Monday, April 27, 2015

The Renaissance Began in 1000

Of course, "ages" are constructs of historians, and no one at the time ever woke up and said, "Honey, guess what: the Middle Ages began this morning!"

But if we want to point to a time when the revival of Europe after the disappearance of the Western Roman Empire really began, we could do a lot worse than say, "1000 A. D."

As of the year 1000, the population of France was around 6 million, and Germany about 4 million. By 1300, both those numbers had roughly tripled, with France at around 19 million and Germany 12 million. And at the same time, there were great migrations from these areas into Iberia, Poland, and the Baltic region. The period saw improved farming techniques, the creation of the modern university, the foundations laid for modern science, the building of many great cathedrals, the rediscovery of much lost Greek thought, and the beginning of Europe's re-urbanization.

Then a small problem, the Black Death, struck, wiping out about half of Europe's population. The population peaks of the early 1300s were not reached again until about 1500. If not for the Black Death, we would no doubt view European history as an "ascent" from 1000 on.


  1. Isn't that sort of along the lines of "Our American Cousin was a wonderful play except for the brief interruption by John Wilkes Booth?"

    1. The point is there was no "backwardness" in the period 1000-1400 holding Europe back which the Renaissance suddenly cast off to allow progress. There was steady advance, and then a terrible plague.

    2. I'm not married to any particular timeline of "the Renaissance," mind you. Like you say, such references are all constructs.

      If I wanted to contest your dating, I might try to pin down some essential differences in the pre-Plague and post-Plague advances. For example, I might claim a pre-Plague "Renaissance" characterized by the early Scholastics using e.g. Aristotelian thought to justify the Catholic faith, and the post-Plague "Renaissance" subsisting in an increasingly faith-independent set of advances using the same tools (benefiting from an independence-booster with the invention of the printing press, which tended to break the grip of the church on written knowledge).

      But I do see your general point on "backwardness." Yes, the period from 1000 on was a period of advancement.

  2. Oddly enough, the wars and famines of the 17th century (which also killed off a sizable chunk of the population), haven't prevented the standard narrative of European history as an ascent from 1500.

    1. It is not at all odd when you consider:
      1) After 1500, you get Protestantism; and
      2) That standard narrative was written by Protestants and others hostile to the Catholic Church (e.g., Voltaire etc.).

  3. I once said that the Church back then was the government and you disagreed with me. Would you that there was no government in the Middle Ages, then?


Why is it "irrational"...

to not want to work with someone who smells bad? I have the unfortunate job of telling someone whom I am mentoring that when they return ...