The 12th century Renaissance

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The 12th century Renaissance

The 12th century Renaissance is a period marked by numerous changes, mainly in the political, social and economic arenas. It was also characterized by the intellectual revitalization of Western Europe with the establishment of scientific and philosophical foundations.[1] The period saw the rebirth of classical Greek and Latin texts with an enhanced focus on sciences and philosophy. These transformations created a path for later accomplishments such as the artistic and literary campaign of the Italian Renaissance that took place in the 15th century and the scientific developments witnessed in the 17th century. Despite the revival of the classical literature’s great works, the revived works of Aristotle and other significant Greek and Latin thinkers overshadowed the numerous other significant arts of classical literature.


Philosophical studies dominated the time of most scholars, leaving minimal time available to learn classical literature. However, original and authentic Latin prose and verse were established during the period, resulting in its recognition of the 12th century as the last century of global poetry. Original research was conducted and applied during the writing of history books as compared to earlier books based off of or simply copied from Tacitus or Livy. Translation of the works by Ptolemy, Euclid, astronomical and Arabic mathematical works, medicinal works of Galen, Hippocrates and Avicenna as well as the entire works of Aristotle, took place, although great works of Classical Greek literature were left untranslated.

Despite the absence of original and authentic thoughts and ideas in some fields, the 12th-century Renaissance was a period of significant development for scientific and philosophical study. In addition to much authentic and original Latin poetry, a significant range of other works were also translated.[2] Despite the period being overshadowed by the 15th-century renaissance, it had a significant role in the enhancement and development of western civilization, some of the notable aspects of which in the 12th century included courtly love and the rise of Gothic Art.

Courtly love was a significantly conventionalized code that was applied as a prescription for the behavior and character of women and their lovers. “Students were not the only group to gain a sense of group solidarity in the twelfth century. Nobles forged a common class identity during this period in part through new forms of vernacular literature that flourished in aristocratic circles. Long poems examining the relationships between knights and their lady loves were especially popular”.

Consequently, courtly love formed a popular topic in medieval literature, whose start was marked by the troubadour poetry of Provence and Aquitaine in Southern France at the end of the 11th century. The term courtly love was widely used in the late 19th century through the art of Gaston Paris, a French philanthropist, although the term itself was hardly applied in the medieval literature of any European dialect. Courtly love had some outstanding characteristics and some of its basic features include its use to emphasize chivalry and nobility. It is depicted by examples, in medieval literature, of knights going on various missions and executing certain duties for women due to their courtly love.

Other characteristics associated with courtly love are that it was aristocratic. This is because it was only practiced by ladies and the nobility. It was also ritualistic. The main reason for indulging in courtly love was to gift or acquire tokens representing the noble’s relationship. Similarly, such affairs were secret in that the lovers or the couple formed a secret community. They existed in their own special world that encompassed rules, secret rendezvous, commandments and codes.

Another attribute was that the affair was adulterous since it was an extramarital affair. This was one element of its attraction as it offered a way out of the noble commitments which were typically alliances formed for economic or political reasons and to establish royal offspring. The last attribute of courtly love was that it was literal. Prior to the affair becoming a real-life act, it was first introduced in the theme of imaginative literature. The affair was at first a literary fiction established for entertainment of the nobility and evolved into a real-life relationship as time passed by.

The ideals of courtly love were disseminated in ballads, poems, literary works and writing. Among the renowned and most recognized authors of courtly love was Geoffrey Chaucer. [3]Another aspect of the 12th-century renaissance, also known as the Medieval Renaissance, was literature, particularly goliardic literature, as it witnessed the establishment of the Romanesque style and the decline of Gothic art. “Some of the documents in this chapter illuminate how the vigor of the period found expression in new approaches to learning, literary styles, and religious movements”.

It all started with the powerful learning institutions in cathedrals such as those in Canterbury, Paris and Chartres, with the eventual establishment of the universities of Bologna, Salerno, Montpellier, Paris and Oxford. These institutions furthered the seven liberal arts through their increased classical facilities, including Greek translations from Southern Italy and Arabic translations from Northern Spain. Fresh Latin writings were inspired by the restored classics to the extent that 25 per cent of the published texts in Migne’s Patrologia latina were written during this period.


The cathedral-based learning institutions further spread with the reduction of the powerful Benedictine and Cluniac orders. This increase was marked by an increase in secular interest due to the fact that the monasteries lacked accommodation for the increased number of lay scholars. T[4]he European youths appeared to have been infected by a scholastic fever and an attitude of learning. They converged from every part of the continent and grouped into “countries” under their respective departments of law, arts, medicine and theology. The students wrote ballads in regard to their daily survival or their romantic relationships, and wrote letters home for cash, a habit which has continued among students up until the present day! The number of students cannot be accurately determined but one thing is clear; they were numerous.

In conclusion, the 12th century Renaissance was a period of tremendous change. It marked a significant advancement in terms of both schools and literary work. It was in the 12th century Renaissance that schools were established, attracting large numbers of scholars infected with learning fever. The duration was also marked by courtly love where the nobility indulged in extramarital affairs for the purposes of gifting or receiving tokens and rewards. Despite being overshadowed by the 15th century Renaissance, this period remains significant in the advancement of Europe.

[1] Hunt, Lynn, Martin R Thomas, Rosenwein H Barbara, and Smith G Bonnie. The Making of the West, Combined Volume: Peoples and Cultures.Vol. 1.  Macmillan, 2012.

[2] Lualdi, Katharine J. “Sources of the Making of the West.” Peoples and Cultures. A Concise History 1. 2010.

[3] Lualdi, Katharine J. “Sources of the Making of the West.” Peoples and Cultures. A Concise History 1. 2010.

[4] Hunt, Lynn, Martin R Thomas, Rosenwein H Barbara, and Smith G Bonnie. The Making of the West, Combined Volume: Peoples and Cultures.Vol. 1.  Macmillan, 2012.

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