879: The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century by Charles Homer Haskins

by Gerard


879.09: Haskins, Charles Homer. The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955 [1927]. 396 pp. ISBN 0-674-76075-1.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 800: Literature
  • 870: Literatures of Italic and Latin languages
  • 879: Literatures of other Italic languages
  • +09: History, geography, or treatment of persons

If you believe many people who talk about the Dark Ages, then apparently nothing happened in Europe between the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 BCE and the Italian Renaissance of the 14th century. There was Charlemagne and a few crusades, but, you know, not much happened. This is clearly facetious. Monasteries thrived and kingdoms grew and fell. The peoples and states of Europe dispersed and re-structured. The Carolingian Period saw a massive upswing in educational policies and the Crusades connected the Eastern and Western cultures (albeit very violently). Those who returned brought back tales and knowledge which sparked an intellectual fire throughout Europe. Charles Homer Haskins’s The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century is an investigation of a small facet of that connection: he tracks the influx of re-discovered Latin manuscripts into monasteries and shows how these literatures shaped the way that clergy and layman alike wrote about their world.

Haskins starts his history in the middle of the 11th century to lay the groundwork for the changes in literary interactions later on. Monasteries of the Middle Ages were places where individual manuscripts were lovingly collected, dutifully catalogued, and painstakingly copied by hand to preserve them for their members (almost like modern libraries). While most of the time, their efforts were spent on copying the Bible and works of the early church fathers, other works crept in. Cicero’s speeches, Martial’s epigrams, and Virgil’s Aeneid became mainstays of the few larger libraries. The author discusses how knowledge of these texts helped to inform their studies of more liturgical works. There was even a bit of backlash from stubborn church leaders who thought that their flock should not be exposed to non-Christian literature (luckily, level heads prevailed). In the end, this “new” literature helps to create new forms of writing, including Goliardic poetry and the epic chronicles of the Middle Ages. These eventually inspire later masters, including Petrarch and Dante, to compose their seminal works.

One of the downfalls of this book is perhaps the obscurity of the people the author talks about. There is precious little information on the writers of the day, so some of the names come out of nowhere. We do get the famous folks—William of Ockham, the Venerable Bede, and even Roger Bacon—but many others are mentioned. Haskins has clearly done his homework. I got a little bit delirious after reading about every library and who interacted with which Latin work. Also, since this was originally written 90 years ago, the author assumes you’re up to snuff with your Latin skills, and so, never bothers to translate his excerpts. If you’re an avid historian, there’s a ton of good info here, but get your dictionaries ready because the author makes you work for it. My favorite aspect of this book was knowing how all the great literature of ancient Rome was accepted and preserved. Without the collectors of the Middle Ages, the world would have lost a lot of its literary tradition. A thick but rewarding history.