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Reviewed by:
  • Contesting the Renaissance by William Caferro
  • John Scholl
William Caferro, Contesting the Renaissance, Contesting the Past Series (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell 2011) viii + 253 pp.

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The purpose of this volume is not, as its name might imply, to argue against the Renaissance but rather to explain how scholars have engaged and continue to engage in a contest about the Renaissance. Was there a Renaissance? If so, how was it characterized? Did the Renaissance affect all aspects of the culture or only a few? These are some of the key questions that scholars have addressed, and William Caferro surveys and analyzes their debate. This is no small task, because the historiography of the Renaissance is large, but Caferro does not attempt to be exhaustive: “This volume is in no way intended as a comprehensive study of Renaissance historiography, if indeed that is possible. It aims only at relaying representative themes and approaches” (vi). The book is designed not so much for general readers, seeking a survey of the Renaissance, but rather for scholars and amateur historians who seek a serious and detailed discussion of the history and current state of historiography on the Renaissance. The book is detailed, often a dense read. It does not attempt an easy synthesis of the historiography. Instead, as Caferro shows again and again, scholars have taken many different stands upon various aspects of the Renaissance debate, and there is at present no simple or broadly accepted answer for any question.

Chapter 1, “The Renaissance Question,” focuses on the central issue: was there a Renaissance? If so, what were its characteristics? Not surprisingly, Jacob Burckhardt figures largely in this discussion. Caferro takes particular care in summarizing Burckhardt’s thesis, for he notes that it is often misunderstood or misrepresented. People generally encounter Burckhardt, not directly, but through the hands of another scholar. Caferro points out that Burckhardt’s “treatment of individualism is the central theme of the book, and constitutes his most original contribution” (4). After his careful summary of Burckhardt, Caferro traces the main lines of the debate that followed Burckhardt and still continues. As it stands, most scholars agree that there was a Renaissance, but there is little agreement about its central characteristics. In fact, even at an introductory level there is no generally accepted synthesis. Caferro points to survey texts on Western Civilization as a vivid demonstration of scholars’ disagreement. The Renaissance is presented differently from one to the next; even its beginning and end dates are up for grabs.

The ensuing chapters consider subtopics within the larger Renaissance debate. Chapter 2 examines individualism, “a traditional starting point for discussion of the Renaissance” (31). Again, Burckhardt plays a big role. He argued that Renaissance men had a keen sense of their own identity and by their skill and ability advanced their personal interest. By contrast, medieval men saw themselves primarily as members of a group. Students meet the Renaissance primarily through talented and remarkable individuals: Petrarch, Bruni, etc. There are, however, some complications in the study of individualism. Scholars have often struggled to find a definition that fits the explorers—many of whom lived in the Renaissance—as well as it does the humanists. Further, the individualism of the humanists is often overstated. They too emphasized corporate bonds. More recent work sees Renaissance identity as something constructed in response to an “other.” As Caferro notes, the study of individualism and of remarkable individuals also mostly emphasizes men. This raises the question discussed in chapter 3: was there a Renaissance for women? Joan Kelly initiated this debate by arguing emphatically that there was not. Women faced very [End Page 241] serious legal, social, religious, and economic limitations; some scholars have even argued that women were better off during the Middle Ages. Admittedly, there were some exceptional women, such as Christine de Pizan. But they were exceptions, rather than examples of a larger trend.

Humanism is the subject of chapter 4. Caferro notes that Paul Oscar Kris-teller offered a particularly influential definition of humanism. Kristeller saw humanism as not necessarily opposed to scholasticism, but different from it. Scholastics were interested in philosophy and theology while humanists emphasized grammar and rhetoric...


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