Renaissance/Early Modern Studies by Leah S. Marcus

The scholarly area, “early modern” studies, is despite some differences, quite similar to what is often termed as Renaissance studies. However, the term, “early modern” studies is used to replace the term Renaissance so that the early concept of the Renaissance may be supplemented with new assumptions.

So, it is a new nomenclature of categorization. This terminological shift is used to encountering an important set of conceptual reconfiguration and to remap the field itself. Previously, the term “Renaissance” was used to denote only the cultural rebirth or reawakening of an earlier era called classical. But the term “early modern” denotes the break from interpreting the period as a time of renaissance and to refer the approach which views the period in terms of developments that happened after the Renaissance.
Though the name Renaissance was adopted in English only in the nineteenth century, the idea of the Renaissance goes back to the Renaissance itself. But the name “early modern” is much more recent and is adopted as a sign of disaffiliation from the elitism and cultural myopia of older Renaissance history. This revision points to weakening of the disciplinary boundaries because the early modern literary scholars borrowed the ideas from history or art history or anthropology which helped them to remap the Renaissance studies in the form of interdisciplinarity. This shift from ‘Renaissance’ to ‘early modern’ not only erodes the traditional segment of literary studies called Renaissance; it also dissolves literary studies as an autonomous category of intellectual activity. Speaking precisely, it dissolves the appearance of autonomy that literary studies have long prided itself on. Thus, the shift in terminology caused the shift from one disciplinary to interdisciplinary approaches.
Moreover, the term Renaissance is applied to European cultural phenomena occurring as early as the twelfth century, whereas the term “early modern” is applied to the phenomenon as recent as the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Similarly, the Renaissance scholars have generally been concerned more about how to date its beginning than about how to date its ending. They celebrate its beginning as a magical moment. So, their concern is with the question of origin, influence, and filiations. In contrary, the scholars of early modern have devoted to define the issue of terminus or the last stage of the period. In the field of history, early modern leads directly into the modern era because the early modern history ends with the close of the eighteenth century and modern history begins with the beginning of the nineteenth century. So, it seems that the term early modern carries some of the aura of twentieth century modernism and postmodernism as concern of early moderns is with alienation, disjunction from origins, skepticism, emphasis on textual indeterminacy and an interest in intertextuality which are the characteristics of modernism and postmodernism. Thus, the boundaries of Renaissance tend to push back into the past and the earlier chronological beginnings. But early modern tends to creep up on recent present.
The term Renaissance suggests optimism, buoyancy and celebration when it is used to denote the rebirth or reawakening of classic; it implicitly perceives historical rupture along with a subtle hierarchical valuation of disparate cultures. However, Renaissance failed to include the culture of human activity and misery. The traditional scholars of the Renaissance include glowing, idealized picture of cultural life during the period by concentrating only on a small ruling elite who controlled artistic production through patronage. They paid worshipful attention to high culture. But they perceived low culture as representing a lack of culture, lumpish chaos, the many-beaded monster of the pit. This way, culture was given a hierarchical schema. But the early modern approach to the period set aside the hierarchical schema of the “Renaissance” in its traditional sense. This approach marks the shift from the privilege of elite value to the privilege of the value of low culture. The historians of early modern typically use quantitative methods to get at the commonplaces, lives of common people, economic trends, common practices, popular entertainment and popular mentality. Thus, the term “Renaissance” is conceptualized even in recent work while early modern is not.
The term early modern is more egalitarian and inclusive in that after the Second World War, the universities with the expansion of public education became inclusive and the morality formed by elites lost its moral values. Yet the term Renaissance has not been discarded even by the scholars who emphasize on early modern. Despite declared interest, Renaissance and early modern are commonly used even in the work of very recent scholars on the ground that each term has its own special purpose, for instance, Renaissance approach, is that of literary disciplinary, but the early modern approach is interdisciplinary. This way of dividing terminology is typical in the works of the present authors because critics are in creative turmoil and indecisiveness whether to move toward interdisciplinary approach with egalitarianism and inclusiveness or to keep up the charismatic idea of rebirth, the character of elitism carried out with the idea of the Renaissance.
Besides, the idea of rebirth implies both cultural disjunction and the possibility of renewed identity. The renewed identity means essential similarity between two periods: the classic and the Renaissance itself. But now, the claim of essential similarity, which is the character of traditional Renaissance, is questioned by the recent work of early modern bent. According to early modern approach, the identity is not innate and unchanging; rather it is unstable and recoverable. The identity is historically contingent and conditioned. Therefore, it is affected by time. So, instead of interpreting the scene of Machiavelli’s communion with the classic as a confirmation of the freedom and dignity of man, more recent scholars like Stephen Greenblatt and Wayne Rebhorn might interpret it in another way. Thus, a striking effect of early modern historical and literary research has been the defamiliarization of such seemingly universal categories as childhood, the family, carnival, war or courtiership in a way that disrupts our perception of identity with the past and therefore defarmiliarizes the major literature as well.
Like identity in general, the early modern scholars question the concept of identity of literary authors because the traditional Renaissance scholars assume that literary works should have their authors so that the intention of writers toward their work can be understood. This understanding makes the task of interpretation easier and realistic. Because of this, the Renaissance scholars do not include literary works without authors in the canon of English literature. However, Michel Foucault in his essay, “What is an Author” denies the idea of authorship. He says that the idea of the author is not “trans-historical category, but a cultural construct. Thus, with the reinterpretation of such traditional claim from the viewpoint of new nomenclature, early modern studies, non-authorial writings are also being included in the canon of English literature as well as the courses in Renaissance literature.
One such area is written by women. They write literature like diaries, advice for children, letters, and speeches as those of Queen Elizabeth I. But their writings have not been included as a part of literature in the traditional history of literature. Traditional scholars assumed that women in the Renaissance failed to write high literature since they lacked the interest or ability. But recent scholars discovered that women wrote much more effectively than earlier scholars had taught. The discovery of culture of women’s reading, writing and intellectual activity has helped to stimulate recognition that gender, which is cultural production, must be integrated into the study of Renaissance period to address the narrowness of Renaissance scholars. So, the writings by women like Elizabeth Carey, Queen Elizabeth I, and Mary Wroth are being published in scholarly editions. Besides, early modern studies include literature whose form and function are disqualified, examples are: pamphlets, romances, ballads, popular dramas, court masque etc. Moreover, traditionally suspected forms like Stuart court masque and London Lord Mayor’s shows have been made available in collected editions of works of canonical authors.
Similarly, critics shift their attention from high to low forms of writing to show the sense of balance between elitism and communalism. Early critics did not include those things which were related to lower form in canonical literature. But the lyric lasts its centrality and has been replaced by less elitist genre such as drama. When the women poets occupied their position in literature, the misogynic lyrics could not exist. The canonical literature failed to regain its importance because critics gave more emphasis to the non canonical literature.