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Saturday Morning Quote #7: Renaissance?

July 2, 2011

“In this field we need not only a twelfth-century Renaissance but a thirteenth- and a fourteenth-century as well.  Indeed, the period 1100 – 1600 in the musical life of the West was so fertile and inventive that it seems all Renaissance from beginning to end.”

Today’s quote for Saturday morning is not from a  dusty old tome but rather from the writing of Christopher Page, a musicologist who is very much alive and who has spent a good part of his productive career examining those dusty tomes.  This begins a new sub-series of our blog, to which we will add from time to time, Everything we know is wrong.

The quote is from Page’s concluding words in his collection of essays, Discarding Images: Reflections on Music & Culture in Medieval France, Oxford University Press (New York, 1997).

Throughout the collection of essays, Page hints that the ‘Medieval Period’ as we know it was not necessarily a period of restricted intellectual development and limited artistic creativity.  Authors with a theory to justify and promote have fed us this idea; the notion that there was a Renaissance, or rebirth of the creative arts that followed a very long hiatus subsequent to the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, during which time nothing really important happened.

Human beings have a basic need for a referential framework, a set of agreed-upon truths we can point to for contextual familiarity and mutual understanding.  (I’m certain that behavioral scientists have terms and classifications for this phenomenon.) This means that nearly every idea of who we are, how we got here, and what we are doing at present gets processed through the metaphorical meat-grinder of analysis, and what emerges is a handy system of referential categorization.  The resulting process leads to a world defined by similes and comparisons: A musician sounds like a mixture of Dylan and Devo; a film comes across as a combination of Casablanca and Easy Rider; a new novel reads like Cormac McCarthy with a sense of humor (unlikely).

In this, the age of information and technology, the process of categorization has taken on a life of its own and has led to such soulless modern monstrosities as Walmart, McDonalds, baroque pops (another topic for another day), text messaging addiction and, in the academic world, overuse of the online video games – masquerading as study guides – that have taken the place of an authentic university education.

So now, in addition to creating handy categories, the description of history must be reshaped to conform to the parameters of HTML and redesigned for ease of scrolling on a student’s cell phone.

Technology is not all bad – it gives us the chance to hear an excellent three-part series hosted by classicist Bettany Hughes on the Medici and their role in creating the economic conditions that led to what we call the Renaissance. (The link is to a BBC Radio 4 page and the sound files require Real Audio to listen.)

Was there really such a thing as the Renaissance?  Apparently not.

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