Steve Hindle: Renaissance Lasted Longer Than Previously Thought

Roundup: Talking About History

Chris Arnot, The Guardian (London), 12/07/04

We tend to think of the Renaissance as a movement confined to a European intellectual elite during the 15th and 16th centuries. Wrong on all counts, according to Professor Steve Hindle, who is to be a leading figure in a research project linking Warwick University with the Newberry Library in Chicago. Over three years, British and American historians, classicists and linguists will seek to re-examine the social depth, the geographical breadth and the historical length of a period that saw the rebirth of classicism in art, philosophy and literature.

"I would argue that it was a much longer period than previously thought," says Hindle, who is based at Warwick's Centre for the Study of the Renaissance."Yes, its origins were in late 14th-century Italy, with the rediscovery of classical texts, especially Plato's. But its influence was still evident in New England from the 1620s onwards. By the 18th century, the shape that institutions and architecture start to take on is fundamentally influenced by classical antiquity.

"In fact, the very idea of American democracy is influenced by classical modes of thought, revived in 15th- and 16th-century Italy and refined by 17th-century English republicanism. By 1776, all kinds of other influences were making their presence felt in American culture, but the fundamental idea for America as a republic harks back to Plato and Aristotle."

The project, linking scholars in the West Midlands with American counterparts in the Midwest, has been made possible by a grant of £190,000 from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, which finances educational projects with transatlantic links. Warwick academics will have access to manuscripts in one of the three leading research libraries in the US. And American scholars will be able to come to the Coventry-based campus for seminars and workshops and a few sight-seeing trips.

"Among the subjects we cover will be Renaissance attitudes to the afterlife," says Hindle."One of the leading strands of English literature was what happens to the soul after death - Hamlet's father being a good example. In the Americas, meanwhile, Spanish humanists were discussing whether the indigenous population had souls at all. We'll also be looking at how new forms of knowledge affected the built environment. Our American visitors will see evidence of how the Renaissance affected the landscape of the English Midlands."

Visits to churches, almshouses and homes of the gentry will be on the agenda. Hindle argues that these buildings provide evidence that Renaissance ideas affected far more people than has hitherto been thought. Women, for instance."The gentry employed classically trained tutors for their daughters as well as their sons," he points out."As a result, women's writing as a genre developed in the 16th and 17th centuries."

As for the poor, their exposure to Renaissance thought was hardly confined to being groundlings at the Globe Theatre."The way space was re-ordered in churches is significant," Hindle explains."In the 15th and 16th centuries, men and women were segregated and a pecking order was established. The poor were given pews at the back. Notions of charity began to change as well. In medieval times, the prevailing attitude was that you gave money to the poor as a way of helping to save your own soul. With the Renaissance came greater efforts to control resources by trying to ensure that help was given to the most needy. Targeting relief, in other words."

To suggest that the Renaissance influenced New Labour thinking, however, might be to stretch its longevity a little too far.

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