Clio at Court

Renaissance and Baroque historiography display an evident degree of continuity from Later Medieval history. Generally speaking, histories of reigns and republics were also written (in this age of the adoption of Clio by courts) by counsellors and servants to princes, in order to inculcate (through the “healthy documents” of history) political and moral wisdom, above all among rulers, but also among their subjects. Ecclesiastical history continued to be important (strengthened by the age of religious Reforms), as did providentialist interpretations (the latter being more explicit in Gomara and Bossuet, and to be found as a backdrop in Guicciardini and Clarendon, although they were de facto rejected by Machiavelli).

In turn, the renewed assessment of the legacy of the classical past showed itself in other aspects of Renaissance and Baroque historiography: the return of rhetoric insofar as narrative form was concerned, the appeal to “fortune” or destiny, (especially in Machiavelli), Plutarchian characters (in Clarendon, for example), the attraction of Rome (as a major subject of study and the recognized point of interconnection between peoples and dynasties).

However, not everything to be found in the historiography of the 15th to 17th centuries was an inheritance from the past. In addition, there were important innovations, to such an extent that some see the beginnings of modern history in this period. Thus, the notion that a human group’s evolution over the course of time is represented in the changes to their written accounts (Valla’s “anachronism”, the protohistoricist approach in the French “histoire parfaite” (perfect history), the need to verify a document’s authenticity by means of auxiliary sciences to be found in Mabillon’s history). This chronological relativism was reinforced and complemented by cultural-geographical aspects (at the same time, two peoples can live in different ways).

This abovementioned relativism (already hinted at in Herodotus) is a consequence of the greatly enlarged geographical scope that Europeans now had in their vision of human nature, following the great expansion overseas. Since the end of the 15th century, these historical contacts had made very different cultures and peoples (in Africa and America) known, and had stimulated comparative reflections and a history of civilization that was no longer simply political, but global instead (already recommended by Bodin). In approximately 1600, an evolutionary philosophy of culture began to mature in Acosta and others. Exploration of the limits of the globe was contributing to an exploration, also from the temporal perspective, of the widespread limits of man, as well as to a new approach, more anthropological and cultural in scope, to history. Yet cultural relativism, even moderate in nature, often continued to be subsumed in the convictions of Christian natural law: the community of nature and the transcendent vocation of the human race.

Another no less important novelty in the Renaissance and Baroque periods was the spread of reading and pleasure in history among new social sectors (lawyers, traders), and the means to get to know about it (even dictionaries and other works of erudition as early as the end of the 17th century). All of this was thanks to the existence of printing and of other conditions for a certain diffusion of general culture in the urban contexts of the most dynamic parts of Western Europe. Moreover, the greater presence of men with legal training among authors of historical works encouraged an interest in finding laws in history and a tendency to be more demanding in the analysis of information (evidence and literary or material remains). This greater demand was sharpened by the Cartesian epistemological challenge. The change in the historiographical climate was such that, in the last decades of the 17th century, we could perhaps speak of the beginnings of a reasoned, methodical and pre-enlightened form of history, alongside the majority approach to history, represented by a rather rhetoric form of historical discourse, which edified monarchical or dynastic and national legitimacy, and which was more inclined to create myths.

F. Sánchez Marcos