- Renaissance Medievalisms
One of the most interesting developments in medieval studies in recent decades has been the emergence of a scholarly industry centred on medievalism, the process by which the Middle Ages as a cultural commodity is appropriated and remodelled in later periods to suit contemporary purposes. Romantic and Victorian medievalisms now have vast critical bibliographies, and indeed, well-worn scholarly paths exist for those investigating the medievalizing tendencies of all eras from about the mid-eighteenth century onward. The same cannot as yet be said for the Early Modern period. This is because the closer the approach to the Middle Ages themselves, the more the ongoing [End Page 171] relevance of medieval institutions destabilizes the historical vantage point. So many of the cultural features that for us define the Middle Ages persist in the Early Modern period, that the ability to distinguish the medievalist from the simply medieval breaks down.
Such is the backdrop of Renaissance Medievalisms, edited by Konrad Eisenbichler in the wake of a 2006 conference in Toronto hosted by his Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies. The introduction unpacks the ironies and ambiguities of periodization, querying both the term Renaissance and the notion of cultural ‘rebirth’ as woven into intellectual history from Petrarch onward. ‘The collection’s premise’, Eisenbichler writes, ‘is that there obviously was some continuity from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance’, but ‘that the world did change dramatically and that this change is evident, in part, in the manner the “Renaissance” used, adapted, and manipulated its “medieval” inheritance’ (pp. 20–1).
The essays are organized in three parts, the first of which considers medieval-Renaissance continuities. Paul Grendler surveys changes in Italian universities between 1400 and 1610. They grow considerably in number and introduce many curricular innovations, particularly in medicine and natural philosophy, where scientific research supplants deference to Aristotle. In law, civil waxes and canon wanes, while Queen Theology presides serene and undisturbed. Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood then deliver energizing ruminations on ‘What Counted as an “Antiquity” in the Renaissance?’. The answer turns out to be a great deal of Byzantine icons, mosaics, and so forth that could be as much as a millennium younger than supposed. This is less error than willing self-delusion: ‘Everyone knew that in fact most artefacts were not so old. … But the relic “effect,” the rhetoric of the artefact, was so powerful that communities chose, in effect, to forget what they knew about production history and treat old artefacts as if they were very old’ (p. 63). James Nelson Novoa discusses the debt to Boccaccio’s De genealogiae deorum gentilium in the second dialogue of Leone Ebreo’s Dialoghi d’amore (c. 1512–13). An underrated source of Ebreo’s art and thought, Novoa finds, is the Iberian vernacular humanism imbibed in his youth. Next, in an essay that appeals for both its subject matter and its intriguing thesis at the intersection of literature, visuality, and memory, Donald Beecher traces the medieval and Renaissance reception of the Indian Fables of Bidpai. This section of the book concludes with Gary Waller’s reading of Act V, scene 3 of All’s Well That Ends Well, in which the appearance of the pregnant ‘virgin’ Helena is linked [End Page 172] with Reformation anxiety about the medieval enthusiasm for representations of the pregnant Virgin.
Part II deals with self-conscious appropriations of the medieval. Natalie Rothman perceptively analyses how Giovanni Battista Salvago, a diplomatic translator facilitating Venetian contacts with the Ottoman empire, selectively catered to medieval Western preconceptions regarding the Turks to signify his own authoritative insider-outsider status in a 1625 ambassadorial report on Ottoman North Africa. The Turks also figure prominently, as objects of an urged crusade, in Guillaume Michel’s Penser de royal memoire (1518); Lidia Radi’s exploration of this text successfully points up the need to theorize the mirror for princes genre in a post-medieval context. Brian Gourley follows with a trenchant demonstration that John Bale’s plays King...