Renaissance and Reformation Historiography
by
Ann Moyer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0034

Introduction

History was one of the main disciplines identified with the humanist movement; Renaissance humanists wrote many works of history and edited, translated, and published the historical works of ancient predecessors. Most of these works remain available only in their original editions. While some of these writers received financial support for their historical writings during their lives, the profession of historian as it is now understood developed much later. How to evaluate the writing of history in the Renaissance was therefore not a simple matter for 20th-century scholars. From the time of Jacob Burckhardt through much of the 20th century, many scholars identified the Renaissance with particular mental attitudes, including especially a sense of historical anachronism often contrasted with medieval mentalities. Erwin Panofsky expressed this approach most famously (see General Overviews). By the later decades of the 20th century, humanistic uses of language and rhetoric began to receive more serious attention, as did the Renaissance use of ancient models in history writing and elsewhere. Accordingly, more scholars became interested in the forms and genres of history writing during the Renaissance. These approaches required close readings of individual historical works; therefore much late-20th- and early-21st-century scholarship has been less general than before and more focused on individual authors, or on regional traditions bounded by politics and language. By the “linguistic turn” of the late 20th century, modern scholars were also less troubled by the rhetorical and political goals and uses of some Renaissance historical writings than their earlier 20th-century colleagues had been; indeed, these goals might themselves become important topics of investigation. Along with historians of art, who became interested in the uses of visual media in constructing political images of states and rulers, historians have begun to examine the ways Renaissance writers used their pasts to give meaning to their present. Another point of collaboration between history and the history of art has been antiquarian scholarship, which has grown rapidly and become a field in its own right. Research has also turned to questions of the use of sources by Renaissance historical writers. Nineteenth-century historians may have claimed that they were the first to take seriously the use of documentary source materials, but it is now clear that Renaissance historians often did so as well. The wealth of new research will surely continue to reshape our understanding of historical thought and writing during the era of the European Renaissance.

General Overviews

Panofsky 1965 expresses an early formulation, still often invoked not only in the visual arts that were Panofsky’s particular focus but also in broader historical research. His thesis holds that an essential feature of the Renaissance was an expression of historical anachronism, a sense that the past was both different and separate from the present. Struever 1970 develops this approach in the textual scholarship of particular figures. Burke 1969 agrees with Panofsky’s formulation but presents evidence especially from Renaissance writers of history. The authors in Kelley 1997 focus more particularly on historicist analysis or historical approaches as seen in the formation of other learned disciplines as they took shape during and after the Renaissance. The others here are concerned mainly with the writing of historical works: Findlen 2002 offers a general survey, the authors of Jones-Davies 1995 focus on particular issues in historical writing, and Grafton 2007 examines debates and developments in the nature of historical scholarship from the later Renaissance to the early 18th century. Reynolds 1955 offers a guide to primary sources. Ferguson 1948 surveys how the Renaissance itself has figured as the subject of historical inquiry from the Renaissance onward; the first sections deal with Renaissance-era historians.

  • Burke, Peter. The Renaissance Sense of the Past. London: Edward Arnold, 1969.

    E-mail Citation »

    This introductory work presents some of the features of Renaissance historical thought, including the criticism of documentary sources using the tools of the humanist movement, the criticism of myths as narrative accounts of the past, the interest in explanations and causes, and the sense of anachronism.

  • Ferguson, Wallace K. The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948.

    E-mail Citation »

    This classic study, still unsurpassed, surveys the historical understanding of the Renaissance from that period up to the mid-20th century.

  • Findlen, Paula. “Historical Thought in the Renaissance.” In A Companion to Western Historical Thought. Edited by Lloyd Kramer and Sarah Maza, 99–122. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470998748E-mail Citation »

    In this essay, part of a volume primarily devoted to more modern historical scholarship, Findlen traces the development of historical thought and writing from Petrarch through the 16th century, including topics such as the use of Latin versus vernacular languages, the history of women as an example of challenges to traditional history writing, and the new attention to historical methods.

  • Grafton, Anthony. What Was History? The Art of History in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this very readable series of lectures, the author traces the trajectory of humanist historical approaches from the Renaissance through the 18th century.

  • Jones-Davies, M. T., ed. L’histoire au temps de la Renaissance. Paris: Klincksieck, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    These conference papers by major scholars address a range of issues in the rise of historical scholarship in the Renaissance, especially but not exclusively in France.

  • Kelley, Donald R., ed. History and the Disciplines: The Reclassification of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    This collection of articles explores how the rise of historicism transformed other disciplinary classifications and scholarly methods in turn.

  • Panofsky, Erwin. Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art. 2d ed. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1965.

    E-mail Citation »

    First published in 1960, this set of lectures by the noted art historian articulates the now-classic argument that a sense of historical anachronism and a historical sensibility were defining features of the Renaissance.

  • Reynolds, Beatrice R. “Latin Historiography: A Survey, 1400–1600.” Studies in the Renaissance 2 (1955): 7–66.

    DOI: 10.2307/2856959E-mail Citation »

    Many of the sources described in this classic article are still untranslated; the bibliography is especially useful.

  • Struever, Nancy S. The Language of History in the Renaissance: Rhetoric and Historical Consciousness in Florentine Humanism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970.

    E-mail Citation »

    Focusing on Coluccio Salutati, Leonardo Bruni, and Poggio Bracciolini, the author builds a case for the importance of rhetorical approaches to understanding a key feature of the Renaissance.

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