So let’s take a quick peek beneath the glitter
June 4, 2020 5:03 PM   Subscribe

So I read this in an appalling skim, because I was very curious but don't have time to read it carefully right now, but: this is very good. It's clear, it's thoughtful, it's full of supporting detail.

I appreciate learning more factual truths about a subject I have lots of misconceptions about.

This is great.

Thank you so much for posting it, Chrysostom!
posted by kristi at 5:43 PM on June 4 [5 favorites]

Likewise. I opened it up to have a look and realized this is not a link you look at, this is one you engage with. I look forward to coming back to dive into it.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:39 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]

My reading of historical development: "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times' is always true.
posted by leibniz at 6:46 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]

That was an incredible piece - I could read that over a few more times, for sure! I thought the discussion about the promotion of innovation to umderscore a regime's legitimacy really rang true... I see the same motivations reflected in the arguably far less earth-shaking area of governmental grants/political spending... politicians are always enthusiastic about "investing in new ideas"/ posing with shovels at the site of a buildjng under construction/new projects.
No one ever says "oooh, let's provide stable operating funds for the local shelter"/pay for the photocopier toner regularly used... that doesn't make headlines, and doesn't further the perception of a government advancing society/legitimacy of that government's direction.

I particularly liked the part about the banks conferring legitimacy through throwback classical symbolism!
posted by NorthernAutumn at 8:18 PM on June 4 [11 favorites]

March 15, 2020. I turned my deFoe around in the bookcase and The movie 'contagion',before the library closed,
is in my trunk.

I like his take on Bruckhardt. Just look at a chronology of events, 1498-1527, the year Rome was sacked. again.
but the Tynsdale Bible!-1526 bought up and burned alas smuggled into England to be then censored.

posted by clavdivs at 8:48 PM on June 4

This was a fantastic essay, thanks for posting it.
posted by whir at 9:17 PM on June 4

"World War I and World War II was really the Second Thirty Years War"
posted by storybored at 9:39 PM on June 4 [2 favorites]

I thought this was a particularly interesting passage:
But there was more: by claiming that the Renaissance—and all its glittering art and innovation—was caused by individualism, Burkhardt was really advancing a claim about the nature of modernity. Individualism was an X-Factor which had appeared and made a slumbering world begin to move, sparking the step-by-step advance that led humanity from stagnant Medieval mud huts to towers of glass and iron—and by implication it would also define our path forward to an even more glorious future. In other words, the X-Factor that sparked the Renaissance was the defining spirit of modernity. If individualism was responsible, not only for the Renaissance, but for the wonders of modernity, then logically those regimes of Burkhardt’s day which most facilitated the expression of individualism could claim to be the heart of human progress and to hold the keys to the future; those nations which did not advance individualism (where socialism prospered, for example, or “collectivism” which was how 19th century Europe characterized most non-Western societies) were still the slumbering Middle Ages, in need of being awakened to their true potential by those nations which did possess the X-Factor of human progress.

I hope you winced a few times in the previous paragraph, recognizing toxic 19th century problems (eurocentrism, orientalism, “White Man’s Burden” thinking), as well as basic historical errors (spoiler: you can find plenty of individualism in Medieval texts, and lots of things that are absolutely not individualism in Renaissance ones). But those specifics aren’t the big problem. The big problem was how entrancing the idea of an X-Factor was, the notion that there is one true innovative spirit which defines both Renaissance and modern, and advances in a grand and exponential curve from Petrarch through Leonardo and Machiavelli on to [insert modern hero here]. Thus Burkhardt birthed what I call the quest for the Renaissance X-Factor. Because when the first scholars disagreed with Burkhardt, they didn’t objcet to the idea that the Renaissance was caused by a great defining X-Factor, they loved that idea, they simply argued about what exactly the X-Factor was.
I read much of Burkhardt's book a long time ago and thought the idea of individualism as the X-Factor was pretty silly, but that the case for the existence of something which could have set all this off was more persuasive, and I still do.
posted by jamjam at 10:44 PM on June 4 [7 favorites]

Petrarch talked about this in his poem Italia Mia, which we think was written by 1347 (i.e. before the Black Death); he described Italy’s flesh covered with mortal wounds, caused by “cruel wars for light causes, and hearts, hardened and closed/ by proud, fierce Mars”

So exactly like the United States today. If we don't learn from history, etc. etc.
posted by cilantro at 2:13 AM on June 5

I'd been meaning to go back and read some more Ex Urbe; thanks for posting this here!

I do notice when I read/listen about history chronologically, I tend to lose track of whatever retroactive period name it's supposed to be. It all kind of runs together, which I guess is how it really is, but also when you read history the time gets compressed.

Also, as a superficial-but-important note: This was a very long essay, which I read on my phone. It was so long I didn't even see the scrollbar for awhile, because it was still stuck up at the top. But it never reloaded the page on my phone, or crashed, or lost my spot, even when I clicked on links (opened in new tabs). Bravo, Ex Urbe!
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:06 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]

"World War I and World War II was really the Second Thirty Years War"

reminds me of one of my fave "fun" facts about the Hundred Years War, which is that the Black Death happened right in the middle of it and the battling-marauding-massacring-pillaging etc actually had to stop for two years. But they* got back to it as soon as they could.

*they being mostly the English who, if you think about it, were the ones doing the invading/instigating -- all of major actions/atrocities happening in France. So yeah, the next time somebody tries to get you roused with Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt, maybe ask yourself what an English army was doing in France in the first place?
posted by philip-random at 8:04 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]

I'm also excited to learn that Ada Palmer writes science fiction.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:06 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]

Kids died more in the Renaissance, adults died more, men died more, we have the numbers, but I find it telling how often people who hear these numbers try to discredit them, search for a loophole, because these facts rub against our expectations. We didn’t want a wretched golden age. (Demographics are, of course, an average, and different bits of Europe varied, but I’m using the numbers for the big Italian city-states precisely because they’re the bit of Europe we most associate with the golden Renaissance, so if it’s true there, it’s true of the Renaissance you were imagining.)

Why did life expectancy drop? Counter-intuitively the answer is, largely, progress.
This is very good, thanks for posting!
posted by kmt at 8:17 AM on June 5 [3 favorites]

Halloween Jack, Ada Palmer has published three of a projected four-book sf series, and has also composed phenomenally good music.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 8:40 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]

maybe ask yourself what an English army was doing in France in the first place?

Mind your own business!
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:05 PM on June 5 [3 favorites]

Florence’s Laurenziana library cost more per GDP than the Moon Landing

I think it is kind of an interesting rebuttal to the general "people were poorer then, we are richer now" comments you see online fairly regularly. Here's a little more detail about that:
Apollo 11 Cost and GDP
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:21 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]

Thus, when I try to articulate the real difference between Renaissance and Medieval, I find myself thinking of the humorous story “Ever-So-Much-More-So” from Centerburg Tales (1951). A traveling peddler comes to town selling a powder called Ever-So-Much-More-So. If you sprinkle it on something, it enhances all its qualities good and bad. Sprinkle it on a comfy mattress and you get mattress paradise, but if it had a squeaky spring you’ll never sleep again for the noise. Sprinkle it on a radio and you’ll get better reception, but agonizing squeals when signal flares. Sprinkle it on the Middle Ages and you get the Renaissance. All key qualities were already there, good things as well as bad, poetry, art, currents of trade, thought, finance, law, and statecraft changing year by year, but add some Ever-So-Much-More-So and the intensity increases, birthing an era great and terrible.Many different changes reinforced each other, all in continuity with what came before, just higher magnitude, the fat end of a wedge of cheese, but it’s the same cheese on the thin end too. The line we draw—our slice across the cheese—we started drawing because people living in the Renaissance started to draw it, felt it was different, claimed it was different, and their claims reordered the way we think about history.

I'm about half through and find this chilling and relatable.
posted by rebent at 8:29 PM on June 5 [3 favorites]

I think it's a general truth that golden ages are basically those eras with excessive concentration of wealth? Fancy paintings and ivory back scratchers don’t just "happen” otherwise.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:47 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]

the enlightenment also gets the ever-so-much-more-so treatment :P
...“we must have a positive mood toward the Enlightenment!” And perhaps we must. But what is wrong with this alternative formulation?:

“Early modern Europe, including its later manifestation of the Enlightenment, brought great benefits to the world. Part of those benefits involved enhanced capacities. Some of those enhanced capacities were used to do great evil, such as to capture, transport, and hold slaves on what was probably an unprecedented scale. The extermination of many indigenous groups could be added to that ledger too. Therefore we should beware of greater capacities, because even when they bring significant good, they also can carry great evils.”
also btw...
-Enlightenment and Progress, or why Steven Pinker is wrong
-The Dark Side of the Enlightenment
-The Enlightenment's Dark Side

...if we're in the middle of the Cold War, and an influential historian publishes a book arguing that the X-Factor that sparked the Renaissance was double-entry bookkeeping, i.e. the rise of banking and the merchant class, America can say: "The Renaissance X-Factor was the birth of capitalism!"

one of luca pacioli's summa de arithmetica sold last year for $1.2m (he was da vinci's boyfriend?)

When did it start? 1400? 1350? 1500? 1250? 1550? 1348?

to illustrate the fuzziness from a historical math perspective...
The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci's Arithmetic Revolution - "Before the 13th century Europeans used Roman numerals to do arithmetic. Leonardo of Pisa, better known today as Fibonacci, is largely responsible for the adoption of the Hindu–Arabic numeral system in Europe, which revolutionized not only mathematics but commerce and trade as well. How did the system spread from the Arab world to Europe, and what would our lives be without it?"
That state of affairs started to change soon after 1202, the year a young Italian man, Leonardo of Pisa — the man who many centuries later a historian would dub “Fibonacci” — completed the first general purpose arithmetic book in the West, Liber abbaci, that explained the “new” methods in terms that ordinary people could understand — tradesmen and businessmen as well as schoolchildren. While other lineages can be traced, Leonardo’s influence, through Liber abbaci, was by far the most significant and shaped the development of modern western Europe.
It turns out history isn't written by the winners; history is written by the people who write histories.

those who like history and science fiction might find the idea of 'prolepsis' -- "Understanding how people understand the present from the point of view of what we'll say about it in the future"* -- interesting:
...the particular linguistic and interactional way in which people interact with each other in the present with an eye to future descriptions of the event is something that is stirring in the air here in my department...

It’s an interesting problem because in the last thirty years anthropologists and linguists have gotten very very good at understanding how people work together in conversation to create a coherent sense of ‘what happened’ in interaction that can be described and redescribed and narrated and renarrated. So we know about how to imagine and reimagine our present from the point of view of what has come before, and the uses to which we put the past in the present. There’s been a ton of stuff written about that.

Now at some level these two things – the imagination of how we’ll view the present in the future and how in the present we imagine and deploy the past – are just two sides of the same coin. And its most general, human life is all about the creative deployment of our past lives in our attempts to shape our future together.
*"This is a big problem if you are a U.S. military planner. Your job is not to figure out if there will ever be a war between the U.S. and China, but to plan for an eventuality you hope never occurs."
posted by kliuless at 12:12 AM on June 8 [2 favorites]

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