New Perspectives on the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century

AHA Session 88
Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Exeter Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Thomas N. Bisson, Harvard University
John D. Cotts, Whitman College

Session Abstract

In 1927, Charles Homer Haskins, then a recent past president of the AHA, published his influential book, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. This book played a large role in establishing among an English language audience the idea that there was such a renaissance, and since then the Twelfth-Century Renaissance has become an important paradigm in the study of the central Middle Ages. The panel under submission seeks to revisit that cultural revival from a variety of angles, and to contribute to a number of debates that have become bound up with the concept of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance. R. W. Southern, in his 1970 book, Medieval Humanism, argued that England was an intellectual colony of France in the twelfth century. My paper takes on this argument and in doing so attempts to create a new model of how individual regions and kingdoms contributed to the development of intellectual movements and educational centers of European scope. Tolerance or intolerance towards religious minorities in the twelfth century has attracted much recent attention. Deborah Goodwin’s paper studies the reception of Augustinian and pseudo-Augustinian works on the Jews. In particular, she challenges the received wisdom that Augustine’s view that Jews were necessary, if reluctant, witnesses to Christian truth played a major role in ameliorating anti-Jewish views up through the twelfth century. When one views the impact of pseudonymous pieces, then accepted as authentic works of the influential theologian, “Augustine’s” influence heightened anti-Judaism. Monastic spirituality and the development of sophisticated administrative practices have both been staples of discussion for the Twelfth-Century Renaissance, but not surprisingly they are often considered quite distinct subjects. Jennifer Paxton’s paper shows how the increasingly professional administrative practices of abbots provoked new ways of thinking about the relationship of the material and the spiritual in monastic life and helped to produce a dynamic debate about what constituted good monastic leadership. The commentator, John Cotts, intends to use the papers as a platform to discuss the Twelfth-Century Renaissance as a paradigm.           

All three papers fit nicely into the theme of the conference. Goodwin’s paper explores the degree to which Augustinian views of the place of the Jews in sacred history influenced their position in society. Paxton’s paper involves the balancing of worldly and spiritual concerns, and focuses heavily on the use of chronicles. My own paper explores the harnessing of economic resources from places like England to create centers of sacred learning at places like Paris. History, society, and the sacred all come together neatly.

A panel on the Twelfth-Century Renaissance should have no trouble drawing a large audience from the medievalists in attendance at the conference. The variety of subjects within that overarching theme should also help make the session attractive. Intellectual and cultural historians, historians of religion, students of Jewish-Christian relations, and those interested in the development of administration and institutions will all benefit from these papers. Most important, the three papers and the commentary, taken as a group, will help members of the audience rethink the Twelfth-Century Renaissance.

See more of: AHA Sessions