Half Title

Contesting the Past

The volumes in this series select some of the most controversial episodes in history and consider their divergent, even starkly incompatible representations. The aim is not merely to demonstrate that history is “argument without end,” but to show that study even of contradictory conceptions can be fruitful: that the jettisoning of one thesis or presentation leaves behind something of value.


Contesting the Crusades

Norman Housley

Contesting the German Empire 1871–1918

Matthew Jefferies

Vietnam: Explaining America’s Lost War

Gary R. Hess

Contesting the French Revolution

Paul Hanson

The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories

Neil Caplan

Contesting the Renaissance

William Caferro

In preparation

Witch Hunts in the Early Modern World

Alison Rowlands


C. Scott Dixon

The Rise of Nazism

Chris Szejnmann


This edition first published 2011

© William Caferro 2011

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Caferro, William.

Contesting the Renaissance / William Caferro.

p. cm. – (Contesting the past)

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-4051-2369-3 (hardcover: alk. paper) – ISBN 978-1-4051-2370-9 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Renaissance. 2. Renaissance–Historiography. I. Title.

CB361.C24 2011



A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.



There is probably no penance sufficient for writing a book of this nature. It is at once presumptuous and inadequate and will arrive at the bookstore already out of date.

My commitment to the project has nevertheless been strong, and derives from both my scholarly interests and the vicissitudes of my professional career. The latter began teaching early modern Europe (then called Renaissance/Reformation Europe) and shifted to the Middle Ages. The transformation owes to the ambiguity of my research field – fourteenth-century Italian economic history – which occupies uncertain ground in the grand historical narrative. The urban landscape and advanced commercial practices of Italy fit poorly the medieval label as traditionally understood (especially by job committees at American universities), while the fourteenth century seems too early for consideration as early modern, particularly in comparison to England and France, which remained under the medieval veil of darkness. One recalls Robert Lopez’s famous statement that Italy was “never medieval, but no medieval trend left it unaffected.” Understanding the ambiguity stands at the core of my current scholarly agenda, and is the starting point of this book.

This volume is in no way intended as a comprehensive study of Renaissance historiography, if indeed that is possible. It aims only at relaying representative themes and approaches. The chapters begin with old iconic works, which serve as entrée into broader historiographical discussions. The authors may, as colleagues point out, have been superseded by recent scholarship, but I believe that including them is at the very least useful in situating and understanding present arguments. The intention is also partly archaeological: to make available to students these works, which have become increasingly difficult to access and indeed have at times been caricatured in the current literature. Each chapter takes as its subtitle a question derived from the older literature.

Nevertheless, I am aware that examination of even the limited topics covered in this book raises more questions than it answers. The demarcation lines between one field and another are not clear cut, and the very act of arranging them into chapters runs contrary to recent Renaissance scholarship that has advocated breaking down disciplinary barriers, an approach I very much agree with. The discourses themselves are often ill-fitting and not easily reconciled. Scholarly approaches differ according to generation and nationality. Basic assumptions abandoned in one discipline sometimes remain accepted in others. The status quo is often confused and it is difficult to state precisely where the scholarship is at any point.

I did not try to disguise such issues. Rather, I have sought to present as much as possible the complexity of the debates, following the eddies and spirals within them, without (hopefully) losing clarity and the main lines. The broad aim has been to be as inclusive as possible, to avoid personal judgment and the type of selective citation that has plagued my own field of economic history. I have included the work of non-historians (anthropologists, economists, literary critics, social theorists, psychologists), who have been critical in shaping the field. I have also included the work of popular writers, who, despite the slights aimed at them by professionals, have been similarly influential.

Many colleagues and friends have inspired and guided this project over the years. I want in particular to acknowledge the critical assistance of Bill Connell, whose knowledge of the subject is unparalleled and without whom there would be no book. I would also like to thank Judith C. Brown, Samuel K. Cohn, Steven A. Epstein, Christine Meek, Anthony Molho, Edward Muir, John Najemy, and Sharon Strocchia for their enormous help, both explicit and implicit. I thank my colleagues in the History Department at Vanderbilt University, especially Helmut Walser Smith, who helped me improve chapter 1. I wish to express my gratitude also to the Institute of Advanced Studies where I spent a semester finishing the manuscript and benefited from the mentorship of Caroline Walker Bynum, Nicola di Cosmo, Luigi Capogrossi-Colognesi, Giles Constable, Irving and Marilyn Lavin, and Giacomo Todeschini. I am greatly indebted to Susan M. Stuard of Haverford College, whom I admire more than I can express here. I thank also my childhood friend Marshall Gordon, who tried to unpack my academic prose, and my undergraduate student Hannah Hayes, who tried to do the same. I wish to acknowledge three special places – J.J.’s Market in Nashville, TN, the Daily Grind (now defunct) in Champaign-Urbana IL, and Hungarian Pastry Shoppe in NYC – where I did much of the editing and revising of this book. Finally, I want to thank the editors of the series, Tessa Harvey and Gillian Kane, for their patience with me, having gone so far beyond my appointed deadlines.

I dedicate the book to my wife and closest friend Megan Weiler. I dedicate it also to my graduate mentors, John Boswell, Harry Miskimin, and Jaroslav Pelikan. My professional career has taken me far from where I began in my studies with them. But it was under their guidance that I came to love history and this book, whatever its weaknesses, is manifestation of that emotion and my great debt to them.

William Caferro