric, never faded from view, that the known ancient poets never lost their appeal, that their works were read, studied, discussed and copied. That the 15th century Renaissance was preceded by a series of other renaissances that the PR engine of European history never allowed to acquire the prestige and renowned afforded to that movement starting with a capital R. The ‘Carolingian renaissance’, the ’12th century renaissance’ never got the hype they deserve.

Each renaissance was a revival in its own right. And each renaissance caused a change in the culture that contemporaries could never measure the real scope and the true impact thereof. Only later did it become clear what the movement was about. Like a Bordeaux vintage whose quality would only be known years after the mise en bouteille.

Some humanists, like Petrarch, caught a glimpse of what their age and was about. But they could never understand where the wind would take them, and how momentous their impact on European letters, culture and society would be.

We are wont to make distinctions between one and another, between the ancient and the medieval period, between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. But the truth is that the changes have alwyas been imperceptible to those living them, that one age always flows so smoothly into another that the whole idea of age-separation and temporal categorisation becomes an exercise of the mind divorced from historical reality.

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