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The Renaissance that wasn’t

August 28, 2013

Or, why the 15th century was the worst century.

In the story this article tells, mathematical and scientific research, far from stagnating in the Middle Ages, made some fairly crucial advances. By 1350, scholars were drawing for the first time the distinction between velocity and acceleration, and between uniform and non-uniform acceleration (concepts that had somehow eluded the ancient Greeks). The natural next steps would be analytic geometry and the discovery of the calculus. But…

Then everything came to a stop. Given the scientific and mathematical works of Descartes and Galileo, but no chronological information, one might suppose the authors were students of Oresme. Galileo’s work on moving bodies is the next step after Oresme’s physics; Cartesian geometry follows immediately on Oresme’s work on graphs. But we know that the actual chronological gap was 250 years, during which nothing whatever happened in these fields. Nor did any thing of importance occur in any other branches of science in the two centuries between Oresme and Copernicus. Other intellectual fields have no more to offer. Histories of philosophy are naturally able to name philosophers between 1350 and 1600, but their inclusion seems to be on the same principle as world maps which include Wyndham, WA, but leave out Wollongong – big blank spaces must be filled. While it is almost impossible to find an English translation of any philosopher in the three hundred years between Scotus and Descartes, it is not a lack one feels acutely. The intellectual stagnation of those centuries is evident too in the lack of change in the universities: the curriculum which bored Locke at Oxford in 1650 was almost identical to the one which Wyclif found wanting in 1350.

Whoa. These are strong words. The claim certainly sounds counter-intuitive, but the article argues fairly convincingly that the Renaissance, defined as 1400-1550, was actually a time of intellectual stagnation. People get away with claiming otherwise only by cheating, blurring the edges of the Renaissance so they can count key thinkers within a few hundred years on either side as participating in it. And we only believe it because Renaissance visual art cares so much more about realism than Medieval, and we imagine, incorrectly, that realism in art must indicate rationality in thought.

I’m no historian, and so not really in a position to judge this claim. But I sat down and tried to list relevant figures in a few different categories for the Renaissance and the two ages surrounding it–Late Medieval and Baroque (Baroque defined rather broadly)–and the results were rather striking. There are very few Renaissance literary authors of note; very few mathematicians or scientists; not very many philosophers, and none at all who concerned themselves with metaphysics rather than either politics or theology; but oh, so many painters. So many amazing painters. The Late Medieval fares a bit better than the Renaissance except in painting, while the Baroque completely outdoes both, again except in painting–those this is just to be expected, since a period of the same length but closer in time to ours and with a larger population to draw from will of course produce more figures we consider “major.” What’s striking is how that logic doesn’t apply to the Renaissance versus the Late Medieval period.

Anyway, here’s the table. I’ve tried to include all those figures, and only those figures, that the standard English-speaking Educated Person can be expected to have heard of. This is a bit difficult for the science section, and likely not many people have heard of Oresme, Bradwardine, or Vesalius. But they should have. And even taking them out, the argument holds. I’m curious as to who I’ve overlooked–what major Renaissance (or Late Medieval, or Baroque) figures deserve to be on this list?

Field Late Medieval (1250-1400) Renaissance (1400-1550) Baroque (1550-1700)


Albertus Magnus

Thomas Aquinas


Duns Scotus

William of Ockham

Meister Eckhart


John Wyclif

Niccolo Machiavelli

Thomas More

Desiderius Erasmus

Martin Luther

John Calvin

Francis Bacon

Rene Descartes

Blaise Pascal

Thomas Hobbes

John Locke

Baruch Spinoza

Francisco Suarez

Giambattista Vico



Roger Bacon

Nicole Oresme

Thomas Bradwardine

Nicolaus Copernicus

Andreas Vesalius

Giordano Bruno

Tycho Brahe

Johannes Kepler

Galileo Galilei

Isaac Newton

Gottfried Leibniz

Robert Hooke

Jacob Bernoulli

Literature Dante Alighieri


Giovanni Boccaccio

Geoffrey Chaucer

William Langland

Gawain/Pearl poet

Thomas Malory

François Villon

François Rabelais

Edmund Spenser

Christopher Marlowe

William Shakespeare

John Donne

Ben Jonson

John Milton

Miguel de Cervantes

Lope de Vega

Painting Giotto Jan van Eyck

Albrecht Durer

Sandro Botticelli

Leonardo da Vinci




Piero della Francesca



Diego Velazquez

Peter Paul Rubens

2 Comments leave one →
  1. CJ Wolfe permalink
    August 31, 2013 9:38 am

    That is pretty striking. I think your generalizations here are probably correct, although since you asked what Renaissance (1400-1550) figures are missing: Thomas Cajetan (philosophy), Francisco de Vitoria (philosophy), Jean Gerson (philosophy). I’ll admit, In the big scheme of things I suppose those guys weren’t that hugely important. I hadn’t even heard Gerson mentioned until I came across him in Brian Tierney’s book, “The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150 1625” (which is a decent book on the legal and political philosophy on this time period, by the way).

  2. David Simmons permalink
    September 2, 2013 4:25 pm

    Baroque mathematician: Pierre de Fermat (1601 – 1665). Also, Pascal could be listed as a mathematician (he did invent Pascal’s triangle).

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