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9-08-2015, 14:48

Cultural and intellectual life

For most people in Europe, cultural and intellectual life in 1450 was still very closely linked to religion, though this was slowly beginning to change. Monasteries, convents, and cathedral schools had been the main avenues to basic literacy since the tenth century for all but the elite who could afford to hire private tutors; by the twelfth century, wealthy businessmen in a few cities had established small schools to teach reading and arithmetic, but even these used religious texts as their basic reading matter. Beginning in the twelfth century, some of these cathedral or municipal schools developed into universities, teaching law, medicine, theology, and philosophy to older male students, along with a more general curriculum – the “liberal arts” – to somewhat younger boys and men. Students at these universities, even those not studying theology or planning on a church career, were considered to be clergy in terms of legal jurisdiction and tax issues – the technical term is that they were in “minor orders” – though their regular participation in riots, drunken brawls, and similar disturbances often made this status a headache for city governments. Universities shaped the culture and economic life of the cities in which they were located, such as Bologna, Oxford, Paris, or Salamanca, with rooming houses, dormitories (often called “colleges”), taverns, brothels, specialized stores, and other establishments catering to their needs. The number of universities increased slowly from the twelfth century onward; in 1300, there were fi fteen to twenty universities in Europe, and by 1500, there were over fi fty. University education and the preparatory study that led to it were all conducted in Latin, which meant that scholars from Coimbra in Portugal to Kraków in Poland could communicate with one another, and that students could travel from one university to another, which they frequently did. Learning Latin served as a sort of male puberty rite for urban boys with an eye to careers that required university study, bonding them together and setting them off from the rest of the population, who spoke a variety of local dialects. Scholars corresponded and published in Latin until the eighteenth century, and university classes in many subjects continued to be held in Latin until the nineteenth century. Though Latin dominated scholarly discourse, beginning in the fourteenth century writers in some parts of Europe began to use their local dialects rather than Latin for poems and stories, and these local dialects slowly developed into the vernacular literary languages of Italian, French, English, and others. This new type of literature was the result of – and spur to – increasing levels of vernacular literacy in the cities of Europe; alongside schools teaching boys Latin, small schools, often little more than a room or corner of someone’s house, had begun to teach boys – and a few girls – basic reading, writing, and fi guring. Vernacular languages slowly replaced Latin in offi cial and business records, providing employment as notaries, secretaries, and clerks for men who had not gone to the university. This process served to broaden the circle of literate individuals – and of habitual readers – within one area, but it also separated those in one area more sharply from those elsewhere. In the twelfth century, everyone in Europe spoke a local dialect (their “mother tongue”), and a very few also spoke, read, and wrote Latin. By the mid-fi fteenth century this was still true, but in addition some people spoke, read, and wrote dialects that were coming to be regarded as “French” or “Italian.” Those whose mother tongue was a dialect that did not become a literary language, say people in Sicily, or Brittany, or Bavaria, or Wales, had to learn a language that varied from somewhat to extremely different if they wanted to become literate. Thus the development of vernacular literatures enhanced boundaries between what were becoming countries in Europe, and also enhanced a hierarchy of dialects within one country. At the same time that literacy in the vernacular was expanding in many cities of Europe, some individuals in Italian cities began to call for a new type of education in Latin. They admired the works of ancient Greeks and Romans for both their content and style, and thought that the fi rst-century Roman orator Cicero had set the highest standard. They established schools and academies in Italian courts and cities that focused on classical literature and history, calling their new curriculum the “studia humanitatis” or humanism. Humanists viewed education in the classics as the best preparation for a career in business or politics, for it taught one how to argue persuasively, write effectively, and speak eloquently. Conversely, they taught that a life active in the world should be the aim of all educated individuals, and that education was not simply for private or religious purposes, but benefi ted the public good. By the middle of the fi fteenth century, humanist schools had opened in French and German as well as Italian cities, and gradually humanist education became the basis for intermediate and advanced education for a large share of the male middle- and upper-class population. Because of their emphasis on eloquence, action, and the public role of educated individuals, humanists were ambivalent about education for women, and never established schools for girls, though a few women of very high social status did gain a humanist education from private tutors. Convents remained the most important avenue for female literacy, and even the humanists strongly advocated Christian authors rather than the pagan classics for teaching girls and women. Humanism is one aspect of the Renaissance, the self-conscious cultural movement begun by Italian intellectuals, artists, and writers that emphasized a break with the immediate past. Though they did not reject Christian teachings or separate from the church, Renaissance thinkers and artists put greater emphasis on the secular and material world. A new attitude toward artists, writers, composers, and other creators of culture began to develop, which emphasized their creative genius; certain types of art – particularly painting, sculpture, and architecture – began to be viewed as the product of an individual rather than a workshop, as “art” rather than “craft.” Humanist education and Renaissance art are extremely important looked at in hindsight, as they marked the beginning of major cultural shifts. It is important to remember, however, that they had little impact on the lives of the vast majority of fi fteenth-century Europeans. Their cultural world remained one transmitted orally and visually – through stories told around the hearth, sermons preached by wandering friars, windows and objects in village churches. These oral and visual images continued to teach them to look forward to a paradise in heaven rather than seek fame in this world, a paradise where food would be plentiful and tasty, work would be short and easy, illness would be rare or unknown.

 

 

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