The Myth of the Renaissance
This is worth its own post
Henri Matisse famously said, "The Renaissance was decadence!" Compared to what had gone before, very little that was new occurred during the Renaissance. Few new ideas or new technologies appeared. Architecture became a slavish imitation of the Greeks and Romans. Only in painting was there brilliance: the development of perspective and its flowering in the realism of narrative paintings. (Although Matisse regarded this as backsliding.) "Renaissance Man" DaVinci comes up short as a mathematician, as a military engineer, as a physicist. He did nothing remarkable; nothing that has endured. But, bozhe moi, the dude could paint!
Anyhow, Franklin, in the link below has much to say about what happened and why it happened. He points out that if the reader did not know the chronology, he would think Galileo and Descartes had been students of Nicholas Oresme, although 250 years separated them.
This is a point I addressed in my ANALOG essay De revolutione scientiarum in 'media tempestas'. My answer was the Black Death chopped population way down so that not until Galileo's generation was there as many Europeans as in Oresme's time and, if brilliant scientific minds are a constant proportion of the whole, never until then was there a "critical mass" of scientific thinkers. Franklin says something similar, although he points to the devolution of political and economic conditions and to the obsession of the Renaissance with allegory, symbolism, alchemy, astrology, and the like.
The next (and, as it proved, final), steps taken in this direction were the accomplishments of the last and greatest of the medieval scientists, Nicole Oresme. A remarkably versatile thinker, he wrote on such varied subjects as theology and money, but devoted much of his effort to science and mathematics. He invented graphs, one of the few mathematical discoveries since antiquity which are familiar to every reader of the newspapers. He was the first to perform calculations involving probability. He had a good grasp of the relativity of motion, and argued correctly that there was no way to distinguish by observation between the theory then held that the heavens revolve around the earth once a day, and the theory that the heavens are at rest and the earth spins once a day. He was apparently the first to compare the workings of the universe to a clock, an image much repeated in later ages. Many of his more technical achievements have also been admired by the experts.
Then everything came to a stop. Given the scientific and mathematical works of Descartes and Galileo, but no chronological information, one might suppose the authors were students of Oresme. Galileo's work on moving bodies is the next step after Oresme's physics; Cartesian geometry follows immediately on Oresme's work on graphs. But we know that the actual chronological gap was 250 years, during which nothing whatever happened in these fields. Nor did any thing of importance occur in any other branches of science in the two centuries between Oresme and Copernicus. Other intellectual fields have no more to offer. Histories of philosophy are naturally able to name philosophers between 1350 and 1600, but their inclusion seems to be on the same principle as world maps which include Wyndham, WA, but leave out Wollongong - big blank spaces must be filled. While it is almost impossible to find an English translation of any philosopher in the three hundred years between Scotus and Descartes, it is not a lack one feels acutely. The intellectual stagnation of those centuries is evident too in the lack of change in the universities: the curriculum which bored Locke at Oxford in 1650 was almost identical to the one which Wyclif found wanting in 1350.
Why was Oresme's generation the last one for two hundred years able to think? There is an obvious suggestion; it was the last to grow up before the Black Death.
See again: `The Renaissance myth'