09 February 2014

"History of the Renaissance World"

Daughter Lisa and Italian son-in-law Attilio presented me with Clive James's new translation of Dante's Divine Comedy for Christmas. Son Jeremy wisely made Susan Wise Bauer's "The History of the Renaissance World" his gift to me. And it's her book that I've finished and am commending here.

Bauer's subtitle "From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople" makes a key point: the "Renaissance" did not begin in the fourteenth or even the thirteenth century. Unlike the popularized notion of the timing of the Renaissance, locating it as the immediate precursor to the Reformation, Bauer is correct to show that the beginning of our age took place already in the twelfth century as Italian scholars ventured to areas of Muslim-controlled Spain, learned Arabic, and set themselves to understanding the works of Aristotle. Thus, as she observes, when in 1340 Petrach applied the term "renaissance" to his program of re-appropriating the ideals of Classical Rome, the renaissance itself had been well underway for nearly 200 years.

Bauer also undertakes the yeoman's (yeowoman's?) task of taking a world-wide view of the period under consideration. Not only were many holes filled in my knowledge of what was happening in Europe c. 1150-1450, vast gaps of what had happened in Africa, the Americas, China, Japan, Korea, India, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia were created whole cloth. And while everyone knows something about Genghis Khan and the Mongolian Empire(s), Bauer does an excellent job of showing how in many respects the Mongolians were the single most unifying phenomenon connecting each culture other than Africa and the Americas. Her charting of the continuing spread of Islam, as well as the internal political conflicts that plagued its range of adherents, manages to show how it was the second most significant sinew linking many of the cultures she surveyed.

There are, of course, limits to what one can do in a history of 300 years of the world in in 681 pages. Bauer's brief forays into Western Christian theological developments are good as far as they go but by and large aesthetics, architecture, and philosophy receive short shrift. Hers is a traditional work of political-military history from the top down. Nothing wrong with that but most certainly written with a popular audience in view. Which means it will get read.

So, read it. I highly comment Bauer's book to anyone who want a well-crafted, succinct but detailed history of the first steps into the modernity in which we find ourselves today. As for me, it's on to Dante (who gets several pages with strong props from Bauer).

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