The Renaissance may be vivid in the mind’s eye – in images of human figures sculpted in the round, or in scenes painted with a profound and moving realism. But as a concept it is a slippery customer.

The word is French for ‘rebirth’. Historians first use it (from about 1840) for the period from the 14th to the 16th century, implying a rediscovery of rational civilization (exemplified by Greece and Rome) after the medieval centuries – seen as superstitious and artistically primitive. The term ‘Middle Ages’, also coined by historians, makes the same point in a different way – defining the medieval period merely as the gap between classical and modern civilization

The first problem with this scenario is that the Middle Ages have a vivid cultural identity of their own, different from the classical pattern but not necessarily inferior. And the later medieval centuries, in particular the 12th and 13th, are unmistakably civilized……renaissance


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