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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Renaissance

In a forum thread, Kyle Aaron made this comment about the OSR
A renaissance is when the best of the "old days" is brought back. When northern Italy started bringing back the Roman and Greek sculpture and writing, they didn't bring back gladiatorial games, did they? They just chose the bits they liked from the "old days", and chucked out the rest.
(He went on to say some other, ridiculous things, but that's neither here nor there.)

I think it's useful to point out that The Renaissance wasn't really "bringing back the Roman and Greek sculpture and writing". It had the effect of bringing back classical style and an interest in classical texts, but that's not really what The Renaissance was. It wasn't just a fashion craze.

Medieval Europe had lost a lot of classical knowledge. They didn't know how to build roads the Roman way, roads that would last. They didn't know how to build aqueducts. They had some pretty impressive engineering skills when it came to building castles, but they didn't know how to build buildings the way the Romans or Greeks did. They were preserving some philosophical works in Latin, but they'd lost most of the technical works, the scientific knowledge.

As James Burke put it in either Connections or The Day the Universe Changed, the medieval Europeans, and the medieval Italians in particular, were surrounded by old stuff they didn't know how to duplicate.

What happened was that some Italian idle rich found out the Islamic world had preserved some Greek and Roman technical texts, and had even added some of their own findings. They paid for translations into Latin or even Italian and started distributing books that told how to build massive works or use perspective in art. Suddenly, by studying old texts, they'd discovered the key to doing stuff the classical way. They could duplicate it, or even take it in new directions.

The Old School Renaissance works in much the same way. It's not "playing with old rules"; some people never stopped doing that. It's not like medieval history, where people had actually lost old texts; we still had some OD&D, classic D&D, and AD&D books (in languages we could read) floating around. It's not about duplicating stuff that existed before, even though there's been some of that. It's about rediscovering *why* people did things that way, and restating those insights in a clear way, and using those insights to improve the way we play old school games, or even to create completely new games based on those insights.

It's a true Renaissance, a recovery of lost knowledge.

6 comments:

  1. "They had some pretty impressive engineering skills when it came to building castles, but they didn't know how to build buildings the way the Romans or Greeks did."

    I would argue that Medieval Europe had far surpassed Greek and Roman building skills. Romanesque cathedrals from the early medieval are the equal of anything built in the Roman or Greek era, and by the end of the Middle Ages, Gothic architecture had created feats of engineering the envy of the entire world.

    Compare the Colosseum or the Parthenon with Reims or Chartes or Notre Dame. Or, going back further into the early Middle Ages, Maria Laach Abbey or the Palatine_Chapel.

    I think it's obvious that the Europeans continued to develop technically and artistically during the so-called Dark Ages.

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    1. I don't mean to imply that one day, a bunch of ships brought home a truckload of Latin and Greek texts and the next day was the beginning of the Renaissance. It was a slow process, and it had more to do with the wider distribution of classical works and an economic boom that paid for it than with books actually being lost. A lot of classical Latin works were being preserved in monasteries, but not many people saw those. In the High and Late Middle Ages, though, we get nobles and wealthy merchants paying professional scribe houses for copies of various texts, then we get Crusaders bring back a few more texts, then the opening of trade with new areas, which brought in Greek versions of texts that no longer existed in Latin.

      I forget the name of the book on classical architecture that became seminal for the medieval architects who invented the gothic arch and flying buttress. But new knowledge, built on classical architecture, enabled medieval architects to construct stone buildings with more windows than wall. That was a dramatic change in style, and it was triggered by old books.

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  2. "What happened was that some Italian idle rich found out the Islamic world had preserved some Greek and Roman technical texts, and had even added some of their own findings."

    That's not what happened, actually. Study of Classical technical texts was undertaken during the Middle Ages.

    The Renaissance was more about studying Greek works of literature, which had not been available to Western Europe before the fall of the Byzantine Empire.

    The traditional narrative of Europeans being bumbling fools until they rediscovered Roman and Greek knowledge during the Renaissance has been pretty thoroughly debunked by this point.

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    1. A lot of this depends on how you define the start of the Renaissance. Is it the instant they cracked open a book they didn't have access to previously, or is it an arbitrary point after years of recovering knowledge, in stages, during the Middle Ages?

      I'm all for dispelling the myth that Europeans were bumbling fools, but there were clear moments where the dissemination of old knowledge changed technology. For example, it was Arabic works on optics that lead to a revival of using perspective in art. Renaissance wall murals make use of a lot of tromps d'oeil effects precisely because they learned new information and then surpassed that learning, creating something new.

      But let's not forget the point, which is not that people were stupid before the Renaissance, but that when they had an insight about how things were done in the past, they were able to apply that in new and exciting ways.

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