The Humanist North

Blog post by Wiktoria Muryn, MLitt Renaissance Art History student on placement in Special Collections.

There are many historical myths about the medieval period. We have all heard stories of the strictly devout society, despotic rulers and the daily grime and misery that reigned over Europe for almost five hundred years. Then, we were told, came the glorious Italian Renaissance, and soon the light of classical learning and beauty shone down onto the Dark Ages. However, a selection of manuscripts and early printed books from Special Collections proves that the relationship between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is much more intricate than that.

MS Hunter 206

MS Hunter 231: Plato, Seneca, Aristotle

During my placement in Special Collections I embarked on a study of MS Hunter 206 – a classical miscellany from the library of Raphael de Mercatellis (1437-1508), a Flemish bastard-made-nobleman and eventually an abbot in the mercantile city of Ghent. Although little is known about Raphael himself, there is no doubt that the manuscripts from his collection were extraordinarily novel in their humanist content. In order to improve the catalogue entry for our manuscript I conducted research which revealed just how complex the connection between Italy and Northern Europe was in the early fifteenth century. The final output of my research is a display of manuscripts from Special Collections showcasing the theme of classical learning in early modern Europe.

The classics existed in Northern Europe long before the advent of the Renaissance. While the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD might have drastically impacted Greek literacy, creating a language barrier for even the most educated of readers, it did not mean that the texts themselves were no longer there. Medieval scholars accessed Greek texts through fragmentary translation and commentary, combining classical scholarship with early scholasticism. This situation led to a strange state of affairs where Plato himself did not appear at all, but Platonism was everywhere, and neo-Platonic commentaries became the foundation of Early Medieval thought.

Although the twelfth century is usually associated with the brutal warfare of the Crusades, it was also a time of cultural revival. The Islamic Golden Age brought in an opulent, cosmopolitan Renaissance which produced endless quantities of scholarship, including vast amounts of commentary and translation of the classics. Aristotle, later referred to by Dante (1265-1321) as the “master of those who know”, was at the top of reading lists, and some Islamic philosophy nearly bordered on secular humanist thought. Eventually, all this knowledge was brought into the Latin West alongside the spices and incense obtained during the Crusades. An illumination from a fourteenth century English compendium (MS Hunter 231), depicting Aristotle, Plato and Seneca, bears striking resemblance to a later depiction (MS Hunter 40) of Aristotle, Plato, and Galen in one of Special Collections’ many Islamic manuscripts, proving how how closely the European and Arabic worlds were connected in the transmission of classical knowledge.

MS Hunter 40: Aristotle, Plato, Galen and Islamic figures

MS Hunter 441: humanist frontispiece

Medieval thinkers appropriated classical texts to apply them in the contemporary context of Christian Europe. In a world of ubiquitous religiousness, where not much room was left for pagan thought, the writings of ancient philosophers were valued for their moralistic quality. It was not uncommon to find excerpts from Plato or Seneca in one’s devotional compendium or miscellany. Just as medieval Europe was a melting pot of cultures, customs and philosophies, so were the texts it produced. Even though in this manner antique knowledge was made subordinate to the Christian doctrine, it was preserved in treasured private manuscripts or chained away in public libraries.

Meanwhile in Italy, ancient texts were placed at the centre of humanist scholarship by Petrarch (1304-1374) – the father of the Renaissance. Knowledge of the antique was exchanged through translation and commentary and disseminated throughout the entire continent. A copy of Leonardo Bruni’s Vitae Antiquorum (MS Hunter 91) embodies the movement of humanist ideas from Italy into Northern Europe quite literally. The book was written in two different scripts: partly in Florentine humanist cursive and partly in bastarda – a courtly script associated with French scribes. While the bastarda was developed from the lengthy tradition of Gothic book-hand, the humanist script was a Renaissance invention.

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The humanist script was intended to restore clarity and legibility to book production, and was accompanied by a new style of design. While the North did not distinguish classical texts with any particular type of decoration, the Italian Renaissance was eager to develop a new aesthetic to go with the brand new discoveries. The early modern versions of the classics disregarded the marginal grotesques or rich florals of the North in favour of white interlace patterns and classical motifs such as impressions of Roman coins and medals, or the ubiquitous putti – featured on the frontispiece of a Renaissance copy of Cicero’s Epistles (MS Hunter 441).

Frontispiece of the Margarita Philosophica (Sp Coll Ferguson Ag-a.30)

The second half of the fifteenth century marked the diffusion of Renaissance ideas from Italy into Northern Europe. University cities such as Paris, Antwerp, and Augsburg became centres of humanist activity and book production. Even though the immense scale and pace of this spread of knowledge can be directly linked to the invention of printing, the early modern period saw a vast amount of classical texts copied into luxury manuscripts. The classics were no longer physically confined to devotional books. Instead, they became a fully independent genre. Aristotle and Seneca appear alongside the seven liberal arts on the frontispiece of one of the printed copies of Margarita Philosophica (Sp Coll Ferguson Ag-a.30) – the first modern encyclopaedia.

Eventually, the end of the fifteenth century saw affluent nobles and clergymen, such as Raphael de Mercatellis, establishing the first exclusively humanist libraries in Northern Europe. Mercatellis was the patron of Commentaries on Plato (MS Hunter 206), one of the few Northern humanist manuscripts in Special Collections. His monogram and coat of arms are proudly displayed in the illuminated initials which open Leonardo Bruni’s Latin translation of Plato’s Phaedo – a dialogue on the soul and immortality. Alongside Bruni’s translation, the manuscript contains a copy of Marsilio Ficino’s commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love, published in the 1460s. The text was copied into Raphael’s manuscript before 1483, proving the speed at which ideas spread through European networks of learning, and placing Raphael at the very forefront of the humanist North.

Three of the manuscripts featured in this blog posts (MS Hunter 91, MS Hunter 206, and MS Hunter 231) will be on display in the foyer of the Special Collections until June 2017.


MS Hunter 206: coat of arms

Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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1 reply

  1. Reblogged this on Marie Macpherson and commented:
    Illuminated Manuscripts

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