Thursday, February 20, 2014

Was the Renaissance a "Transitional Age?"

One of the pleasures of reading papers outside my own areas of expertise is the discovery that academics can be very inventive in picking topics for an argument. In "The Renaissance and the Drama of Western History," William J. Bouwsma takes on the question of whether or not the Renaissance was a "transitional age." When confronted with the more general view that any age may be viewed as a transition from its predecessor to its successor, he responds with the assertion that the transition was more accelerated during the Renaissance. He then summons up the metaphor of this accelerated transition taking place "between two granitic headlands, clearly identified as the Middle Ages and the modern."

As I say, this can all be very inventive. For better or worse, I read this essay in the context of having read Thomas Kuhn's famous study of "scientific revolutions." Kuhn talks about such "revolutions" in terms of "paradigm shifts." What he is really getting at, however, is that, at any given time, there are certain social conventions that determined what might be called the "normal practice of science." Those criteria for what constitutes "normal practice" basically identify a "paradigm." Kuhn then suggests that "revolutions" take place because "normal practice" does not change gradually. To provide a simple example, once people like Galileo had access to a telescope, the whole way of "normal thinking" about astronomy changed radically.

My personal interest in the Renaissance is concerned with making music, a domain in which it makes sense to talk about "normal practices." I think it would be fair to say that becoming a musicians was a matter of being recognized as a musician by other musicians. Such recognition tended to be based on whether or not one's practices were perceived as "normal." Thus, Richard Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger is all about what happens when someone not skilled in those "normal practices" dares to make up and sing a song.

The nice thing about studying music history is that there are all of these "proclaimed authorities" who would document what those "normal practices" were. Thus, as Wagner suggested, one became a musician through an apprenticeship process just as one became a craftsman skilled enough to be part of a guild. Acquiring "normal practices" had more to do with doing under the supervision of a master than with reading one of those documents and then doing things "by the book." There may have been documented points of reference, but all that really mattered was how one did things in the immediate present.

What is interesting about the Renaissance is that new technologies led to new practices. The most interesting of these was probably the technology of printing, since this triggered a major change in the "normal practices" of making music, whether it involved performing someone else's music or coming up with something original. However, there were also changes in the motives behind those practices. There was a past in which making music amounted to a calling one followed for the greater glory of God. The advent to printing brought the concept of intellectual property along in its wake and with it the possibility that creating new music could create a revenue stream.

The question that historians seem to have overlooked is whether all those practices changed in the "revolutionary" way that Kuhn associates with the history of science or whether it was a gradual process of one thing leading to another. If we knew enough about the nature of the changes and how they unfolded, our innate capacity for forming categories might be better equipped to decide whether or not those categories we currently call "ages" are actually useful and whether a new set of categories might be in order. In other words, we should be taking those documents from the past and reading them not as authorities but as "snapshots" of "normal practice" and then see where all those data point lead us.

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