History, Writing of

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History, Writing of

The growth of classical* learning during the Renaissance had a great impact on the way Europeans wrote and thought about history. Works by ancient Greek and Roman authors, such as Plutarch, Livy, and Tacitus, provided models for historians to use in writing the histories of their own nations. Renaissance historians made substantial advances in the writing of history. They also used history to support political positions.


During the Renaissance, scholars unearthed many works of ancient history that had been lost during the Middle Ages. They also translated the texts of Greek and Roman historians into vernacular* languages, making these works available to the general public.

Roman Historians. Scholars of the Middle Ages were familiar with many history writers of ancient Rome, either directly or through excerpts and summaries of their works. The writers included Livy, Sallust, and Julius Caesar, the Roman general and statesman. In the 1300s scholars began to rediscover many long-forgotten Latin writings. The first great effort in this area was the reconstruction of Livy's History of Rome by the early Renaissance humanist* Petrarch and a colleague. This work had existed only in fragments during the Middle Ages.

Later humanists studied and commented on ancient Roman writings such as the Histories of Sallust, the Annals of Tacitus, and the Commentaries of Julius Caesar. The study of Latin texts became a key part of a humanist education. During the early Renaissance, when republican* governments flourished in Italy, most scholars focused on histories of the Roman Republic. Later, as absolutist* forms of government took over in many places, works about the Roman Empire became more popular.

Greek Historians. Before 1400, most scholars knew the texts of Greek history only through Latin translations. In 1397 Manuel Chrysoloras, a Greek scholar, arrived in Florence and began teaching Greek to young humanists. His work helped generate interest in reading and translating ancient Greek authors. Chrysoloras's students, such as Leonardo Bruni and Guarino Guarini, translated the works of Polybius, Plutarch, and other writers of ancient Greece. Plutarch's Parallel Lives, one of the most popular Greek texts of the early Renaissance, compared the lives of famous Greeks and Romans and discussed their character traits.

Pope Nicholas V gave these studies a tremendous boost in the mid-1400s by hiring scholars to translate several major works of Greek history. Under his patronage*, scholars such as Lorenzo Valla produced Latin versions of texts by Herodotus, Thucydides, and other noted Greek authors.


During the Middle Ages, most history writing took the form of chronicles, or "annals"—listings of the important events that took place in a given year. Renaissance historians took a more narrative* approach to the past. They placed more emphasis on the forces behind the events and on the human beings involved. Reflecting the ancient idea of history as "philosophy teaching by example," they used history to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of various forms of government and to provide examples of virtuous behavior.

Leonardo Bruni of Italy was the first, and by many standards the greatest, humanist historian. His History of the Florentine People, written in the 1430s and 1440s and modeled on the work of Roman authors such as Livy, traced the rise of Florence to the status of a great power. Unlike many historians, Bruni viewed his sources with a critical eye and used only those that he found reliable. Many later Italian historians, including Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini, focused on the reasons for the Wars of Italy, when foreign powers took control of the region. Machiavelli used the events of this time to draw general conclusions about human societies.

Humanist historians in France turned to legal texts, a new type of historical source, to explain many aspects of French history. Jean Bodin and his followers examined the civil laws of the Roman Empire and concluded that they reflected the concerns of an ancient people, not the universal needs of all human societies. Later humanists such as Jacques Cujas built on this idea to proclaim the laws and customs of France as unique, not descended from ancient Rome.

French humanists also challenged many myths of their country's history, such as the popular notion that their ancestors came from the ancient kingdom of Troy. Some historians used this new view of French history as distinct from Roman history to support their political views. For example, those who objected to the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in France used historical evidence to argue that the early French church was independent of Rome.

In Britain, the annals of the Middle Ages lost favor while new forms, such as political history and biography, enjoyed new prominence. In 1521 scholar John Major produced a complete national history of England. Five years later Hector Boece of Scotland followed up with a history of his country, which drew heavily on medieval* chronicles and legendary sources. In the early 1500s biographies of important figures became a major form of historical writing in Britain. Sir Thomas More wrote a biography of the English king Richard III that became an important source for later scholars. More's own life became the subject of at least three biographies during the 1500s. Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World (1614) was a popular combination of history and biography. Written while Raleigh was in prison under a death sentence, it offered a dark vision of ancient history and tied the fall of mighty leaders to their faults.

German historians of the Renaissance worked to discredit the Italian image of Germans as "barbarians." Scholars such as Conrad Celtis pointed to the glories of ancient Germany and the victories of older German peoples such as the Goths and Vandals. They also observed that the Roman writer Tacitus had praised the virtues of ancient Germans, notably their intelligence, nobility, courage, and love of truth. German historians continued to use medieval chronicles, even as they embraced humanist ideas. Like the French, German Protestants drew on history to attack the authority of the pope. They created a new view of European history, particularly of church history, that presented the Protestant Reformation* as a rebirth of the true Christian church.

In Spain, the monarchy used history as a tool to support its claims of supremacy. When Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon and united their two kingdoms, the new nation looked to history to help it establish an identity. In the early 1500s Ferdinand hired several humanist scholars to research the history of Spain, but no one managed to produce a complete Spanish history until 1592. While some scholars tried to reconstruct Spain's history, others worked to lay out its geography. In 1548 Pedro de Medina produced a Spanish geography text with a patriotic slant, The Book of Great and Memorable Things of Spain.

(See alsoBiography and Autobiography; Classical Scholarship; Education; Humanism; Translation. )

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* vernacular

native language or dialect of a region or country

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* republican

refers to a form of Renaissance government dominated by leading merchants with limited participation by others

* absolutist

refers to complete control by a single ruler

* patronage

support or financial sponsorship

* narrative


* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* Protestant Reformation

religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches

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History, Writing of

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