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Renaissance Essays

by Hugh Trevor-Roper
University of Chicago Press, 312 pp., $22.50

In 1957 H.R. Trevor-Roper, the newly appointed and controversial Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, published a collection of short reviews and reflections that elegantly illuminated aspects of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England and Europe. A decade later he offered a further collection on similar lines, only the chapters were fewer and meatier.1 During Trevor-Roper’s academic career he has produced book-length studies, brilliant and startling by turns, of medieval civilization, of a homosexual fantast in China, of the anatomy of treachery, and of the psychological world of the Nazi leadership. This virtuosity diverted and instructed the public at large, making the professor’s name famous, encouraging him at times to overstretch the bow. Historians have remained lukewarm. To his professional colleagues Trevor-Roper’s reputation rests above all on his essays, which treat themes from the early modern age. They will search the thirteen articles in the latest collection, most of them selected from occasional writings issued over more than two decades (although the three longest are previously unpublished), for confirmation of their judgment.

The historical essay is an uncertain genre. While its author needs skill to say things of real importance in a brief pièce de circonstance, he can avoid more extended intellectual demands. The free-ranging manner and epigrammatic style, fostering a sense of heady discovery, can lift up an improbable argument while leaving a good one half-baked. The essayist never quite has to state his premises, and Trevor-Roper teases us to probe his deeper thoughts, the larger preoccupations that recur from his earlier work. In fact these succulent, brightly colored confections have hard centers and something of a common flavor. Is there then a “philosophy of the writer” revealed in the very variety of his subject matter, as the preface to the collection published in 1957 encouraged the reader to presume? Are there even (as Goethe said of his heterogeneous oeuvre) the “fragments of some great confession”?

Evidently the Renaissance furnishes our guiding theme here. For Trevor-Roper the word means nothing very precise, primarily “the revival of ancient letters and the growth of princely power.” Yet for him the revival of letters culminated at a specific time and place, in the person and entourage of Desiderius Erasmus, in the Erasmian ideal of civilized discourse, of intellectual criticism disciplined by evangelical morality and enhanced by irony and restraint. Of course, much of the Erasmian synthesis had been anticipated in Italy, but we find in these pages only a nod toward the accomplishments of the quattrocento. Though the chapter on Erasmus is too slight to bear much weight in itself, we can everywhere infer that the Dutch humanist was the central genius of the Renaissance, his marriage of Plato with St. Paul in a “philosophia Christi” its central achievement.

Erasmus’s erudition and wit, his firmness of purpose and unerring articulation of the discontent of the day, earned him a reputation remarkable for the speed of its spread (within two decades after 1500) and the extent of the recognition he received. Beside Erasmus stands his English friend Thomas More, and it was More who penned the profoundest single testimony to the ambitions and tensions of Christian humanism. His Utopia correspondingly is the subject of perhaps the most felicitous essay in this volume, as Trevor-Roper strips away the “thick patina of so much praise” with which the portrait of Henry VIII’s tragic chancellor has become encrusted. He finds in More’s celebrated jeu d’esprit a serious and consistent blueprint for a state organized on Platonic principles, a commentary on the dilemmas of worldly engagement without which any practical reform was impossible.

In 1516, the year of Utopia’s first publication, the ecclesiastical and secular destinies of Renaissance Europe seemed to lie at the feet of the humanists. Yet almost immediately, after barely five years, they began to succumb to hostile forces: to the barbarism of the “grim ayatollah” Luther and Rome’s narrow-minded response, to Machiavelli’s subversion of Christian morality, to resurgent clericals and iconoclasts, to peasant disturbances and rampant worldliness, to various kinds of irrationality within the house of learning itself. Not least, in Trevor-Roper’s view, they succumbed to pressure from that other chief manifestation of the Renaissance, princely power, which, while it might temporarily favor scholarship, distorted and cowed it in the service of its own ideology. Erasmus found himself disowned by many former supporters; More went to the block, and his message was betrayed by friends as well as enemies. Renaissance values, feeding now on a new conscious search for historical continuity, which was called forth by the same crisis, retreated into the study of the private scholar.

Trevor-Roper illustrates this evolution with essays on four English savants. First is John Stow, London’s antiquary, a minor luminary, a metropolitan provincial, but a man typical of the effort to preserve, recall, and justify England’s traditions in face of the vandals who had ransacked the medieval Church, dispersed its records, defaced its monuments. Then come Richard Hooker, author of a celebrated and highly influential treatise, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, which aimed to demonstrate the antiquity and continuous existence of the religious solution represented by Anglicanism; William Camden, who vindicated Tudor monarchy as an organic part of “the whole glutinous contexture of present and past society”; and finally Robert Burton, that Roget, Brewer, even Freud avant la lettre, a lay mind in an Oxford clerical establishment, the “complete humanist scholar.” Posterity has tended to take Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy at face value, as discursive omnium-gatherum of great charm and casual profit. But Trevor-Roper looks to the substance behind it and finds another would-be reformer of mankind who conveys his critical message through satire, a hater of war and dogma, in other words an explicit Erasmian and disciple of the realistic utopian More. To Burton, then, “melancholy” is a code word for lack of balance, in the individual as in society, and the purpose of its “anatomy” is to restore harmony and dynamism.

Trevor-Roper’s high claims for the coherence of the Anatomy of Melancholy, as of Utopia, may not satisfy everyone. But they yield an excellent terminus to his argument, since the appearance of that quaquaversal masterpiece in 1621 coincided with the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, which swept away the remnants of Renaissance civilization. What remained (as he has expounded elsewhere) gradually flowed together again through various more or less unorthodox and clandestine channels, espoused by Socinians, Jansenists, latitudinarian Anglicans, until it could flourish anew as the foremost ingredient of the Enlightenment.

One of Trevor-Roper’s major accomplishments, so apparently effortless as to be almost invisible, consists in his symbiotic view of Britain and Europe, a view often obscured by latter-day specialisms (not least in the whole structure of teaching at Trevor-Roper’s own university of Oxford). He stresses Erasmus’s debt to an “English synthesis of evangelical piety with pure Platonism,” as well as England’s cultural debt to Europe from the days of More until the 1640s. Hooker propagated Anglicanism as an ecumenical religion with universal scope, and he was much valued abroad; Camden moved in international circles and was heavily influenced by continental contemporaries; Burton (England’s Montaigne, as Trevor-Roper observes) satisfied his voracious appetite with publications from everywhere, especially (as he does not observe) with works listed on the Papal Index. Even the most insular subject in this book, Trevor-Roper’s brief account of the recently published Lisle letters, a Jonsonian imbroglio involving such improbable characters as the troublesome priests Adam Damplip and Sir Geoffrey Sweet-lips, has its European dimension. For Lord Lisle, an illegitimate son of Edward IV, was governor of Calais, still (just) an English possession; and another of the dramatis personae, Cardinal Pole, that most cosmopolitan of royal Englishmen, was an eminent Erasmian. And the same Tudor court, which Erasmus once admired, sought to destroy Pole and Lisle as it had already destroyed More.

Equally significant—a newer strain in Trevor-Roper’s work—is the concern with Germany, whose true cultural importance during the Renaissance has long been distorted by modern prejudice, both domestic and foreign. There is a perceptive sketch of the Holy Roman Empire’s great patron in the age of Erasmus, Emperor Maximilian I, a man unconscionably long neglected by Anglo-American historians. This 1977 essay’s immediate predecessor was a student monograph of 1901 by R.W. Seton-Watson, who subsequently earned fame as a prominent subverter of that Austrian state which Maximilian had founded.

More substantial, indeed the most demanding piece in the book and its intellectual center, is a study of the ideas and influence of the extraordinary Swiss physician and magus, Paracelsus. Trevor-Roper, who once dismissed Paracelsian teachings as “portentous lunacies,” now appreciates them as a genuine Renaissance endeavor to reform medicine, despite the anti-intellectual leanings, the occult obscurity, the strange manners, and the expressly Germanic posture of their originator. Paracelsians too were Platonists, stressing their classical ancestry, working with a cosmology of correspondences, macrocosm and microcosm, and were often condemned as wizards by the orthodox (the same orthodox Aristotelians whom Trevor-Roper, in a famous essay, identified as authors of the contemporary witch craze). Paracelsian remedies gained acceptance throughout Europe in varying degrees, but the full mystical and eschatological philosophy remained a German specialty, at least till its overblown heritage found favor among English Puritans and the “chemical revolution” became Britain’s last Renaissance import.

Trevor-Roper appears to conceive of Paracelsianism as a kind of Weltanschauung which would eventually lead, via the Pietists, to Germany’s Aufklärung or eighteenth-century Enlightenment. However that may be, it affords him a peg on which to hang other reflections of a European scope. One concerns the role of churches. Like many anticlericals—a pedigree established by the first and most eristic of his books2—Trevor-Roper is uncommonly interested in religion. Whereas many historians nowadays, not only materialists but also ecclesiastical historians of an ecumenical persuasion, belittle confessional differences as a causal mechanism in the age of Reformation, Trevor-Roper’s vantage point of enlightened skepticism allows them a clear place. In his essays in Religion, the Reformation and Social Change of 1967 he deployed a powerful, overarching argument which has been deservedly admired. Learning survived, so he posited, by occupying the interstices of new intolerant hierarchies, social and ecclesiastical, in inverse proportion to the degree of control exercised by the state. Hence it did better in Protestant than in Catholic lands because the latter (except in Venice and at times in France) repressed learning more effectively; better in Calvinist than in Lutheran areas; best of all among the “Arminians” or undogmatic Calvinists, since these represented the authentic Erasmian tradition, urban, critical, and cosmopolitan, which could flourish only in periods of comparative tranquillity.

The model he constructed seems here to be confirmed by the spread of Paracelsianism, a nonsectarian doctrine which became increasingly suspect to conservative authorities, especially Catholic ones. In France it was pushed by the end of the sixteenth century into alliance with the Huguenots, as the Sorbonne and the medical faculty of Paris closed ranks against it. In England it prospered among moderate Anglicans as a progressive practical system, but was rejected by the high-churchmen of the 1630s; while the brief triumph of the Puritans saw all its occult accretions unleashed as the “last backlash of a dying world.” Trevor-Roper concludes that the entire hermetic, alchemical, Paracelsian side of Renaissance culture turned into a “Protestant monopoly.” I doubt it, though here is not the place for detailed reservations. Surely the characteristic Protestant mystical extravagance was prophecy (strangely Trevor-Roper does not mention the Paracelsian vision of the “Lion of the North,” so freely invoked at the time of the Swedish intervention in the Thirty Years’ War). Otherwise it was Catholics who had a greater need for supernatural sanctions, the panoply of white magic whose foremost spokesman in all seventeenth-century Europe was the Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher. Eighteenth-century Salzburg took at least as much pride in being the last resting place of Paracelsus as in being the breeding ground for Mozart.

The argument about religion shades into an equally debatable one about society. Earlier in his career Trevor-Roper advanced the thesis that economic and scientific advance, like intellectual advance, proceeded by reacting against intolerance, especially Catholic intolerance. The origins of modern capitalist societies, as of the Enlightenment, lay in forced migration from the old centers of commerce and seedbeds of Erasmian humanism: Flanders, southern Germany, northern Italy. The chief obstacle to such societies lay in the bloated apparatus of the Renaissance court, which had been designed to meet new requirements of control and organization, but which soon declined into a top-heavy, inefficient, corrupt, and stagnant bureaucratic structure, calling forth a “puritan” critical reaction, then collapsing, or undergoing fundamental modification, in the famous “general crisis” of the mid-seventeenth century.

That proposition, which raised many questions at the time, reappears here in the confusing guise of an essay on the “baroque courts” of Europe. Two kinds of court, we are told, can be identified around 1600 in this “autumn of the Renaissance” (“Renaissance plus inflation” is a wilder formulation). Protestant polities encouraged the ministry of the word, that is to say literary production; Catholic states developed visual images and symbols. We seem to have two kinds, of late-Renaissance culture. On one side stands the learned Erasmian kind, the property of critical intellectuals and an educated, sober, mildly evangelical middle class, more or less willingly tolerated by Protestant governments. At various points in this book we encounter Protestant members of the free professions, particularly doctors, transmitting new ideas or dabbling in rebellion if the new establishments proved too inflexible to accommodate them. On the other side stand hierarchical systems of princely power, with their richly artistic trappings and conspicuous waste (what Trevor-Roper long ago forthrightly described as “outrageous, spendthrift, irresponsible exhibitionism”).

There is a dangerous lack of precision here, an unclear chronology, and a highly strained account of the baroque mentality. Can European civilization in the age of Shakespeare and Cervantes, Kepler and Rubens, really be divided on the essentially confessional lines so important to Trevor-Roper’s case? Were courts really so wasteful during the years before 1620, rather than after 1650 when, according to him, princes “left culture to private enterprise”? He cites the “flamboyant church of the Gesù” in Rome as a model for ecclesiastical extravagance; but let us recall that the stunning internal décor of that Jesuit church dates not from its construction in the 1570s but from a century later. Can his supposed “puritan” reaction against the Renaissance courts in early seventeenth-century Europe—an immensely fruitful idea—be voided of all its spiritual content? What anyway was the nature of the “crisis” that brought the Renaissance to an end? Trevor-Roper’s earlier analysis concentrated on the 1640s; but what about the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618 which, on his own submission, itself gave rise to so many of the financial, economic, social, psychological, and moral strains?

The last chapter of this book seeks the origins of the Thirty Years’ War essentially in Spain, the very country where Erasmian ideas had been first and most effectively snuffed out. Conflict was precipitated both through a series of incidents on the edge of the Spanish sphere of influence and, more fundamentally, through the perceptions of a group of hawkish Spanish advisers who saw the need to fight in defense of empire while there was still time. How can cultural change be related to such political considerations? These essays offer no more than a few clues, though if it is true that “intellectual systems are…tied to social structures” and even that “arts and sciences are the epiphenomena, or propaganda, of power,” then we surely need more. Again the issue is joined primarily in the discussion of the Paracelsians. Their legacy of modern medicine and chemistry, Trevor-Roper argues, had progressively to be extracted from a mystical cosmology, although for a true believer the latter represented the real message to which any practical applications remained strictly ancillary. Why, however, should not empirical triumphs confirm philosophical assumptions? Why, on the other hand, should not shrinking intellectual credulity in the seventeenth century condemn the supposed results which were anyway so hard to prove?

Perhaps it is always more difficult to explain the decay of a body of ideas than its emergence. But behind Trevor-Roper’s entire perception of these issues there appears to lie an element of personal testimony too. Consider the date when his account of the origins of the war of 1618 first appeared: 1962, just after the publication of Fritz Fischer’s reductionist thesis about German guilt in 1914 and of A.J.P. Taylor’s narrowly diplomatic explanation for the events of 1939. Can we not also detect here the recent memory of Korea or Hungary, and a revulsion against hidebound Spanish regimes? Echoes of the liberal dilemma of the 1930s are likewise not far to seek, both in particular arguments (drama and masque express, we are told, “that cult of personality which is inseparable from totalitarian monarchs”) and in the overall presentation of the destiny of Erasmians forced into a marriage of convenience, a “popular front” with Calvinist orthodoxy.

Most conspicuous is the legacy of animus against Catholic claims, especially against the apologetics of the English convert generation around Chesterton and Waugh, those “intellectuals tired of thinking,” which still permeates the underlying structure of Trevor-Roper’s analysis. He evidently still sees himself as chronicler of the “spirit of civilized lay history” initiated by the Erasmians, who first called the Romish clergy to order for pursuing their incomprehensible rituals in the darkened chancels of understanding. Their humanistic ethos, donnish, critical, sardonic, flourished again in the comfortable enlightened conservatism of nineteenth-century essayists, with whose relaxed approach Trevor-Roper has so closely associated himself. He has acknowledged a special affinity with Jacob Burckhardt, whose shade hovers over the masterly vignette of Doge Francesco Foscari which opens this collection, with its Venetian colorismo and its subtle interplay between individual and institution.

Yet Trevor-Roper’s treatment of the Renaissance here, beginning chronologically just where Burckhardt left off, is also strikingly un-Burckhardtian, for the fine arts are hardly discussed. That is fortuitous up to a point; he has speculated about them elsewhere.3 There is more to the matter, however, since when the arts do appear on these pages they are awkwardly yoked to arguments about a flight from reason, about ostentation and the symbolic trappings of the Catholic baroque. While Trevor-Roper is on record as taking issue with Keynes’s dictum that England had Shakespeare when she could afford him, he has himself argued that “the great art schools are to be found in the same cities which produced the great banks.” Ultimately he judges Renaissance art to be expensive, luxuriant, technical; unlike the sturdy, autonomous purveyors of Renaissance learning it could be suborned by princely power and (of course) clerical self-interest.

But if, as Trevor-Roper no doubt continues to believe, “history that is not controversial is dead history,” he has mellowed. Even the Jesuits are let off more lightly these days. He is less acidulous too now about that other kind of mandarinate, his professional colleagues, whom he accused back in 19574 of being a “self-perpetuating apostolic succession of warranted experts,” disputing over the style of knitting in a medieval nunnery while Marxist ideologues usurped their function. He still feels for the layman Erasmus among the cloddish professors of Louvain (should we today read Peter-house, Cambridge, of which he is now master?), and for the layman Burton kept on his tight financial rein by the canons of Christ Church. But he now seems ready to allow that it is precisely the “creeping paralysis of specialism” that has yielded essential new insights (not least from his own pupils) into the history of medicine, occultism and millenarians, printing, Spanish imperialism, utopians, court patronage, and the rest. Not only does Trevor-Roper draw richly and sensitively on this research: he even joins in it, and the skill of his detective work in divorcing the putative French physician De la Rivière into two quite distinct doctors will be appreciated only by initiates.

It is a pity, then, that the scrappy bibliographical apparatus in this book hardly acknowledges its many debts or the numerous fields where it cannot possibly be authoritative. Not all its hypotheses will pass professional muster; a few of them already look distinctly insecure. Indeed, the eternal verities of Erasmian Platonism, with which it is so centrally concerned, are not easily to be squared with the fully developed historical consciousness of their distinguished expositor. The Midas touch of the stylist—the velvet prose, ever compulsive and delightful, the sovereign deployment of evidence—may still sometimes leave us with a heap of glistering pyrite. Yet if Professor Trevor-Roper cannot necessarily supply the right answers, he amply commands the historian’s higher gift of asking the right questions.

  1. 1

    H.R. Trevor-Roper, Historical Essays (London, 1957; Gannon, 1966); Religion, the Reformation and Social Change (London: Macmillan, 1967; Harper and Row, 1968).

  2. 2

    H.R. Trevor-Roper, Archbishop Laud 1573–1645 (London: Macmillan, 1940).

  3. 3

    H.R. Trevor-Roper, Princes and Artists: Patronage and Ideology at Four Habsburg Courts, 1517–1633 (Harper and Row, 1977).

  4. 4

    H.R. Trevor-Roper, History, Professional and Lay…An inaugural lecture (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1957).

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