Renaissance Rediscovery: Shaping Historical Inquiry


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At the close of the Middle Ages one of the main tasks of European thought was to bring about a fresh reorientation of historical studies. The great theological and philosophical systems which had provided a basis for determining the general plan of history a priori had ceased to command assent, and with the Renaissance a return was made to a humanistic view of history based on that of the ancients. Accurate scholarship became important, because human actions were no longer felt to be dwarfed into insignificance in comparison with a divine plan.

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Historical thought once more placed man in the centre of its picture. But in spite of the new interest in Greco-Roman thought, the Renaissance conception of man was profoundly different from the Greco-Roman; and when a writer like Machiavelli, in the early sixteenth century, expressed his ideas about history in the shape of a commentary on the first ten books of Livy he was not reinstating Livy's own view of history. Man, for the Renaissance historian, was not man as depicted by ancient philosophy, controlling his actions and creating his destiny by the work of his intellect, but man as depicted by Christian thought, a creature of passion and impulse. History thus became the history of human passions, regarded as necessary manifestations of human nature.

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The positive fruits of this new movement were found first of all in a great clearing away of what had been fanciful and ill-founded medieval historiography. By the beginning of the seventeenth century Bacon was able to sum up the situation by dividing his map of knowledge into the three great realms of poetry, history, and philosophy, ruled over by the three faculties of imagination, memory, and understanding. To say that memory presides over history is to say that the essential work of history is to recall and record the past in its actual facts as they actually happened.

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But the position of history as thus defined was precarious. It had a definite programme, the rediscovery of the past, but it had no methods or principles by which this programme could be carried out. Actually, Bacon's definition of history as the realm of memory was wrong, because the past only requires historical investigation so far as it is not and cannot be remembered. If it could be remembered, there would be no need of historians. Bacon's own contemporary Camden was already at work in the best Renaissance tradition on the topography and archaeology of Britain, showing how unremembered history could be reconstructed from data somewhat as, at the same time, natural scientists were using data as the basis of scientific theories. The question how the historian's understanding works to supplement the deficiencies of his memory was a question that Bacon never asked.



In the wake of the Middle Ages, European thought sought a renewed focus in historical studies. The Renaissance led to a humanistic approach to history, shifting away from theological systems and emphasizing accurate scholarship. Unlike Greco-Roman ideals, the Renaissance viewed humanity through a Christian lens, highlighting human passions as essential aspects of history. This movement cleared away fanciful medieval historiography but struggled with methods and principles for historical investigation. While Bacon's division of knowledge placed history under memory, it didn't address how historians supplement forgotten history with understanding, a question left unexplored in his time.
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