The period of history known as the Renaissance literally, "rebirth" is frequently presented as the reemergence of Western Civilization out of the Dark Ages; a time when ignorance and superstition were cast aside and the people of Europe rediscovered ancient learning, when the fetters of feudal manoralism were broken, and freedom, civil and intellectual, shone bright.
This simple but popular image is, however, is at best a gross oversimplification of a much more complex reality. While the chaotic period from roughly AD 5001000 does deserve in many ways to be called the Dark Ages, the later medieval period saw a civilization fully as brilliant as that of the Renaissance. In some ways, medieval civilization was more advanced and closer to ouur values than that of the Renaissance. For example, free institutions spread among the republican citystates of Italy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries; by the highRenaissance fifteenth century, these instututions had declined into the despotism that produced the age of the Medicis and Machiavelli.
The argument of this report will be that the civilization of the Renaissance was not a rebirth from darkness, but a natural development of the civilization, already advanced in many ways, of the later Middle Ages. This is not to say that the Renaissance did not embody much that was new. A glance at a history of art shows us that the fourteenthcentury Italian painter Giotto often regarded as the first Renaissance artist approached his work in quite a different style than his medieval predecessors (shown not least in the fact that we know his name; medieval art was generally produced by craftsmen whose names went unrecorded).
Likewise, the Renaissance intellectual movement known as humanism represented not only a departure from, but specifically a critique of the earlier medieval intellectual tradition of scholasticism.1 However, the important point fo...