In the novel I am presently reading, Aegypt: The Solitudes by John Crowley, the main character, a historian academic named Pierce Moffet, comes across the realization that “there is more than one history of the world.” Furthermore, the “world is not the same as it once was.” This radical change in human history supposedly occurred some time in the sixteenth century as it transitioned into the seventeenth. Specifically, it revolves around the historical person of Doctor John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer, whose scientific accomplishments were rivaled only by his interest in the occult. For Dee, science and magic were one. In his intellectual corpus, the modern, rational, scientific worldview coexisted with the traditional worldview Europe would slowly, gradually leave behind. In John Dee, mathematics was both a tool to explore modern science and a basis for summoning angels.
The Renaissance is sometimes viewed as the adolescence or young adulthood of European culture, as it left the intellectually barren Middle Ages behind. This shift of the pendulum between worldviews is known was coined by Stephen Greenblatt as “The Swerve.” A shorthand for describing the multifaceted history that the Renaissance actually was, the assumption that such a Swerve occurred is taught in classrooms worldwide.
However, could the Swerve be a mere historical fantasy?
In my post “Wonders in Wood,” I demonstrate how humans often strive to to see shapes that they can relate to in natural objects. Those forms, however, are only really shaped by a series of causes and effects that are distinct and separate from human desire. Often the shapes we see in wood grain are reflections of ourselves. We often see “faces,” for example.
History, like wood, is formed according to a flow of cause and effect. Imagine the narrative of time growing organically from a set of roots buried in the past. The Renaissance is like a particular knot in that tree where two of the major boughs branch. Historians, only human, see their own faces in that knot, matching the growing intellectual self-consciousness of European philosophy and science with their own coming of age, their own rites of passage.
But can it really be said the Europe “came of age” during the Renaissance? Or is this only a historian’s fantasy?
I do not have an ultimate answer to this question, or the space in a single blog post to even scratch the surface of this enormous problem. I will say this, however: I believe the Swerve is a fascinating concept that can generate a lot of excitement about learning history, even though I believe it to be scientifically inaccurate and a problematic term. I have four reasons for believing this, and there are other reasons out there I may not have heard of:
1. The Swerve devalues the medieval learning that gave birth to the Renaissance. That any significant intellectuals existed during the Dark Ages seems to be a fact some teachers repress, knowingly or unknowingly. I do not believe the Renaissance could have happened without the likes of medieval intellectuals like Averroes, Thomas Aquinas, Peter Abelard, and the like. Later Renaissance thinkers borrow from their ideas. The Middle Ages were not an void, but the fertile soil from which the Renaissance spawned–it was not only ancient Greeks and Romans who formed the inspiration for the Renaissance.
2. The Swerve only accounts for the writings of ‘Great Thinkers’ and bears nothing on socio-economic, everyday realities. Descartes, Francis Bacon, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo may all have been geniuses of their time, but men and women still died horrendously of plague in 1600 as they did in 1300, at least for the most part. Great intellectual progress failed to impress the vast majority of the population, many of whom could not read. Theories about the sun’s closeness to the earth and challenging the church’s doctrinal authority matters a whole lot less when famine strikes.
3. The Swerve is a Grand Narrative which excludes other discourses when it is used to describe the era. Since the story we all tell of the Renaissance is of its glory, the darker side of history is ignored. The Renaissance is a dark period, from a certain perspective. For starters, it is filled to the brim with religious persecutions, massacres, and even genocide. Why Cortez’s ethnic cleansing of the Aztecs should be considered more civilized than the Viking raids simply because it happened 500 years later is beyond me. Must civilized times be defined according to when advanced weaponry, like gunpowder, becomes available, enabling countries to spread violence across the globe? Or should such times be considered more barbaric? Also, what would have the Native Americans in King James’ court have thought of the Renaissance period when they were dying of a common disease caught from a European?
4. The Swerve can be used to misconstrue discoveries and treatises of the Renaissance as leading to an inevitable Scientific Revolution, which almost no scholars consciously saw happening. It is likely that Copernicus primarily saw himself as part of a tradition of scholars stretching back to the heliocentric Aristarchus, and only secondarily as the bold pioneer of a new model of the solar system. He had to reach into the past as well as reach to the future, but framing Copernicus in terms of the Swerve threatens to shortchange the importance of the intellectual history to which Copernicus returned. Furthermore, scientists often take Giordano Bruno, who espoused Copernicus’ ideas, as a martyr for modern science since he was burned for heresy in Rome. However, Bruno was the farthest thing from a scientist. Rather, he was in many ways an impractical philosopher who developed a magic system based on the concept of artificial memory, considering himself a follower of the sun-centered “Egyptian” religion. In other words, he sacrificed himself for heliocentrism not as a scientist, but as an occultist.
Since the Swerve is inaccurate historically in these and other ways, I propose that it is a historical fantasy. Stephen Greenblatt might have needed the concept to sell a book and express what he was going to write about in simple terms, but the term itself should not be taken without irony. I am not arguing that Greenblatt is unaware of the problems connected to the idea of the Swerve. I only mean to remind people who are used to the Grand Narrative to rethink what they know about the Renaissance.
Poststructuralism claims that all histories are written in history and can never be freed from the context in which they are written. I would add that so long as a historian sees the human experience of his/her adolescence in the Renaissance, history will be written according to a human bias. We cannot escape this bias easily, since it is so natural to write a history that we can relate to. But turning history into story is part of what historical fantasy is all about.
3 thoughts on “Was the Renaissance “Swerve” a historical fantasy?”
Very perspicacious — every so-called ‘period’ is part of a continuum with the past and to seek to limit it with a defining label retrospectively (as I believe Vasari did with the Renaissance) or while part of it (postmodernism anyone?) can be a crude exercise.
Exactly what I’m getting at here! Thanks for the comment. It’s all about history as flux v. history as storytelling. One way is scientific, the other way not so much. One way is accurate but dry, the other attractive and understandable, but inaccurate. Is there a way to reconcile history and “historical fantasy,” such as I term it?
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