When we say Renaissance we simply mean the rebirth of classical knowledge and we try to approach this period from the viewpoint of classical Greek. But when we say early modern studies we are trying to approach this period in view of the developments that happened later than the Renaissance. However, we do not cancel out the importance of classical period but simply give more importance to the later developments in modernity.
The term Renaissance the period of fifteenth and sixteenth century was given only in the nineteenth century. But early modern is much more recent, associated in particular with the Annales School of Historians since the 1940s in France and later in England.
Both Renaissance and early modern are chronologically shifting, Renaissance points to European cultural phenomena, which started around the twelfth century. Renaissance scholars are less worried about the end of the Renaissance. Their concern is how to date Renaissance, how to link it to the ancient Hellenic culture and how to isolate it from its recent past. It puts for objective consideration of other historical epoch. Renaissance turns to the past and is concerned with the origin and influences. But early modern points out distinct objectives for historians. It has come as a reaction against the elitism and cultural myopia of Renaissance history. It points to a weakening of disciplinary boundaries. It questions particularized structure of literary study. It breaks the traditional segment of literary studies and destroys literary studies as an autonomous category of intellectual activity. Past and present are out of focus of early modern studies.
The shift from Renaissance to early modern studies shows the class realities of the Renaissance period, those realities which seem to be left out when we approach the age with the term Renaissance. But when we approach the age with early modern studies the prevailing class realities, even of lower class people, are included. The age starts to include the culture of lower class people. One of the implications of this shift is to have not just a literary approach to that age or one subject approach, but to have an interdisciplinary approach.
According to Lee S. Marcus, to look at Renaissance through the lens called “early modern” is to see the concerns of modernism and postmodernism in embryo. Marcus says that the term Renaissance, because it means rebirth, suggests celebration, optimism, and a feeling of being upbeat. When we feel upbeat and when we are in a celebrating mood, we talk only about good things. In Renaissance, however, there were also ugly things. The killing of women in the name of witches, the killing of people who came up with new scientific ideas, things are not talked about at all. But if we study the age from the viewpoint of early modern all these things come under discussion. So, the writer replaces Renaissance with early modern.
Another difference is the word formation of the word “Renaissance”. We write Renaissance, the first word is capitalized to give importance to high culture. We capitalize its first letter because it gives importance to high culture. But the initial letters of early modern are not capitalized.
Marcus says that the writings and culture of Renaissance are aptly sponsored by the elites because the elites control the artistic production through patronage. So, Renaissance scholars they only pinpoint the glowing idealized pictures of cultural life during the period. But early modern approach privileges the lower class values over the elite’s values, or it privileges margin over the center.
Another difference is that when we say rebirth it is also rupture, disjunction but we do not talk about disjunction when we study that period under Renaissance. But if we take the early modern approach we naturally tend to talk about disjunction.
Similarly, women writers are not included by Renaissance scholars. But early modern scholars encompass women writers as well as marginal group. It revives the marginalized women writers like Elizabeth Carey, Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Wroth.
There has also been a shift from high culture to low culture. By Renaissance we mean high or elite culture. The genres related to lower parts of society were not taught or included in the canon. Only the lyric poem, one of the elitist genres, was considered as good, but when we say early modern studies we do not deny the existence of high culture, we do also recognize the low culture in its significance.
Lastly, Renaissance reveals the possibility for objectivity whereas early modern develops concerns of modernism, postmodernism and textual indeterminacy.