Renaissance in 12th Century Culture and Thought

How appropriate is the label ‘renaissance’, when applied to twelfth century thought and culture?


During this essay we shall be exploring the period of the Twelfth Century in Europe. We are concerned with the extent to which this period, which was one of extraordinary social, economic, and political change, with profound developments in thought and culture can be considered a Renaissance. First it is necessary to examine the true meaning of the label ‘renaissance’. What are the most important features of a renaissance that mark it out from other periods of time? In the first part of our work we shall attempt to define the parameters of what a ‘renaissance’ is.

The Second part of our work will examine the historic background of the Twelfth Century. We shall briefly examine the most important developments during a period that has done much to shape the modern world, including the rise of humanism, the individual, the reform of the Church, the creation of Universities and the development of legal codes throughout Europe. Why was the Twelfth Century such an important period in medieval history and did these profound changes and developments constitute a renaissance in the manner of the renaissance of the 15th Century?

In our final Chapter we will present the case that using the term ‘renaissance’ for the Twelfth Century is misleading, unsuitable and inappropriate. Although the twelfth century was extremely important, with profound developments in many fields, this does not necessarily make it a ‘renaissance’. Many historians would also argue that applying such labels is detrimental to the study of history; in this chapter we will examine some of their arguments. In our conclusion we will conclude on whether it is accurate, useful or appropriate to apply the term ‘renaissance’ to the Twelfth Century.

The term ‘renaissance’, or re-birth is usually associated with the Italian Renaissance in the 14th and 15thCenturies which later spread throughout Europe.[1] This period saw a revival in classical texts and sources of knowledge in a variety of fields, mathematics, law, philosophy, art and education to name but a few. Educational reform spread these ideas throughout Europe, leading to developments in knowledge, technology and agriculture, as well as social changes which saw a population shift to towns and cities.[2] In essence renaissance is referring to a revival, in this case the classic texts and teachings of the Ancient Greeks. It is generally accepted by historians today that there were several ‘renaissances’ in Europe, in the Ninth, Twelfth and 14th Centuries, where increased access to classical texts and other social factors led to artistic, technological and social developments throughout Society.[3] When referring to the Twelfth Century Renaissance most historians mean the period between 1050 and 1250, and unlike the early period of the later Renaissance, developments happened throughout Europe and did not begin in one region or Country.[4]

Chapter One

The Twelfth Century was arguably one of the most important in medieval times, if not in the whole of European History. The rediscovery of many Latin and Greek texts following the fall of the Greek Empire and increased contact with Islamic scholars led to an increase in scientific knowledge, and to developments in all intellectual fields. The Twelfth Century saw great advances in technology, which combined with a warmer climate and greater stability led to an agricultural surplus, an improved quality of life and new opportunities. This more dynamic European Society invented spectacles, paper, developed the use of gunpowder, more accurate clocks and printing methods.[5] For a period the Latin and Greek texts were simply re-produced by an increasing number of European Scholars. Gradually once all these works were discovered and thoroughly absorbed, many Scholars began to build upon this knowledge and adapt it for contemporary use, no more so than in the field of law.

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