The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance

by John Hale

Paperback, 1994



Scribner (1994), Edition: 1st American ed, 672 pages


In this extraordinarily rich and engaging book, John Hale has painted, on a grand canvas, what he calls "an investigative impression" of one of the highest points of European civilization: the flourishing, between 1450 and 1620, of the period we have come to call the Renaissance. It was an age that, wrote Marsilio Ficino in 1492, "has like a golden age restored to light the liberal arts which were almost extinct: grammar, poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture, music." The book contains memorable descriptions of all of these. But Hale is not concerned simply with the arts: his interest is much wider. "[This] was the first age in which the words 'Europe' and 'European' acquired a widely understood significance. It saw the emergence of a new and pervasive attitude to what were considered the most valued aspects of civilized life. It witnessed the most concentrated wave of intellectual and cultural energy that had yet passed over the continent...It was also a period in which there were such dramatic changes of fortune for better of worse - religious, political, economic and, through overseas discoveries, global - that more people than ever before saw their time as unique, referring to 'this new age,' 'the present age,' 'our age'; to one observer it was a 'blessed age,' to another, 'the worst age in history."'. Hale paints his picture with an astonishing multiplicity of themes, people, and ideas. How did Europeans see themselves and others? What united them and separated them, both geographically and within their communities? What languages did they speak and write, and how widely? How did they fix themselves in time and space? What did they call civilized? What did they buy and sell? How did they dress and eat? What did they think about and how did they communicate their thoughts? One of the strengths of this book, which moves far beyond conventional or social history, is that it resists the temptation to answer any of these questions simply or glibly, or to impose unifying characteristics on the period or the continent. Instead, Hale allows people to speak for themselves, bringing the age to life with wonderful freshness, immediacy, and diversity. His canvas is not covered with broad brushstrokes, but with pointillist details and individual voices; there is something pleasing and unexpected in every corner. The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance is the most ambitious achievement of one of the world's leading Renaissance historians and is itself a landmark in the humanist tradition whose origins it describes. And at a time when the meanings of "Europe" and "European" culture are being questioned and debated, it is also a book that shows us where we can find the roots of both of them, and how much the present and future can be illuminated by the past.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member baswood
Civilization curiously spelt with a z by this very British historian is an overview of Europe in what John Hale refers to as the long sixteenth century (he qualifies this as 1450-1620). It is not a story of the Renaissance although that period and its influence is very well covered in a large
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section of the book; Hale was concerned more with just how civilised the period was in comparison with today and other periods of history. Hale explains his title thus:

“I hope it will not be thought presumptuous that my title adapts that of a book of really seminal importance, Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy of 1860. I have carried it for so long in my mental baggage as a talisman at once protective and provocative that this was not a journey I could undertake without it”

Burckhardt’s view of the Renaissance set the tone for Victorian historians and he saw that period in Italy as a rebirth. A discovery of the civilised world of the ancient Greeks and Romans whose culture and art led the renaissance Italians to soar to great heights. Hale puts this into perspective: while not denying that the rediscovery of antiquity and its resulting humanism was a key concept in the long sixteenth century, he concerns himself with an overview of `Europe and the progress towards a more civilised society.

The book has three parts. In part one Hale looks at our concept of Europe and how the men and women of Europe saw themselves. He analyses almost country by country the development from feudalism to a more city based culture. He searches for an overall pattern, but it emerges that there really isn’t one, because one city state after another sought to gain advantage over the others. England as an Island state seems to have much the same connection with Europe then as now, intrinsically part of it and yet holding itself somewhat aloof. Most of Europeans were ruled by monarchs and their warlike/aggressive culture ensured there was no lasting peace. War was the sport of kings say Hale and the evidence is there to fully support this view. A chapter on the Divisions of Europe also covers the split in the Christian religion resulting in the reformation and later in the counter-reformation.

Part two covers the renaissance and walks through the history of the Italian renaissance and how the pagan cultures of antiquity had been adapted and encompassed within a Christian culture. Hale then looks at how the rediscovery of antiquity led to a later renaissance in other European states. These took different forms; for example drama and the theatre in England, Poetry and literature in France, religious music in Germany and realism in art in the low countries. Hale identifies some key pan Europe influences/references that helped shape the culture of the times. The writing and learning of Erasmus and the Book of the Courtier by Baldassarre Castiglione are two examples and perhaps a criticism of of Hale’s book is an over reliance on these. This section does however provides an excellent overview of how we see the renaissance today.

Part three is for me the real meat of the book and it is where Hale gets to analyse the civilisation of the long sixteenth century. He manages to give a picture of just what it was like to be alive in this period, whether it was in the cities or the countryside. He talks of civility - City based values: sound education, polite manners, the discriminating use of money and a social standing which enabled its owners to play a part in public affairs. He discusses how the rising commercial world had its impact on all sections of society and in a chapter headed Civility in Danger he talks about the volatility of human nature as it moved towards greater civility and discusses crime and punishment with examples that may make your hair stand on end. A chapter headed the Control of Man talks about censorship, about the influence of the printing press, how people had access to more information. He discusses attitudes to sex and the attempt to control prostitution and of course there is the rhetoric from the clerics themselves struggling with the reformation. The final chapter The Taming of Nature takes the reader through cultivation, the making of gardens, the state of medicine, the idea of the cosmos, mechanical inventions, hesitant moves towards science and discovery. In all these things the people of the sixteenth century not only had to struggle with the unknown, but they also had to cope with the wisdom of antiquity and where necessary prove that wisdom unfounded.

The final chapter is headed our age and imagines people looking backwards from their point in time. How much progress was in evidence for them; was it the worst of ages or the best of ages: Erasmus seemed to swing between both tenants, had they managed to escape the shackles of the learning of the past and was life better now than ever before. Hale writes well, his ideas are clear and he makes plenty of reference to documents and literature from the sixteenth century. There are notes and a Bibliography and index at the back of the book. Although it is the work of a Scholar, Hale’s book could be enjoyed by the more general reader. If you wanted to read a book about culture and politics in sixteenth century Europe you would be in safe hands with Mr Hale. A 4.5 star read.
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LibraryThing member hmc276
A cultural history of Europe written in partial homage to Jacob Burkhardt whose Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) in invoked in the title. This was the last major work by Hale, author of ten other major studies of the period; it was completed in June 1992 just before he suffered a
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major stroke. There are nine chapters, each a reflection on a major theme beginning with four chapters on the idea of Europe, its nations, hostilities and empathies, before moving to "Renaissance" and "Civilization." It is cultural history of the type made familiar by Burkhardt, but without the special pleading, and rendered with a more generous, reflective and inclusive eye.
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LibraryThing member BruceAir
When you're in an academic mood, Hale's scholarly account of the Renaissance is the book to turn to. It should also be required reading for anyone heading to Italy on a summer vacation to look at the art and architecture.
LibraryThing member jerry-book
Overview of life in the late middle ages.

Original language


Original publication date

1993 UK
1994 US

Physical description

672 p.; 6.25 inches


0689122004 / 9780689122002
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