The Renaissance in national context

by Roy Porter and Mikulás Teich (editors) (1992 cambridge university press * isbn 0521361818)

Cambridge like the Dutch publisher Brill is one of these publishers publishing books by and for scholars. The books are usually extremely expensive, hard to get and only available via your library. Yet, sometimes interesting investigations come forth from the world of universities and it is worthwhile to try and locate such books (not too hard if you know your ways) and read them. Instead of just reviewing this book, I decided that there is information in it that deserves to be written about at length, so the review became an article.

As the title suggests, the book is about the Renaissance in different countries, not about the Renaissance as a whole. This interests me, because I am still looking for information about what happened during the Renaissance in Northern Europe. The book consists of essays of different writers, each speaking about one country. A few of these articles are highly interesting, so I will deal with them at length, while others are only shortly written about. Similar books have been published by the way, such as The Enlightenment In National Context, Revolution In National Context and Romanticism In National Context.

Introduction by Roy Porter and Mikulás Teich

The editors open with a short introduction which sets the tone for the book. The Renaissance is not as much a ‘thing’ coming from Italy with other lands taking over customs, art and literature, but the Renaissance is a movement or flow which caused every country to have its own Renaissance.

The uses of Italy by Peter Burke

The first essay is probably the best of the book, answering to my every supposition about the Renaissance. Italian culture became fashionable under aristocrats who from all over Europe came to Italy to see what architecture they make, what art is being produced, what literature is like, etc. But “Spain, Switzerland and Scotland all participated in the Renaissance, but their local renaissances were very far from carbon copies of one another.” “…different national enlightenments [were adapted] to local circumstances or even new creations, rather than as mere mechanical copies of a model made in France.” (p. 6). This seems most logical, but the fact alone that scholars have to write a book about this, proves that most people still think that in the Renaissance the whole of the Western world only became copies of a few countries.

Burke is not happy with the expression: “the reception of the Renaissance outside Italy”, because this suggests that other countries passively received what came from Italy and copied their customs and art. Even the “Italian Renaissance” is a weird way of describing the situation in Italy, because the Renaissance was different in Rome, Florence, Venice or Naples. Also the view of the ‘passive North’ is something Burke cannot agree with, because it were Flemish and Dutch painters who learned the Italians to paint on canvas and also German and Dutch architectures had their influence abroad and what to think about people such as Erasmus, Johannes Reuchlin, Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples, etc. who had a massive influence on the thinking of the Renaissance.

Burke gives a lot of names of people who had influence or who could be regarded as true Renaissance people outside Italy, even towards Muslim countries and both Americas. Then comes another problem, when speaking about national Renaissances, then what is a nation? If I only look to my own country. It has changed several times in history, from being 17 provinces including nowadays Luxemburg and Belgium to the country like it is today. Slowly but surely some kind of ‘nationalism’ took root in different areas, but it is more correct to say that this was mostly ‘regional nationalism’. Inspite of the fashionable “Italophilia” with courts in Poland and England where people spoke Italian, there was also an anti-Italian movement. “Italophobia was stonger among Protestants […] than among Catholics”, but in both circles there were people opposing the ‘aping’ of Italian ways. In various country language-purists appeared and here and there was even spoken about pride of the nation. Histories were written, often about Middle Age, heroes who fought against the Romans (such as the Gallica Historia by Robert Ceneau (1589); Germania by Jacob Wimpheling (1501); the History of All the Kings of the Goths and the Swedes by Johannes Magnus (1554); Franco-Gallia by François Hotman (1573) or Restitution of Decayed Intelligence by Richard Verstegen (1605)). Also texts were written about ancient people in a nation’s past, such as the Druids, the kings of the past,.Countries gave their colonies names from their past (such as the Dutch had Batavia in India). Tacitus and Grammaticus were often published and reprinted. Also people started to look for their roots: “The French acclaimed descent from the Franks and the Gauls, the English from the Angles and Saxons, the Dutch from the Batavians, the Swedes and Spaniards from the Goths, the Jutes from the Cimbrians, the Poles from the Sarmatians, the Hungarians from the Huns.” (p.14). Histories were written about countries as well. Still “nationalism is a modern idea, essentially the creation of the age which followed the French and Industrial Revolutions, and depending on the political, social and cultural changes of that period, from the abolition of aristocratic privilege to the rise of the railways, and above all on the centralised, unified, bureaucratic state.” (p.16). “…the sense of kinship with the inhabitants of other regions within the same kingdom was weak. National identity was less closely associated than today with the ‘state’ whcih was in any case a new concept in the sixteenth century, one which had not had time to take root. (p.17). It was more a feeling of unity of people of some region. “There was civic or regional identity. […] The myths of eponymous heroes like Brabo the founder of Brabant or Friso the founder of Friesland hindered rather than helpend the formation of a ‘national ‘ identity for the seven provinces of the Dutch Republic, or the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands taken as a whole.” (p. 17) On an even smaller foot, there seemed to have been some kind of ‘nationality of a city’.

The conclusion of Burke is that in order to understand the Renaissance, you must know about the social, political, etc. situation of every region where the Renaissance took root. This will be done per country by the authors to follow.

Florence by Robert Black

I will shortly speak about this article. It stresses on the importance of Florence and of course the people coming from this city who made such a big stamp on the Renaissance in Italy and abroad, The De Medicis, Ficino, the Platonic Academy, most of this you can find in other articles of mine.

Rome by Nicholas Davidson and Venice by Richard Mackenny

Much of the Italian Renaissance seems to have come from Florence. I don’t know most of the names in these essays, but since I don’t want to focus on Italy, I will leave these essays by saying that they are nicely written and informative, so if you do have interest in the Renaissance of Rome and Venice, you might want to read this essay.

The Low Countries by Elsa Strietman

And here we come to my own region, Dutch history from the University of Cambridge. Stietman starts by writing that nowadays Belgium and the Netherlands “share a medieval political past and a linguistic and cultural heritage. Paradoxically it is easier to point at shared political, social and cultural developments in the medieval history of the motley, disunited provinces and regions which were known as the Low Countries than it is to find much in common in their Renaissance and post-Renaissance development.” (p.68) The Renaissance of this region starts in he middle of the fifteenth century and ends halfway the seventeenth. Strietman writes about the cultural and political situations that go hand in hand and about the uniqueness of the fact that what was once one country, would become two (actually three, Strietman says nothing about Luxemburg). A few words follow about the sea-sailing of the Low Countries and then you can read about sculpture and painting that initially did not develop very ‘Renaissance-like’, but would later become a style in other countries as well. Many painters and sculpturers travelled to other countries, to see what their are were like there, but they would also have a major impact on those styles themselves. Literature remained a bit behind, but Strietman sees striking developements in the time between the Peace of Münster (1648, the end of the struggle with Spain) and the death of Joost van den Vondel in 1679.
Then follows some information about the development of the state. Under the reign of Philip the Bold (1342-1404), but especially under Philip the Good (reighning between 1419 and 1467) the losely connected seven provinces of the Northern Netherlands were “forced into a federation, which was only completed however in 1543”. Then Strietman writes about the feeling of nationality which was mainly based on the ruling house of Burgundy, but actually was more region-centered. While the Low Countries were becoming powerfull sailing countries, Protestantism came up, dividing the Low Countries in a Protestant North (the nowadays Netherlands) and Catholic south (nowadays Belgium). Eventually things developed towards the split of the Netherlands and Belgium in 1830. After this both new countries started to look for their own identity resulting in some sort of nationalism with xenophobia towards foreign influences.

Then follows a chapter about humanism in the Low Countries. Of course you can’t get around of the most prominent humanists of the Renaissance: Desideriis Erasmus (1466/9-1536). There were other humanists in this region, but Erasmus by far had the most influence and reputation both interior and abroad. Besides humanistic writing several scientific publications came forth from the Netherlands. Also the revolt against the Spanish rule resulted in the (earlier mentioned) feeling of nationalism with a national anthem and songs about the glorious past. Also histories of the country and separate regions started to be published. About the national language Strietman writes: “This is the miracle of the Dutch Renaissance: that out of the plodding sixteenth-century language reform and the mixture of imported Flemish and Brabant dialects with native Hollands dialects, some mysterious process of alchemy was at work to create a new language, subtle, efficient and capable of heart-aching beauty”. (p.85/6). Then follows another part about Dutch literature with Oldenbarneveld and Vondel.

This is a nice essay to read some time. I find that there is a bit too much stress on the political history and here and there the writer wants to show she reads Dutch which does not prevent her from making a few strange mistakes, but here we at least have a nice history of my native country from an ‘outsider’. However… Strietman could be a Dutch name of someone who (or whose family) moved to Brittany.

Germany by James Overfield

This essay starts with “the arch-humanist” Conrad Celtis (1459-1508) who realised that Germany would soon follow Italy and enter a new period in history. This new period is gravely influenced by the upcoming of the Reformation which -for example- caused the development in the architecture of churches and cathedrals to stop. There was some direct influence from Italy, but mostly classicism reached Germany via England and France. First painting and sculpture mostly slumbered with only a handfull of positive exceptions, but with the coming of people such as Dürer, Holbein the younger, Grünewald, Burgkmair the elder and Altdorfer new standerds were set for the entire continent. Some of the people I named travelled to Italy and there was (like with the Dutch painters) mutual influence. Painting and sculpture appeared with antiquity themes, but also with themes from the German history. About the same developments you can see in literature. A whole part about German humanism follows, a story that you may know because it is closely alligned to the Reformation. On page 110 some people that you can read about elsewhere at are shortly mentioned, Trithemius, Reuchlin and Agrippa. This is the only reference to magic and occultism in the entire book.
The end of humanism in Germany follows when the interests in the occult are shuffled away and “German humanism had been effectively tamed and made respectable.” (p.116)

France by Donald R. Kelley

France is of course with Italy the major cause of the Renaissance in Europe and I think enough can be found about it so I will only write this article in short. Of course the article speaks about the rapid rise of the bombastic king’s courts ending in ‘vulgarisation’. Also some things are said about different arts, humanism, influences from abroad and the influence France had abroad.
Actually it is a nice article which you may want to read if you have an interest in the Renaissance of France.

England by David Starkey

However you may expect an article about the English Renaissance to be about writers such as Shakespeare, Spenser, Marlowe, etc. and early scientists, this article mostly focusses on politics and political writings. Interesting in a sense, but not too much the field I hoped to read about.

Hungary by Tibor Klaniczay

This is one of the most interesting essays in the book, but I will only write about it shortly, my focus lays more on Northern Europe. Hungary did make a marvelously interesting country during the Renaissance, just not within the borders of my current interests. During the Renaissance Hungary zealously followed the Italian example and Hungarian merchants who visited Italy imported ‘inspiration’. Buda (now combined with the city of Pest to Budapest) became the centre-point of a true Italian Renaissance in Hungary with typical architecture, art, philosophy and under protection of king Matthias Corvinus (1440-1490) a true ‘Platonic Academy’ was formed in the Bibliotheca Corvina. Many texts were translated, some written in Hungary, but when the Turks invaded the country around 1540 Hungary was split in three countries for 150 years to come. In some parts of the country the Renaissance continued until halfway the 17th century, but it always remained ‘Italophile’.

Poland by Antoni Maczak

In this nice essay you can read how the Polish Renaissance developed from a typical Italian Renaissance with heavy Dutch and German influences to a rebirth of its own. Poland would become one of the few ‘true Renaissance states’. The Reformation didn’t have as much influence here as the counter-Reformation and Catholicism would become closely entwined with ‘Polishdom’. Also here many foreign texts were translated a some written within the country itself.

Bohemia and Moravia by Josef Mace

Whoever has visited the city of Praha/Prague knows that the Renaissance didn’t skip the Czech republic. Still Mace describes that the Renaissance brought sharp contradictions in this area. The Reformation wasn’t just a copy of the German example and also Humanism wasn’t necessarily Catholic. The ‘normal’ and ‘Czech’ camps often stood on hostile foot. The same goes for literature, poetry, architecture and art, typical Renaissance expressions that didn’t quite develop in Czechia as abroad. All this leads the writer to conclude that Bohemia and Moravia didn’t really have a Renaissance in the usual meaning of this term, but a fast development influenced by the Reformation more than by foreign Renaissances.


I realise that I really cut this book short, because I read it with a certain underlying idea, being to investigate the Renaissance of Northern Europe. Still I really enjoyed reading about other countries as well, but I find it too bad that there is nothing about the Scandinavian countries. I can certainly suggest this book to anyone who wants to study the Renaissance more in depth or different from the usual approach saying that the Renaissance started in Italy and was copied in other countries. The influence may have been there, but every region definately had its own Renaissance which you can read about in detail in this wonderfull book. All essays are relatively short, well written and understandable, also for the layman.

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