The story told by the book – epicureanism flourished at Rome, was lost, and then was suddenly rediscovered and transformed the world – reflects the historical outlook of the humanists themselves. It was common for 14th and 15th-century scholars to claim that there was a destruction of classical learning in the middle ages, or, as Greenblatt calls it, “a Great Vanishing”, and that they were bringing the classical past back to life. As Francesco Barbaro wrote to Poggio: “You have revived so many illustrious men and such wise men, who were dead from eternity.”
Was this story really true? It more or less works for De Rerum Natura, which was indeed “lost” (or at least not often recopied between the 13th and 15th centuries) and then found on a particular day by an individual humanist. But the story that the renaissance suddenly began with a great rediscovery of the pagan past does not work so well in relation to other classical authors. Virgil, Ovid and Aristotle were more or less continuously read from antiquity until the age of print. In many cases humanists found more reliable manuscripts, and they sometimes discovered whole texts. But they did not simply end the “ignorance” of the dark ages. Indeed they tended to exaggerate that ignorance to emphasise their own novelty.
The reason for this is obvious. To have a “renaissance” or rebirth of classical learning, you have to imagine that it died. As well as sharing the humanists’ passion for antiquity, Greenblatt shares their prejudice against medieval Christianity, which he portrays with the vividness but also the crudity of a cartoon. “If Lucretius offered a moralised and purified version of the Roman pleasure principle, Christianity offered a moralised and purified version of the Roman pain principle,” Greenblatt declares. His descriptions of medieval monasticism emphasise the strict discipline of monastic orders, the erasure of personal identity among scribes and the mortification of the flesh. Greenblatt’s version of the middle ages is more or less exactly that of the humanists, in which characterless monks and self-flagellating nuns rejoice in the savage discipline of the church. From this they needed Lucretius to set them free.
The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt – review | Books | The Guardian. I’ve been waiting and waiting to see if any reviewers of Greenblatt’s book would notice how reductive and simplistic his picture of the Middle Ages is. So here’s one, at least.