This presidential address was delivered at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in San Francisco, December 28, 1978. American Historical Review 84, no. 1 (Feb. 1979): 1-15.

The Renaissance and the Drama of Western History

I should like to discuss a remarkable historiographical event—an event so recent that it may have escaped general notice, yet of considerable importance both for historians and for the larger culture of which we are a part. This event is the collapse of the traditional dramatic organization of Western history. We have long depended upon it, as inhabitants of the modern world, to put the present into some distant temporal perspective and, as professional historians pursuing our particular investigations, to provide us with some sense of how the various fields of history are related to each other as parts of a larger whole. Thus, the subject seems appropriate for a general session of our annual meeting. The subject is also appropriate for me, as a historian of the Renaissance, because of the pivotal position of the Renaissance in the traditional pattern. Indeed, the historian of the Renaissance has long been the principal guardian of that pattern. But historians of the Renaissance have lately been unable—or unwilling—to fulfill this old responsibility. Hence, this essay is also a kind of oblique professional autobiography, though I point this out only for the sake of candor, not as a further inducement to your attention.

Nothing seemed less likely than this development when I entered the profession some thirty years ago or, indeed, before the last two decades. Earlier in this century, the Burckhardtian vision of the importance of the Renaissance for the formation of the modern world had been under attack in the “revolt of the medievalists”; and in 1940 Wallace K. Ferguson had described the Renaissance as “the most intractable problem child of historiography.”1 But Ferguson had himself never been without hope for straightening out his problem child; and less than a decade later, after studying the history of the case from many directions, he predicted for it a tranquil and prosperous maturity. The time was ripe, he declared, for “a new and more comprehensive synthesis.”2 The revolt of the medievalists had apparently been beaten back; indeed, by teaching us greater care in distinguishing the new from the old, they seemed only to have strengthened our sense of the originality and modernity of the Renaissance. In the years after the war a group of unusually distinguished scholars brought new excitement to Renaissance studies; the concreteness and depth of their learning seemed to confirm Ferguson’s expectations.3

During the fifties, therefore, it was common for Renaissance specialists from various disciplines to celebrate, by reading papers to each other, their triumph over the medievalists and the world-historical significance of the Renaissance. Our agreement was remarkable. The editor of one volume of such papers noted with satisfaction “the virtual disappearance of the disposition to deny that there was a Renaissance.” And he ventured to predict, obviously recalling controversies now happily over, “that future soldier scholars will beat their swords into ploughshares and that what has long been the Renaissance battleground will be transformed into a plain of peace and plenty.” On the other hand, he also hinted that the occasion evoking these papers was a bit dull. “The atmosphere of charitable catholicity was so all pervading during the symposium,” he remarked, “that even the moderators’ valiant efforts to provoke controversy were largely futile.”4 That the Renaissance was the critical episode in a dramatic process that would culminate in ourselves had become an orthodoxy that few cared—or dared—to question.

The notion of an abiding consensus among historians of any complex subject may now seem rather surprising, and this agreeable situation was probably in part a reflection of the general consensus of the Eisenhower years, when we were all beating our swords into ploughshares. That same irenic mood, that same amiable but slightly complacent consensus, also left its mark on other fields of history. The gentle complaint of our editor, disappointed in his hopes for a little fun at a scholarly symposium, hinted at the charge of dullness brought by bored professors against their boring students of the silent generation—upon which we would soon enough be looking back with a degree of nostalgia. For since the 1960s the world around us has dramatically changed, and with it historiography.

These two sets of changes are not unrelated, and the result for the Renaissance has been rather different from what Ferguson foresaw. In his vision the Renaissance was to retain its pivotal position in the old scenario, but our knowledge of it would be better pulled together. But this has not occurred. Although the consensus of the golden 1950s has not been seriously challenged, we are now remarkably indifferent to the world-historical importance of the Renaissance.5 We go about our particular investigations as though the Renaissance problem had evaporated; we neither affirm nor bother to deny that there was a Renaissance. And the venerable Renaissance label has become little more than an administrative convenience, a kind of blanket under which we huddle together less out of mutual attraction than because, for certain purposes, we have nowhere else to go.6

I do not mean to exaggerate the abruptness of this development. In retrospect we can see that the role of historians in the postwar rehabilitation of the Renaissance was always somewhat ambiguous. We accepted what was said in praise of the Renaissance by representatives of other humanistic disciplines; the importance of the Renaissance for them enhanced our own importance. But, like Garrett B. Mattingly on one such occasion, we were sometimes “puzzled” about what we might contribute to a Renaissance symposium.7 The normal skepticism of a professional historian in the presence of large views has now given way, however, to agnosticism and even indifference about what was once the central claim of Renaissance scholarship.

This result may have been implicit in Ferguson’s call for synthesis, with which most of us were sympathetic even in the 1950s without fully realizing its implications. It implied the integration of all of our data, an aspiration that seemed unexceptionable. But the ideal of “synthesis”—at least for a generation not yet dialectically sophisticated—was essentially static. Synthesis tended to shift the emphasis in Renaissance studies from process, on which the traditional estimate of the Renaissance depended, to structure or, minimally, from the long-range processes which gave European history a larger narrative shape to particular, ostensibly self-contained (and in this sense inconsequential), more limited processes. This tendency was supplemented by an influence from another direction: our supposedly innocent but in fact deeply insidious course catalogues. We should treat the course catalogue with more respect. Partly because we are inclined to take it so lightly, it is one of the most potent forces in historiography: it tends to organize the past, for the sake of “coverage,” as a sequence of chronologically bounded segments, the number of which reflects the size of our departments. The individual historian is then made responsible for one of these segments, with the expectation that he will deal with it in all of its aspects. And the assignment defined for him by the catalogue, when he is young and malleable, is likely to shape his general understanding of what it means to “do” history.8 Thus, the influence of the catalogue has various consequences, among which the most positive is to deepen the historian’s sense of complexity. But the catalogue also discourages him from intruding into adjacent segments that “belong” to his colleagues; and by the same token it encourages him, however conscious he may be of the arbitrariness of the dates bounding his assignment, to treat his segment as self-contained. At the very least, he feels compelled out of esthetic motives to portray it as some kind of intelligible unity.9

Historians of the Renaissance have responded to these pressures in two ways. First, we began to distinguish more and more clearly between “the Renaissance” itself, a cluster of cultural movements pregnant with the future, and the “age of the Renaissance,” the more general context within which we encountered these movements. The “age of the Renaissance” was invoked to accommodate in some unstable tension with the novelty and modernity of Renaissance culture whatever seemed inconsistent or in tension with it. But we tended at first to regard these anomalies as so many medieval residues, destined to yield ineluctably, in the long run, to its modernizing forces. This approach was hardly the method of synthesis.

But at the same time we were increasingly uncomfortable with the rather mechanical work of sorting our data into two heaps, one marked “continuities,” the other “innovations.” This discomfort led to a second move that seems on the surface to have brought us closer to synthesis: we began to describe the age of the Renaissance as the age of transition to the modern world. And this formula, which now appears with some regularity in our textbooks, has provoked little dissent. Indeed, the formula appears to exclude the possibility of dissent, for it is nicely calculated to accommodate every anomaly and at the same time to protect the significance of the Renaissance. This, of course, is its purpose. To the objection that every past age might equally be represented as transitional, we can reply that this one was unusually transitional, that it was an age of accelerated transition.10 This position now gives a semblance of agreement to Renaissance scholarship, enabling us to engage in a wide variety of tasks, comfortable in the belief that our larger claims are secure—and effectively indifferent to them.

Nevertheless, there are difficulties in this apparently unexceptionable strategy. For one thing, it neglects to state the criteria by which one age can be considered more transitional than another; by begging this question, which was at the heart of our controversy with the medievalists, it invites a new revolt from that direction as well as protests from other quarters. The strategy also seems to me conceptually confused, a reflection of the chronic temptation of the historian to identify “history” as the actuality of the past with “history” as the construction he makes of its records. For history as actuality, an “age” is simply a considerable span of time; for history as construction, an “age” is a segment of the past on which he can impose some intelligibility. The notion of an “age of transition” thus exploits what is essentially a structural conception to assert for the Renaissance a continuing significance that actually derives from its place in a process.

This confusion points to a further problem, since the notion of a transitional age depends on the intelligibility of the “ages” it supposedly connects. The Renaissance as “transition” suggests something like an unsteady bridge between two granitic headlands, clearly identifiable as the Middle Ages and the modern (or, at least, the early modern) world. As a Renaissance specialist, I am reluctant to commit myself about the present stability of these two adjacent historiographical promontories. But my impression is that neither medieval nor early modern historians would be altogether comfortable with the image.11 And as an inhabitant of the modern world, I find it rather too amorphous, unintelligible, and contradictory, at least as a whole, to provide any stable mooring for such a bridge. I am, in short, doubtful whether we are yet in any position to represent our own time as an intelligible age.

But a reflection of this kind takes us beyond internal historiographical pressures to the impact of contemporary experience on historiography. And such experience may, in the end, be the major cause for the present disarray of Renaissance scholarship: since we are baffled by the modern world, we are hardly in a position to argue for the relevance to it, at least in the traditional way, of the Renaissance.12 For the argument that attached the Renaissance to the modern world was based on two assumptions: that the modern world does, in fact, constitute some kind of intelligible entity, and that modernity has emerged by way of a single linear process. Neither, of these assumptions is, at least for me, self-evident. To be a competent historian of the Renaissance is, of course, hard enough, even without engaging in extracurricular ventures of this kind; but my efforts to sample the work of those scholars who have struggled to define the modern condition leave me as uncertain as the modern world itself.13 And I am further bewildered by the suggestion that we have now entered into a “postmodern” age. Meanwhile, the collapse of the idea of progress has profoundly subverted our sense of the direction of history. We can agree, perhaps, only that the present is the complex product of a remarkably tangled past.

Other pressures from the surrounding world have also weakened the ability of the historian of the Renaissance to defend the old dramatic organization of Western history and have at the same time promoted an alternative. Brought into focus by the social and cultural ferment of the1960s, so stimulating to historiography in other areas, these pressures have left the Renaissance in a partial eclipse. They pose a radical challenge—one that we have largely ignored—to our own doubtful compromise between process and structure.14

This challenge is related to a generous concern with the historiographically neglected and suffering majority of mankind that has diverted attention from those elites whose achievements have been the mainstay of claims for the Renaissance. From this standpoint historical significance tends to be defined largely as a function of numbers, of mass, and, hence, of the masses; this interest in the masses may suggest an ideological and even sentimental content in the supposedly cold and scientific impulse toward quantification. But mass also suggests matter and, therefore, points to the material basis of human existence, with a concomitant tendency to rely on the architectural model—so disruptive of traditional historiography—of superstructure and infrastructure, against the idealism often implicit in the preoccupation of historians of the Renaissance with high culture. A further consequence of this interest has been an emphasis on the more inert aspects of the past, with reduced attention to what had traditionally been seen as the source of the most dynamic forces in modern history. Meanwhile, the peculiar insecurity of the last two decades seems to have intensified the occasional yearning of the historian to regard himself as a scientist; and the methods recently devised to promote this aspiration and to open up new social groups to investigation have not been suited to the ways of Renaissance study, which has depended chiefly on the cultivated judgment and creative imagination of the individual historian.

These impulses have conspicuously been at work in the new social history, which has produced results of great interest, if chiefly for a later period, and which seems to me itself a remarkable feat of the historical imagination. This much is, I think, indisputable, however skeptical one may be of its scientific pretensions15 and of the claims of some of its practitioners to have overcome at last the distinction between history as actuality and history as construction. And it is particularly instructive from the standpoint of our present difficulties with the Renaissance, because it displays the results of a deliberate and wholehearted acceptance of that notion of an “age” with which the historian of the Renaissance has dealt so gingerly. It may also help to explain why he has preferred compromise.

I am referring to the concept of the longue duree, the intelligible age parexcellence, whose implications for the Renaissance emerge with special clarity in a recent essay by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.16 This piece offers a general interpretation of the extended period between about the eleventh and the nineteenth century. Situated between two intervals of innovation and expansion, this true age is, for Le Roy Ladurie, an intelligible unity, given fundamental coherence by a kind of grim Malthusian balance. The productivity of agriculture was limited, population was limited by it, and the material conditions of life for the vast majority were virtually unchangeable. By the democratic criterion of numbers, this long period was, except in insignificant detail, changeless; Le Roy Ladurie has accordingly described it as “motionless.”

From this standpoint the period of the Renaissance appears as little more than, in a double sense, the dead center of a much longer age in which the conventional distinction between medieval and early modern Europe has been obliterated. At most, the Renaissance is a conjoncture that is intelligible only in a far larger temporal context. But the full implications of the argument emerge only in Le Roy Ladurie’s reply to the objections that might be raised against it by more traditional historians:

One might object to this conception of motionless history … because it is a little too negligent of such fundamental innovations of the period as Pascal’s divine revelation, Papin’s steam engine and the growth of a very great city like Paris, or the progress of civility among the upper classes as symbolized by the introduction of the dinner fork. Far be it from me to question the radically new character of these episodes. But what interests me is the becoming, or rather the non-becoming of the faceless mass of people. The accomplishments of the elite are situated on a higher and more isolated plane and are not really significant except from the point of view, of a noisy minority, carriers of progress without doubt, but as yet incapable of mobilizing the enormous mass of rural humanity enmeshed in its Ricardian feedback.17

One has only to substitute—for Pascal, Papin, Paris, and the dinner fork—any random set of Renaissance accomplishments—Petrarch’s historical consciousness, the Copernican Revolution, the Florentine city-state with its civic rhetoric, and double-entry bookkeeping, for example—to appreciate the mordant implications here for the Renaissance.

Although the plausibility of this argument, which appears to illustrate the consequences of a thoroughgoing “synthesis,” has perhaps been one element in the present disarray of Renaissance historiography, its approach also has limitations (as I am hardly the first to point out18) that make it less decisive for the Renaissance than it may first appear. Largely an adaptation of French structuralism, Le Roy Ladurie’s thesis carries with it the antihistorical bias of that movement: structuralist analysis of the past has never been well adapted to deal with change. The consequences are apparent when Le Roy Ladurie, too good a historian to ignore this problem, must account for the end of his longue duree, when motion was finally restored to human affairs, the constraints on agriculture loosened, the old Malthusian cycle was broken, the migration from field to factory could begin, and the masses were at last expelled from the traditional world into, presumably, a new age.

At this point Le Roy Ladurie’s rich ironies seem to serve chiefly as a rhetorical justification for the limitation of his vision to what, as he so disarmingly puts it, “interests” him. Here we become aware of a difference both in strategy and tone. Since the masses were helpless to bring about this ambiguous denouement, that ridiculous noisy minority becomes unexpectedly important. Now it represents “forces of elitist renovation which had been building up slowly over the course of centuries” and which finally succeeded, after about 1720, in “setting off an avalanche.”19 This “build-up of forces” might suggest that Paris and the steam engine—and even, more obscurely, Pascal and the fork—are after all, if one is interested in that “avalanche,” worth some attention. And back of them lies the Renaissance—not, perhaps, as an “age” but (in the terms of its traditional interpretation) as a critical moment in a process that would in the long run significantly transform the world. The impulses not altogether arbitrarily associated with the Renaissance—its individualism and its practical and empirical rationality—were, though immediately limited to a statistically insignificant minority, destined for some importance even from the standpoint of the majority.20 I do not mean to deny the value of structural description; indeed, it provides essential safeguards against anachronism for the historian primarily interested in process.21 But structures can hardly exhaust the concern of the historian; the past is not simply a world we have lost.

The inability of a history of structures to deal with change has, however, a further consequence. Its neglect of the continuities that link the past with the present and one “age” to the next opens the way to an interpretation of change as cataclysm, with the implication that the modern world is genetically related to the past only remotely. Our own time thus appears as something like a biological mutation, whose survival value remains an open question. For the structural approach to the past may ignore but cannot, after all, repudiate process altogether. One set of structures obviously does, somehow, give way to another. The effect of this approach is to promote, however inadvertently, a discontinuous concept of process. Thus, for the myth of continuity with the Renaissance it substitutes what I will call the myth of apocalyptic modernization. In calling this a myth, I mean nothing pejorative.22 A myth is, for the historian, the dynamic equivalent of a model in the social sciences, and we can hardly do without it. The crucial transition from chronicle to history depended on the application of some principle of mythical organization to previously discrete data: the myth of the hero, the myth of collective advance, the myth of decline. That the weakening of one mythical pattern should have left a kind of vacuum for another myth to fill is hardly surprising.

So the apocalyptic myth—a product partly of our own self-importance and partly of the mingled hopes and anxieties generated by recent experience—has emerged, though it is not itself peculiarly modern. A modification of the basic Western myth of linear time of a type periodically recurrent under conditions of stress, the apocalyptic myth provides an alternative to the idea of continuous development, with which it can be variously combined. Indeed, it is not altogether different from the Renaissance notion of radical discontinuity with the Middle Ages. In discussing it critically, I am aware of a certain analogy with the medievalists’ protests against the idea of the Renaissance.

Largely, as a result of those protests, historians of the Renaissance generally gave up the apocalyptic dimension of the original Renaissance myth, at least as it related to the past. Without renouncing the novelties of the Renaissance, they recognized its continuities with the Middle Ages, themselves increasingly seen as complex. In other words, they made distinctions, within both periods, among contrary tendencies. But these careful distinctions took care of only half of the Renaissance problem. Thus, if we are still in disarray, the explanation may ultimately be that we have failed to modify in the same way that element in the Renaissance myth that pointed to the future: its perception of the modern world—the goal of the historical process—as a coherent entity. Since we can no longer support our claims for the Renaissance origins of the modern world so conceived, we have fallen silent. If this is true, the full solution to the Renaissance problem would thus depend on our giving as much attention to the complexities and contradictions of our own time as we have given to those of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and on being equally selective about the relation of the Renaissance to the modern world. Among its other advantages, this solution might enable us to put the apocalyptic myth itself in some perspective; we might then notice that some reaction against it is already under way in the social sciences.23

Such selectivity might enable us to claim for the Renaissance a substantial role in the formation of those tendencies in our own world that perhaps have a better claim to modernity than does the present apocalyptic mood: the skeptical, relativistic, and pragmatic strains in contemporary culture.24 These strains would suggest, in place of the apocalyptic myth, something like the myth of Prometheus, itself of some interest to Renaissance thought25—Prometheus who, by tricking Zeus and stealing the fire that made possible the arts, endowed man with the power to create a world in which he could survive alone. Such a myth might be interpreted to mean that the world man inhabits is formed, not through some transcendent and ineluctable process—whether cataclysmic or uniform—but only out of his own shifting needs and unpredictable inventiveness. From this standpoint, the basic peculiarity of the modern world might be seen as the present consciousness of human beings of their power to shape the world they inhabit, including the social world and, by extension, themselves. A (for us) poignant reflection of this situation might be the unique predicament of the modern historian, who is in a position to choose, among various possibilities, the myth most useful to impose dramatic organization on his data—a problem of which previous historians were largely unaware. In modern culture, then, the determinism and helplessness implicit in the apocalyptic myth are opposed by a still lively belief in human freedom.

The modern sense of the creative freedom of mankind now finds stimulating expression in a concept of culture that underlies the work of a group of distinguished contemporary anthropologists.26 According to this view of the human condition, the universe man inhabits is essentially a complex of meanings of his own devising; man, as Max Weber perceived him, is “an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.”27 These webs make up his culture or, more exactly, since they are utterly various, his cultures. Furthermore, as philosophers and linguists have made increasingly clear, he spins these webs from language. Through language man orders the chaos of data impinging on his sensorium from, in a singularly mysterious and problematic sense, “out there,” organizing them into categories and so making them intelligible, manageable, and useful. The human world might, therefore, be described as a vast rhetorical production, for the operations that bring it into existence are comparable to such basic rhetorical transactions as division and comparison, or metonymy and metaphor.28 This concept denies not that an objective universe exists but only that man has direct access to it or can know what it is apart from what he makes of it, out of his own limited perceptual and intellectual resources and for his own purposes, whatever these might be.29

The epistemological decisions embedded in language are thus the pre-condition of human apprehension of an external world; culture in this sense is prior to both materialism and idealism, which represent contrary efforts to assign ontological status to—in the language of sociology, to legitimize—a world whose actual source in the creativity of man violates the all-too-human need for transcendence.30 From this standpoint history presents itself not as a single process but as a complex of processes, which interests us insofar as we are interested in the almost infinite possibilities of human existence. Beyond this, history as construction often tends to be a misleading and sometimes pernicious reification.

Here, I am only advancing on an old position in the historiography of the Renaissance from a somewhat new direction. For the kind of history this approach suggests was very much that of the most distinguished historians of the Renaissance of the last hundred years, Jacob Burckhardt and Johann Huizinga, notable pioneers in what both called cultural history. Misled by their concentration on evidence drawn from the culture of elites, we have tended to see in their work no more than the study of “superstructure,” losing sight of the generous conception of culture underlying their work. For Burckhardt, the proper subject of Kulturgeschichte was not simply the arts, which were relatively neglected in his account of the Renaissance, but “what moves the world and what is of penetrating influence, … the indispensable.”31 For Huizinga, cultural history required the identification of “deeper, general themes” and “the patterns of life, thought, and art taken all together,” which he was prepared to pursue in every dimension of human experience.32 And both had such reservations about the modern world that neither would have found much satisfaction in representing it as the goal of history.

This conception of culture is perhaps the contemporary world’s most general legacy from the Renaissance: the recognition that culture is a product of the creative adjustment of the human race to its varying historical circumstances rather than a function of universal and changeless nature, and theperception that culture accordingly differs from time to time and group to group. This insight of the Renaissance suggested that mankind, by its own initiatives, could, for better or worse, shape its own earthly condition. Hints of this idea can be found earlier, of course, both in antiquity and in the Middle Ages; and even in the Renaissance the idea was limited to certain groups in which it only occasionally became explicit—as it did for Petrarch and Nicholas of Cusa (though only at certain moments), for Sir Philip Sidney, and for Montaigne. But this shocking view of the human condition made its first durable impression on the Western consciousness then and has continued to shape our world.

The high culture of the Renaissance immediately revealed some of the implications of the new conception of culture. Scholars became aware of the distinct, historically contingent cultures of antiquity, while the voyages of exploration discovered the varieties of contemporary culture in America and the Orient. Although the first European responses to these revelations tended to be ethnocentric, the relativism of Montaigne suggested that another kind of reaction was already possible. Meanwhile, cultural expression was being conceived, more modestly, not as a total and authoritative reflection of external reality but as a particular human insight, conveyed by isolated proverbs, pensees, familiar essays, small areas of practical or esthetic order, of which the autonomous painting of Renaissance art provides a nice symbol.

Perhaps the most profound indication that a radical shift in the understanding of culture was taking place—and, hence, a shift in the sense of man’s relation to the world and to himself—can be seen in the Renaissance crisis of language, that basic instrument in the formation of culture.33 The first sign of that crisis was a growing uneasiness, at first among the most abstract thinkers but then more broadly, that the human vocabulary was failing to mirror the objective world. Words, it was widely lamented, no longer corresponded to things. This lament was often taken to mean that the vocabulary should be reformed so that this traditional identity could be restored: a demand, in effect, for a return to the dependence of culture upon external nature. But then an alternative solution to the problem began to unfold. Skepticism about the capacity of the human mind to grasp the structures of nature directly led to growing doubt about the possibility of such an identity, to a recognition of the conventionality of language and its susceptibility to change, to the perception of language as a human creation, and eventually to the conclusion that, as the creator of language, man also shapes through language the only world he can know directly, including even himself.

This insight was a major impulse behind the brilliant imaginative literature of the Renaissance, which was one channel for the diffusion of this new concept of language. So was the steady displacement of Latin, the language of absolute truths both sacred and profane, by the European vernaculars, not only in literature but in law and administration. The variety of the vernaculars suggested that language was based on the consensus of particular peoples, arrived at by the processes of history; and the growing expressiveness of the various languages of Europe appeared to demonstrate that linguistic change signified not that the primordial identity of language with the real world was being corrupted—the traditional view propounded by Socrates in the Cratylus—but that language is a flexible tool. The rich elaboration of vernacular languages was not only the deliberate project of elites but a spontaneous and increasingly popular eruption to meet the shifting requirements of existence.

There was thus nothing ethereal about this portentous cultural shift. If a common culture is the foundation of community and limits the possible modes of social organization and social action, it is also responsive to changing social needs, themselves culturally defined. And, like other historical phenomena, the subtle and reciprocal dialogue between culture and society is open to investigation.34 The expanding linguistic resources of Renaissance culture simultaneously facilitated and reflected the development of a more complex urban and monarchical society. The sense that language does not simply mirror, passively, the structures of external nature but functions as a tool to serve the practical needs of social existence eventually stimulated reflection about the uses and creative possibilities of language. And we can see in those reflections the germ of a new vision of human culture.

Whether given practical expression in the creative modification of language or, at another level, in the Renaissance idea of self-fashioning,35 the notion of man as creator of himself and the world was heady stuff. It found expression in the modern expectation that government, the economy, and education should constantly reconstruct society, the environment, and man himself in accordance with the constantly changing expectations of mankind. There are doubtless limits to such an enterprise, both in the malleability of physical and biological reality and in man’s own moral capacities,36 that this aspiration tends to overlook. These limits and the attempts to exceed them help to explain a perennial impulse since the Renaissance to react against the creativity and freedom of Renaissance culture toward various types of philosophical and scientific determinism and, thus, also to explain the contradictions of the modern world. Perhaps the Renaissance vision of man with its vast practical consequences has needed, from time to time, to be chastened in this way. But it has so far survived as the major resource with which to oppose the temptation to escape from the anxieties of the human condition into new versions of authoritarianism.

I began these remarks by announcing the collapse of the dramatic scheme that has long organized our vision of the general career of Western history. Since I think that drama is vital to historiography, because it enables us to impose form on the processes of history and so to make them intelligible, this seems to me an ominous development, especially since it has invited the substitution of another dramatic scheme that would deprive us of our roots in the past. But, although I have argued for the continuing significance of the Renaissance, I have not tried simply to defend the traditional pattern, which seems to me seriously defective, in ways that the legacy of Renaissance culture also helps us understand. The old dramatic pattern, with its concept of linear history moving the human race ineluctably to its goal in the modern world depended on concealed principles of transcendence inappropriate to the human understanding of human affairs. The trinity of acts composing the great drama of human history and its concept of the modern epoch as not just the latest but the last act of the play bear witness to its eschatological origins,37 and such notions seem to me peculiarly inappropriate to so human an enterprise as that of the historian. But I also find the traditional scheme unsatisfactory because it is not dramatic enough. It fails to accommodate the sense of contingency and, therefore, suspense—the sense that the drama might have turned out otherwise—that belongs to all human temporal experience. Though it has survived for over five centuries, for example, I see no reason to assume that the anthropological vision we owe to the Renaissance is destined to triumph forever over the forces arrayed against it, and much in the modern world suggests the contrary.

But the more human concept of the drama of history that had its effective origins in the Renaissance, understanding of culture overcomes these various disadvantages. Its pluralism implies the possibility of a multiplicity of historical dramas, both simultaneous and successive; and so it relieves us of the embarrassment, inherent in a linear and eschatological vision of time, of repeatedly having to reclassify in other terms what for a previous generation seemed modern. Since it perceives history as a part of culture and also, therefore, a human creation, it permits us constantly to reconstruct the dramas of history and so to see the past in fresh relationships to ourselves. Above all, since it insists on no particular outcome for the dramas of history, it leaves the future open.

William James Bouwsma (November 22, 1923–March 2, 2004) was an American scholar and historian of the European Renaissance. He was Sather Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.



I should like to acknowledge at the outset the helpful criticism this paper received from Thomas A. Brady, Jr. of the University of Oregon and from my Berkeley colleagues Gene Brucker and Randolph Starn.


  1. Ferguson, The Renaissance (New York, 1940), 2. []
  2. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought (Boston, 1948), 389. []
  3. For some of the works that particularly influenced me at this time, in addition to those of Ferguson, see Paul Oskar Kristeller, The Classics and Renaissance Thought (Cambridge, Mass., 1955); Hans Baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny, 2 vols. (Princeton, 1955); Eugenio Garin, L’umanesimo italiano (Bari, 1958); and the various essays of Erwin Panofsky, especially “Renaissance and Renascences,” Kenyon Review, 6 (1944): 201-36. []
  4. Tinsley Helton, ed. The Renaissance: A Reconsideration of the Theories and Interpretations of the Age (Madison, Wisc., 1961), xi-xii. The papers in this volume were presented at a symposium at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee in 1959. For other symposia, see The Renaissance: A Symposium (New York, 1953); and Bernard O’Kelly, ed., The Renaissance Image of Man and the World (Columbus, Ohio, 1966). []
  5. Randolph Starn has called attention to this; see his review of Nicolai Rubinstein, ed., Florentine Studies: Politics and Society in Renaissance Italy (London, 1968), in Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance, 32 (1970): 682-83. Also see his “Historians and ‘Crisis,'” Past& Present, no. 52 (1971): 19. []
  6. For explicit recognition that the term functions chiefly as an administrative convenience, see Brian Pullan, A History of Early Renaissance Italy from the Mid-Thirteenth to the Mid-Fifteenth Century (London, 1973), 11. []
  7. Mattingly, “Some Revisions of the Political History of the Renaissance,” in Helton, The Renaissance: A Reconsideration, 3. []
  8. The effect of this periodization by course sequences has doubtless been intensified by the decline of introductory surveys of European history. []
  9. There may be analogies here with the consequences of specialization in other occupations, notably medicine. []
  10. In his Renaissance in Historical Thought, Ferguson tied the notion of transition to synthesis; he combined the two strategies in Europe in Transition, 1300-1520 (Boston, 1962), the first large-scale presentation of the period in these terms, though this project was already foreshadowed in his “The Interpretation of the Renaissance: Suggestions for a Synthesis,” Journalof the History of Ideas, 12 (1951): 483-95. For other works that rely on the idea of transition, see Eugene F. Rice, Jr., The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1466-1559 (New York, 1970), ix; Lewis W. Spitz, The Renaissance and Reformation Movements (Chicago, 1971), vii, 3; and Pullan, Early Renaissance Italy, 11. The widespread assumption that textbooks such as these are no part of our “serious” work seems to me both troubling and mistaken. []
  11. It may be noted that medievalists who write about the Renaissance tend to see it not as a “transition” but as having a distinct identity of its own. See, for example, Denys Hay, The Italian Renaissance in Its Historical Background (Cambridge, 1961), 14-25; and Robert S. Lopez, The Three Ages of the Italian Renaissance (Charlottesville, N.C., 1970), 73. []
  12. For a work that is especially sensitive to this problem, see Rice, Foundations of Early Modern Europe, x. []
  13. I have been helped to see the complexity of this problem by Richard D. Brown’s work; see his Modernization: The Transformation of American Life, 1600-1865 (New York, 1976), 3-22. []
  14. For a stimulating exception, see John Hale, Renaissance Europe: The Individual and Society, 1486-1520 (London, 1971). But its short time-span excuses it from the need to deal with larger processes, and in spite of Hale’s attempt to write “majority” history, much of his detail is drawn—inevitably—from “minority” sources. []
  15. This issue is muddied by the ambiguity of the term “science.” For a useful discussion of its somewhat different meanings in French and English usage, see J. H. Hexter, “Fernand Braudel and the Monde Braudellien“, Journal of Modern History, 44 (1972): 500. []
  16. Le Roy Ladurie, “L’histoire immobile,” Annales: Economies, societes, civilisations, 29 (1974): 673-82, translated by John Day as “Motionless History,” Social Science History, 1 (1977): 115-36.Clyde Griffen kindly called this article to my attention. []
  17. Le Roy Ladurie, “Motionless History,” 133-34. []
  18. For a notable critique, see Hexter, “Fernand Braudel and the Monde Braudellien,” 480-539. Also see, for a criticism of the neglect of process in much of the new social history, Eugene and Elizabeth Fox Genovese, “The Political Crisis of Social History: A Marxian Perspective,” Journal of Social History, 10 (1976): 215. As Robert M. Berdahl points out, many non-Marxists can agree with this; see his “Anthropology and History: A Note and an Example,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft (forthcoming). []
  19. Le Roy Ladurie, “Motionless History,” 134. []
  20. The long-range significance of these tendencies of the Renaissance is still recognized, however, in some recent work. See jean Delumeau, “Le developpement de l’esprit d’organisation et de la pensee methodique dans la mentalite occidentale a 1’epoque de la Renaissance,” in Thirteenth International Congress of Historical Sciences, Moscow 1970, Doklady Kongressa, 1, Pt. 5 (Moscow, 1973): 139-50; and Peter Burke, Culture and Society in Renaissance Italy, 1420-1540 (London, 1972), 225. []
  21. The very real danger of anachronism seems to have led Charles Trinkaus to renounce the “traditional genetic-modernist bias,” i.e., the scrutiny of the past in the interest of understanding the present; Trinkaus, “Humanism, Religion, Society: Concepts and Motivations of Some Recent Studies,” Renaissance Quarterly, 29 (1976): 677, 685-86. Though I agree that it is subject to abuse, I see nothing illegitimate in principle in genetic explanation, and I am quite sure that its abandonment by historians would only leave it to others less sensitive to its difficulties. []
  22. For this complex word, see Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York, 1976), 176-78. For a generally instructive work on the role of myth in historiography, see Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore, 1973). []
  23. See Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, “Sociological Theory and an Analysis of the Dynamics of Civilizations and Revolutions,” Daedalus, 106 (1977): esp. 61-63. []
  24. Isaiah Berlin has helped me bring these strains into focus; see his Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas (New York, 1976). []
  25. See Charles Trinkaus, In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought, 1 (Chicago, 1970): 244-45. Also see, for a significant and more recent application of this myth, Donald R. Kelley, “The Metaphysics of Law: An Essay on the Very Young Marx,” AHR, 83 (1978): 350. []
  26. For studies that reflect this concept of culture, see Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, 1977); Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London, 1966),Natural Symbols (London, 1970); and Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology (London, 1975); Louis Dumont, From Mandeville to Marx: The Genesis and Triumph of Economic Ideology (Chicago, 1977); Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973); Marshall Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago, 1976); Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Ithaca, N.Y., 1969); and, seminal for the role of language in culture, Edward Sapir, Culture, Language, and Personality: Selected Essays, ed. David G. Mandelbaum (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1949). []
  27. Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures, 5. []
  28. The historian’s creation of the world of the past out of language provides a close analogy. []
  29. For much of this I am indebted to the theoretical essays of Harry Berger, Jr. See, in particular, his “Outline of a General Theory of Cultural Change,” Clio, 2 (1972): 49-63, and “Naive Consciousness,” Papers on Language and Literature, 8 (1973): 1-44. []
  30. See Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason, esp. ix-x. []
  31. As quoted in Karl J. Weintraub, Visions of Culture: Voltaire, Guizot, Burckhardt, Lamprecht, Huizinga, Ortega y Gasset (Chicago, 1966), 138. []
  32. Huizinga, Men and Ideas: History, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, trans. James S. Holmes and Hans van Marie (New York, 1959), 28. Also see Weintraub, Visions of Culture, 230-31. []
  33. For a general discussion of Renaissance views of language, see Karl-Otto Apel, Die Idee der Sprache in der Tradition des Humanismus von Dante bis Vico, Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte, no. 8 (Bonn, 1963). For some of the studies that have influenced my own understanding of these matters, see Michael Baxandall, Giotto and the Orators: Humanist Observers of Painting in Italy and the Discovery of Pictorial Composition, 1350-1450 (Oxford, 1971); Salvatore I. Camporeale, Lorenzo Valla: Umanesimo e teologia (Florence, 1972); Thomas M. Greene, “Petrarch and the Humanist Hermaneutic,” in K. Atchity and G. Rimanelli, eds., Italian Literature: Roots and Branches (New Haven, 1976), 201-24; Gordon Leff, William of Ockham: The Metamorphosis of Scholastic Discourse (Manchester, 1975), esp. 124-237; J. G. A. Pocock, Politics, Language, and Time: Essays on Political Thought and History (New York, 1971); and Nancy S. Struever, The Language of History in the Renaissance: Rhetoric and Historical Consciousness in Florentine Humanism (Princeton, 1970). It is increasingly apparent that those self-conscious antagonists, Renaissance humanists and later Scholastics, in fact collaborated in this development. []
  34. For an especially useful discussion of this relationship, see Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, esp. 72-95. []
  35. On this radical application of the Renaissance concept of human creativity, see A. Bartlett Giamatti, “Proteus Unbound: Some Versions of the Sea God in the Renaissance,” in Peter Demetz, ed., The Disciplines of Criticism (New Haven, 1968), 431-75; and Stephen J. Greenblatt, “Marlowe and Renaissance Self-Fashioning,” in Alvin Kernan, ed., TwoRenaissance Mythmakers: Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson (Baltimore, 1977), 41-69. []
  36. Hence, the condemnation of the Renaissance in Protestant neo-orthodoxy; see Herbert Weisinger, “The Attack on the Renaissance in Theology Today,” Studies in the Renaissance, 2 (1955): 176-89. This hostility continues to inhibit recognition of the filiation between the Reformation and the Renaissance. []
  37. The structural principle of the conventional ancient-medieval-modern division seems to persist in more recent trinitarian schernes—i.e., primitive—traditional-modern and aristocrat-bourgeois-proletarian. []