OU blog

Personal Blogs


The Twelfth Century Renaissance

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Maxwell Lewis Latham, Monday, 15 July 2013, 16:49
Who has been the most influential historian of the twelfth century? A very strong case could be made for Geoffrey of Monmouth, author of the History of the Kings of Britain, which was completed in or about 1138 [C.E.]. At a point in his narrative which may be placed approximately in the fourth century B.C.[E], Geoffrey tells us that the dynasty of King Lear finally came to an end, and ‘courage roused a young man named Dunuallo Molmutius’ to reunite the Kingdom of [Great] Britain under his sway. ‘This Prince set up the laws the Britons call the Molmutine laws, which are held in honour among the English till this day. In these, among other items described by Saint Gildas long years after, he laid down that the temples of the gods ... should have the privilege of sanctuary ... ; likewise the roads leading to the temples ... and the ploughs of the husbandmen... At last, after a reign of forty years spent in these and other acts of government, he died, and was buried in the city of Trinovantum near the Temple of Concord, which he himself built as a prop and stay to laws...’ Later Geoffrey describes how Molmutius’ work was continued by his son and successor Belinus, who built roads of stone and mortar the whole length of the island, and gave his roads special privileges. ‘But if anyone desires to know all that he laid down as to the roads, let him [or her] read the Molmutine laws, which Gildas the historian translated from British to Latin, and King Alfred [the Great] into English (Griscom, 1929, pp.273 & 282).

Geoffrey's book was written by a man with a shrewd eye for the remains of the past, especially of the Roman past, a wide knowledge of ancient and not so ancient literature, for an audience which lived and respected the past but knew little about it. It was written in the style of serious history, and serious history it claimed to be; and for the most part it was taken at face value. Yet this account of Molmutius and his son is... fiction, though every line is calculated to tickle the fancy of the conscente, for Geoffrey's history is a pastiche of reminiscences of the genuine past, carefully placed in a new historical context. He succeeded... beyond his dreams, for what appeared to be serious history, and was intended... to be read as serious history, was in-fact a substantial work of fiction. Every line in it reflects the interests of twelfth century Englishmen in the past, and their respect for the past; and every line reflects an age with a wholly new capacity for imaginative fiction.

A generation later a learnēd clerk called William Fitz-Stephen set to work to write a life of his master, Saint Thomas Becket, recently martyred. William and Thomas were both born in London, and for the greatest of... cities William showed a fanatical devotion akin to that which adorned the Italian cities of the fifteenth century with the masterpieces of art and architecture of the Italian Renaissance. ‘Plato sketched the shape of a republic in a discourse; Sallust described the situation of Africa in his History on account of the Carthaginian rebellion against the Romans ... and I shall now describe the site and Commonwealth of London on account of Saint Thomas.’

Fitz-Stephen wrote in all earnestness, yet it is abundantly clear that... he knew nothing at first hand of Plato's Republic, and (unlike many twelfth century historians) he had not read Sallust, or had forgotten his works if he had. His was a world in which one can meet genuine appreciation of the past, pagan and Christian, and real sympathy and insight into Classical Latin literature; but also an astonishing wealth of ignorance. It was a world in which men could enquire as to the origin of treasured institutions, and listen to Geoffrey expounding the laws of Molmutius, still well known and held in honour; could gulp as we all do when faced with our own ignorance, and say: ‘The laws of Molmutius: but yes, of course.’

Not everyone, however, was deceived, and Geoffrey, the parodist, was in his turn parodied by the satirist Walter Map; and the insight of men like Map evidently had into the methods of Geoffrey's fiction helps to explain the inspiration Geoffrey gave to creative writing later in the century. His greatest creation was King Arthur. ... Inspired an Italian sculptor and had children at the font named after him in several parts of Europe. ... Geoffrey... floated King Arthur on the cosmopolitan literary world of the twelfth century as a respectable figure for other courts than those of the ... [Celtic] princes to honour, and first traced the pattern by which legend could become the basis for creative fiction. A direct line leads from Geoffrey's bravado in attributing current knowledge of the Molmutine laws to Gildas and [King] Alfred [the Great] to the famous passage in Wolfram's Parzival in which the author takes to task the French Chrétien [Christian] of Troyes (his chief source) for getting the story wrong, and claims to have put it right with the help of Kyot of Provence, ‘who has offered us the true story’ from the Arabic. The interest of twelfth century naive and highly sophisticated; the same time is equally true of the courtly romances of the late twelfth and early thirteenth century. It is unlikely that Wolfram knew Geoffrey at first hand. But he absorbed an extraordinary amount of the culture of his world in his poverty-stricken knightly home in south Germany: echoes of the theological ideas of twelfth century schools, of the literary productions of the French courts, mingle in the rich fabric of his tales. ....

Was the civilisation of twelfth century Christendom derivative or creative? In measure was it the product of European experience, or of contact with the Arabic world of Wolfram's fancy? Was it dominated by Latin culture of the schools or the French culture of the court of the Angevins? In what measure did the different parts of Christendom contribute to it? ...

The phrase ‘the twelfth century Renaissance’ has no precise meaning. It carries overtones, and these are essential to understanding an exciting epoch in human history. We are still far from a full comprehension of the depths of the love of men of that age for the antique, or of the meaning of twelfth century humanism. But it is vain to search for a definition. Historians love to use labels of this kind; and in the hands of a master they can assume real meaning. Burckhardt gave real meaning - for a time - to the Renaissance of the fifteenth century; and a few historians have given real meaning even to ‘feudalism’. But most discussions of these terms lapse into arid semantics, and lose contact with the actual flow of human effort and events. Observers of such a dusty Armageddon have been tempted to doubt if the movement behind this label ever existed. Yet this can surely not be put in question: however difficult to define, however elusive its ‘essence’, what happened in Italy in the fifteenth century was one of the greatest movements of the human spirit; and so, surely enough, were the movements in education, in spiritual and cultural life, thought and art of the twelfth century. In an article on the English contribution to this Renaissance, R.W. Southern quietly and characteristically tidied the semantics into a cupboard by referring to the ‘sublime meaningless’ of the label. (1960, pp.201-216)

Following this lead, we may define the elements in the cultural life of the twelfth century to which it has become attached as developments in theology - in the methods of theological discussion, and systemisation of theological thought; in logic and grammar; in canon law; in religious organisation; in art and architecture; and in vernacular poetry. Here is a formidable syllabus... Every one of these elements... in our minds... to do... justice to the richness of the theme; and two other problems dictate our approach to it. The cultural movements of the twelfth century were cosmopolitan; for some of the elements the clear centre lay in France, but every part of Europe made its own contribution - even England, as it was the ... purpose of Professor Southern's article to show.

It was the eighteenth century which canonised the notion of the Renaissance, and we had never quite shaken off the influence of the terms then put in vogue. The middle age between the world of Greece and Rome and its effective reassertion in the Italian Renaissance [reniscita?] was the world of Gothic - of the triumph of barbarism and religion. In [the] course of time, especially in the nineteenth century, careful investigations began of the origins of the Renaissance, and in a world which had come to admire Gothic, and not revile it. From this sprang all manner of confusion, but also real illumination. Thus it is illuminating to see that many aspects of the Italian Renaissance presuppose earlier movements; that the achievement of the humanists was securely based on the work of Classical scholars of the ninth, eleventh and twelfth centuries; or again, that in the twelfth century itself the two most notably original artistic creations were Gothic architecture and vernacular poetry, and that some link might well exist between them. But if this leads us to anticipate what was characteristic of the Quattrocento in the Carolingian Renaissance of the eighth or ninth centuries, or in the Ottonian Renaissance of the tenth and eleventh or even in the Renaissance of the twelfth century, it can only lead to confusion; and it would be equally confusing to imagine Saint Francis in the company of Florentine humanists, or to isolate Gothic architecture and French and German vernacular literature as unique expressions of the ‘Gothic’ spirit. ... [...] ...

Humanism.... that... later Renaissance, ... its love of ancient literature and in its concern with human values... ...

In R.W. Southern's Making of the Middle Ages, ... the values... are painted as a silent revolution, which came like a thief in the night. ‘This silence in the great changes of history is something which meets us everywhere as we go through’ the centuries from the late tenth to the early thirteenth. Yet ‘the secret revolution of these centuries’ did not pass by unnoticed by contemporaries. By the second half of the twelfth century, the consciousness of new achievement was widespread, especially among those who practised the art of poetry. The form in which the new historical perspective expressed itself was a movement of “Chivalry and Learning” - all that we comprehend in the word “civilisation” - from Greece to Rome, and from Rome after a long interval to France, the ‘mainstay of western Christendom.’ [citation, pp.12-14] This put the problem of describing such a movement in a nutshell: in its depth like all such movements, silent and unobserved: it rejoiced in its own achievement. The twelfth century Renaissance is unthinkable without creative teachers, writers and artists which made its cultural achievement of lasting value and interest: and these too... do justice... ...

A few select... creative men and women to the world in which they were born with its extraordinary limitations and opportunities.

Brooke, C. (1969) The Twelfth Century Renaissance, Thames & Hudson, London, pp.9-11, 13-14, 18 & 200.

Share post