The Legacy of the Middle Ages in the Renaissance and Beyond

Dr. Karen Christianson, Newberry Library


Introduction

Today, the period in Europe from about the year 500 through approximately 1500 CE is called the Middle Ages, or the medieval era (the word medieval comes from the Latin medium aevum, literally middle age). But of course people who lived at that time did not think of themselves as being in the middle of anything—they, like we, referred to their own time as “modern.” A seventeenth-century German historian, Christoph Keller, first came up with the idea of dividing history into ancient, medieval, and “new period.”

The cultural phenomenon called the Renaissance began in Italy during the fourteenth century and spread throughout much of Europe by the end of the sixteenth century. It involved a flowering of art and scholarly and philosophical pursuits, often inspired by a renewed interest in the Classical cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. Some historians of the nineteenth century saw the Renaissance as a sharp break with the medieval “dark ages,” a sudden burst of intellectual light after the supposed gloom and stagnation of the Middle Ages.

However, that view has been eclipsed by more recent historians who emphasize the accomplishments of the medieval period. In fact, the European Middle Ages were a time of tremendous creativity and innovation. The era saw the development of many institutions we take for granted in the world today, in law, government, and education. Medieval artists and craftspeople created exquisite works, from tiny, detailed miniature illuminations adorned with gold leaf, to radiant fresco paintings, to soaring cathedrals glowing with intricate stained glass pictures. Medieval thinkers grappled with the writings of the ancient Classical philosophers, incorporating Aristotelian logic into new methods of working through theological debates. Medieval inventions include staples we take for granted in our everyday lives, from buttons, mechanical clocks, and eyeglasses to systems of banking, credit, bookkeeping, and insurance.

The Renaissance certainly encompasses a distinctive culture, with indisputably new ideas. But many areas of life experienced more continuity with the Middle Ages than change. Medieval Europe bequeathed a legacy to the Renaissance and beyond that continues to influence our thought, art, institutions, and culture. Writings and book illustrations from the Middle Ages demonstrate the vitality of the period.

Essential Questions

  1. Why might Renaissance and later historians want to envision an abrupt difference between their own times and the medieval past?

  2. How do medieval manuscripts help us to understand the “long view” of the development of many modern institutions?

The Development of Law and Government

The foundations of modern nation-states and legal codes were established during the Middle Ages. From about the eleventh century (centuries before the Renaissance), judicial courts in continental Europe drew upon the law codes of ancient Rome as models for the development of complex legal systems. Roman law, which came to be called civil law (from civis, the Latin word for city) seemed especially well suited to regulating the vibrant commercial trade and property transactions that flourished during the central Middle Ages. This body of law was reworked and codified as the Napoleonic Code in the early nineteenth century, and it remains the basis of the legal codes of many European countries today.

England’s legal history took a different course, with the evolution of “common law,” or case law. In a common law system, precedent—previous decisions by courts on various matters—is as important as official law statutes. Courts in a civil law system have no authority other than what is provided for by specific laws. In common law courts, judicial decisions themselves become “law,” with the same authority as statutes. The English common law system came to North America with British colonists, and it forms the basis of the judicial system of the United States. Thus our courts have the independent ability to interpret law texts and set precedents that become the basis of future court decisions.

The basis of modern representative governments also progressed in medieval England. Early in the Middle Ages, Anglo-Saxon kings convened assemblies of noblemen (often called barons in England) and high officers of the church, in an institution called the Witenaġemot or Witan. Members of the Witan provided the king with advice and counsel and also had the right to consent to new laws and any changes to ancient custom. Anglo-Saxon England also established a sophisticated system of regional and local administrative units and judicial tribunals. The kings issued writs, formal written orders documenting royal actions, appointments, and decrees.

The French-speaking Normans, who conquered England in 1066, retained this basic governmental framework, while replacing most Anglo-Saxon officials with Norman lords and churchmen. They also changed the language of official documents from Old English to Latin. At the time, Latin served as a common language across Europe for governmental and church matters. Norman kings also established the much-hated Forest Law, which set aside vast tracts of forest land in England for the exclusive use of the king. No one else was permitted to cut wood or hunt game in royal forests; penalties for violations of the Forest Law could include mutilation or even death.

By the thirteenth century, the Angevin dynasty of Norman kings had eroded the role of noblemen in English government. Advancing a principle they called “force and will,” they claimed the right to make arbitrary decisions, theorizing that the king, as the established representative of God on earth, was above or outside the law. This contravened the time-honored recognition in England of the authority of custom and laws. Resistance to this change generated open rebellion by many barons against the unpopular King John. The rebels swore to “stand fast for the liberty of the church and the realm.” In 1215, the Archbishop of Canterbury, England’s highest church official, supervised peace talks with the rebels and helped them to draft a set of demands. These were formalized into a document known as the Great Charter, or Magna Carta. In June of that year, the rebels and King John met in a meadow called Runnymeade, about twenty miles outside London. John agreed to set his seal to Magna Carta, signifying his agreement to its principles, and the barons renewed their oaths of loyalty to the king. Shortly thereafter, the Pope declared the Charter invalid, saying John had accepted it under duress, and John repudiated it. Civil war broke out in England, ended abruptly by the king’s death from a sudden illness in October 2015. He was succeeded by his nine-year-old son, who became King Henry III.

Although today we consider Magna Carta a foundational document of later representative governments in the United Kingdom and many of its former colonies, including the United States, it by no means featured a democratic outlook. It constituted a list of sixty-three rights demanded by the highest noblemen of the land, with no intention of extending those rights to the great majority of the population who farmed the land or worked as laborers in the growing towns and cities. However, it did decisively establish the principle that a king, like everyone else, is subject to the law. Especially important clauses to later developments include these:

*“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”

*“To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

The Great Charter was amended, rewritten, and reissued several times over the next century, most importantly in 1225 by Henry III. In 1217 Henry also sealed the Charter of the Forest, which reduced the amount of land considered royal forests, and gave some rights of common access to royal private lands. Such access was crucial to common people as well as nobles, as they relied on wood and turf for fuel and also needed to pasture animals like pigs and sheep on those lands. This charter also repealed the death penalty for hunting game on the king’s lands, though violators could still be fined or sent to jail. In 1297 King Edward I confirmed Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, having them copied into the official Statute Roll as official laws. Many handwritten copies were made of the 1297 version.

Parallel with these legal developments, England’s political system also evolved to place limits on the authority of the king. By the thirteenth century, the advisory body called Parliament, made up of barons and high church officials, had gained the rights to be consulted by the king and to consent to new laws and taxes. In some cases, lesser-status knights and urban people, called burgesses, were also called to contribute their opinion. This group of people outside the ranks of the nobility became known as the Commons. King Edward I, who reigned from 1272 to 1307, started the practice of allowing all Englishmen, including commoners, to petition Parliament about their grievances directly. The amount of authority Parliament enjoyed waxed and waned over the next few centuries, as some strong kings were able to impose their will without worrying about Parliament’s consent. After the Middle Ages ended, some English kings tried to assert absolute authority based on divine right. The ultimate supremacy of Parliament over the king was not settled until the late seventeenth century, after a civil war, the beheading of one king, and the deposition of another in what is known as the Glorious Revolution.

Question to consider:

  1. Who was left out of the provisions of Magna Carta?

Magna Carta, Carta de Foresta, and other 13th-century statutes, England, c. 1300? The Newberry’s copy of these two charters was probably made around the year 1300. It is bound in a tiny book along with a number of other statutes of the time. It also contains curious additions, such as a threatened curse by the bishops of England on anyone who violates any charters. The two main documents and most of the laws are in Latin, but a few statutes are written in French, which the king and nobles would still have spoken at this time, a remnant of their Norman heritage.

Modus Tenendi Parliamentum; Tractatus de Senescalcia Anglie, England, mid-15th century The Modus Tenendi, originally written during the fourteenth century, provides a summary of the procedure of Parliament. Its description of parliamentary procedures and organization are now believed to be idealized, rather than descriptive of actual practices. The Newberry’s copy, which includes initials in burnished gold leaf and a lovely border of strawberries and flowers, is one of nineteen known copies that date to the Middle Ages.

The Magna Carta, Carta de Foresta, and other 13th-century statutes

Circa 1300.

Image of The Magna Carta, Carta de Foresta, and other 13th-century statutes

The 1297 version of Magna Carta (in Latin) is followed by the Forest Charter. It also includes things like a curse by bishops on people who break charters (medieval legal documents, usually of property transfers), and various law statues, some in French.

Image of The Magna Carta, Carta de Foresta, and other 13th-century statutes

The 1297 version of Magna Carta (in Latin) is followed by the Forest Charter. It also includes things like a curse by bishops on people who break charters (medieval legal documents, usually of property transfers), and various law statues, some in French.

Metadata Details
Title The Magna Carta, Carta de Foresta, and other 13th-century statutes
Short Title Magna Carta, Carta de Foresta, and Other 13th-Century Statutes
Publication Date Circa 1300
Call Number Case MS 30
Location Special Collections 4th floor

Modus Tenendi Parliamentum, Tractatus de Senescalcia Anglie

Circa 1450.

Image of Modus Tenendi Parliamentum, Tractatus de Senescalcia Anglie

An important early treatise on how the English Parliament was supposed to operate.

Metadata Details
Title Modus Tenendi Parliamentum, Tractatus de Senescalcia Anglie
Short Title Modus Tenendi Parliamentum, Tractatus de Senescalcia Anglie
Publication Date Circa 1450
Call Number VAULT folio Case MS 32.1
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Universities and Book Production

At today’s high school and university graduation ceremonies, participants wear long robes, often in bright colors. Faculty members and those graduating from master’s or doctoral programs may also wear “hoods,” a length of multi-colored cloth draped around the neck and hanging down the back in elaborate folds. Both garments serve as reminders of the medieval origins of the university.

Universities grew out of an older medieval tradition of cathedral and monastic schools. By the eleventh century, such schools in cities throughout Europe were attracting large numbers of young men eager to learn. The Latin word universitas means a community or corporate body. The first university, a legal corporation of students and masters that set the curriculum, standards, and degrees, was established in the Italian city of Bologna in 1088. Universities spread rapidly throughout Europe, with more than sixty established before 1500. Students and faculty were considered minor church functionaries, so they wore the same kinds of robes as priests and monks, with at that time attached hoods that could be pulled up over the head.

The basic course of university study centered around the seven liberal arts, a curriculum passed down from late antiquity. These included the trivium of Latin grammar, logic, and rhetoric (or persuasive argument), and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music (theory, not performance), and astronomy. Some students continued on to higher courses of study in medicine, law, philosophy, or theology. All classes were conducted in Latin—students from all over Europe could attend a university in any city and converse in that language with students and masters from various origins. From very early on, universities excluded women and non-Christians. Soon university training became a prerequisite for many high government and church positions, and also for professions such as medicine and law.

The rise in universities stimulated a huge new demand for books. Before the medieval invention of moveable-type printing in the West, in the mid-fifteenth century, every word in every book had to be laboriously handwritten. While production of high-end luxury manuscripts, decorated with miniature illuminations and gold leaf, flourished (see the Religion and Popular Piety section below), books needed by hundreds of university students were usually produced as inexpensively as possible and often quite plain. Those that survive show evidence of heavy use, often including marginalia (notes written by readers in the margins and between lines of texts) and manicules (little drawings of a hand, with a finger pointing to a line the reader wants to emphasize—similar to today’s students using a yellow highlighter).

In the second half of the fifteenth century, the advent of printing technology revolutionized book production, permitting much faster manufacture of copies. Medieval books printed before the year 1501—when print was in its infancy—are called incunabula, from the Latin word for cradle. In the earliest incunables, printers tried to make their books look as much like traditional handwritten ones as possible. They used the same format as manuscript books, and imitated handwritten scripts with their typefaces. But soon printers experimented with new techniques and apparatuses, creating a look distinctive to printed books.

Questions to consider:

  1. How might a proliferation of literacy and book production change earlier medieval social structures?

  2. How would the necessity of university training to enter many professions change opportunities available to those who were not permitted to attend?


Principia in sacrum, and other works, Southern France, c. 1325 This book includes a collection of texts assembled from different independent manuscripts and bound together for the use of a university student. It includes many treatises and sermons routinely assigned for the study of theology. It also contains a very rare example of a work by Pierre Jean Olivi, a Franciscan professor at the University of Montpellier in France. Some of Olivi’s theological writings were controversial, though he defended them successfully to a council. But after his death most of his writings, including this one, were declared heretical and burned, so very few survive. Notice the owner’s marginal notations and the manicule (the little hand drawn at the upper right of the page).

De vita et moribus philosophorum (On the lives and deaths of the philosophers), printed in Cologne, 1473 or earlier This early incunable of a text for students of philosophy was typeset and laid out to look as much as possible like a medieval manuscript. This is the first page of the book—like most manuscript books, it does not open with a separate title page. The printer also left empty spaces at the beginning of new sections of the book; an artist later added the large colored initial letters you see here, in imitation of the medieval practice called rubrication (from the Latin word for a red ocher color, though in practice initials in medieval books could be worked in many colors).

Discordiantiae sanctorum doctorum Hieronymi et Augustini, Printed in Rome, 1482 This incunable, a theology text, demonstrates great strides in printing design in just a few years, compared with the previous book. The first page features an elaborate woodcut border and initial, and woodcut initials and illustrations appear, as seen in the second image here. In addition, titles in bold type and blank spaces indicate breaks and sections within the book, instead of expecting a hand-rubricator to mark those.

Early printed books often remained in use for many years. When this book was rebound around the year 1500, the new owner had a portrait of himself painted on the front cover, and his coat of arms on the back. He has been identified as Matteo Corti, who later became personal physician to Pope Clement VII.

Principia in sacrum, and other works

Pierre Olivi, et al. Circa 1325.

Image of Principia in sacrum, and other works

Includes parts of the Principia in Sacram Scripturam by Pierre Jean Olivi, lectures and sermons on the Sentences of Peter Lombard and an epitome on Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics. Numerous marginal additions.

Image of Principia in sacrum, and other works

Includes parts of the Principia in sacram Scripturam by Pierre Jean Olivi, lectures and sermons on the Sentences of Peter Lombard and an epitome on Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics. Numerous marginal additions.

Image of Principia in sacrum, and other works

Includes parts of the Principia in sacram Scripturam by Pierre Jean Olivi, lectures and sermons on the Sentences of Peter Lombard and an epitome on Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics. Numerous marginal additions.

Metadata Details
Title Principia in sacrum, and other works
Short Title Principium in sacram scripturam
Creator Pierre Olivi, et al
Publication Date Circa 1325
Language Latin
Call Number VAULT folio Case MS 217
Location Special Collections 4th floor

De vita et moribus philosophorum

Gualterus Burlaeus. Circa 1473.

Image of De vita et moribus philosophorum

Early incunable, typeset and laid out to look as much as possible like a medieval manuscript. No title page; empty spaces left for an artist to add colored initial letters.

Metadata Details
Title De vita et moribus philosophorum
Short Title De vita et moribus philosophorum
Creator Gualterus Burlaeus
Publication Date Circa 1473
Call Number folio Inc. 1106
Location Special Collections 4th floor

Discordiantiae sanctorum doctorum Hieronymi et Augustini

Filippo de Barbieri. 1482.

Image of Discordiantiae sanctorum doctorum Hieronymi et Augustini

Portrait cover of one of the book’s owners was added when it was rebound in the early 16th century

Image of Discordiantiae sanctorum doctorum Hieronymi et Augustini
Image of Discordiantiae sanctorum doctorum Hieronymi et Augustini

Pages feature elaborate woodcut borders, initials, and illustrations throughout. Bold titles and spacing indicate breaks and sections (instead of expecting a hand-rubricator to indicate those).

Image of Discordiantiae sanctorum doctorum Hieronymi et Augustini

Pages feature elaborate woodcut borders, initials, and illustrations throughout. Bold titles and spacing indicate breaks and sections (instead of expecting a hand-rubricator to indicate those).

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Discordiantiae sanctorum doctorum Hieronymi et Augustini
Short Title Discordiantiae sanctorum doctorum Hieronymi et Augustini
Creator Filippo de Barbieri
Publication Date 1482
Call Number VAULT Inc. 3954
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Humanism before the Renaissance

The Renaissance humanist project included the revival and study of the classics of ancient Greece and Rome. But ancient philosophers like Aristotle were respected and relied upon as authorities throughout the Middle Ages. In the twelfth century, additional works by ancient Greek authors like Aristotle became available in Western Europe for the first time in several centuries, brought east by Crusaders or north from Muslim Spain. European scholars reading about ancient Greek systems of thought devised a method of learning and debate that came to be called Scholasticism after its development by “scholastics,” or school-men, of the universities.

Scholasticism’s aim was to use dialectical reasoning, or formal logic, to draw conclusions and resolve contradictions. It evolved into a rigorous system of disputation, involving logical rebuttal of proposals and counterproposals. The scholastic method was applied to many fields of study, but its main aim was to harmonize and reconcile Christian teachings with Classical philosophy, especially with the works of Aristotle and the Neoplatonists. Some Italian Renaissance humanists dismissed scholasticism and its focus on theology. But Renaissance humanists in Northern Europe remained more interested in Christian texts and less hostile to scholastic method.

Question to consider:

  1. How did the medieval scholastic method influence Renaissance humanism?

Politica and Rhetorica, Bologna?, 13th century? This Latin version of two of Aristotle’s most important works may date from as early as the year 1200. It is written in a script called gothic bookhand, with colored initials and headings.

Physica, De Caelo et Mundo, Metaphysica, Parva Naturalis, and other works, Germany?, early 14th century This Northern European compendium contains Latin translations of many works by Aristotle, as well as material by other philosophers and theologians. Written in a later gothic script, it includes large red or blue initials marking new sections of the text. Many initials on this page sport elaborate “pen flourishes” that extend to create a border.

De Ethica ad Nicomachum, translation of Johannes Agryropolus, Florence?, late 15th century This was a new Latin translation of one of Aristotle’s works by the famed fifteenth-century Greek-born humanist John Agryropolus. Its beautiful clear script, developed in Italy around 1400, is called “humanist minuscule.” This page also features a gold-leaf initial with green, blue, and pink vine-stem decoration, with a drawing of a bird at the top.

Politica et Rhetorica

Aristotle. Circa 1200.

Image of Politica et Rhetorica

This Latin version of two of Aristotle’s most important works may date from as early as 1200.

Metadata Details
Title Politica et Rhetorica
Short Title Politica et Rhetorica
Creator Aristotle
Publication Date Circa 1200
Language Latin
Call Number VAULT Case MS 23.1
Location Special Collections 4th floor

Physica, De Caelo et Mundo, Metaphysica, Parva Naturalis

Aristotle. Circa 1300.

Image of Physica, De Caelo et Mundo, Metaphysica, Parva Naturalis

This Northern European compendium contains Latin translations of many works by Aristotle, as well as material by other philosophers and theologians.

Metadata Details
Title Physica, De Caelo et Mundo, Metaphysica, Parva Naturalis
Short Title Physica, De Caelo et Mundo, Metaphysica, Parva Naturalis
Creator Aristotle
Publication Date Circa 1300
Language Latin
Call Number VAULT folio Case MS 23
Location Special Collections 4th floor

De Ethica ad Nicomachum

Aristotle; translation of Johannes Agryropolus. Circa 1450.

Image of De Ethica ad Nicomachum

This was a new Latin translation of one of Aristotle’s works by 15th-century humanist John Agryropolus. It is written in a humanistic script (as opposed to the Gothic scripts of the earlier books), with gold initials and colored decorations.

Metadata Details
Title De Ethica ad Nicomachum
Short Title De Ethica ad Nicomachum
Creator Aristotle; translation of Johannes Agryropolus
Publication Date Circa 1450
Language Latin
Call Number VAULT folio Case MS 96
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Selected Sources

Bender, Thomas. The University and the City: From Medieval Origins to the Present. London: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Clemens, Raymond, and Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies. New York: Cornell University Press, 2007.

Frugoni, Chiara. Books, Banks, Buttons: And Other Inventions from the Middle Ages. Translated by William MCCuaig. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Haskins, Charles Homer. The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927, revised 1955.

Madigan, Kevin. Medieval Christianity: A New History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Southern, Richard. Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe, Volume I: Foundations; Volume 2: The Heroic Age. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 1997, 2001.

Starkey, David. Magna Carta: The Medieval Roots of Modern Politics. London: Quercus, 2015.

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This collection was generously funded by the Walter E. Heller Foundation.

This collection was last updated