How Islam Created the Italian Renaissance November 16, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback
The Renaissance! What’s not to like: Leo flying; Micky chipping at marble; men in tights and women in bodices; the pop, snap, crackle of Kultur; and cherubs falling from the sky like hailstone. According to the textbooks fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italians, more particularly the urban Italians of northern Italy rediscovered the Greek and Romans and before you could say, Bob’s my uncle, the Florentines had put up the greatest dome since antiquity; the Venetians were painting light; the Romans had the Sistine Chapel; and everyone was changing their haircut from medieval to modern. Only, of course, this summary is wrong, not in details but in emphasis. There was a miracle in northern Italy in the late Middle Ages and that miracle spelt the end of the middle ages, but it had little to do with the Greeks and Romans. The miracle was that these Italians learnt how to make lots and lots and lots of money. The Venetians did it with the eastern trade; the Milanese with silk; and best and most importantly of all the Florentines learnt to do it with money, that is to say they made cash with cash. That particular Florentine innovation more than anything else let down the drawbridge that led to the modern world. It was the surplus capital (loads of money in the newly opened banks) and the intense rivalry of different families that led to the art history race: with creators fighting for commissions like chicken over grain. It was emphatically not art that brought money into these cities. It is not so much a chicken and egg question as a matter of sand and the sillicon chip: money = art.
So where do the Greeks and Romans come into all this brute economic force? Well, they don’t. The Greeks and Romans may have passed on some architectural tips (think Brunelleschi sketching in Rome) and they may have taught Giotto perspective, but they had nothing to do with the money. The northern Italians at this date created: the first publicly-owned companies; they pioneered insurance; they opened the first proper European banks; they invented the cheque book; they rejigged the legal codes to share commercial responsibility between parties; they came up with double-entry book-keeping – an innovation helped along by Arab numerals; and crucially they decided that usury (lending money with interest) was no longer a sin. This was the basis of their financial revolution. But if not the Greeks and Romans who lent this knowledge to Italy? The best candidate is the Islamic world. Not all of these changes can be blamed on the Arabs but the [add here MODERN] concept of banks probably crossed to Italy from North Africa; Arab numerals speak for themselves; insurance seems to have been a Muslim (Turkish) invention in the twelfth century; and the word cheque (like algebra and Al Quaeda) is Arabic. So when you hear a history of art professor solloloquising on the History Channel about how the Greeks and Romans ‘set Europe free’ and allowed us to march into the modern age with income tax, trench warfare, spivs, gulags. television talent shows, and country&western dissent, shaking your head like the Old Man of the Mountain. It was Islam that put Italy and ultimately Europe on course for their experiment with modernity. Other thoughts on Islam and the Renaissance: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
16 Nov 2013: I really enjoyed writing this post this morning: as a medievalist by training the renaissance gets on my nerves, particularly art historians talking about the symbolism of the Virgin’s right nipple and I may have enjoyed myself a bit too much. I had three interesting replies in the first hours all, to one extent or other critical and so I’m going to try and actually respond here and keep juggling the Islamic thesis. First of all Patrick from Military History: ‘Great article, if it were true. Arab numerals are an Indian invention. The West was introduced to them the crusades yes, but the Arabs did not invent them nor the concept of zero. Banks and Insurance existed in Ancient Rome as well. The Temple of Saturn on the Capitoline the forum was not just the state treasury, they also loaned money. There was a thriving insurance business in Ostia, especially prior to Pompey cleaning the pirates out of the Med. That the West would still be a bunch of backward barbarians is one of the greatest of modern myths, right up there with the Arabs have been upset about the crusades since they happened. Neither are true. Arab resentment of the Crusades is a product of the late 19th Century and more a reaction to Turkish decline and a search for blame, Why would they be upset about the Crusades? The Arabs won.’ I accept that Arab numerals were from India and that there was insurance among the Greeks and that banks were to be found in antiquity. However, none of these were the source for the innovations in Renaissance cities. Saying that Europe got an intelligent system of numerals from the Indians is ULTIMATELY true. But it is a bit like saying that England got Christianity from Jesus Christ: it actually got Christianity from Ireland, France, Italy and possibly the British Celtic fringe. Origins mean little, what matters is who gives you the thing directly because that will be what colours what is given. Roman business innovations were lost at the end of the Empire and then forgotten: perspective and nude sculpture could be and were recovered from the remains of Roman civilization, the rest were not. They show that others had come up with the idea before and remind us that the Italians could have done it on their own. **** KMH makes a similar point about insurance, noting that it was around long before the Florentines decided to make money: note my language was particularly poor here and I did speak about ‘invention’. But by the Middle Ages the only place that had anything like insurance (within trading distance) seems to have been some of the Turkish territories. It is possible, I suppose, that a Genoan (the probable point of origin of European insurance and possibly modern book-keeping) had the idea from reading one of the Roman authors (and their fragmentary explanations), but it is surely far more likely to have been a Genoan sailor encountering insurance in the eastern Med.**** Nathaniel writes, meanwhile, ‘AFAIK [this was new to me!] it was Jews rather than Muslims who pioneered lending with interest in Europe. Islam I believe still considers lending with interest a sin (as Christians used to) and even today there are Islamic banks that have a different system for financing. I don’t know anything about it but see here [Wikipedia reference]’. I could certainly have written this a bit better, but banks did exist in the Islamic world albeit they quickly evolved in Europe into something else (assuming that they really did come from the Arabs). **** In conclusion, I deliberately simplified and exaggerated in this piece and these annotations are all interesting and may change some readers’ minds. But I would continue to defend two points: (i) money not art mattered in the renaissance; and (ii) many of the major innovations in money were borrowed from Arabic world. Thanks to KMH (an insurance professional), Patrick and Nathaniel for pointing to the flaws.
23 Nov 2013: LTM writes in, thinking of Islamic influence, Southern Italy did well, albeit earlier. Palermo was once the second largest city in Europe. http://www.amazon.com/History-Muslim-Sicily-Leonard-Chiarelli/dp/9993273538/ *** Bruce P writes: As hopefully others will have pointed out to you, a substantial catalyst in the generation of the Renaissance was the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, with a resultant flood of refugees from there carrying manuscripts. The claim that Islam enabled the Renaissance is true – but needs to be completed with the negative side as well as the positive.*** Michel writes along similar lines: It has been claimed since the 19th century that the fall of Constantinople caused the Renaissance. Scholars fled the city and ended up in Italy, taking long-lost Greek and Roman manuscripts with them. But in the light of the comments you have received, one wonders if some of the old Roman banking practices might have survived there and been transplanted too. Of course, they would already have gone through a thousand years of change as Byzantines traded with their (Muslim) neighbours. The Muslim origin of the Renaissance might have been more complex than a straight transfer across the mediterranean. BTW, the term itself only dates to 1855, so those poor ancestors of ours had no idea they were living in the Renaissance! Makes you wonder what tag historians will come up with for our own time.*** James H writes more generally: This is another subject I like. I tend toward the “nothing new under the sun” school. Virtually everything has been imagined and forgotten probably countless times. How you decide a concept is really “new” seems to be a real toughie. Then you’ve got the problem of usage (who first, when first, and where first). But you’re on to something with the money angle. It’s hard to believe there was ever a time when something was gotten or done for nothing. As far as numbers go every person who has lived started with their own calculator that worked up to twenty (except for the six digit guys). Enough blathering, I just think it’s not only a hard subject in itself, but hard to even frame good questions about.*** Louis meanwhile comes out all guns blaring: Right, that was a post to get strong reactions! Which it did…. To add: By the end of the middle ages (after the crusades) it was the Turks that won, not the Arabs. But then, they also started it…. AFAIK the whole crusade thing started because the Turkish mamluks\slave soldiers, usurping their Arab lords, got a case of religion, and closed the holy land for the Christian pilgrims, and attacked the Byzantines. And it took about two centuries for them to get their act together, and crush those pesky roumi. Islamic revulsion against usury is fairly recent. It started in the 19th century, after the Osmans had to kill all, or most, indigenous (and that includes the – then far more numerous Jews -) economic activity, because of concessions which were demanded by the European powers, so that those powers could profit from the lands of the Osmans (which included lots of Arabs). After all Mohammed was a trader by trade….. (if the traditional story of the start of Islam is to be believed) and he was against usury, but not against normal loans and interest. Where and when the one becomes the other is a matter of debate…. About the Jews lending money: I was taught that the Jews, because they could not own land, or engage in “normal” trades, in most west-european lands, and because they were a sort of proto international network anyway, gravitated to money lending and banking, as one of the few trades that was free for them. And also because they were not in danger of loosing their immortal soul, as their god was not against usury (at least not to non-jews). And most of the rulers found them a perfect scape-goat when they had to pay interest, but did not have the funds. Just get rid of the bankers, and you get your money for free! The fact that the Italians, because of the rather peculiar economical, political, social and theological situation in northern and central Italy, were able, and willing, to put their eternal soul at risk, that is the revolution. Basically they said: We can do what the Jews do, and still go to heaven! However, part of the business practices that they copied (knowingly or unknowingly) from the Jews, were first developed in the (then far more culturally unified, and – at that time – more open to economic activities ) Muslim lands, by the Jews that lived there.*** Thanks Louis, James H, LTM and Michel!
30 April 2015: Opener writes: This is all interesting, but as with so many questions of cultural borrowing we have to ask not just where this or that invention came from but how it was used. The bottom line is that as with the printing press, compass (perhaps), gunpowder and banking the west made more of them. That is the point… Why was it that the banks of the Arab world kept the economy bumping along but in Florence the bank started an economic revolution that ended with the silicon chip?